Citizenship status in limbo, fate of Chakma tribe in Arunachal underscores question of who belongs, who doesn't

  • How many centuries should it take for a “denizen” of a place to become a citizen with full and equal rights?

  • How long does it take to belong?

  • And if identifying people on the basis of their ethnicity and discriminating against them as groups in a deliberate, organised way generation after generation is not racism, what should we call it?

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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Arunachal Pradesh, in the easternmost corner of India, is a wild and beautiful land. Much of its hill tracts were unmapped territory even in the early 1900s. Colonial accounts of the time speak of raids by warlike tribes, and military expeditions to map the territory and punish its inhabitants for those raids. It was only through a process of such expeditions, raids and counter-raids that those areas gradually came into the administration of British India — with fateful consequences for its inhabitants, and for independent India, because the same territories were and still are claimed by China.

Many tribes big and small inhabit Arunachal. One of them is the Chakma tribe. It is a tribe whose inhabitants were resettled there in the 1960s by the Indian government after they fled what is now Bangladesh and was then East Pakistan. Many members of this tribe, whose members are mainly Buddhists, have been struggling to obtain citizenship for decades. “Over half a century after migration and two Supreme Court judgments, not a single citizenship application of the Chakmas has been processed,” writes activist Suhas Chakma, in an essay in Insider Outsider, an anthology on the topic of belonging in Northeast India of which I was one of two editors.

Chakma mentions that there are “about 55,000 Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh and over 90 percent of them are citizens of India by birth under Section 3 of the Citizenship Act. However, they are still discriminated against as foreigners and not included in electoral rolls, mainly for the reason that they belong to the Chakma tribe and race, which is violative of the Constitutional mandate of Article 325”.

 Citizenship status in limbo, fate of Chakma tribe in Arunachal underscores question of who belongs, who doesnt

The case of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh under both Congress and BJP rule proves that in actual practice, it is the state governments that determine who gets or doesn’t get citizenship | PARTHAJIT DATTA/AFP via Getty Images

Suhas Chakma is one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court against the Citizenship Amendment Act, but the Chakmas of Arunachal have found themselves the subject of negative attentions in the state because of concerns there that the CAA will somehow help them get the citizenship that they have so far been denied. It is an irrational fear, given the fact that the state is exempted from the Act along with other states where entry is regulated by the Inner Line Permit, an offshoot of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873. However, Chief Minister Pema Khandu of the BJP has sought to allay apprehensions by telling the assembly that Arunachal would fight a case in the Supreme Court to deny the Chakmas the citizenship that the Supreme Court itself, in 1996 and again in 2015, had ordered the state to give.

The power of states to deny or give citizenship is now moot, since leaders of several states across the country have said they will not implement the Citizenship Amendment Act. The case of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh under both Congress and BJP rule proves that in actual practice, it is the state governments that determine who gets or doesn’t get citizenship.

In the case of Arunachal, the reason for denying citizenship to the Chakmas is that although they are tribals, they are not considered indigenous to the state. A similar reasoning, that sees entire states as exclusive homelands for local tribes, is widespread across Northeast India.

Last week, there was news about an agreement being signed to enable tribal Bru refugees in Tripura to settle there. These refugees came to Tripura from Mizoram. They had been driven out of there in 1997 because powerful local Mizo organisations had demanded that members of the Bru tribe should be denied voting rights, and then proceeded to ethnically cleanse them out of the state. The Brus, although tribals, were seen as not being indigenous to Mizoram. Chakmas, who also inhabit a part of Mizoram where they have lived since well before Partition, are similarly subjected to discrimination and attempted eviction there as well.

This discrimination contrasts powerfully with the regimes of special rights for locals. Thus, in Meghalaya, for example, 80 percent of jobs are reserved for members of the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes. Another 5 percent is reserved for other tribes and Scheduled Castes. Out of 60 assembly seats, 55 are reserved for local tribals. Professor Sanjib Baruah, in his book Durable Disorder had mentioned these facts and gone on to write, “While the historical disadvantages that the tribal peoples suffered account for this elaborate protective discrimination regime, the status of non-tribals in Meghalaya as well as in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland where such a protective discrimination regime exists, is best described as that of denizens. In all these states, the rights to land ownership and exchange, business and trade licenses and access to elected office are restricted…One of the unintended effects of this process of incremental policy-making is that the notion of exclusive homelands, where certain ethnically defined groups are privileged, has become normalised in the region”.

The Citizenship Amendment Act, through its exclusions for Sixth Schedule areas and states covered by the Inner Line Permit, is the latest example of such incremental policy-making with unintended consequences. It has given further legitimacy to the idea of exclusive ethnically-defined homelands. It has also provoked demands in the areas not already so defined to advance in that direction. Thus, Manipur has been brought under the Inner Line Permit. Assam is now seeing agitations against the CAA whose ultimate aim will be to protect and enhance the privileges enjoyed by those who define themselves as indigenous, while stripping the rights of everyone else.

Descendants of labourers who were transported there by the British to work in tea plantations and paddy fields, and of the clerks, traders, porters, sweepers etc who migrated within what was then the same country in search of livelihoods, are still considered outsiders in their birthplaces even after three or four generations. Members of tea tribes living in the border areas of Meghalaya in the Khasi Hills near Sylhet did not have voting rights even as recently as 2017, when I visited there. Descendants of Dalit Sikhs who were transported to Shillong by the British administration when the town was being founded circa 1863-64 faced the outsider tag, and attempts at eviction, as recently as 2018. They live as second or third-class citizens, but like other communities considered non-indigenous, their very presence is unwanted.

How many centuries should it take for a “denizen” of a place to become a citizen with full and equal rights? How long does it take to belong? And if identifying people on the basis of their ethnicity and discriminating against them as groups in a deliberate, organised way generation after generation is not racism, what should we call it?

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2020 11:56:08 IST