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Unending Tragedy

Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India by Deepak K Singh (Delhi: Sage), 2009; pp xxiii+289, Rs 695.

Unending Tragedy

M S Prabhakara

S
een simply in terms of the numbers involved, the Chakma refugee “problem” in India appears an incomprehensible one. The most generous estimate of the total Chakma population in the whole world is a little over seven lakh, less than that of medium size south Asian city. (All the population figures are approximations, for even official census figures are hotly contested in India, especially in north-east India where because of migration and “illegal” influx of population, identity and even the nomenclatures of people are controversial issues.) Some estimates cite even lower figures. Of this about five lakh still live in Bangladesh, most of them in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) now divided into three districts, Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. The rest, barring insignificant numbers who may have made homes outside the subcontinent, are in India, living in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura. Their total number is about two and a half lakh.

These numbers are so small, in the context of India’s population, that their settlement, rehabilitation, perhaps even their eventual absorption, should have been routine and normal. Instead, they have remained contentious, engaging the attention of so many international relief agencies and non-governmental organisations. The “problem” has been festering for decades, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.

Historically, the Chakma people constituted nearly 99% of the population of the CHT, sharing the space with smaller populations of other tribes with ethnic links to the indigenous people of Tippera, the Lushai Hills and the Arakans at the time of the Partition of India. Despite its population being overwhelmingly tribal and Buddhist, the CHT was awarded to Pakistan. The factors that influenced this award are well known and are anyway not relevant now. There were other instances of such a disconnect between ethnicity and an acknowledged emergent theocratic nationhood in

book review

Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India by Deepak K Singh (Delhi: Sage), 2009; pp xxiii+289, Rs 695.

the hurried implementation of the colonial administration’s policy of divide and quit in the run up to India’s Partition.

Much is made even now of the fact that India’s Independence was celebrated in Rangamati, the headquarters of CHT, by the hoisting of the Indian tricolour under the mistaken belief that this non-Muslim majority district would be awarded to India. However, a similar contretemps marked the observance of Independence Day, 1947, on the Indian side of the divide, too. In Karimganj, a subdivisional town of Sylhet district of East Bengal awarded to India after the July 1947 Sylhet referendum and made part of Cachar district of Assam, the Pakistan flag was hoisted in the subdivisional office grounds though, as in CHT, a day or two later, the reality dawned.

Sympathetic Study

The book under review, based on the author’s doctoral thesis, is a sympathetic study of the tragedy and dislocation that has been a fact of life for the Chakma people ever since Partition, in Islamic Pakistan under which the loss of their traditional lands began, and in the supposedly secular Bangladesh as a discriminated minority subjected to further loss of their lands due to increased migration of Bengali Muslims from the plains. And in India where the approximately 65,000 Chakma refugees, the so-called Kaptai oustees, settled by the Government of India in the mid-1960s in some parts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh when the territory was still the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) remain foreigners even now, over 40 years later, though the majority of the present generation of Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh are entitled to Indian citizenship by birth.

december 17, 2011

Put simply, they have irrevocably lost their lands in the land of their birth. And their very identity as citizens of a modern state is still contentious in a part of India where they and their ancestors have been

living for nearly half a century. Indeed, their status as refugees and stateless persons in Arunachal Pradesh has a unique dimension in that they are the first people to be characterised as “environmental refugees” in south Asia. Though the term and the concept are problematic, the phenomenon of displacement of a people due to natural or man-made disruptions of their environment brought about, ironically, in the name of development, is not new.

The loss of land had begun under Pakistan with the commissioning of the Kaptai hydroelectric project in 1964. This also marked the fleeing of the so-called Kaptai oustees to India and their being settled in what was then the NEFA, a vast and thinly populated territory notionally part of Assam but in reality administered by the union government, with the contending bureaucracies of the union home and external affairs ministries seeking to get the territory under their wing.

The irrigation resources provided by the Kaptai project gave further impetus to migration from the plains. The search of East Pakistan/Bangladesh for more “living space” in the “sparsely populated lands to the east and the north-east”, meaning Assam and its neighbourhood, has been there from long before the birth of Pakistan, though in those days such migration even when systematically organised was legitimate. It went on when the territory was East Pakistan and continued when it became Bangladesh. The civil liberation war in East Pakistan during which the formal leadership of the Chakmas supported Pakistan because it was seen as a remote and less threatening factor compared to the immediate threat posed by the prospect of a triumphalist Bengali nationalism. It led to more refugees seeking shelter in India, mainly in Tripura.

Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram

Though the book touches on all these aspects, its principal focus is on the situation in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite the

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views canvassed in Chapter 4 where the author appears to question the relative peace brought about by political accommodation and resolution of the Chakma issue in Tripura and Mizoram, the fact is that the problems faced by the Chakma in these states are residual, not fundamental as in Arunachal Pradesh. This impossibility of squaring the circle in Arunachal Pradesh which is marked by a clash of the fundamentals is discussed in three closely argued Chapters, 5, 6 and 7, where none of the principal actors, including especially the union and state government, and the non-state players like student organisations, emerge with honour intact.

There is a contrast, and a lesson, too, in this very impasse. In the predominantly Christian Mizoram there is a degree of internal ethnic coherence such that an alien would stand out. It also has a history of sovereignty aspirations backed by a prolonged insurgency that forced the union government to negotiate and seek a settlement with the Mizo National Front. In this state nearly a lakh Chakmas, the largest single concentration of the Chakma population in India, has been able not merely to secure citizenship rights, but it has a political space and accommodation in the form of the Chakma Autonomous Council under the Sixth Schedule. True, the Chakma presence in what was known as the Lushai Hills district of Assam went back to the period before Independence and the Chakma in the Demagiri/Tlabung area had become acculturated with, though not assimilated into their environment, helped in the creation of an autonomous council for this important, non-indigenous (unlike the Pawi and the Lakher) non-Lushai minority in southern Lushai Hills. In Tripura which at the time of the civil war in East Pakistan had the largest concentration of Chakma refugees, along with even larger numbers of Bengali refugees, political negotiations and concessions on all sides persuaded the Chakma refugees to return to Bangladesh in 1997.

The contrast with Chakma predicament in Arunachal Pradesh could not be more striking. Being predominantly Buddhist and a scheduled tribe, the Chakmas shared many common features with the people of Arunachal Pradesh, and should have easily fitted in. Instead, it is in Arunachal Pradesh that the Chaka dilemma is most acute. The Chakmas, more than anyone else, should be able to understand this opposition across the board in Arunachal Pradesh to their permanent settlement there. After all, the roots of the insurgency launched by the Parbattya Chattogram Jana Sanghati Samity lay precisely in land settlement policy of the government, both in East Pakistan and in Bangladesh, to settle people who did not belong to the land in the CHT. This account, while rightly sympathetic to the tragic dilemma of the Chakmas, is insufficiently understanding of the compulsions of the governments in Dhaka in formulating and implementing the land settlement policy in the Hills. Indeed, Bangladesh has declined to even acknowledge that the Kaptai oustees, more accurately their descendants, in Arunachal Pradesh, as its citizens on the specious ground that this was all the handiwork of the Pakistan government. In

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december 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 51

BOOK REVIEW

contrast, though the refugee problem in Tripura too was because of the actions of the Pakistan government, the successor Government of Bangladesh has taken back these refugees, including the Chakma refugees, though sections of the Chakmas were involved in a violent insurgency against the Bangladesh state that was led by the so-called Shanti Bahini.

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The inferences and conclusions drawn by the author are deeply depressing. A political resolution of the continuing dislocation and statelessness of the Chakma in Arunachal Pradesh is nowhere in sight for the simple reasons that the numbers involved are too small. The victims are also in no position to create a major problem for either the state or

-union government, not even to the non-state actors like the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. Of its nature, therefore, there is no end to this unending tragedy.

M S Prabhakara (kamaroopi@gmail.com) has been writing on the North-East for more than three decades.

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december 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 51

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Economic & Political Weekly

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