The Chakma Between Bangladesh and India

Last updated Sep 28th, 2021


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I was a non-Bengali-speaking Buddhist in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), now a part of Bangladesh.

Prior to 14 August 1947, I was a British subject. On 14 August I became a citizen of the state of Pakistan.

In 1971 the Chakmas in CHT became citizens of Bangladesh, while those of us living in India as refugees became stateless people, as Bangladesh did not recognise us as its citizens and the Indian state had not granted us citizenship.

We have thus never had the opportunity to determine our own identity, which is responsible for our continuing plight as stateless peoples.

How long will it go on like this? (Sumoti Ranjan Talukdar, Jyotsnapur Village, Changlang District, Arunachal Pradesh)

The presence of Chakmas on our land poses a direct threat to our survival.

We do not object to their demand for citizenship, but to the prospect of their permanent settlement on our land.

We are against the Indian government’s move to treat the Chakma refugees at par with us, the indigenous Arunachalis, which at once will nullify our unique status in the State.

We apprehend this to be part of a larger design on the part of the Indian state to deindigenise and disempower the indigenous peoples. (Nabam Jollow, Former President, All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, Itanagar)

The Assamese and the tribals are humane and practical people who will not insist on the summary eviction of bonafide settlers.

The rehabilitation of refugees is, however, a national responsibility and they are entitled to expect that, if commitments have been made regarding their acceptance, the burden of their settlement should fall equally on the country as a whole and not only on those states that happen to be contiguous to Bangladesh.

It is, moreover, unjust that those very regions that have been defined in the Constitution as requiring special safeguards for their economic and social survival should be subjected to population pressures which, if not restrained, can only result in their cultural annihilation. (Rustomji 1983)

The Buddhist Chakma are theoretically ‘outsiders’, but they have come fleeing religious and economic persecution in their native Bangladesh [East Pakistan].

Their conflict with the Arunachali ‘insiders’ is thus, as Elwin would have recognized, a struggle of right against right. (Guha 1999)

If the nation is an ‘imagined community’, as the famously acknowledged thesis of Benedict Anderson suggests and the state is an embodiment of the nation, then there are several communities which have been historically denied such a freedom of imagination.

We focus on two such communities, among several others in South Asia, which continue to remain outside the purview of stateorchestrated nationhood.

These are the ethnic non-Bengali Buddhist Chakmas from the CHT living as stateless refugees in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the actually hosting communities of varied ethnic indigenous peoples of the state.

The Nowhere People

Like Sumoti Ranjan Talukdar, thousands of other Chakma refugees in Arunachal Pradesh find themselves in the midst of uncertainty and hopelessness (Sanyal 1995).

Historically denied an opportunity to determine their own identity, and physically dissociated from their very source of citizenship, they continue to strive for a political identity of their own.

Ironically, the political identity of the Chakma refugees as East Pakistanis got transformed into a new identity as stateless people while in exile in India with the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971.

Over the years, their exilic status has precluded them access to civil and political rights in India even though they have legitimate claims to Indian citizenship as per the existing laws and norms.

What has changed indeed, despite their unwillingness and reluctance, is the question of their political identity.

From being a subject population during the colonial rule like their counterparts in other parts of undivided India, and despite legitimately qualifying to be considered co-nationals, they have been reduced to the status of ‘nowhere’ people without any hope of ever redeeming their lost selves.

The prospect of effecting ‘disalienation’ of their lost selves, a term used and popularised by Fanon, appears quite bleak in the absence of any viable constituency willing to own them (1952/1967).

As victims of the arbitrary and irrational logic of partition of the subcontinent, they continue to remain stateless without a semblance of any humane existence.

The Chequered History Of Chakmas

Rarely has there been an instance of social and political exclusion in the history of modern South Asia when a group of people has been so consistently denied the opportunity to exercise one of their most basic and universally recognised fundamental human rights, that is, the right to selfdetermination.

When the Chakmas expressed their desire to become Indian citizens in 1947, they instead found themselves as Pakistani nationals in complete defiance of the very logic of partition of the subcontinent.

Furthermore, while the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign state in 1971 did renew their hopes of fulfilling their political aspirations, they soon discovered that there was no autonomous politico-cultural space for them in what was an overwhelmingly Muslim dominant society.

Mujibur Rahman’s rejection of Chakmas’ autonomy plea on the basis of their ethnicity was, if anything, an early indication of aggressive Bengali nationalism that they were to witness in its myriad forms in future.

The Bangladeshi state, much like the centralized Pakistani state before it, resorted to the all too common approach of suppression and oppression of dissent in its pursuit to homogenise and assimilate the ethnic minorities within the larger Bengaliised nationalist frame.

It may be significant to note in this context that while the Bangladeshi state went overboard in coercing its national ethnic minorities in the CHT into submission, it has never actually owned the Chakmas who took refuge in India in 1964 on the ground that Bangladesh could not be held responsible for the doings of its predecessor, that is East Pakistan, as it came into existence only at a much later stage after Chakmas’ actual exodus to India.

This has put the Chakmas in a peculiar situation, as the very source of their citizenship (East Pakistan) has long ceased to exist, and the new inheritor state of Bangladesh has in effect derecognised them by not even acknowledging them as its own people in its Constitution.

Much to their woes, the Indian state’s reassurances to duly grant them citizenship over the last four and a half decades has meant little to them, while they continue to remain outside the purview of protection of any national state.

What is even more puzzling is the fact that they were resettled in a region of India which happens to enjoy an unique status under the Indian federal arrangement where even Indian citizens cannot move about freely owing to specific restrictions on outsiders right since the colonial period.

Arunachal Pradesh, which was then known as NEFA (North Eastern Frontier Agency) and was centrally administered, continues to be in the throes of a raging controversy because of some of the specific laws governing the state which debars even bona fide Indian citizens to move into the state without fulfilling certain formalities like obtaining prior permission (for example, the Inner Line Permit) of the state government under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873.

Not only were [the Chakmas] not consulted about the Kaptai dam, they were [also] not compensated either financially or with other land’ leaving them with no option, but to cross over into India, for ‘there was no other obvious land to offer to these sedentary rice-growing farmers; only a vastly oversubscribed residual forest area where jhuming [shifting cultivation] was proving unsustainable’ (Levene 1999: 350).

What is more, the issue of ‘Kaptai oustees’ has also not been able to attract the kind of attention, both popular and scholarly, which is generally accorded to such people today.

The boundary, legally or illegally, who are unwelcome and often asked or forced to leave.’ That the Chakmas fit into Weiner’s category of unwanted migrants is borne out by the fact that they have of late become a bone of contention between the governments in the centre and the state, and by the accompanying fact that the indigenous peoples deeply resent their continuing presence.

The need to identify Chakma refugees within the analytical framework formulated by Weiner arises mainly because of three reasons.

One, there is a growing realisation among students of refugee studies that the term ‘refugee’ cannot be treated as a generic category, for it has different connotations in different contexts (Zolberg et al. 1989: vii).

Two, there is a general consensus among scholars that ‘… different types of social conflicts give rise to different types of refugee flows.

The patterns of conflict are themselves related to more general economic and political conditions, prevailing not only in the countries from which the refugees originate, but also in the world at large’ (Ibid.: vi).

Finally, we believe that treating them as merely environmental refugees or development victims indicates a seriously flawed conceptual position that needs to be rectified.

Chakma Diaspora in Northeast India

Little did the Chakmas know when they sought refuge in India in 1964 that they would soon be the nowhere people.

They were Pakistani nationals when they took refuge and continued to remain so at least on paper till 1971 when they suddenly found themselves without a state.

East Pakistan had ceased to exist and the newly created Bangladesh did not own them up.

The refusal by the successive Bangladeshi regimes to own them and non-grant of citizenship status by the Indian government in more than four decades of their stay in Arunachal Pradesh is what has made the Chakmas stateless people with no access to any civil or political rights whatsoever.

Moreover, the Indian state too has so far not done anything substantive to end their statelessness.

Despite expression of concern by the Indian government at the inclusion of CHT in East Pakistan in 1947 and explicit reassurances in 1964 that they would be granted Indian citizenship, the Chakmas have continued to languish in a state of statelessness in the more than four decades of their refugeehood.

Interestingly, the Indian government has not even formally acknowledged their refugee status despite the length of their stay, a theme that will be taken up a little later.

Except for a miniscule number of 1497 who were recently granted voting rights by the Election Commission of India in 2004, the rest of the refugee population of a whopping 65,000 continue to be refugees even though they have legitimate claims to Indian citizenship under the existing Indian laws.

Moreover, of all the refugee groups not only in India but in the whole of South Asia, the Chakma refugees in Arunachal are amongst the lesser known even after having lived in India for more than 40 years as stateless peoples.

Unfortunately, this is not because they do not deserve to be known, but because the region in which they were settled has never occupied any priority in the Indian ‘nationalist’ imagination.

Of all the places in India, they were resettled in the then NEFA during 1964–69 precisely because it was perceived to be least threatening in the ‘national’ scheme of things.

In the absence of any organised or autonomous internal political voice at the time of their settlement, the Indian federal government rode roughshod over the wishes of the indigenous peoples of NEFA, which was directly ruled, from New Delhi.

It is noteworthy in this regard that in the absence of any accurate figure on their total number, the same figure of 65,000 is repeatedly quoted in all accounts of the issue since the early 1990s, including this study.

The authenticity of this figure, however, seems plausible as it was quoted by the Chakmas themselves in a memorandum submitted to the Rajya Sabha Committee on Petition in the mid-1990s.

The petition was jointly submitted by Snehadini Talukdar of Mizoram and Subimal Chakma of Delhi each representing the case of the Chakmas of Mizoram and Arunachal, respectively.

It was in this memorandum that the two leaders had cited the population of the Chakmas in the two states at 80,000 and 65,000, respectively. Ever since then, the figure of 65,000 has become oftquoted, continuing till date irrespective of a lapse of more than a decade in between.

The figure for Arunachal is, however, strongly contested by the AAPSU in Arunachal which believes it has far exceeded the one lakh mark by now.

As the present president of AAPSU recently observed:

‘These refugees numbering around two lakhs had already encroached Namdapha National Park destroying its fragileness and indulged in anti-social activities through “Shanti Bahini”, a militant organisation formed among them’ (Shillong Times 2007).

It was only in the early 1990s that the Chakma issue came to national limelight with the AAPSU issuing ‘quit notices’, threatening them to leave the state since they were not citizens of India.

This was widely reported in mainstream dailies thereby attracting the attention of both the national elites and the public at large (Chakma 1994b; H.K. Singh 1994; Sen 1994; Special Correspondent 1994; Times of India 1994a; Telegraph 1994a; University Today 1994).

Subsequent developments over the issue and the resultant politicisation by the political parties of the state further enhanced its visibility both at the national and international levels.

Interestingly, in spite of all the media coverage of the issue and its increasing publicity at such a scale, no executive notification has yet been issued by the Indian federal government declaring them ‘refugees’.

The power of granting asylum and declaring a particular group of people as ‘refugees’ in India is solely vested in the Indian federal government, as the Union Parliament alone has the right to deal with the subject of citizenship, naturalization and aliens.

Interestingly, the de facto manner in which the Chakmas have come to be treated as refugees is a rather recent phenomenon.

The 9 January 1996 verdict of the Supreme Court in the National Human Rights Commission v. State of Arunachal Pradesh and Another was the first official acknowledgement of their status as refugees.

This was soon followed by the publication of the Hundred and Fifth Report of the Rajya Sabha Committee on Petition the following year, which too endorsed the refugee status of the Chakmas of Arunachal.

No other court verdict before 1996 whether of the Supreme Court or of the Gauhati High Court had recognised such a status for the Chakma people.

Although the Indian federal government did use the term and mention these people as ‘refugees’ in the early 1990s under the P.V. Narshima Rao government, during the proceedings in the Indian Parliament when the issue was raised by the Members of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh in the wake of the AAPSU-led anti-Chakma movement, it had never before considered them so and had almost treated it as a closed chapter.

Had the AAPSU-led movement not attained the feverish pitch it did in the early 1990s, the issue of political identity of the Chakmas would have never attracted the kind of attention it actually did from some of the highest decision making bodies in the country.

It is a different matter, however, that the issue of the deportation of ‘foreign nationals’, including the Chakma refugees, has always been on the top of the agenda of this student body since the early 1970s.

This is particularly significant in the light of the fact that this was a period in which the anti-foreigner issue in Northeast India had not yet become part of the popular discourse.

Ironically enough, the rise of the anti-foreigner movement in Arunachal is invariably viewed as an outcome of the popular mass movement against foreigners in Assam that shook both the state government and the centre alike in the early 1980s.

The reason for this could well be that until the early 1980s the news of protest against the Chakma foreigners in Arunachal by AAPSU was never reported.

Hence, most of the news which started surfacing in the early 1980s treated it as an offshoot of the Assam agitation against foreigners (Business Standard 1982; Indian Express1980; Gupta 1982).

As reported in Indian Express (1980):

‘The “foreign nationals” issue, at present rocking most North-Eastern States, is spilling over to Arunachal Pradesh with thousands of refugees from riot torn Assam and Meghalaya seeking refuge here.’

The same 147 Nowhere People in Limbo newspaper reported a growing nexus between the AASU and AAPSU a couple of years later:

Not only did the AAPSU hold its Press conference in Gauhati with the AASU assistance, it also held its executive meeting in North Lakhimpur…. Even sources close to AASU, however, do not look forward to long-term cooperation with the AAPSU though it is considered expedient to use the organisation for the time being to pressurise the central government. (Gupta 1982)

As also reported in Business Standard (1982):

Taking a cue from the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), a newly formed firebrand students’ body in Arunachal Pradesh “All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union” (AAPSU) organized the demonstrations and bandh.

Like AASU the “foreigners” are the main obsession with the AAPSU.

Topping the four-point charter of demands of the AAPSU is the strident call of “expulsion” of the Tibetan and Chakma tribal refugees who settled in phases in the union territory in early sixties”.

The same perception is shared by others as well:

In [1982], the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) started an agitation in Assam against foreign nationals and had taken the shape of a widespread mass movement.

This Students’ movement in Assam inspired the AAPSU greatly and it gave support to the Assam agitation by launching its movement in 1982 demanding the deportation of Bangladeshis from the state besides pressing the Arunachal government to accept its demands.

The more or less identical problems faced by the two students organisations of the two states on the immigrants and foreign nationals issues had thus established a concord between the AAPSU and AASU. (Prasad 2007: 1374)

Finally, a comparative account of the diasporic Chakmas in different states of Northeast India clearly reveals the nature and extent of their marginalization in exile.

Astonishingly, despite the extent of their fragmented identities, there is no demonstrable evidence to suggest that they are engaged in any meaningful collective political project to shape a common future in diaspora.

Far from it, a survey of the modes of self-definitions employed by them during the fieldwork for this study clearly revealed that they rarely share their collective experiences and aspirations in terms of a diasporic entity.

As a consequence, there is no semblance of any common purpose, let alone unity and solidarity, among them.

This is primarily so because of the very different contexts in which they came to India and the entirely different sets of concerns which they are currently faced with.

Interestingly however, there is a widespread, albeit subtle, realisation among them that any generalised collective identification of their concerns is neither possible nor desirable, as it might unnecessarily complicate and unsettle their existing legal status.

However, what is indeed common among them is an element of palpable perplexity and determined unwillingness to identify themselves with the land of their past—the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

This is not difficult to understand given their rather prolonged stay in India, particularly in Mizoram and Tripura, where they are acknowledged as Indian citizens, and even in Arunachal where they do have a legitimate claim to Indian citizenship under the various provisions of the Indian Citizenship Act.

Abbreviated excerpt from ‘Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas Between Bangladesh and India’, Deepak Singh, Sage Press, New Delhi, and New India Foundation, Bangalore, 2010.

Writer : Deepak Singh

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