Chakma-Hajong voting rights: Numbers do matter

[ Nani Bath ]
Following an order of the Election Commission of India (ECI), 1,497 ‘eligible’ Chakmas and Hajongs were included in the state’s electoral rolls in 2004. The list included 323 voters in Chowkham (ST), 1,164 in Bordumsa-Diyun, and 10 in Miao (ST) assembly constituencies (AC).
According to a statement issued by the chief minister, 5,097 Chakmas and Hajongs have been granted voting rights in the state. However, as per the calculation of our research team, there are 4,707 registered Chakma and 417 Hajong voters.
In Doimukh (ST) AC, of the total 2,065 Chakma population, 619 Chakmas have been enrolled. There are 2,153 Chakmas in Chowkham (ST) AC, and 511 Chakmas have been enrolled.
In Miao (ST) AC, of the total 10,856 Chakma population, 569 Chakmas have been enrolled as voters. The assembly constituency of Bordumsa-Diyun (General) has a total electorate of 18,188. There are 3, 020 Chakma voters, who constitute 16.6 percent of the total electorate.
In 2003, the Committee for the Citizenship Rights of Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh had represented to the ECI, complaining about the non-inclusion of eligible Chakmas in the electoral rolls. The ECI ordered an inquiry into the issue, and on the basis of the inquiry report, the commission ordered a special summary revision of the electoral rolls in the four assembly constituencies.
The summary revision was done by the electoral registration officers (ERO) of the respective assembly constituencies, and in the process of this exercise, a total of 1,497 claims of the Chakmas were accepted for inclusion in the electoral rolls.
However, after the order of special revision by the ECI, the state cabinet, by a resolution (May 2003), directed that non-Arunachalees would not be entitled to be enrolled in the electoral rolls in the state unless they possessed inner line permits (ILP).
Based on the cabinet resolution, the EROs concerned reviewed their earlier decisions and rejected the claims of all 1,497 earlier accepted claimants for inclusion in the electoral rolls.
The ECI took strong exception to the state cabinet resolution. As instructed by the commission, the EROs were directed by the state’s chief electoral officer (CEO) to revive their earlier decisions to include the names of Chakmas.
It was, however, informed by the CEO to the commission that the EROs of the assembly constituencies concerned failed to follow the commission’s instructions asking them to revive their earlier decisions.
The commission passed an order (January 2004), stating that “it shall not conduct any elections or carry out any election related work in these four assembly constituencies unless the state cabinet withdrew or amended appropriately its resolution.”
As the parliamentary election was closing, the commission’s earlier order was superseded. A fresh direction was issued for publication of the 2003 electoral rolls with all the names of Chakmas which the EROs had earlier accepted for inclusion in the four assembly constituencies.
An intensive revision of the electoral rolls in the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh was ordered by the ECI. In addition to the detailed guidelines, specific guidelines were included for the areas having substantial presence of Chakma and Hajong refugees.
Even after issuance of the aforesaid guidelines, the revision of the electoral rolls in respect of the four Chakma-inhabited assembly constituencies was delayed. It was because the EROs did not accept the birth certificates produced by the Chakmas on the ground that the same were issued without following the procedure prescribed by the Births and Deaths Act, 1969.
In its subsequent order, the ECI ordered a special summary revision of the electoral rolls in respect of the four assembly constituencies.
A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Gauhati high court by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) against the guidelines of the ECI. The petitioner’s contention was that the guidelines issued by the commission contradict the “provisions of law and also in violation of the constitutional safeguards provided to the people of Arunachal Pradesh.”
The petitioners, therefore, have contended that since the Chakmas who are settled in Arunachal Pradesh did not possess valid ILPs, they could not be legally treated as ordinary residents of the state. Hence, they are not entitled to be included in the electoral rolls in any part of Arunachal Pradesh.
The ECI, responding to the present PIL, did reply that the guidelines were issued in accordance with the provisions of law and in compliance of the order of the Delhi HC.
Disposing of the WP 886 of 2000 (Peoples Union for Civil Liberties vs Election Commission of India & Ors), the Delhi HC had ordered the inclusion of eligible Chakmas and Hajongs who were born in India, in the electoral rolls in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Gauhati HC dismissed the PIL filed by the AAPSU and others, declaring that “… these guidelines had been issued in conformity with the policy decision of the government of India to settle the Chakmas in various parts of India including Arunachal Pradesh and to grant citizenship to them.”
The government of Arunachal Pradesh and the organisations spearheading the movement against the Chakmas and the Hajongs maintain that the order of the commission contradicts Article 326 of the Indian constitution and Section 16 of the Representation of the People Act, 1950.
As per Article 326, “every person who is a citizen of India…, shall be entitled to be registered as a voter at such election.” Section 16 of the RPA, 1950, states that “a person shall be disqualified for registration in an electoral roll if he- (a) is not a citizen of India…”.
Furthermore, no international laws provide political rights to the refugees or non-resident aliens explicitly. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes and protects the right of every individual to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected and the right to have access to public service. However, these rights are available only to the citizens. The 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees does not contain any explicit provision with regards to the political rights of the refugees.
The AAPSU called for poll boycott to protest against the ECI’s order. The Indian National Congress and a lesser-known underground outfit, the National Liberation Front of Arunachal, were in favour of the AAPSU’s poll boycott call.
In an interesting twist, however, the AAPSU leadership entered an agreement with a contesting independent MP candidate, Tony Pertin. The agreement, signed by the then president and general secretary, decided to “interfere in the political affairs… and to extend moral support.”
The BJP candidates, Tapir Gao and Kiren Rijiju, played their own tricks. There were rumours going around that they ‘sponsored’ some independent candidates to file nominations before them, so that they would have an alibi of saying “we only followed them.”
Apparently, the small percentage of Chakma/Hajong voters will have no decisive say on the electoral outcomes. But in a state where the average voter per assembly constituency is around 10,000, even small numbers become electorally significant. Plus, the Chakmas/Hajong, or for that matter any minority groups, tend to vote en bloc. Because of the voting rights granted to the Chakmas, political leaders of all colours have started to maintain a soft attitude towards them. A former MLA, once an AAPSU leader, is believed to have sought ‘mapi’ (forgiveness) from the Chakmas for his ‘mistakes’ during the anti-foreigners movement.
Reportedly, political divisions have also cropped up within the Chakmas. My sources have confirmed that the Bizu festival (2019) was celebrated separately by two politically rival groups – one camp belonging to supporters of MLA Somlung Mossang, and the other group, which supported former MLA Nikh Kamin.
If New Delhi could ink an agreement with the Bodos or the Nagas, I don’t see any reason why the Chakma-Hajong imbroglio could not be brought to a logical solution. The interests of all stakeholders lie in its early solution. (The author can be contacted at [email protected])