New Delhi, Sept. 13: The Narendra Modi government today decided to grant citizenship to over one lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees, comprising Buddhists and Hindus living in the Northeast, amid the growing international concerns over India's declared plans to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees.
Chakma and Hajong refugees were rehabilitated mostly in Arunachal Pradesh in 1964-69 by the Centre, following their escape from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
"The Centre has cleared citizenship for over one lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees," said a senior home ministry official.
The decision to grant citizenship to them was taken today in a meeting chaired by Union home minister Rajnath Singh.
National security adviser Ajit Doval, Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju and Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu were also present at the high-level meeting at North Block.
After the meeting Rijiju, a BJP parliamentarian from Arunachal Pradesh, said the Centre would grant citizenship to all Chakma and Hajong refugees living in the Northeast. "We will ensure that the rights of the indigenous people are not diluted," he told reporters. "The Supreme Court order needs to be honoured."
In September 2015, the apex court had passed an order on a petition filed by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas, seeking direction to grant them citizenship within three months. The court order was met with opposition from political parties and various groups, including the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU), which claimed that the Chakmas and Hajongs had moved out of their designated camps and had encroached thousands of hectares of forest land.
Last week Rijiju had said the ethnic Rohingya refugees were illegal immigrants and India could deport all of them because the country was not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. The UN's top human rights diplomat had condemned India's plan to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar after facing prosecution by the Buddhist majority there.
Several organisations, including the AAPSU, had been strongly opposing any decision to grant citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees of the state, saying any such move would change the demography of the state.
"We condemn the Centre's decision to confer citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees as we fear it will lead to demographic changes to the state's tribal population," said an AAPSU leader in Delhi.
He warned that if the Centre did not change its decision then could take the help of China on the issue. Beijing always claimed that parts of Arunachal Pradesh are its territory.
The students' union said it was not the time for a blame game. "Once the Chakmas and Hajongs are given citizenship the demography of the state will change drastically," Tobom Dai, the general secretary of the students' union, told reporters in Itanagar today.
"We will launch a democratic movement if the Centre gives citizenship to the Chakmas and the Hajongs," said Nepha Wangsa, the deputy spokesperson of the students's union.
He said the official number of Hajongs and Chakmas is the state is around 70,000.
Sources in the home ministry today said the Centre had decided to grant them citizenship with some conditions.
"The Chakma and Hajong refugees will not be entitled to the rights enjoyed by Scheduled Tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, including land ownership. But they might be given inner line permits required for 'foreigners' in the state to travel and work," another ministry official said.
Arunachal Pradesh falls under the purview of Article 371 (H) and is protected by Eastern Bengal Frontier Regulation, 1873, whereby non-tribal and non-Arunachal Indian citizens are required to acquire an inner-line permit 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, which is now Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2015, the Centre was given a deadline by the Supreme Court to confer citizenship to these refugees within three months.
The state government then appealed against the order, but in vain.
Rijiju today blamed the Congress for the current situation, saying that the then government had settled the refugees in Arunachal Pradesh without taking the local people into confidence. "The Congress has done great injustice to the 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 human rights of the Chakmas and Hajongs are protected," he said. Asked about the human rights of Rohingyas, he refused comment.
"The Congress government made a mistake by settling Chakmas and Hajongs in Arunachal Pradesh in 1964. These unfortunate refugees from Bangladesh should have been settled in areas which are non-protected," Rijiju wrote on his Facebook page. Rijiju also appealed to human right groups, saying, "human rights of the indigenous people can't be overlooked while talking of the rights of the refugees".
"I may be a minister but I am also an elected MP from Arunachal Pradesh and I will stand for my people. Please don't preach to us about human rights because it's a matter of our own existence," he said.
The minister said a petition would be filed on the issue in the Supreme Court soon.
The Chakmas are Buddhists, while Hajongs are Hindus.
According to officials, the number of these refugees has increased from about 5,000 in 1964-69 to over one lakh. At present, they don't have citizenship and land rights but are provided basic amenities by the state government.
Additional reporting by Rajiv Konwar in Guwahati