Is it that ethnic and cultural minorities cannot be treated as equal to a tribe or indigenous group? Is it also the case that ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious differences are grounds for denial of rights to citizenship? Many questions arise in the assumption of unilateral authority by the powers that be in denying citizenship to Chakmas, Hajongs and other such smaller ethnic identities and tagging Bengali Muslims and Hindus as Bangladeshis. One cannot but be circumspect of the virtual upturning of the Supreme Court judgment granting citizenship to Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh.
The original home of Chakmas and Hajongs is the Chittagong Hill Tracks. They first faced religious persecution and were displaced when their land was submerged following the construction of the Kaptai dam. Since then they had been targets of Islamist forces. In 1964, the Jawaharlal Nehru government settled some of them in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh (then North- East Frontier Agency). From there, some of them spread out to the Namsai and Papum Pare districts. There had been no feeling of animosity towards them then.
In 2015, the apex court asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to grant citizenship to Chakmas and Hajongs. But the latter objected to it, arguing that the constitutional protection granted to the Arunachalese will get diluted if Chakmas were given equal citizenship rights. Union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju argued that Chakmas and Hajongs were free to live anywhere in the country, but granting them citizenship would violate the Arunachalese’s rights under Article 371h. The Governor of Arunachal Pradesh is the sole authority to use his/her power to uphold anything related to the state’s law and order.
In October 2017, the state assembly said the granting of citizenship to around 65,000 refugees will alter the state’s demographic balance and also alleged that the refugees have encroached on 7,000 acres of government land and forests in Namsai, Changlang and Papum Pare districts thereby creating a law and order problem.
The refugees have contributed to state food production and animal rearing by their sheer hard work and labour and, in no way, are they found wanting in terms of their contribution to the state’s economy. Indeed going by a sense of shared civic, economic and political spaces between Arunachalese tribes and peace-loving Chakmas and Hajongs, there has never been any feeling of discord and animosity, which is a later phenomenon.
Although the BJP is seemingly committed to grant citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries, yet the government led by the party in Arunachal Pradesh maintains a different standpoint. The Union home ministry’s order protecting the rights to residence of religiously persecuted minorities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, by exempting them from the purview of the Foreigners Expulsion Act, 1950 and 1946, is aimed at recognising the circumstantial reasons for entry of such persecuted minorities to any part of India. In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, the entry of Chakmas and Hajong refugees is looked upon as unacceptable by the local ethnic groups and the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union.
Similarly, in the case of Mizoram, the Chakmas, living along the border areas with Bangladesh, notably in Kamla Nagar district, are regularly facing violence and intimidation. Chakma minister Buddha Dhan Chakma resigned from the Mizoram government after medical seats to Chakma students were denied despite them having qualified. He said it was a clear case of ethnic and racial discrimination. Some Chakma houses in Aizwal were ransacked by vigilante groups to silence Chakmas from claiming their dues in the state.
The rhetoric against Chakmas in Mizoram often turns virulent. One shudders to recall what the opposition party stated during the 2013 assembly elections about the possibility of Chakmas having two MLAs and that the day is not far when Mizo women will have to garland Chakma ministers in Lal Thanhawla’s Congress ministry.
The locals claim they are being deprived of their special rights. Can the Chakmas and Hajongs be excluded from special rights granted to various tribes of the North-east?
The situation is also very disappointing, that a tribe recognised in one part of the same state for special rights, is not allowed to enjoy similar facilities elsewhere. For example, the demand for not considering the Bodos as tribals in the Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts of Assam point to an excessive exclusionary discourse of rights and the same happens in Bodo areas for other tribes. Some Bodo leaders and intellectuals have opposed the recognition of Adivasi Santhals and other tea tribes as scheduled tribes in Assam, saying that they are not original inhabitants of the state.
Bitter contests over political, civic and economic rights, swearing in the name of belonging to a tribe, which wields a unique place for themselves in a supposed ethnic land or territory, keeps the Constitutionally-granted rights and entitlements under suspension. Claims over constitutional rights also assume the form of claiming the status of being a tribe so that a group can be accorded certain special rights.
The claim for considering a section of Meitieis as tribes and creating a system of Inner Line Permit could be looked upon as an example of this process of reclaiming tribal past. The ongoing claim for tribal status by six communities of Assam like Koch-Rajbongshis, Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutias and tea tribes, on which the Centre and the state are undecided, show the constitutional weakness of the provisions of special rights.
Instead of broad-based citizenship rights that could ensure equity and well-being between various social groups placed in similar circumstances of lack of development and relative deprivation, the claim of rights require a group to harp on an exclusive identity as a specific tribe, as it strategically ensures share over power and resources through institutional mechanism.
The clamour for constitutional protection from outsiders and aliens who are not part of one’s group identity, assumes a primordialist preference of the undemocratic kind. Restricting others from enjoying similar economic, educational and cultural rights, while one aims to get a large share of state’s resources that are generated by other people, acts as an obstacle to smooth functioning of the economy. Extortion and extraction of natural resources and primitive accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few families and clans within a tribe have played havoc as it sharply divides a tribe into rich and poor.
The rich tribals control resources of the community creating a small class of crony capitalists. Given such turn of events, denial of a basic right like citizenship to another indigenous group by creating grounds of difference and exclusion, needs to be reversed in the larger interest of greater good of all.
The writer teaches Philosophy at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and chairs Barak Human Rights’ Protection Committee, Shillong