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Fearing erosion of culture and resources, Arunachal Pradesh's indigenous tribes oppose Citizenship Amendment Bill

Itanagar: In Arunachal Pradesh, there is a strong opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which, if passed, will allow persecuted Tibetans, Chakmas and Hajongs to be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

Multiple organisations in Arunachal, a predominantly tribal state, have been opposing citizenship to the refugees, saying it would affect the ethnic composition of the state.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. The amendment allows illegal immigrants belonging to minority communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship if they have lived here for six years. These minority communities include Hajongs (Hindus), Sikhs, Chakmas (Buddhists), Jains, Parsis and Christians.

Protests against chakma hajong refugees in Arunachal Pradesh. Image courtesy Nasreen Habib

Protests against Chakma, Hajong refugees in Arunachal Pradesh. Image courtesy Nasreen Habib

Many of these refugees had fled to India in the 1960s to escape religious persecution in Chittagong Hill area of Bangladesh (then part of East Pakistan). Most of them found refuge in Arunachal, then a part of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). The refugees have been allotted land and are provided with all basic amenities by the state government.

In September 2017, the BJP government at the Centre cleared citizenship for more than one lakh refugees, sparking protests from multiple organisations and the general public.

The Bill has seen major protests in Assam and Meghalaya as well, with the Meghalaya cabinet led by Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma being the first to openly oppose it.

In Arunachal, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) and the Opposition, mainly the People’s Party of Arunachal and the Congress, have strongly opposed the Bill. The state BJP, too, has voiced its reservations about the Bill.

Supreme Court's order

The situation in Arunachal has been tense since the Supreme Court in 2015 directed the Centre to grant citizenship to these refugees. Last year, giving in to the popular anti-refugee sentiment, the Centre announced it would grant 'limited citizenship' to Chakma and Hajong refugees. This meant that they would not be given rights, including ownership of land, enjoyed by scheduled tribes in the state.

The government said refugees would get Inner Line Permits (ILP), which would allow them to travel and work. One requires an ILP to visit Arunachal. The ILP is an official travel document issued by the Government of India to allow a foreigner to travel into a protected area for a certain period of time. This system introduced by the British is in place in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland in the northeast.

Highlighting the requirement of ILP in the state, Kamen Ringu, president of People's Party of Arunachal, said Tibetans, Chakmas and Hajongs have settled here without them. He said there are almost 30,000 Tibetans in Arunachal. He said that while the state dwellers have allowed them to stay here on humanitarian grounds, they should be governed by the ILP and not granted citizenship.

The AAPSU has been more vehement in its opposition to granting citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs. "Arunachal is a restricted state. In Assam, anyone who came before 1971 is considered a citizen. In Arunachal, only the indigenous tribes who have been living here for centuries are considered citizens.

The Chakmas and the Hajongs came to Arunachal in multiple batches, starting about 1963, but they will never get rights to land here. Under the banner of NESO (North East Students' Organisation), we are opposing it. India has the second largest population in the world, do you think we can accommodate more people here?" asked AAPSU president Hawa Bagang.

Bagang said that they were opposed to even 'limited citizenship' being granted to refugees, alleging that many of them were indulging in crimes.

Minority in their homeland

Explaining the opposition to the Bill, Kenter Joya Riba, managing editor of Eastern Sentinel, an English daily published from Itanagar, said, "You have to understand the fact that the indigenous tribes of Arunachal are in minority in their own state. Of the total population of 16 lakh, the indigenous population is only between six to seven lakh. On the other hand, Chakmas and Hajongs have grown from 1,400 when they started migrating to the state to around a lakh now."

Riba added, "The local residents are worried that their fate would be same as that of the indigenous tribes of Tripura who were outnumbered by Bengali refugees. According to the 2009 UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger, 26 languages of Arunachal Pradesh have been identified as endangered."

Thus, the indigenous tribes fear the erosion of not just their rights but also their culture. Added to this is also the worry that once conferred citizenship, Chakmas and Hajongs would also be granted Scheduled Tribe status, which will lead to a battle for reserved jobs. According to Arunachal Pradesh's native inhabitants, this underlines the need for the Centre to arrive at a solution that safeguards their rights.

The author is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 13:46 PM

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