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Updated: Oct 9

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Lost in Transition- Narratives of Non-Existence
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Contemporary Contexts

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

While the Sino-India borders had been a long-standing issue of dispute between the two states, the Indian government’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 irked the Chinese administration. What might retrospectively seem strange in lieu of Indian foreign policy trends in the twenty-first century, is the fact that the government wasn’t willing to accept diplomatic settlements that were being proposed by China from 1960–1962, and the setting up of Indian outposts to the north of the McMahon Line (which China didn’t accept) as well as along the Line of Actual Control was viewed by the Chinese government as a sign of aggression. The People’s Liberation Army invaded Ladakh, and crossed the McMahon line into NEFA on 20 October 1962. With communication lines having been disrupted by the Chinese infiltration and the unpreparedness of the Indian forces which hadn’t anticipated a full-blown Chinese offensive, the prospects of India winning the war seemed bleak right from the outset. The conflict ended at last with the Chinese forces gaining control of the Aksai Chin region, which India claimed had been part of Ladakh for centuries, also as per the Johnson Line. Since then, China has administered Aksai Chin as part of its Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Region.

What complicated the situation in NEFA further was the fact that the lacunae in the Delhi political establishment’s understanding of the social and cultural fabric of this region made their leaders all the more susceptible to turn hostile towards India in the face of a conflict. For his part as Prime Minister, Jawaharlal had made concerted efforts to not allow the people in the north-eastern regions of the Indian state to feel alienated, and to pursue the development agenda at a pace which would work in tandem with their regional specificities. Nehru’s approach to development initiatives in the Northeast were influenced by his associate and confidant Vierrier Elwin’s A Philosophy for NEFA. Elwin was an Oxford graduate who was brought to Indian by his missionary work alongside his anthropological pursuits. His espoused philosophy for the region, with a foreword by Nehru himself, was a product of having spent quite some time with the people there as part of his ethnographic endeavours. The fundamental principles that were to guide the large developmental framework in the region, as underlined by Nerhu in his preface to the second edition, and agreed upon by Elwin were:

1. People should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them. We should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture.

2. Tribal rights in land and forests should be respected.

3. We should try and build a team of their own people to do work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside will, no doubt, be needed especially in the beginning. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into the territory.

4. We should not over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with multiplicity of schemes. We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions.

5. We should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent but by the quality of human character that is evolved.[xiv]

As novel as the philosophy might have promised to be, the binary of us-and-them remained evident in its language, and its designation of “outsiders”. The distinction between the hills of the Northeast and the rest of mainland India, which Nehru might have hoped to bridge with the help of a policy that would be inclusive and culturally sensitive, seemed to have been upheld. This might not have proved to be very problematic, given that it would have only been a continuation of the pre-existing colonial administrative legacy, and was conducive in preserving the ecosystem and cultural institutions of the region and the people it was home to. However, India’s humiliating defeat at the hands of China meant that Nehru no longer enjoyed the support of the Parliament in following the aforementioned guiding principles for governance in the Northeast. As Dr. Singh notes in his book, there was a renewed vigour with which infrastructure development projects, such as construction of roads and railways, was being undertaken. A severe issue therein, akin to the use of the overarching term “Northeast” to refer to the region, was the homogeneity with which most of these projects were being implemented. To add to that, there was a certain disdain for people from the region amongst mainlander Indians coupled with tendencies of name-calling. In fact, this continues even to this day, and was most viciously evident in the kinds of racist attacks levelled against people from the hill states in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, not only nationals of other states, but also Indian nationals from other parts of the country are treated with a certain degree of apprehension and skepticism in this region, and their presence too has often been linked to foreign presence, that could be exploitative in nature[xv].

Who is the "Other"?

The Chakmas in Mizoram had shared a long-standing animosity with the indigenous Mizo people. The help extended by them to the British administration during the First Indian War of Independence, was rewarded by extending a portion of the Lushai Hills district, home to the Mizos, to the CHT. The Indian Constitution legally conferred citizenship to them, and a Chakma Regional Council was set up in 1953. This later became the Chakma Autonomous District Council. However, the growth of the Chakma population gave rise to fear of illegal migration among the indigenous people of Mizoram. In fact, the apprehension they felt was strong enough to blind them to the reality of a large percentage of these so-called “foreigners” actually being legal Indian citizens. The movement against foreign presence and infiltration in Mizoram culminated in the 90s, when the existing political factions (including the Congress (I) the Mizo National Front and the Mizo Janata Dal) chose to take a stance against inclusion of these so-called foreigners in the electoral rolls. On the other hand, the Chakma Jatiya Parishad was pushing for the creation of a new Union Territory. Their claims to the land as one belonging to their ancestors was being contested by the Mizo leaders at a time when the then Union Home Minister S.B. Chavan had proposed scrapping the Inner Line Permits. Quite naturally, this suggestion gave new impetus to the protest movement across the state, which was also joined by the student body, Mizo Zirlai Pawl, which played a crucial role in the campaigns targeted at deletion of foreigners from voter rolls. Even with the Mizoram state government having identified and deleted 15,000 illegal immigrants from electoral lists in 1995, the movement didn’t lose momentum. Some of the people whose names were struck off the rolls included former Chakma MLA Satya Priya Dewan, and member of the Chakma District Autonomous Council (CDAC)—Punya Chakma. Concerns regarding state-backed violations of civil rights of naturalised citizens resulted in the central government intervening with a petition to expand the area under the CDAC in 1996, but the decision was revoked by the I.K. Gujral–led government in 1997. Dr. Singh notes that this might have been due to a preemptive fear of insurgent violence[xvi].

However, what remains true is the fact that despite the animosity between the Mizo and Chakma populations, the majority of the Chakmas’ claim to citizenship in the state has a juridico-legal basis. As mentioned earlier, the Chakma population of the CHT did not wish to remain a part of East Pakistan but were compelled to. Soon after the independence, the Pakistan government had begun to sponsor the settlement of Bengali Muslim populations in the CHT. Partha Pratim Baruah and Bikash Deki’s article ‘Fragmented Identity of the Chakmas in Mizoram : Citizens or Illegal Immigrants’ points to how disparities in religious ethnic identities of the Bengali Muslims and the Chakma Buddhists persisted well after 1947. The Government of India Act of 1935, which had earlier designated the CHT as a ‘totally excluded area’ was abolished in 1964, by the passage of an amendment to the Pakistani Constitution which completely legitimized the settlement of people from other parts of the country in what used to be a protected area. The settlement of people from other parts of East Pakistan in the ecologically sensitive CHT, alongside the rampant exploitation of the region’s natural resources further alienated the Chakma population therein. Baruah and Deki write how apparently, Bengali boatmen would be apprehensive about ‘transporting pigs alongside the Chakmas’ and ‘the dressing pattern and alcohol consumption of the Chakma women was seen as culturally inferior’.[xvii]

"The Great Exodus"

The most significant trigger for their displacement, however, was the 1964 project of construction of the Kaptai Dam over the Karnaphuli river in the CHT. The United States Agency for International Development backed project is believed to have caused the displacement of 1,00,000 people. The Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) which is the official party representing the indigenous people of CHT in Bangladesh, documents the history of this displacement, by citing the aforementioned figure alongside the fact that 1,036 sq km of lands were flooded and 54,000 acres of agricultural lands were submerged. For a people known as the jummas for their primary dependence on the agrarian economy, this proved to be a devastating loss, followed by little to no compensation being offered by the government. This led to the Bara Parang or their “Great Exodus” to India.[xviii]

Most of the displaced people sought out asylum in the North East Frontier region of India owing to both its geographical proximity to the CHT as well as a perceived sense of shared history and identity, which were reasons cited by the Chakmas for the CHT’s inclusion within the Indian union in the first place—which this paper shall later delve into. For the Indian government, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian War, a need was felt to secure their borders, which is why the ‘philosophy for NEFA’ was being abandoned in favour of fast-paced development, and settling of people who would be “loyal” to the Indian union seemed liked a favourable strategy. In a 2015 article for The Quint, analyzing the role of the 1962 war in resettling the Chakmas in Arunachal, Maitreyee Handique quoted P.N. Lutha, who was advisor to the Assam governor in 1965 as follows: ‘“Resettlement of people in the vacant lands will help to strengthen our frontiers and their defence. Reports show there are certain areas with vacant land on which there is no direct individuals or claim of ownership”’.[xix] Between 1965 and 1969, there was large-scale settlement of the displaced Chakma people in the NEFA. A percentage of the Hindu Hajong population was also settled there, but their numbers were significantly less than that of the Chakmas. Handique writes that some 2,902 Chakma families were resettled in this region. This strategy of the government, unfortunately, was soon likely to run its course.

A Decade of Displacements

The feeling of anxiety for the indigenous inhabitants of the region further strengthened with the influx of refugees, most significantly in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. A report by the U.S. senator Edward M. Kennedy that Dr. Singh cites in his book, puts the official number of refugees who had arrived from East Pakistan which became Bangladesh, in 1971 at 9,544,012, of whom at least a few hundred thousand were never repatriated.[xx] The increasing presence of refugees or “outsiders” was viewed uncomfortably by the indigenous populations in these regions, who ran the risk of being reduced to minorities in their own homes. The state of Bangladesh, having attained independence, was relentlessly pursuing an agenda of Bengali nationalism aimed at homogenizing its ethno-cultural fabric. This is when the PCJSS was established to provide a platform for those Chakmas who still remained in Bangladesh. Soon enough, the Shanti Bahini was set up as its armed wing, in response to the realization that electoral politics alone wouldn’t suffice in fulfilling the aspirations of the community. The Bangladeshi government branded the Shanti Bahini as an “anti-national” force. For a decade, between 1977 and 1987, killings and human rights abuses were rampantly perpetrated by both the government and the insurgents. A 1991 Amnesty International report put the number of soldiers and civilians killed in the conflict by 1980, at 1,180. President Ershad’s government had put the number of casualties in that decade at 1,000. As the same report states, cases of arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, and torture and deaths in judicial custody meant that the government was also culpable in flagrant violation of human rights throughout the conflict[xxi].

By 1988, Ershad’s government, eager to deescalate the situation which was drawing international attention, agreed to grant a greater degree of local autonomy to the CHT region. Areas of civil administration were transferred to the newly set up Hill Districts Council by 1991. In 1997, the Awami League government, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, finally signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty with PCJSS, even though some of the hill tribes had rejected the peace accord. However, by this time, the number of Bangladeshi refugees in India was already at an all-time high. Interestingly, there had been prior attempts to repatriate many of these people, most significantly during the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, right after the 1971 war. However, the Bangladesh government was reluctant to agree to the same until the 1990s, which is when the violence entailed by the preceding period of insurgency signalled mounting international pressure. The most significant problem in the question of repatriation, even more so than the Bangladesh government’s reluctance, was and continues to be the unwillingness of the Chakmas to return.

The Centre-State Juridico-Legal Debate

In the segment on the Self-Perception of the Chakmas in his book, Dr. Singh very effectively uses the oral narratives gathered from the community to highlight the affinity and allegiance these people have to the land and the Indian nation.[xxii] One of the people he quotes, Gyan Jyoti Chakma, had arrived in India in 1964. He says, ‘“At the time of seeking asylum in India, we were issued valid migration certificates by the concerned authorities making our stay legal. Moreover, since the central government brought us in here and resettled us by giving us land, we have traditionally looked upon as our permanent settlement in India, legitimising our identity as Indians.”’ However, the fact that the Union Territory of NEFA became the state of Arunachal Pradesh in 1987, entailed a paradigm shift in its politics of governance. The state government of Arunachal, being primarily representative of the state’s indigenous population, was willing to ride the anti-refugee and anti-foreigner wave. The other important stakeholder wielding considerable political influence was the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU). In fact, it was the AAPSU’s issuing of quit notices to the Chakmas in 1994 that reall