As a consequence of partition of the subcontinent, (according to the 1951 Census of displaces persons), an estimated 72.49 lakh (7.24 million) Hindus and Sikhs had moved from western Punjab (Pakistan) to the Indian side and 72.26 lakh (7.26 million) Muslims had similarly moved from eastern Punjab (India) to the Pakistani. A new dimension was further added to this some 24 years later when an outburst of ethno-cultural contradictions in East Pakistan led to its dismemberment from Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh in 1971. An estimated 10 million (10 lakh) Bengalis had crossed over to India as refugees to escape Pakistani repression during 1970–71.
In addition to these, several streams of refugees including Tibetans, the Chakmas from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, Afghans, Mayanmarese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Bhutanese, Chinese, etc., have sought and been granted refuge in India at different points of time.
The case of the Chakmas:
In the 1960s, over one lakh Chakmas and Hajong refugees, Buddhists and Hindus, fled to India from the Chittagong Hill Tract area in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), facing religious persecution. The areas where the Chakma-Hajongs lived was submerged following the construction of the Kaptai Dam. They were made to settle in the Tirap division of Arunachal Pradesh, then known as the North East Frontier Agency, administered by the Ministry of External Affairs through the Governor of Assam. Arunachal Pradesh became a Union Territory in 1972, which coincided with the formation of Bangladesh, and soon local political parties began protesting against the settlement of outsiders in the State. The agitation gained momentum in 1987 when Arunachal Pradesh became a State. (The Hindu, September 23, 2017)
While the above continues to be the dominant perspective, it is only half the truth. The persecution of Chakmas from erstwhile East Pakistan was more political than developmental. After India-Pakistan partition and the formation of East Pakistan, the Chakmas were subdued and disempowered progressively. Their ‘special status’ as a ‘Totally Excluded Area’ was lifted first, following it was an intentional settling of Muslims in the CHT carried out by the Pakistani Regime, they accomplished their aim of converting the majorly Hindu area, into an overwhelmingly Muslim dominated area. There were often violent religious conflicts for control over resources, with the toll taken by the indigenous Chakmas always. The Bengali speaking Muslims enjoyed the support of the Pakistani Government.
“I can now boldly say that I am also one of the freedom fighters. When Gandhiji visited CHT in 1947, I was a national volunteer of Indian National Congress. At that time I was a student of Class IX. Gandhiji and other leaders like Prafulla Ghose and J.P. [Jaiprakash Narayan] assured us that the CHT would be included in India in case it was partitioned. On 14 August 1947 we convened a meeting at Anand Vihar regarding the hoisting of the Indian national ﬂag, which we actually did on 15th August 1947, assuming that we have been included in India. Within a week however, the Pakistani forces came to Rangamati and captured our area by declaring us to be Pakistani nationals instead. We did express our displeasure over this to Nehru and other leaders during several visits to Delhi. Suspecting our loyalty, the newly formed East Pakistan government started torturing us in order to drive us away from our land. We were forewarned that if we wished to stay on in CHT, we would have to embrace Islam or else there was no place for us there. Being Buddhists for generations together, how could we do that? On refusing to give up our religion, they forcibly started abducting and physically abusing our women and converted several of them into Islam. We were frankly told that they were not interested in us, but our land. Our problems got further aggravated with the completion of Karnafuli multipurpose power-project, which inundated a massive chunk of our arable land leaving us with no option, but to seek refuge in India. Even after more than fifty years of the partition, we belong to nowhere. We have become forgotten people.”
Sumoti Ranjan Talukdar
The facilities provided to the Chakmas for basic sustenance under the NEFA gave them hope of a better future. They were all issued valid identity certificates as well. However, When NEFA was made into Arunachal Pradesh, the State government insidiously started withdrawing these amenities and procurement of even essential services through PDS, public employment, land rights etc became extremely problematic. What is also revealed by their accounts is that they suspect it to be a multi-pronged strategy of the State Government since even procuring Birth Certificates is a problem for their community. This will adversely affect their claims to citizenship in the future.
It becomes clear thus, that the issue may have more facets than just their legal status. After Arunachal Pradesh was given its Assembly, the financial onus of wellbeing of the citizens shifted to the State Government from the Centre (as was under NEFA). The majority in the region did not want the scarce resources being shared amongst an increasing number of people. This helps explain how the Chakmas were gradually being out-casted from the public benefits they have entitlement to.
The Chakmas have been in Arunachal Pradesh for over 6 decades now, however, they continue to face hostility from the State Government and the locals. Looking at the situation from the perspective of the Chakmas (Deepak Singh, 2010), they do not regard themselves as refugees, firmly believing themselves to be Indians. The reasons for the same are twofold: the older generation insists upon the fact that they were issued valid migration documents, while the younger asserts its Indianness by the fact of their birth in India. The Supreme Court had in its 2015 ruling asked the Government of India to grant them citizenship, since their claim to it was completely valid and legitimate.
However, their struggle continues as the order gained some traction in 2017, but was never complied with. The Narendra-Modi lead governments agenda to favour Non-Muslim Migrants was prevented by the State Government, which categorically refused to comply with the directive. The concerns sighted were natural, limited resources and a danger to ethnic orientation of the sparsely populated Hilly State.
“Will anybody tell us how much more suffering and humiliation do we need to undergo before we are made Indian citizens? We do not want to go to Bangladesh, for we would continue to be called refugees there as well, as we were born here in India. Moreover, we never feel attached to Bangladesh, as we have grown up here.”
Maya Shanti Chakma
(A Chakma Youth)
[Deepak Singh, 2010]
Stuck between hostilities at the local level, and lip service favours at the national level, the Chakma community’s plight seems never ending.
This points to an observation that the immigrants and refugees continue to live in fear and insecurity regardless of how long they have been in the country, or how socially and ethnically similar they are to its locals.
Formulating a National Refugee Law
As per generally accepted international norms, refugees are people who leave their country of origin to take shelter in any other country because of persecution against them on religious, ethnic, political, or other grounds. Leaving a country for economic reasons, as in the case of most Bangladeshis in India, does not qualify under this definition of a refugee. Hence this category of people needs to be treated differently. That is one reason the problem of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh requires the adoption and implementation of national legislation on refugees.
To assist South Asian countries in the development of domestic refugee laws, the UNHCR set up a five-member Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 1994, headed by P. N. Bhagwati, a former chief justice of India, and comprising Justice Dorab Patel of Pakistan; Kamal Hossain of Bangladesh, a jurist and former minister of law; Rishikesh Shah of Nepal, a human rights activist; and Bradman Weerakoon of Sri Lanka, a senior bureaucrat. The EPG proposed model refugee laws in 1997 and subsequently came out with the South Asia Declaration on Refugees, which also incorporated the model refugee laws, at its meeting in Islamabad on January 24, 2004. In addition, in India the Asylum Bill, 2015 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2015, as a private member bill by Shashi Tharoor, who had earlier also worked in the UNHCR office in Geneva.
The model refugee laws suggested by the EPG, together with the asylum bill proposed in India’s parliament, could form the basis for the enactment of a national refugee law. A moot point, though, is that these draft laws seem to have been formulated from an activist’s point of view, where the focus is more on the rights and privileges of refugees and asylum seekers than on a country’s national security or the interests of local populations. Care needs to be also taken to ensure that concerns about these ‘illegal economic immigrants’ and their overall rights are balanced with domestic concerns. Identity cards and temporary work permits are methods that have been devised by western countries. Furthermore, some reasonable restrictions should be placed on immigrants’ movement in sensitive areas, which the government may designate. Jammu and Kashmir, north-eastern states, and areas close to India’s border may, for instance, be declared out of bounds for refugees at least until they are fully integrated.
When domestic refugee laws are in place it will be easier to distinguish between genuine refugees and illegal immigrants. The two categories could, thereafter, be dealt with by separate sets of rules and procedures. In the case of refugees, there could be three possibilities: temporary work permits and identity cards if not voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, the granting of Indian citizenship, or resettlement in a third country. Illegal immigrants—a category that would include asylum seekers whose request for refugee status is rejected after due consideration—would then fall under the provisions of the 1946 Foreigners Act, which will need to be suitably amended to meet the new requirements.