India's Chakma tribe fight for citizenship

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Source: Asia Calling Asia Calling TV

The Chakma people of Arunachal Pradesh state in northeast India have been fighting for citizenship for over six decades.

They fled Bangladesh in the 1960s – now there are over 60 thousand Chakma in the state.

This year India’s national government looks like it will finally give them citizenship.

Asia Calling’s Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke meet the Chakmas to hear their stories.

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Biswamitra Chakma is returning home after a day’s work on the fields in Diyun village.

He’s 58 and was born in Bangladesh.

But the village has been his home for almost half a century.

“I don’t remember clearly how old I was when my family migrated. I might have been about eight years old. There were so many of us – mother, father, four brothers and three sisters. I remember what my parents told me then. They told me that our houses had drowned under water. That was because of a dam being built in Bangladesh. We couldn’t live there anymore.”

In 1964, communal violence and the construction of the Kaptai hydro-electric dam displaced nearly 100 thousand Chakmas.

A large number of these sought refuge in India.

Another reason why they left Bangladesh was religious persecution, says Bimal Kanthi Chakma, one of the tribe’s leaders.

“We are Buddhists and it would be difficult to live in a Muslim country being non-Muslims. Before India’s partition, we were citizens of India. After partition, the territory we lived in was handed over to Pakistan. So religious persecution is another reason why we were compelled to migrate. We came to Arunachal Pradesh under valid migration rules with due consultation with the Indian administration at that point.”

The Chakmas crossed over the border legitimately with the consent of the border security.

But they weren’t given refugee status, because many families had lost important identity documents.

And although their migration was legal, they were not recognized as Indian citizens.

In the 1990s around 1200 Chakmas were granted citizenship by the Arunachal Pradesh state government – but that’s out of a total Chakma population of around 65 thousand.

Sanjay Chakma became father to a baby boy a few months ago.

But he hasn’t been able to get a birth certificate for his son.

“I had all the documents ready and I filled out all the forms and I went to the office. But the officer in charge wasn’t around. The notice board at the office clearly states that they have to be present on Tuesday and Wednesday to register birth certificates. The officer was never present on these days. We have heard that there is political influence asking the office not to issue birth certificates to Chakmas.”

In 1992, the national government affirmed that the Chakmas have a legitimate claim to Indian citizenship.

But the state government hasn’t taken any steps to help make this happen.

Instead they were discrimated against. Chakma students are denied access to state government-run secondary schools, and they can’t own land either.

Chakmas make up around seven and a half per cent of the state’s population – but local politics have kept the community marginalised.

Chakma campaigners say the indigenous Singpho tribe who dominated local politics for decades view the them as outsiders – and grab their resources and opportunities.

Stateless and lacking protection from any country’s law makes them vulnerable.

“Sometimes I am sad that I was born a Chakma. Sometimes I wonder why I am a Chakma. The other tribes in the region view us with such disdain. We are humans too, but we are denied the rights of humans, whether it is in official bureaucracy or something else. If you ask around, you will find enough cases of Chakmas being beaten up on the streets by people from other tribes. We don’t get respect at the work place. We have no other option but to endure how we are treated.”

But things may be about to change.

Two years ago India’s national government formed a parliamentary committee to look into Chakma citizenship issues.

Last January they decided to grant Chakmas citizenship by the end of the year.

But the fight is not over, says Bimal Kanthi. He’s from community campaign organisation the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakma.

“We are in dialogue with the government and I hope that the dialogue will be fruitful. Right now only a very few of us have voting rights. But this right has to cover many more people. We are also fighting to have the right to contest elections here.”

It’s a big step forward – but it doesn’t go all the way.

The government plans to grant citizenship only to those Chakma who came to India between 1964 and 1969.

According to government records, that’s just under 15 thousand people – out of a current total Chakma population of over 65 thousand.

The fate of refugees who came after 1969 is still not clear.