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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Rohingya crisis: Disheartening precedent for refugees seeking to stay in India

It has taken 50 years for Buddhist and Hindu refugees from Bangladesh to have their right to citizenship recognised

A Rohingya woman stands by the entrance to her shanty home at a camp for refugees in New Delhi on September 18, 2017. Tsering Topgyal / AP
A Rohingya woman stands by the entrance to her shanty home at a camp for refugees in New Delhi on September 18, 2017. Tsering Topgyal / AP

As 40,000 Rohingya refugees struggle for permission to remain in India, two other groups of refugees now have a tenuous hold on Indian citizenship, fully half a century after arriving in the country.

The home ministry announced last week that 100,000 Chakmas and Hajongs — Buddhists and Hindus who fled to India from Bangladesh in the 1960s — would gain citizenship, following a 2015 supreme court order. At present, the two communities live in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The struggles of the Chakmas and the Hajongs, and the complications that have quickly beset their newly granted citizenship, offer a grim preview of what might await the Rohingya in India.

Originally, the Chakmas and Hajongs lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in East Pakistan, before the region declared its independence as Bangladesh in 1971. As minorities in a Muslim-majority country, the groups became victims of religious persecution and fled north across the border into India.

These migrations, which occurred between 1964 and 1969, involved roughly 15,000 people. Their subsequent generations swelled their numbers, but the government resisted granting citizenship or any associated rights to Chakma or Hajong children who were born in India.

The refugees did, however, get access to basic state services: education, health care and subsidised food rations. To sustain themselves, they took odd jobs or farmed meagre plots of land that were allocated to each family.

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Read more:

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In permitting the refugees to stay, India was fulfilling its obligations under international law, even though it never signed the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, said Nafees Ahmad, a scholar in human rights law at South Asian University in New Delhi.

“This is just something that the committee of civilised nations subscribes to — that you don’t send people back to places where their lives may be in danger,” Mr Ahmad told The National.

When the Chakmas and Hajongs originally settled in India, they were installed in a region called the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which was administered directly by the government in Delhi. In 1972, however, as NEFA acquired its own government and was renamed Arunachal Pradesh, local political objections to the refugees grew.

Parties and student unions claimed that the “outsiders” had been imposed upon Arunachal Pradesh without local consent, and that they were being given valuable state assistance that was better directed towards the indigenous tribes who had lived there for centuries.

A succession of lawsuits, filed by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh, claimed that the refugees were being persecuted by both state authorities and locals, and that formal citizenship would ensure they were not turned out of the country.

In 2015, the supreme court, issuing a final and long-delayed verdict in the case, gave the government three months to complete citizenship formalities. “They [should] not be discriminated against in any manner,” the two judges on the bench wrote in their ruling.

It wasn't until last week, however, that the home ministry finally decided to grant citizenship to the refugees

Even now, the objections out of Arunachal Pradesh continue.

On Monday, Pema Khandu, the state's chief minister, wrote to the home ministry to challenge its decision.

“I reiterate that the people of my state are not ready to accept any infringement on the constitutional protection bestowed on the tribals of Arunachal Pradesh and want to ensure that the ethnic composition and the special rights enjoyed by the tribes of my state are safeguarded at all cost,” he said.

With Mr Khandu a member of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his letter received a speedy response. On Tuesday, Kiren Rijiju, India’s deputy home minister, said the supreme court’s order may not be implementable after all.

“Granting any citizenship to these communities will disturb the demography of this tribal state and violate the constitutional rights of the tribals,” said Mr Rijiju, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh. “We need to inform the supreme court that Chakmas and Hajongs have entered illegally and stayed in settlement camps."

The fact that these groups have even been allowed to stay for so long, however, is telling, according to Mr Ahmad.

“We have let in plenty of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Tamil Hindu and Christian refugees from Sri Lanka,” he said.

“But with Bangladeshi Muslims or Rohingya Muslims, they belong to minority groups that are not politically powerful within the country. If the Rohingya are turned out, the perception will be that the state discriminates on the basis of religion.”