ITANAGAR: A seemingly humanitarian move that may have drawn appreciation from rights activists elsewhere, the Arunachal Pradesh government’s decision to adopt an Act that would make life easier for refugees is drawing concerns from indigenous people of the state.

On August 12, the chief minister’s office here sent out a press statement to media houses listing key decisions that were taken that day including the setting up of the state’s Human Rights Commission and establishing a Lokayukta. What was left out of the official communiqué was that the state has adopted the Centre’s Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy Act, 2014.

However, news of the state government’s decision did find its way to the public space after the Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) official website on August 17 reported that Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, had written to the CTA’s president, Dr Lobsang Sangay, stating: “I am happy to inform you that in the cabinet meeting convened by me on 12 August 2017, I along with my colleagues decided to adopt and extend the Tibetan rehabilitation policy 2014 in the state.”

As information began surfacing in cyberspace, reactions from various corners of Arunachal Pradesh began pouring in questioning the need and necessity of the state’s government’s decision.

The Act was formalised and adopted by the central government in 2014 and provides for a uniform policy for Tibetan residents living in India.

According to the Act, there are various provisions detailing some of the benefits that are to be extended to Tibetan refugees.

Apart from a 20 year lease that the state governments must sign with the Central Tibetan Relief Committee for providing land as settlements for Tibetan refugees, the Act says that the state governments “may” consider providing extra land.

The language of the Act is such that the freedom to extend these government schemes to Tibetan refugees has been left to the state governments.

For instance, the Act states that refugees “may be” extended benefits of various schemes and that the governments “should consider extending educational subsidies”. It also says that “efforts should be made to provide employment for various state government jobs”.

The Act also says that the Tibetan refugees “may, inter alia, be issued domicile certificates on the basis of their registration certificates”.

According to the 2009 figures, the number of Tibetan refugees living in India is approximately 1,10,095 in 45 settlements spread across ten states. There are also many Tibetans living outside of these settlements.

Latest figures provided by the Central Tibetan Administration however, claims that there are currently 94,203 Tibetan refugees living in the various settlements. According to the Indian government’s data, 7,530 of them are currently in Arunachal Pradesh spread across three settlements.

While the numbers seem miniscule, there are various reasons fuelling the opposition to the move in the state.

According to the 2011 Census records, Arunachal Pradesh’s population is roughly 14 lakh spread across an area of 84,000 square-km. The state is home to at least over 20 ‘major tribes’ with vastly different ethnic backgrounds and at 17 persons per square km, has the lowest population density of any Indian state.

The Census also reveals that the least populated district in the state (at that time) was Dibang Valley with just over eight thousand people and a population density of one person per square km.

Most districts in the state also tend to have a homogenous indigenous population, save for migrant workers and government officials from other states. Dibang Valley’s population therefore, does not reflect the true numbers of the Idu-Mishmi tribal people and includes migrant populations from other states too.

Amidst a climate of continuous growth and changes in the traditional tribal way of life in the recent decades, there are fears that adopting the Act will lead to further deprivation of tribal communities of the state.

Various organisations from the state, including the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), have voiced their concerns over the issue.

AAPSU has said that the decision was taken in haste and will have far reaching ramifications on the indigenous populace of the state in terms of livelihood and demography. It also said that the move puts a question mark over the validity Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873 which prohibits other Indian citizens from purchasing land in the state. In fact, under this regulation, Indian citizens from other states are even required to acquire an inner line permit to legally enter Arunachal Pradesh.

The state unit of the Congress party here also criticised the decision, with its president, Takam Sanjoy, calling it “whimsical”.

The BJP which is in power in the state has tried to dismiss and downplay fears.

Tapir Gao, the state BJP president, has said that Tibetans are not claiming citizenship rights and that of the 7,530 Tibetans settled in three settlements in Arunachal Pradesh, 935 were rehabilitated in Canada last year.

Chief minister Pema Khandu, whose home district of Tawang has a majority population of Monpas (to which Khandu belongs), are mostly adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and where the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, has a massive following. Thousands had turned out in attendance when the Dalai Lama visited the area earlier this year.

Khandu recently took time out to react to the criticism in an event, stating that the policy has not been fully adopted in the state due to issues over land and jobs. He had said that the policy has only been agreed in-principle and that the state government will frame its own policy.

A major concern fuelling the criticism of the government’s decision is the perceived fear that the cultural and religious affinity of certain tribes of Arunachal Pradesh with Tibetans will lead to changes in demography and denial of special rights reserved exclusively for the indigenous communities of the state.

What complicates matters more is that the discourse is not as clear-cut as it appears. When the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state was announced earlier this year, not only did the northern neighbour China raise objections, even people in the state had criticised the visit, stating that it will fan further animosity between the two countries.

While the AAPSU is opposed to the recent move of adopting the rehabilitation policy, it had welcomed the Dalai Lama’s visit and had said that China should not interfere in India’s internal matters.

Nani Bath, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University here and a prominent political commentator, said that he “not worried by the presence of Tibetan refugees” but that his concerns come from the Tibetan community “controlling business establishments, obtaining scheduled tribe certificates, obtaining fake (Indian) passports and using dual facilities as refugees and Arunachalees”.

While Bath said that he did not have proof of such activities, he echoed a sentiment that has been part of public discourse for years in the state and continues to be.

The Central Tibetan Administration’s information department in Dharamsala did not respond to queries whether there are cases of Tibetan refugees forging documents to avail policies meant for uplifting traditionally marginalised tribal communities in the country.

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