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Ethnicity, Migration And Refuge: The Plight Of The Chakma People

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By Nicky Collins:

We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to …..secure to all its citizens …..equality of status and opportunity.’ The operative word in this extract from the preamble of our constitution is ‘all’. However, it is difficult for me to believe that we are anywhere near achieving this objective outlined in the very front page of our constitution when I think of all those people for whom equality is still a mirage, especially the Chakma refugees from Arunachal Pradesh whose plight is the subject of this article.

A Chakma House in Diyun, Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the houses are built from bamboo and locally available materials. Picture Courtesy: Seven Sisters Project
A Chakma House in Diyun, Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the houses are built from bamboo and locally available materials.
Picture Courtesy: Seven Sisters Project

I don’t expect this topic to ring any bells for you because the Chakmas, who have migrated from the present day Bangladesh to Arunachal Pradesh, form a very tiny percentage of the 42 million people who have been displaced from their homelands worldwide, according to the figures released by the UN High commissioner for refugees. And yet, this diaspora is possibly unique not only due to the communal violence that led to their displacement from their native country but also due to the utter insensitivity of our own government.

The circumstances that led to this predicament are not only sad but also distinctive. It began before the partition, when the people of Chittagong Hill tracts sought to be a part of India and even hoisted the Indian flag in their lands. But, despite the fact that 98.5 percentage of the people were non-Muslims, the Bengal boundary commission, headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, allocated it to Pakistan. Apparently, the Pakistan government didn’t take too kindly to the people hoisting the Indian flag and thus began a long series of persecution and oppression. The fact that the Chakmas were a minority Buddhist tribe only added an ethnic incentive to it. However, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the construction of the Kaptai hydroelectric project which forced about 30,000 chakmas to migrate to India.

However, the aforesaid migration was not the end of their troubles — it was the beginning of a worse kind of ordeal. The local people of Arunachal Pradesh interpreted the migrants as a threat to their tradition and customs. This was aggravated by the local politicians who supported this view. This was followed by perhaps the worst expression of xenophobia this country has ever seen. Several reports outline how the authorities used to harass them, ranging from not providing them basic amenities like education or electricity to outright blackmail and physical violence. The bias and discrimination against the migrants escalated to such an extent that the National Human Rights Commission took the matter to the Supreme Court, which directed the state of Arunachal Pradesh to protect the rights and integrity of the Chakmas. This was followed by a high court order that directed the inclusion of the names of Chakma people in electoral rolls. This order was implemented in 2004.

Matters are improving for Chakmas, albeit very slowly. However, it will take a long time to improve the condition of a community which has faced three-layered discrimination from their state — political, social and economic. Even today, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union is being wielded as a tool by the political parties to propagate mistrust towards the Chakmas. But this country owes it to the Chakma people to make their condition better. Not only because we cannot afford to forget that they fought alongside us during the freedom struggle, but also because the ideals on which our country has been built demands it.

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  1. Shibayan Raha

    Hey Nick,
    Thanks for a wonderful article and for your effort to be a voice for the 50,000 Chakma refugees in Arunachal. One small correction- Only 1000 chakmas were enrolled in the electoral roles but this was and still heavily contested by AAPSU. After 2004 the HC order has not been implemented any more.

    1. Achi Kyaar

      @Shibayan, I don’t know through what source you are saying that there are only 50,000 Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh but the fact is that population of the Chakma refugees in the state has increased to about 3,00,000 (this is accordance with latest report by joint committees to study on Chakma-Hajong refugees) by the Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh which concluded recently in July, 2013. Besides, Chakma refugees are reported to be accused of illegal encroachments and committing crimes against the indigenous tribal population (especially the Singphos). This might also be acknowledged by Mr. Collins, who seems to be good researcher.

    2. Nicky Collins

      Hey Achi

      I agree that I did come across reports of illegal activities on the part of the migrants but right now the general consensus of opinion seems to be in favour of the chakmas. Most people view such charges as being trumped up. But I have to say that I really have no opinion regarding the validity of such charges.

      But I do wish to assert that I am,by principle, against such gross generalizations. We cannot label an entire tribe as dishonest.

    3. Nicky Collins

      Hi Shibayan

      Thank you so much for that piece of information. If what you are saying is correct, it is shameful that the High Court order is not being implemented. Xenophobia is not something very new but disrespect for the judiciary, especially on the part of the state government, could be the beginning of a dangerous trend.

  2. Lalit Chakma

    Hi Nick You are indeed doing a great job by championing the cause of a tribe which is one of the most oppressed indigenous tribes on planet earth. Thanks for being supportive.

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