Updated: Oct 9
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The winter of 2019 saw protests erupt across India with the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) coming into effect, which laid the groundwork for granting citizenship to Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Buddhist, and Christians fleeing persecution from countries wherein they qualify as minorities. Reducing the idea of citizenship to a seemingly parochial identitarian one bore implications of a threat to the secular, democratic ethos of the Indian polity. However, the protests took a rather interesting turn in the north-eastern states of India, such as Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. While opposition to the legislation across the country has mostly been on grounds of it being detrimental to the secular fabric of the Indian nation state, indigenous residents of states in the northeast had other causes for concern with regards to the act. Given that the rights of indigenous, especially tribal communities, in these states have largely been under threat of subsumption to larger capitalist-nationalist agendas, special protections for the same have been seen as a necessity. Simultaneously, states in the northeast have historically been a place of refuge for asylum seekers fleeing ethnic and/or religious persecution in neighbouring countries, like during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, or even for the Tibetan refugees who sought asylum in India, following the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. Thus, the space of contestation is created by a perceived conflict between the interests of the indigenous people of these regions and refugees who are seen as outsiders. What further complicates this situation is the fact that India is not a party to either of the two definitive treatises on the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of state granting them asylum—the 1951 Refugee Convention[i] and the 1967 Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees.[ii] The core principle of the former was that of non-refoulement or that the refugee not being forced to return. The 1967 treaty removed two key provisions of the 1951 convention—that of being applicable to those whose refugee status came about owing to events occurring prior to 1951 and that of interpreting the events as happening ‘only in Europe’ or ‘Europe or elsewhere’.
Nevertheless, India was never juridically dictated by the provisions of international law on how to approach instances of refugee influx into the country. Therefore, these approaches have historically differed depending on the political dispensation in power, the country of origin of said refugees, and domestic circumstances in regions being considered potentially for settlement. While the legal status of all refugees in India has been determined by the 1946 Foreigners Act and the 1955 Citizenship Act, the interpretations and applications of the same have also differed across political regimes and regions. This has also largely been true in terms of defining the legal status of the people of the Chakma community in India, and their relationship to the governments at the centre as well as the states in which they sought refuge.
A Brief History
The history of Chakma presence in India is complicated by India's Partition post independence, but also goes much further back than that. A.M. Serajuddin and John Buller's work on the Chakma Tribe of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the 18th Century sheds light on the origins of the community's presence in the region which eventually came to be known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).[iii] The paper points to the possibility of the Chakmas being classified as Mongoloid, going back to Arakan. Referring to Chakma traditions, it mentions that the people likely travelled through the Matamahuri valley and settled in present day Alikadam and southern Chittagong. The location of their settlement meant that there was a considerable influence of Bengali culture in terms of linguistic, culinary, and sartorial practices. As the Mughal empire consolidated its presence in the neighbouring lands, the Chakma chiefs reached out to the Mughal rulers who agreed to open their borders in return for a tribute of 500 maunds of cotton. An attempt on the part of Chakma rulers to stop paying this tribute led to a Mughal attack which forced the Chakmas back to Arakan in 1724, only to return to Chittagong in 1737.
However, their relations with the existing political dispensation underwent certain changes with the arrival of the English East India Company. While under the erstwhile Mughal regime, the tributes paid by the Chakmas were in exchange for trading rights, the company started collecting land revenue. This was not well-suited to the methods of cultivation that the community practiced, such as slash and burn. The position that they had shared in their relation with the Mughal rulers was thus undermined now under the British rule. However, this would soon prove to be the least of the concerns entailed by the British administration and its legacy for the Chakmas. As Dr. Deepak Singh writes in his seminal book on the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh Stateless in South Asia, the colonial administration succeeded in tightening their control over the erstwhile region of Assam, taking it over from the last Ahom king, in 1838.[iv] In 1873, they introduced the system of the Inner Line[v] which was to pass through parts of what is presently identified as Northeast India. This covered ‘Kamrup and Goalpara districts towards Bhutan; Darrang district towards Bhutias, Akas, and Daflas; Lakhimpur district towards Daflas, Miris, Abors, Mishmis, Khamptis, Singphos and Nagas; and Sibsagar district towards the Nagas.’[vi] This meant that some of the British subjects and all foreigners needed permits to be able to cross the Inner Line. Regional non-natives also didn’t have the option of acquiring land therein.
Furthermore, the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874[vii] retained these provisions under Section 7 and was held applicable for present day Arunachal Pradesh. As Dr Singh writes, the formation of the North East Frontier Tracts in 1914 in accordance with the Assam Frontier Tracts Regulation of 1880,[viii] effectively demarcated the hills from the plains, and the tracts were then divided into smaller administrative units. The 1891 Assam Forest Regulation[ix] was also made applicable for North East Frontier Tracts, and served to offer protection to the rights of the indigenous inhabitants as well as the surrounding lands and resources of the region. While the Government of Assam took administrative charge of the entire tracts as one machinery between 1947 and 1951, the adoption of the Constitution in 1950 eventually paved the way for the region to be placed under Presidential control with the Governor as his representative. He would be aided by a bureaucrat as his Advisor for Tribal Affairs. The Indian government however, was faced with a rather difficult conundrum. On the one hand, the knowledge of the NE Frontier hill people’s culture and traditions was abysmal amongst the administrative officers from Assam as well as the mainlands. On the other hand, the threat of Chinese incursions continued to loom large over this geo-strategic region. In fact, the McMahon Line which had been agreed upon as an official line of demarcation between the northeastern region of India and Tibet, at the 1913-1914 Shimla Convention,[x] was not accorded a juridico-legal status by the Chinese government, neither was it acknowledged as such on their maps. Hence, the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the North East Frontier tracts was marked by a sense of precarious anxiety. It was in 1954 that these tracts, alongside some of the Naga hills were collectively renamed as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). The region comprised the Sian, Lohit and Tirap Frontier Divisions and was later granted Union Territory status in 1972.[xi]
Colonial Legacies and Postcolonial Dismemberment
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, akin to NEFA, were also granted a large measure of autonomy in the British colonial dispensation, with parts of it being marked as ‘excluded’, ‘partially excluded’ or ‘totally excluded’. What proved to be a significant turning point in the development trajectory of CHT was the process of drawing up national boundaries in line with the two-nation theory, as British India neared its independence. Given that CHT had a largely non-Muslim population, with a substantial percentage of it being the Buddhist Chakmas of Sino-Tibetan descent, it seemed only natural for the region to be included within the soon-to-be-sovereign Indian union. However, political mobilization on the part of the Sikh leadership in the Punjab, with the support of the Congress, was effective in influencing the Cyril Radcliffe-headed Boundary Commission for the region to give the award of Ferozepur to India. As a compromise, thereafter, the CHT came to be included in what was to become East Pakistan. In a 2019 article for Youth Ki Awaaz, former Vice President of the All India Chakma Students’ Union, Supon Chakma wrote a review for an as yet unpublished and unedited book on the history of this community, called The Partition & The Chakmas and other writings of Sneha Kumar Chakma.[xii] The book is a compilation of the written works of Sneha Kumar Chakma, who was a prominent leader of the community at the time of India’s independence and partition. The book, as Supon Chakma writes, documents the Chakma community and its leaders’ efforts against the merger of CHT with the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan. The article refers to the following incident mentioned in the book:
The people and the Chakma tribe who were loyal and patriotic of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) hoisted the tricolor national flag at Rangamati Headquarter in the presence of the then Deputy Commissioner, Col. G.L Hyde on 15th August 1947 (Independence Day) thinking that they were within the Indian domain. They celebrated and rejoiced this occasion just like the rest of India. In fact, the Indian flag stayed unfurled for six days from 15th August to 20th August 1947. The CHTs comprised of 97 % non-Muslim population. But all of a sudden, when the jawans of the Baluch army of Pakistan unfurled their national flag on 21st August, the people in CHT came to know that they were no more in the territory of India and the army had taken over.
The website of the Chakma Autonomous District Council mentions how three days after this incident, the Paskistani Army had taken down the previously hoisted Indian flag. Having been wary of what their inclusion in a Muslim-majority state might entail, S.K. Chakma had made several attempts to fight what was seemingly an unjust award. He had even approached the then Prime Minister and Deputy Home Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhai Patel, hoping to acquire their help in bringing CHT into the fold of the Indian union. However, the newly independent Indian government was already tasked with the responsibilities of formulating and implementing a new constitution, quelling internal disturbances and communal tensions that had followed in the aftermath of the partition, and securing its borders (especially in the west around Punjab and Kashmir) without agreeing to intervene into what was sure to blow up into a geo-political conflict and disturb an already precarious peace.
Thus, the inhabitants of CHT were compelled to live in fear of persecution under a regime that, as Dr. Singh puts it, ‘under its pursuit to homogenise the nation, left no space for the cultural and political autonomy of these hill people who had supposedly enjoyed certain immunities from colonial penetration under the rubric of ‘excluded’ and ‘totally excluded area’.[xiii] Interestingly, in stark contrast to this, the independent Indian nation state made attempts to preserve the autonomy that had been enjoyed by the NEFA even under the colonial dispensation. The most significant measure to this effect was by allowing them to retain control over their land and resources. However, this state of affairs too was soon going to undergo a paradigm shift as the threat of Chinese incursions became a manifest reality in 1962.
Conflicts of National Interests