Nowhere people
Reviewed by Rajesh Kumar Aggarwal

Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India
By Deepak K. Singh.
Sage. Pages 289. Rs 695.

THE Chakmas are amongst the first victims of development-induced displacement in modern South Asia. The completion of Kaptai Reservoir in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs), now a part of Bangladesh, in early 1961 had turned some 100,000 people into environmental refugees. In 1964, some 40,000 Chakmas took asylum in India which has grown to 64,000 by now and living mostly in Arunachal Pradesh, previously known as North East Frontier Agency before 1972.

The dilemma is that despite being issued valid migration certificates at the time of their arrival in India and repeated assurances from the central government to grant them Indian citizenship, the Chakmas have continued to remain stateless. In 2004 (after 40 years), the Election Commission included 1,497 of them in the voter’s list for the first time. During all these years, the Chakmas are facing hostility from the natives of Arunachal Pradesh.

Based on a field study of 300 persons (half of them being Chakma refugees and other half being indigenous people), the book, which is divided into nine chapters, shares some unknown hidden facts about these refugees. A chapter presents interesting facts about the two regions, CHT and NEFA, their land and people, historical background, CHT under the Pakistani regime (1947-71) and later under the Bangladesh regime.

The Politics of Demographic Disorder discusses the growth rate of population (1991-2001), except Assam and Tripura, that most north-eastern states witnessed much higher growth rates as compared to India. Nagaland recorded the highest growth rate with 64.4 per cent, the role of continuing migration from Bangladesh in north-eastern states cannot be ruled out. The chapter puts forth the views of Bangladesh rulers on Bangladesh migration to India, though largely denied. It also focuses on the rise of anti-foreigner movement in Arunachal Pradesh, role of Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, Arunachal-Assam tussle, "Chakmas—go back movement", Chakma issues as a human right problem and revival of anti-foreigner movement.

Chapter IV attempts to ravel the changing contours of the everyday life of the Chakmas diaspora in North-East India—how they have been facing discrimination of Mizoram, how they lived under inhuman conditions in Tripura and how they have been forgotten in Arunachal Pradesh. This comparative account of the diasporic Chakmas clearly reveals the nature and extent of their marginalisation and their unwillingness to identify themselves with the land of their past—the CHT region, which is understandable given their rather prolonged stay in India.

The next chapter narrates the official perceptions and discourses (Centre vs. state) on the Chakma issue. While the central government has expressed its firm determination to grant citizenship to the Chakmas, the state government does not view citizenship to be an issue at all. It finds difficult to permanently settle the Chakmas with equal rights enjoyed by local indigenous people.

Given the existing laws and safeguards applicable to Arunachal Pradesh, Chapter VI attempts to understand everyday experiences of refugees from their own vantage points and comes to the conclusions that the Chakmas do not want to be landless citizens. Moreover, they do not want to be dislocated to other place. They perceive local integration to be the most lasting and permanent solution. On the other hand, the perceptions of the Arunachalis reveal the indifference of the central government in deciding to settle the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh without consultation of the natives.

The other grievance of indigenous people is that they were seldom heard in Parliament because of having only two MPs. The indigenous peoples believe that their right over land is "inalienable" and any attempt on the part of central government to make them part with their land would be strongly resisted.

The study also raises some issues related to the status of stateless people and refugees in South Asia. Ironically, states are solely responsible for the making of refugees and stateless people in the region and there is no legal, institutional or legislative framework in place to unmake such a status once they are ejected out of the territorial boundaries of the state. There is a felt need for interrogating India’s refugee policy and evolving a domestic legal and legislative framework.