Resettlement of Chakmas

[ Tongam Rina ]

In his address to the people of the state on the 75th Independence Day, Chief Minister Pema Khandu said that “all illegal immigrant Chakmas will be moved and settled in some other places with honour, as per the constitution,” and that the state government and the union government would work together on the Chakma-Hajong issue.

He also said that he has discussed the issue with union Home Minister Amit Shah, and that there would be “all-out efforts to solve the long-pending problem.”

The chief minister’s speech has been widely hailed by organizations in the state, though none have asked how the state and the Centre intend to relocate the Chakmas and Hajongs, estimated to be 60,000 in number, who know no other home than Arunachal.

When Arunachal was still known as NEFA and was under the control of the union ministry of external affairs, the Chakmas and Hajongs who were forced to flee the Chittagong Hill Tracts because of displacement following the construction of the Kaptai dam and religious persecution were settled in Arunachal, starting in 1964, in designated camps in the present-day Papum Pare and Changlang districts.

With substantial increase in population over the decades, the Chakmas and Hajongs have moved out to nearby areas outside their originally demarcated villages in search of land and resources, often leading to conflicts with the indigenous population in Changlang, Namsai and Lohit districts.

With their population increasing and successive governments unwilling to have a serious discourse and forgetting that human beings can’t be confined to a designated area for long, the Chakma and Hajong communities have in the course of time made the forest land of the state and land belonging to the neighbouring tribes their homes.

Violent conflicts over resources were bound to follow, as has been witnessed in Kathan area of Lohit district numerous times.

The vast majority of Arunachalees have no access to basic facilities but they have a place to call home, which has not been the case for the Chakma and Hajong communities who for decades have lived a life of perpetual uncertainty because of fear of being displaced, vulnerability, and lack of facilities.

While school education is being provided by the state, the majority of the students drop out because of poverty. Many children end up in Arunachalee homes as workers, often physically and financially exploited. Some go out of the region to work as farmhands. Opposite to what is often projected, very few Chakmas go out of the state for higher education. In the absence of livelihood opportunities elsewhere, the nearby forests are home and food.

The Chakma-Hajong issue has dominated the discourse in the state for long; yet little has been done for their welfare, or for the indigenous people who often see Arunachal as another Tripura and fear that the indigenous population will be reduced to a minority. The fears of the indigenous people are not unfounded in a state where numbers matter.

However, there has not been a serious attempt to seek a legal solution by the state or organizations, though at times it has taken impractical, extreme, and sometimes emotional, steps.

Any organization seeking to legitimize its stand amongst the Arunachalees brings up the issue and it’s a favourite topic to be whipped up to distract the people from other serious issues. From perpetual threats of deportation from the state to being denied Indian citizenships, the Chakmas have seen it all.

If the union and the state are really serious about moving the Chakmas out of the state, they should bring the Chakmas onboard. For now, the Chakmas have outright rejected the chief minister’s proposition.

Also, one needs to find out who is an illegal Chakma immigrant. How do you identify one when the elder generation of Chakmas did not come to Arunachal of their own accord? They were settled in Arunachal by the Indian state, violating the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, under which the inner line permit is applicable. By law, the younger ones are entitled to have Indian citizenship.

If the union and the state governments are thinking of plucking out an entire community from Arunachal and settling them in a new place without taking the communities involved onboard, it is staring at failure even before the process of resettlement has started.