14 September 2008 – Nearly 18 years back when Montosh Chakma of Jyotipur village of Diyun Circle in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh undertook a long journey to Guwahati to pursue higher education in Cotton College, he had a dream of dedicating himself to the service of his downtrodden community. He planned to sign up for a government job after graduating from the most reputed institution in the Northeast and then returning to his birthplace. He successfully completed his studies but his dream of a job remained unfulfilled. He was denied a government job by Arunachal Pradesh government on the grounds that he belonged to a refugee family and hence was not entitled to a government job.
Montosh had no other option but to become a farmer to earn his bread. His tale is no different from the stories of thousands of youth belonging to Chakma and Hajong refugee families of Arunachal Pradesh.
Jayanta Chakma displaying the registration certificate that was issued to his father Chandra Sekhar when they had arrived at then Mizo district of Assam in 1964 along with other Chakma and Hajong refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. Pic: Ratna Bharali Talukdar.
The life of a farmer in the refugee settlement pockets is definitely not comfortable. Montosh uses a mere two and half acres of land (after partition of parental land between his father and uncle) for agriculture, and this hardly fetches him enough money to run his four-member family–two brothers who are younger than him and ailing parents. But there is no other way. “Even if I try to go for multi-cropping agriculture system for surplus production, there is the problem of selling these products outside the refugee pockets,” he says. The twice-a-week Diyun (Sunday and Wednesday) market is the only place where they can sell their surplus products, mostly vegetables, to their community people. Both buyers and sellers comprise of poverty-stricken refugee families, and thus there is no scope of doing a good business, he adds. To earn just Rs.50 on the market day, some people walk up to 10 kilometres.
Montosh himself is the Assistant General Secretary of the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh (CCRCAP), the apex organisation that has been fighting for grant of citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees. He says agriculture is becoming less remunerative due to population pressure in these refugee pockets. This fact coupled with the absence of livelihood options has compelled a large number of educated boys and girls to migrate to cities such as Ahmedabad, Dehli and Kolkata to get employed at petty jobs such as salesmen in shops, in textile-mills, private security personal and other hazardous professions. Those who cannot afford to go outside mostly work in the agriculture fields of neighbouring Singpho and Tangsa Naga tribes on a share-crop system.
Most of these refugee pockets were allotted land on riverbank areas of the river Noa-Dihing and of late there is severe erosion problem in some villages. While there is acute livelihood crisis and joblessness everywhere, denial of family ration cards to avail facilities under Public Distribution System have pushed them into penury.
Mantosh’s parents came to India way back in 1964, along with groups of fellow refugees from the Chitagang Hills Tract of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after being displaced due to submergence of their habitat during construction of Kaptai Dam. India accommodated a huge number of such refugees belonging to Chakma and Hajong communities in different states. As part of the refugee settlement programme, altogether 14,888 persons belonging to 2,748 families of both the communities were rehabilitated in Lohit, Subansiri (now in Papum Pare) and Tirap (now in Changlang) districts of the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which was administered by the Ministry of External Affairs with the Governor of Assam acting as the agent of the President of India.
At the time of settlement, each of these families was allotted five acres of land for livelihood. The settlement process was completed between 1964 and 1969. Mantosh belongs to the second generation of these refugees born on Arunachal Pradesh’s soil in 1968. NEFA was made a Union Territory in 1971, and finally a full-fledged state of Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.
Sustained opposition to the settlement of Chakma and Hajong refugees
The issue of settlement of refugees who had entered India from erstwhile East Pakistan during and post partition period was addressed through Indira–Mujib pact of 1972. According to the provisions of the pact, those refugees who had entered India before 25 March 1971 are to be treated as Indian citizens.
However, the issue of providing citizenship rights to around 60,000 Chakma and Hajong refugees currently living in Arunachal Pradesh is yet to be decided due to constant opposition of the successive state governments as well as various organisations including the most powerful All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU). The Chakma and Hajong refugee issue is still a matter of endless conflict between locals and refugees at ground, as well as a matter of serious concern at administrative level. Successive state governments and political parties irrespective of their political affiliations have been demanding deportation of these refugees from the state. The refugees were also served ‘Quit Arunachal Pradesh’ notices by the AAPSU in 1994, which spearheaded a massive statewide agitation programme on the issue.
The National Human Rights Commission had moved the Supreme Court in 1996 pleading for protection of lives and properties of the Chakma and Hajong refugees in view of the AAPSU movement. The Supreme Court in its judgment on 9 January 1996 on this petition directed the Arunachal Pradesh government to ensure life and personal liberty of every Chakma residing within the state. The Apex Court also directed the state government to enter the applications for Indian citizenships submitted by the Chakmas under Section 5 of the Citizenship Act in the register maintained for the purpose.
Montosh alleges that despite this, Supreme Court directive officials at local levels often refuse to accept such applications.
The government is yet to take a decision on 4,677 applications for grant of citizenship, submitted by the Chakma and Hajongs through CCRCAP. However, with the intervention of the Election Commission of India, names of 1,497 Chakma and Hajong youths born in Arunachal Pradesh between 1964 and 1987, were included in the electoral roll and allowed to exercise their franchise during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
In its ‘White Paper on Chakma and Hajong Refugee Issue’ published by Government of Arunachal Pradesh in 1996, the state government alleged: “Central Government hardly took any initiative to find a solution to the satisfaction of the local people. It seems that the central government never felt any urgency to resolve the problem as it failed to gauge the gravity of the issue, if left unattended to, in giving rise to a situation which may snowball into a major law and order problem, threatening the peace and tranquility in this ‘Island of peace’, in the turbulent north-east India.”
C C Singpho, health minister of the state who represents Diyun-Babrdumsa assembly constituency asserted the state government’s demand for immediate deportation of these refugees from the state and expressed the state’s inability to bear the burden of welfare responsibilities such as education, health, issuing of family ration cards and others. “We strongly demand that these people should be immediately deported from our state. Even if it is taken into consideration that they are entitled for granting citizenship right under the Indira-Mujib Agreement, 1972, they must be taken away from our state first, before providing them the right in other states,” he says.
Locals belonging to Singpho and Tangsa Naga tribes too have opposed the settlement of Chakma and Hajong refugees in the locality right from the time of allocation of land to the refugee families. Their fear is two-fold–that customary laws and traditional rights of indigenous people living in surrounding areas will be violated, and also of being outnumbered by the huge size of refugee population, the minister says.
Such opposition by state administration even after 45 years of settlement of these refugees ultimately reflects not only issues like denial of job opportunity or livelihood crisis, but also basic human rights. It is difficult for an outsider to meet Montosh in his own residential pocket. The Office of the Deputy Resident Commissioner, Arunachal Pradesh where one has to apply for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter into the state, is itself in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. This office does not entertain any application for ILP for the Changlang and Tirap districts which house the refugee settlements, considering the sensitivity of the issue.
Differentiated treatment of refugees
However not all refugees suffer this fate in Arunachal. The state also shelters groups of Tibetan refugees at Miao, Tezu and Bomdila. The difference in treatment is easily visible between Tibetan refugees and the Chakmas and Hajongs refugees. The Choephelling Tibetan settlement in Miao has a well-defined territory having all basic facilities including assured education, health, vocational institutions meant for girl school dropouts and a comfortable livelihood support which also include employment opportunities mostly in the Indian Army.
According to eminent legal expert Dr Rajeev Dhavan, “Tibetans are often said to be the model refugee community and are among the best treated refugees in India with semi-autonomous settlements, government expenditure on their education, and freedom to pursue their cultural, social and political goals.” (Refugee Law and Policy in India, published 2004, page 123).
Overdue – a refugee-specific legislation
At the micro level, issues including livelihood support as well as ensuring a dignified life of the Chakma and Hajong refugees are associated with granting of citizenship rights. But from a wider national perspective, the issue of addressing overall refugee situations in India is centered round one pertinent question – does India need a refugee-specific legislation to address issues of all refugees in the country equally?
India is a safe home to countless refugees, mostly from South-East Asian countries, not only for accommodation but for livelihood support as well. Since the time of India’s independence the country has experienced major population transfer. India successfully dealt with the process of rehabilitation of millions of partition refugees immediately after independence, many of whom were later locally integrated.
India also hosted about one lakh Tibetan refugees in 1959, who entered here with Dalai Lama. This was followed by two waves of Tibetan refugees in 1980 and 2000. The country experienced another major population influx of over 10 million refugees during Bangladesh War in 1971. Most of them were later returned to their homeland following creation of Bangladesh. We have also hosted over 80,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and Bhutanese refugees. Apart from these there are 11,750 Afghan, Myanmar and other refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in the country. (The statistics have been gathered from the publications Refugee Law and Policy in India and A Pocket Guide to Refugees published by UNHCR.)
Besides, it has countless economic migrants, most of whom have illegally entered through porous India-Bangladesh border from Bangladesh inside its territory.
India has been accommodating and dealing with such huge volume refugees, practically without having any refugee-specific legislation. The Foreigners Act of 1946 is the only legislation that deals with all non-citizens within the Indian borders, making no differences between tourists, economic migrants, asylum seekers or refugees. This legislation is the core of all refugee-related issues ion the country. The act bestows unlimited powers on the government to identify, arrest and prosecute any ‘foreigners’ they suspect to have violated any laws within the territory, making them vulnerable to attacks of political discretion.
In absence of a refugee-specific legislation or any systematic policy to deal with the refugees, Indian governments have dealt with refugee issues of different groups with a differential administrative approach. This means, the approach varies for each refugee group with regard to their determination and treatment, as is the Tibetan case. Again, there is no policy guideline for individual refugees who have no alternative but to approach UNHCR for asylum.
According to UNHCR, the absence of a legislation on refugee protection has led to differential administrative measures between refugee groups and a national legislation for refugee protection would provide standardised and acknowledged principles for refugee determination and treatment.
An Eminent Persons Group has already come up with a Model Law in this regard, drafted under the aegis of Regional Consultations on Refugees and Migratory Movements in South Asia. This was made public in 1995. Justice P N Bhagawati as the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the India-specific version of the national law on refugee protection. However, Government of India is yet to take a decision on the subject. ⊕
Ratna Bharali Talukdar
14 Sep 2008
Ratna Bharali Talukdar is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She received the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Media Person and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in 2005 and 2006 respectively. This article is part of the author’s work under a media fellowship awarded by the UNHCR and the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research [C-NES].