Over the past few weeks, news of refugees arriving in Mizoram from Bangladesh and Myanmar have been making headlines, and rightly so. Last month, I had expressed my thoughts on the matter, and I am glad that finally, the issue is getting the attention it deserves, albeit only after the unfortunate death of a pastor, following the rather questionable decisions taken by the security forces. 

But there is one other state where the issue of refugees has been picking traction for decades now, and yet, it seems we are no closer to a solution. Worse, it is turning into a lose-lose situation for all parties involved. 

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History has been, to put it mildly, unkind to the Chakmas and Hajongs. Arriving in Arunachal Pradesh as migrants from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, after being displaced by the Kaptai dam on the Karnaphuli River in the 1960s, the communities sought asylum in India. Between 1964 and 1969, they were settled in relief camps in the southern and south-eastern parts of Arunachal Pradesh. While Chakmas have a strong presence in Mizoram (even having their autonomous council) and Tripura, their ‘identity’ remains in question only in Arunachal. Some put their population around 60,000, but most believe their population is around 1 lakh

More so, their identity as Arunachali residents. 

Now, it is not as if this is a new issue that has been brewing unbeknownst to the governments. The Arunachal Pradesh Students Union or AAPSU has been spearheading protests against the ‘settling’ of the Chakmas and Hajongs since the early 90s. Time and again, AAPSU has demanded the state government resettle the Chakmas and the Hajongs elsewhere. 

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The AAPSU is pretty clear in its outlook: they are not against Indian citizenship for Chakmas, and rightly so: citizenship, let us not forget, is a union subject, but AAPSU insists that refugees cannot settle in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Chakma organisations, of course, disagree. They argue that the Chakmas and Hajongs came from undivided India and were settled by the Union of India, the relevant competent authority of the then NEFA, during 1964-1969. So, according to them, for all intents and purposes, they identify as Arunachal residents. 

The politicians, especially Arunachal politicians, have historically sided with the AAPSU, and as a political move, that makes sense. In a region where student leaders yield so much power, no right-thinking politician will seek to antagonise them. 

Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu, in his address on the 75th Independence Day, said “all illegal immigrant Chakmas will be moved and settled in some other places with honour, as per the Constitution”. He added that the state and the Union government would work on the Chakma-Hajong issue. 

He also said that he had discussed the matter with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and that there would be “all-out efforts to solve the long-pending problem”.

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Now, I know someone would say: what does the court have to say on the matter? It seems only the Court is clear about what needs to be done: The Supreme Court, in two separate orders in 1996 and 2015, has favoured the granting of citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs. But the Arunachal Pradesh government has shied away from processing the citizenship requests, and again, understandably so. 

It is pretty clear that barring the most extreme views, most, including the AAPSU, have made it clear that they are not against granting citizenship to the refugees, as long as they aren’t settled in Arunachal. Even the state government has taken a similar stand, but that hardly solves the issue. The Central government settled these communities in these regions. As such, they have every right to ask those in power: why settle us somewhere where we can never become citizens? And what do you expect us to do? I cannot say that I disagree with the Chakmas and Hajongs when they say that Arunachal is the only home they have known. 

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Now, let us assume that the AAPSU’s demand is valid and that the refugees are ‘settled’ somewhere else. The question then arises: where? Bangladesh is out of the question. The communities would not have left if they hadn’t been persecuted and their land drowned for a hydro project. Other Northeast states may seem a logical answer, but then, another question arises: which state? AAPSU’s concerns can be used by every other student organisation in the Northeast. Will mainland states take such a large population, and if yes, why? And how? Assam, northeast India’s most populated state, is unlikely to take these refugees given its stance against refugees/immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Is there a solution? Yes, if we go by what the Supreme Court says. The question is not whether they are Indian citizens or not, the question is: where will/should their domicile be? The sooner we figure this out, the better. Northeast India cannot afford to spend more time and energy fighting each other, no matter who they are and where they are from. 

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