ITANAGAR: In the concluding part of the ‘Refusing Refugees’ series, Ranju Dodum writes about the strains that indigenous tribals of the state fear they will face following the Government of India’s decision to give citizenship to Chakma and Hajongs.

During the eighties and mid-nineties, bandhs were the preferred method of protests in Arunachal Pradesh. This was the period after the Assam Agitation where many of student leaders from Arunachal Pradesh learnt that bandh calls were an effective method of mobilization.

The first large-scale bandh call was given in 1980 by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), demanding resolution to the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary issues, withdrawal of land allotment permits and trade licences given to non-Arunachalees, and detection and deportation of “foreign nationals” from the state.

Bandh calls were a favourite tool of agitation of the AAPSU and other organisations until recently with dialogue and protest marches replacing them. But after a three-year gap, the union harked back to the old days and called a state-wide bandh on Tuesday that witnessed widespread support.

The Chakmas and Hajongs, who are Buddhist and Hindu tribes, were rehabilitated in Mizoram, Tripura and mostly Arunachal Pradesh from 1964-69 after they fled their homes in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts following the construction of the Kaptai dam and religious persecution. While around 5,000 of them were settled in Arunachal Pradesh, state-based NGOs and pressure groups claim that their numbers have risen to over one lakh and that most do not live in designated refugee camps.

There are also claims that the numbers have risen over the years due to constant waves of migration that have followed since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.

Chakma and Hajong rights’ groups like the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakmas and Hajongs of Arunachal Pradesh however, claim that their total population in the state is around 50,000 and an even smaller number of them are seeking citizenship.

What triggered Tuesday’s bandh, that saw vandalism and acts of arson across the state, was a result of the September 13 decision taken during a high-level meeting of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

During the meeting held at New Delhi, chaired by Union home minister Rajnath Singh and attended by Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, it was decided that the Centre would comply with a 2015 Supreme Court order to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees settled in the Northeast.

Immediately following reports of the decision, condemnations began coming in from various organisations and individuals in Arunachal Pradesh. The concerns stem from the fact that the low number of the state’s indigenous tribal population stand to become a minority in lands that they have lived in for centuries.

In fact, even at 50,000, the Chakma and Hajong people number more than many of the tribes in the state.

Arunachal Pradesh, and states like Nagaland and Mizoram, is provided with special provisions of the Indian Constitution that seek to protect the rights of indigenous people. Under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873, Indian citizens from other states must acquire an inner line permit to enter any part of Arunachal Pradesh. Like in Jammu & Kashmir, citizens from other states are not permitted to purchase land in the tribal-majority state.

While the argument that the vast swathes of land available in the state not populated by people makes it ideal for settlement of refugees, tribal traditions and sentiments play out in a manner that is hardly understood by decision-makers in Delhi.

Over 80 percent of the state is covered by forest land which houses a plethora of wildlife and natural resources. There are eight wildlife sanctuaries and two national parks in the state covering an area of 9,488 sq km. While poaching activities are sporadically reported, forest land in the state are mostly community-owned and are protected and governed by local customs.

Amongst almost all the tribes of the state, forest land and resources within them belong to families, clans, and villages. Even parts of rivers and rivulets have owners in tribal lands where only the owners, i.e. the clans, are allowed to fish and hunt. If people from a different clan wish to hunt or fish, they must seek the consent of the clan to which the forest belongs.

Archaic as these traditions may appear, such practices have helped preserve much of the forest land in the state. They also help reinforce a sense of nostalgia amongst people who are constantly feeling the pressures of 21st century living.

The permanent settlement of ‘outsiders’ whose population already outnumber some of the tribes in the state, many feel, will put even more strain on indigenous groups.

Read Part 1 :