After Article 370, is it the turn of BEFR?

[ Bengia Ajum ]

Recently I was talking to my college friend from Kashmir and suddenly the conversation veered towards the removal of Articles 370 and 35 (A). Like any other Kashmiri, my college friend is also still reeling under the effect of its removal.

From our conversation, I could make out that the people of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, in particular those of the Kashmir valley, are still feeling hurt by the decision of the union government to remove it. Many fear that this move has put their entire future at stake. The BJP and ultra-nationalist groups like the RSS continue to push Kashmiri Muslims towards the corner with their hardened anti-minority politics.

On 5 August, 2019, the government of India bifurcated the then state of Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Along with it, Articles 370 and 35 (A) were nullified. These articles had given the erstwhile state its special status and the mandate to define its domicile rules. This has opened the floodgate for outsiders to move into the state. Last year, the government of India told the Lok Sabha that 34 outsiders have bought properties in Jammu & Kashmir.

As a citizen of the state that is protected under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) Act, 1873, which also prohibits outsiders from buying properties in the state, it worries me that these nationalists may next seek the removal of the BEFR.

Mainland Indians, especially the hyper-nationalists, have always opposed the provision of the BEFR. History tells us that, on several occasions, they demanded that the government of India remove this Act. In the past, the opposition parties tried to force the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to settle 1,00,000 farmers from Punjab in the NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) after the 1962 war with China. Also, late socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, in protest against the inner line permit (ILP) system, once tried to forcibly enter the state without an ILP.

These are glaring examples of the deep hatred mainland Indians have for the ILP system. Imagine what might have been the situation in Arunachal had Nehru succumbed to the pressure of the opposition parties and allowed the settlement of farmers from Punjab? By now, just like Tripura, where the indigenous tribes have been reduced to a minority due to large-scale migration of Bengalis, Arunachal would have been in a similar situation.

These hyper-nationalists do not understand the history behind the BEFR and Article 35 (A). States like Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir became part of India only after 1947. Before that, they had their own identities, but sadly, the nationalists fail to recognise this uniqueness. Any move to scuttle the BEFR will have a catastrophic effect in Arunachal. Already the Chakma-Hajong refugees are seeking citizenship rights, which definitely will be followed by the demand for inclusion in the APST category and, perhaps later, land rights. Therefore, irrespective of political and ideological differences, every Arunachalee indigenous tribal citizen should always strive to protect the BEFR.

Today, states like Manipur and Meghalaya are demanding the ILP system to protect their respective states from the onslaught of outsiders. The citizens of the state should always remain indebted to a person like Verrier Elwin, who worked hard for the protection of the indigenous tribes and their rich culture. Though Elwin started his life in India as a Christian missionary, during the latter part of his career, he spent a majority of his time in the NEFA, working for the preservation of the tribal culture, and was bitterly opposed to outsiders influencing the tribal way of life.

There are an incredible number of fascinating books written by people like Elwin, and several others published by the research department, documenting the early history of the state. These books give riveting information about how the tribal people of the state have evolved over the years. In this day of Facebook and WhatsApp, where fake news circulates like hot cakes, reading about the history of the state will freshen up our minds and also take us back to our roots.