The Chakma people of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, have been fighting for citizenship for over six decades. Having fled Bangladesh in the 1960s, they think it’s time India recognised them.
“I came to India when I was just ten years old. I have lived all my life here, but I still can’t vote. I am not a citizen of India,” says Vishwakarma Chakma, a 58-year-old villager in Diyun, Arunachal Pradesh. Vishwakarma and his family fled Chittagong in neighbouring Bangladesh in 1964 along with thousands of other families.
There were two main reasons for the Chakmas, an indigenous Chittagong hill tribe, to leave Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. “One was the Kaptai hydro-electric power project by East Pakistan, which ruined all the houses on the Chittagong hills. All our lands were submerged underwater, all our houses were devastated,” says Susheel Chakma*, an employee of a Chakma NGO in Diyun, the most densely Chakma-populated district in Arunachal Pradesh.
He adds, “And another reason was religious persecution. The Chakmas are Buddhists. And they were a minority in Muslim-dominated East Pakistan. There was a constant fear of religious tensions flaring up.”
The Indian government, at that time led by Jawaharlal Nehru, offered the Chakmas a refuge in India. They crossed over the border legitimately, with the consent of the border security. “Everyone was given a paper while crossing over. That is the proof that they are legitimately residing in India,” Susheel says.
But the Chakmas in Arunachal haven't been given refugee status. Susheel also points out that since then many families have lost these vital papers: “They were uneducated tribal people crossing the border and didn’t know much about how things would turn out later on. So many of them haven’t managed to save the papers from the rains and fires etc.”
Vishwakarma remembers very little from the time he fled Bangladesh with his family. “I remember my parents telling me that we had lost everything. I have a few images in my head from our home that was under water,” he says.
When they first arrived in Arunachal Pradesh, Vishwakarma’s family had to start life from the scratch. “My father offered to till land in someone’s farm and that’s how we started living here,” he says. Like Vishwakarma’s family many Chakma people also settled in other northeastern parts of India including Tripura and Manipur.
The Chakmas in other states of India have been granted citizenship, but those in Arunachal have fallen behind due to tribal politics. The indigenous Singpho tribe in the state has dominated local politics since the first elections were held in the region.
“They know that if they give us voting rights, they won’t stay in power any longer, that’s why they won’t let us cast a vote,” says a Chakma villager, who doesn’t want to be named, fearing an ethnic backlash. He points out the numbers: “There are 50-60,000 Chakmas living in Arunachal Pradesh according to the latest census. Even one third of that number is enough to secure a majority.”
The repression of the Chakmas has played out in struggles at various stages. Vishwakarma’s son Sanjay, 35, is agitated about his lack of job opportunities. “They wouldn’t take me in a government job. There is no hope. It’s sheer discrimination. Some of my friends who have attempted to do things outside the Chakma community have faced serious threats to their lives,” Sanjay says.
Tribal clashes between the Chakmas and Singphos were common until very recently. A Chakma youth, who wishes to stay anonymous, describes how he didn’t go to the school in his neighbourhood because it was Singpho-dominated. “If I went and sat in the classroom there, I was scared I would get beaten up or harassed,” he says.
The Chakmas have taken their concerns to the Indian government on many occasions. On all previous counts, they have been offered consolation that they would soon be handed citizenship. But that hasn’t been the case yet.
Bimal Kanthi Chakma, a leader of the Chakma Committee for Citizenship, is still hopeful. “We have had recent negotiations with the government and we have again requested them to pay attention to our case. They have asked us for time. In two months, we should hopefully have a decision that will favour us,” he says.
Until then, little will change for the Chakmas. Sanjay’s wife delivered a baby boy eight months ago. But Sanjay still hasn’t been able to register his son's birth.
“The Chakmas have a tough time acquiring a birth certificate. Officially, they are offered certificates, but the reality on the ground is different. I went there several times and they kept asking me to return another time. I gave up after trying for a few months. How long can I keep begging?” he asks.
Sanjay’s son would be the third generation of their family to have been born in India, but whether he will be recognised by the government, is still in unclear.
*Name changed on request