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For Chakma & Hajong refugees, citizenship struggle continues

All of 2019, Diyun town in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh was filled with hope as the Centre spoke of bringing in a law to end the travails of persecuted refugees.

ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 08, 2020, 11.00 PM IST
Purna Kumar Chakma from erstwhile East Pakistan settled in Diyun in 1964
By Sadiq Naqvi

All of 2019, Diyun town in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh was filled with hope as the Centre spoke of bringing in a law to end the travails of persecuted refugees. After the CAA was passed, disappointment has taken over the town, which is home to the largest population of Chakma refugees in the state and a few thousand Hajong refugees. Chakmas are Buddhists who fled the Chittagong Hill Tracts in erstwhile East Pakistan after being displaced by a hydel power project, and the Hajong are Hindus who left East Pakistan due to religious persecution.

They entered India between 1964 and 1969 and 14,888 were settled in North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal. This makes them eligible for citizenship under the CAA. But Arunachal is among the states exempted from the CAA since it has an inner line permit to regulate entry of outsiders. “When we heard of the CAA, we were happy. Now, the government has again betrayed us,” says Purna Kumar Chakma, 70.

He recalls how they cleared the jungle and built bamboo huts when the government settled them in Diyun in 1964. He was among the first group of refugees who were settled here after they fled East Pakistan. “Our life has revolved around requesting the government to make us citizens.” In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that pleas of the Chakma & the Hajong be processed as per the Citizenship Act. In 2015, the SC again ordered the state to grant citizenship to eligible refugees in three months. However, 4,637 pleas are still pending with the Centre even as some of the applicants have died.

Even as the original immigrants await citizenship, many of their descendants born in India who are eligible for citizenship by birth are struggling to enroll as voters. The refugees were given voting rights in 2004. The latest records for Bordumsa-Diyun and Miao, which account for 90% of the Chakma and Hajong population in Arunachal, say there are only 4,293 Chakma and Hajong voters. A 2016 state survey put their total population at 65,851.

Subimal Bikash Chakma of the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh says: “Our application for enrolment in voters list could be rejected for the smallest of reasons.” But RK Sharma, deputy commissioner of Changlang, rubbished the allegations. “The electoral officer can do precious little if documents are not produced.” The All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, meanwhile, continues to oppose citizenship to the Chakma and the Hajong. “If citizenship has to be given, move them elsewhere. There is already pressure on indigenous groups because of their population explosion,” says Tobom Dai, the union’s general secretary.
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