ITANAGAR: Comments by Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu that the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, will not have any impact on the indigenous population of the state has once again left him open to attack by opposition parties. But a far greater debate lurches in the background.

The amendment being pushed by the Centre will make it easier for members of six religious minorities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to receive Indian citizenship, reducing the minimum years of residency in Indian required from the current 11 to six years.

Ever since the plan to amend the Citizenship Act was announced, it has been met with opposition from most parts of the Northeast, save for pockets in Assam where there is a large Bengali-speaking population.

On Monday, students’ organisations under the umbrella of the North East Students Organisation staged protests across the region opposing the Bill.

Even the chief ministers of Assam, where the BJP is in power, and Meghalaya, where the BJP is a partner in the ruling alliance, have spoken out against the amendment. Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu has been under fire from the opposition parties here for his silence on the matter.

However, when confronted by journalists on Wednesday on the sidelines of a sporting event at the capital, Itanagar, Khandu said that the Bill will not have any bearings on the state since it is already protected by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, which restricts the entry of persons not belonging to indigenous tribal groups of Arunachal Pradesh without an Inner Line Permit (ILP).

“Arunachal Pradesh need not to worry about such a Bill as the state is already protected under certain laid down acts,” Khandu had said yesterday. One of those protections is that land cannot be purchased in the state even by Indian citizens who do not belong to any indigenous tribe of the state.

Opposition parties here, however, have criticised the chief minister’s comments, with the lone regional party from the state- People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) -calling his statement a reflection of his “callous attitude”.

Attacking Khandu, the PPA said that while the Eastern Bengal Frontier Regulation “safeguards the interest of indigenous people of Arunachal, this frontier state is no more an isolated geographical entity and has Assam as its immediate neighbour where the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is sure to have devastating effects on the ethnic Assamese populace giving rise to multifaceted social, economic, cultural and political problems in the future that can spill over into Arunachal”.

The party also questioned Khandu’s “stoic silence” on the matter during the recent meeting of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) where the Bill did not figure in any of the discussions, despite the perceived ramifications it may have on the region.

The Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) meanwhile, has said that the chief minister was trying to “divert the main issue” and accused him ‘weakening’ the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation by seeking the removal of the Restricted Area Permit and Protected Area Permit required for foreign nationals to enter the state.

The Congress state unit also said that Khandu’s statement that illegal immigrants will not be allowed to enter the state is “unconvincing” considering that Chakma, Hajong, and Tibetan refugees who have been settled in the state “are enjoying all liberties in our state without ILP”.

Khandu had yesterday said that the state legislative assembly had passed a resolution during the last session that it will “not accept any illegal refugees” in the state.

In spite of an overt collective opposition against the possibility of “illegal immigrants” being granted Indian citizenship and concerns being raised about its impact on a tribal-majority state like Arunachal Pradesh, what complicates the matter is the presence of various international refugee populations who were settled by the Indian central government in Delhi.

From 1964 to 1969, a large number of Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajong people were displaced from their homes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh owing to the construction of the Kaptai Dam and religious and ethnic persecution.

Members of the displaced communities first sought refuge in Mizoram and Tripura, two states bordering the CHT, before being relocated first to Assam, then Bihar, then back to Assam, and finally to parts of Arunachal Pradesh.

Those refugee populations have shared an uneasy relationship with the indigenous tribes of the state since their arrival, and opposition to their stay has been strong amidst fears that many of the smaller tribes in the state will become minorities in their ancestral lands.

Although the chief minister has said that illegal immigrants will not be allowed to enter the state even if the proposed amendment comes into effect, the Chakma and Hajong people who were settled in the state by the Indian government and the Tibetan refugees living in the state cannot be considered “illegal”.

Political commentator and professor of political science here at the Rajiv Gandhi University, Dr Nani Bath, said that even Nepalese citizens who were settled in the state before India’s independence by the British will come under the purview of the Bill.

“The Chakma, Hajong, and Tibetan people living here are refugees and cannot be called illegal immigrants,” he said.

Bath, who is currently doing research work on the refugee populations, said that the state government’s narrative is a “false propaganda” and that “people should not be misguided”.

Nabam Jollaw, a former student activist and a lawyer currently serving as a legal adviser to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union that is opposed to the Bill and the permanent settlement of the refugee populations in the state, is of the view that the interest of the state’s indigenous tribes must take precedence.

“For us they are illegal immigrants,” Jollaw said, arguing that the “government of India placed them here but we (indigenous tribal groups) were never consulted” before they were settled.

Jollaw said that the Centre may not agree but from the state’s point of view, the refugee population is illegal.

In fact, the Centre and the Supreme Court do not view the Chakma and Hajong refugee groups as being illegal.

Last year in September, at a meeting 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.

The 2015 Supreme Court order has been challenged and a writ petition seeking a review of the judgement has been admitted. Hearings on the petition are yet to proceed.

Keeping in mind the complicity of the situation, the debate on what makes an immigrant ‘illegal’ may continue for a while.