By Henry L Khojol & Ankush Bandyopadhyay Jan. 30, 2019
How did we get to this troubling nadir, where Indian citizens in Mizoram are looking to China for help, and not the government? The answer lies in what the Citizenship Bill could entail – and Mizoram’s treatment of its ethnic minority group, the Chakmas.
The Central government cannot be happy with the images coming out of the North East over the past few weeks. During widespread demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was passed in Lok Sabha earlier this month, news outlets captured photographs of protesters in Mizoram holding signs that said, “Hello China, Bye-Bye India”.
How did we get to this troubling nadir, where Indian citizens are looking to China for help, and not the Indian government?
The Citizenship Bill, passed on January 8, must have been the final straw for the Mizo people, a group that has always felt it was “being neglected” by the Centre. The passage of the bill triggered a series of protests across North East India, including Mizoram, where students organised a massive demonstration on January 23, and subsequently boycotted Republic Day celebrations. Spearheaded by the state’s apex student body, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) or Mizo Students’ Federation, the January 23 rally saw over 30,000 people respond to their call.
However, most Chakmas considered CHT as their ancestral home.
The growing feeling among Mizos is that India does not care about them anymore, and the Centre is just dictating terms from miles away instead of trying to know the pulse of the people and the region. North East Students’ Organisation, an umbrella body of students’ organisations in the region, and many others are of the view that it is better to look to China for assistance. The protestors also burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh, whose BJP government introduced the Citizenship Bill in 2016.
While in Assam and other North Eastern states like Meghalaya and Tripura, the concern is about Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, in Mizoram, as in Arunachal Pradesh, there is a different issue. The concern is not about the Hindu immigrants, but “illegal influx of Buddhist Chakmas” from neighbouring Bangladesh, seen by most Mizos as a big threat that will shrink the natives to minority in their own land in the foreseeable future. According to MZP president L Ramdinliana Renthlei, the Citizenship Bill, if enacted, would be harmful for Mizoram as it would bring severe religious and demographic impact on the indigenous Mizos.
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The Chakma people are an ethnic tribe belonging to Tibeto-Burman group, whose origin is believed to be greater Arakan Yoma North, presently Chin State, before they migrated to Chittagong Hills Tract (CHT) in Bangladesh in the fifteenth century. However, most Chakmas considered CHT as their ancestral home. Their migration to India took place when Radcliffe Award of Bengal Boundary Commission awarded Chittagong Hills Tracts to Pakistan during the Partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947. The construction of Kaptai Dam and Karnafuli reservoir in 1962, which rendered thousands of Chakma families homeless also triggered large scale migration to India, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.
There is a perception among the majority Mizo people that many Chakmas have crossed the state boundary in the 1960s and they are not considered indigenous people of the state. Renthlei alleged that there are over 30,000 illegal Chakma immigrants from Bangladesh. “We don’t target the entire Chakma community as many of them have legally resided for decades in Mizoram. But we are against those who have illegally migrated from Bangladesh,” he said.
Vanlalruata, president of Young Mizo Association (YMA), the largest civil body in the state, said that the Citizenship Bill is dangerous for Mizoram as it will not only grant citizenship to illegal Chakma immigrants but also attract illegal influx from Bangladesh. “Though they are negligible as of now, the Chakmas will become a big threat for the Mizos in near future because their number is increasing very fast. There is a possibility of the Mizos becoming a minority in their own land if illegal Chakma immigrants are given citizenship,” he said.
But the opposition to the Chakma people is de rigueur in the state, where the majority considers them an “enemy tribe”.
Mizoram has, currently, a population of about 12 lakh – of this the Chakmas are believed to constitute more than 10 per cent. In a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2017, MZP stated that while there were only 198 Chakmas in Mizoram according to 1901 census, and over 80,000 in 1991, the figure has shot up to over 1,50,000 at present. The decadal growth rate of the Chakma population, as alleged by the student body, was beyond normal rate of human production but possible only through illegal influx, which the community denies. Quoting a report submitted by the Mizoram government to NHRC in 2015, some Chakma activists said the Chakma population was only 96,972 in 2011.
But the opposition to the Chakma people is de rigueur in the state, where the majority considers them an “enemy tribe”. As this article on Scroll.in points out, according to sociologist Paula Banerjee, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had addressed a rally in Aizawl in the mid-’80s, saying “if the Mizos expect justice from India as a small minority, they must safeguard the interest of their own minorities like the Chakmas”. In the 1990s, violence against the Reang and Chakma tribes was routine: In August 1992, about 380 Chakma houses were torched by Mizo mobs; a few years later, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl served “quit notices” to the tribe and Chakma names disappeared from electoral rolls. “Over the last few years, the state government has repeatedly tried to tweak its selection policies for higher education and government services to favour Mizos at the expense of non-Mizos. Though these discriminatory policies have been stayed by the court, the state government perseveres,” states the article.
As Mizoram shares a 72-kilometre border with Bangladesh and Myanmar, the citizenry’s fears over illegal immigration from neighbouring countries are not entirely unfounded. By granting Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities fleeing religious persecution from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the BJP might be alienating voters in the North East, a region where its foothold is tenuous at best.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga had earlier warned that his party would pull out of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) if the Centre passes the Citizenship Bill. The state cabinet led by Chief Minister Zoramthanga also had earlier expressed disappointment over the passage of the controversial bill by the Lok Sabha and resolved to take steps to ensure that the bill is not passed in the Rajya Sabha.
Arunachal Pradesh has already become an incendiary topic for Sino-Indian relations, given how the standoff with Chinese forces at Doklam went in 2017. Should the “Hello China, Bye-Bye India” sentiment catch on in Mizoram, the Centre could very well have a second prickly problem on hand.