New Delhi, Sept. 13: The Narendra Modi government today decided to grant citizenship to over one lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees, who are Buddhists and Hindus, in the Northeast amid growing international concern over its plan to deport 40,000 Muslim Rohingya settlers.
"The Centre has cleared citizenship for over one lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees," a senior home ministry official said after the decision at a meeting chaired by home minister Rajnath Singh. Junior home minister Kiren Rijiju, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu and national security adviser Ajit Doval were also present at the meeting.
The Chakma and Hajong refugees were rehabilitated mostly in Arunachal Pradesh between 1964 and 1969 by the Centre following their escape from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh because of alleged persecution. The Chakmas are Buddhists and the Hajongs Hindus.
"We will ensure the rights of indigenous people are not diluted. The Supreme Court order needs to be honoured," Rijiju, a BJP MP from Arunachal, told reporters later. He blamed the Congress for the current situation, saying that the then government had settled the refugees in Arunachal without taking local people into confidence.
Last week, Rijiju had said the Rohingya refugees were illegal immigrants and India could deport them to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which they had fled after alleged persecution, as New Delhi was not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. The UN's top human rights diplomat has criticised the plan.
In September 2015, the apex court had ordered that the Chakmas be granted citizenship within three months, acting on a petition by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas. The order was met with opposition from political parties and other groups, including the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) which claimed the Chakmas and the Hajongs had moved out of their camps and encroached on thousands of hectares of forest land.
Today, the union "condemned" the Centre's decision. "We condemn the Centre's decision to confer citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees as we fear it will lead to demographic changes in the state's tribal population," an AAPSU leader in Delhi said, airing a its opposition to such a status and iterating the demography-linked <>concern voiced earlier by the union and other local organisations. The AAPSU leader warned that if the Centre did not change its decision, it could "take the help of China", which has long claimed parts of Arunachal as its territory.
Sources in the home ministry said the citizenship would be granted with some conditions. "The Chakma and Hajong refugees will not be entitled to the rights enjoyed by the Scheduled Tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, including land ownership. But they might be given Inner Line permits, required for non-locals to travel and work in the state," another ministry official said. Such permits are required for non-locals under Article 371 (H) of the Indian Constitution to visit the state.
The Chakmas and Hajongs entered India through the then Lushai Hills district of Assam, now Mizoram. While some stayed back with the Chakmas in the district, the Centre had moved a majority of them to the North East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2015, after the Supreme Court ordered citizenship for the refugees within three months, the Arunachal government had appealed the verdict but the plea was turned down. Today, Rijiju said the Centre would inform the Supreme Court that its order was being complied with.
"The Congress has done great injustice to local people. We are trying to find a middle ground so that the Supreme Court order is honoured, the local people's rights are not infringed and the rights of the Chakmas and Hajongs are protected," Rijiju said. Asked about the rights of the Rohingya, he refused comment.
Officials said the number of Chakma and Hajong refugees had increased from about 5,000 in 1964-69 to over a lakh. They don't have citizenship and land rights but are provided basic amenities by the state government.