Diyun Circle (Arunachal Pradesh): Since 2015 at least, northeast India has been a hub of human trafficking, according to figures available with the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2015, Assam alone accounted for 22% of all human trafficking cases in India, and in subsequent years, the records have shown almost the same percentage.
The high number of trafficking cases in the region can be attributed to a lack of job opportunities. Young people are lured by the prospect of work elsewhere, only to be trapped into sexual, domestic or construction slavery. Significantly, Arunachal Pradesh, an economically well off state with a low population, requires a large number of workers for both construction and domestic work. This means that there is much trafficking from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.
For the past eight years, since 2014, I have been investigating cases of missing children and human trafficking in Assam, publishing my findings in newspapers and news organisations. Over these years, I learned that while many trafficking cases are reported, most of them are not, meaning that those who go missing are lost forever, as if they had never existed.
Recently, when I followed the case of a missing girl from Assam who was taken to Arunachal Pradesh, I came across a newspaper advertisement about a Chakma girl from the Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh who had disappeared. When I looked into the case, I learned she had been trafficked to Itanagar to work as domestic help.
Intrigued, I spoke to student leaders from the Chakma community. This led to a startling revelation: the trafficking of Chakma children in Arunachal Pradesh is rampant. And because the Chakma community has no citizenship rights and is one of the most backward communities in the state, these cases go largely unreported.
Battle for survival
A recent statement by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu on relocating the Chakma refugees of his state to other parts of India has created enormous tension within the community.
The Chakmas, a Buddhist ethnic group with a rich cultural heritage, originally came from the Chittagong Hill Tracts and entered India through Tripura and Mizoram in 1964 when the erstwhile East Pakistan government commissioned the Kaptai Dam over the river Karnaphuli, leaving them displaced.
The community had also faced religious persecution by the then Pakistani authorities due to its demand for the region it occupied to remain part of India after partition.
In 1964, when the Chakma refugees displaced by the dam entered India, the Indian government settled a group of them in the Tirap valley of the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which today is called Arunachal Pradesh.
Since Arunachal Pradesh received statehood in 1987, the Chakmas have been subjected to regular harassment by the local tribes. Though the Indian government in 1972 decided to grant them citizenship and the Supreme Court of India in 2015 directed the state government to provide them with citizenship rights, the state of Arunachal Pradesh has ignored all such orders.
Given that the Chakma community has no rights in India, the police have no records of any cases related to the trafficking of Chakma children. To learn more about the situation, therefore, I travelled to Diyon Circle in Chalanglang district, where I found that the less than one lakh Chakmas have seen thousands of their children being trafficked in recent times.
In Changlang, Namsai and Papum Pare districts of Arunachal Pradesh, there are long lists of missing children from the Chakma community. Almost every household in the villages of Aranyapur, Udaipur, Dharmapur, Mudoidweep and Dumpani in the Diyon Circle of Changlang district has suffered the loss of children to human trafficking. While some of these children were eventually found and rescued from the brutality of slavery and abuse, many remain missing.
About a year ago, 13-year-old Ritu Chakma from No. 2 Jyotipur village went to Namsai, her parents having been promised that she would have a better life. Instead she was taken to an unknown place where her captor sexually abused her every night. She was rescued by the police and the Child Welfare Centre after a complaint made by an unidentified person and is now back at home.
Her father, Arun Kumar Chakma, a landless, daily wage worker, said, “I had no idea of the grim reality of human trafficking. I sent my daughter to Namsai with a person known to me who promised he would get her work. I have six children and I cannot sustain them on my daily wages. I am also a Chakma in Arunachal Pradesh.”
Deprived of citizenship rights, Arun Kumar Chakma and his family have no access to Public Distribution System rations, the Atal Amrit Abhiyan healthcare scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana housing scheme and even the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee. Chakma villages are still deprived of electricity and water supply and no one from the Chakma community in Arunachal Pradesh can be a member of a gaon panchayat (village council) or vote in any election.
Adding to the plight of the Chakmas in Changlang district is the river Dihing, which floods every year, causing massive erosion. Since 1971, thousands of Chakma people from the villages of Moitripur, Gautampur, Shantipur, Dumpani, Udaipur, Mudoidweep and Aranyapur have been displaced by the erosion caused by the Dihing.
View of the Noa-Dihing river, ahead of which lies the Namdapha National Park, in Arunachal Pradesh. #SundaySnap
Image by: Balaji Srinivasan pic.twitter.com/jY8hHEPrmL
— lonelyplanet_in (@lonelyplanet_in) May 5, 2019
In Aranyapur village, there is only one well for 200 households and women walk five to 10 km daily just to fetch water. In 1994, the state’s apathy towards the Chakmas became evident when a malaria epidemic devastated the area, taking the lives of at least one person per household on an average.
On a summer evening in July 2021, 12-year-old Bapu Chakma of Aranyapur village was handed by his parents to one Gopal Chakma, who promised them that the boy would earn well and be taken care of. A few days later, Bapu was found dead in mysterious circumstances. His death was not reported to his family. His parents only learned of it through the anti-trafficking unit of the Arunachal Pradesh Chakma Students Union (APCSU).
Handra Chakma also went missing at the age of 12. He should now be 22 years old if he is still alive. His poor, disabled and displaced parents are still in their small hut in Aranyapur, waiting for news of their son.
When he was 15 years old, Purna Kumar Chakma, now 78 years old, accompanied a group of 20 to 25 families leaving the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the night of April 13, 1964, following the inundation of their villages by the Kaptai dam.
“We entered India through the Tripura border and after a month’s time moved to NEFA by train from Karimganj in Assam,” he recalled. The then Assistant Political Officer to NEFA, U. Chakma, consulted the local bodies and traditional chiefs about giving shelter to the refugees and with their consent settled them in Changlang district which was almost unpopulated and full of dense forests at that time.
“We received rations as refugees till 1967, when the Arunachal Pradesh government granted us settlements,” said Purna Kumar.
From the early 1980s onwards, however, the Chakmas became a target for the locals when the aftershocks of the Assam Movement of 1979-85 reached Arunachal Pradesh.
“As a result of the Assam Movement, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union started demanding the expulsion of Chakmas from the state, which led to attacks on Chakma students in Miao,” said Subimal Chakma, president of the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakma and Hajong Community of Arunachal Pradesh.
There was major violence against the Chakmas in 1994, prompting their leaders to seek citizenship grants through judicial intervention. The Supreme Court of India in its verdict on January 9, 1996, asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to enrol the Chakmas who had entered India between 1964 and 1967 on the electoral rolls. Following this order, 4,637 Chakmas were given voting rights. In 2015, the apex court asked the state government to provide citizenship rights to the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh. But, according to Subimal, the Arunachal government has not complied with the court order. Though the community wishes to bring this to the notice of the apex court, a lack of funds and COVID restrictions have prevented them from doing so even now.
At present, there are approximately 60,000 Chakma people in the districts of Changlang, Namsai and Papum Pare in Arunachal Pradesh. Drisya Muni Chakma, president of the APCSU, said, “The situation is very grim for our community in Arunachal Pradesh. We are suffering because of the present policies by the state.”
With only a few of the new generation Chakmas being given the right to vote, the state government is strategically depriving the community of voting rights, Drisya Muni said. Though they are eligible for Aadhaar numbers, their Residential Permission Certificates (RPC) have been the only useful document for educational purposes and jobs in the Central services. But even this lifesaving RPC was suspended by the Arunachal Pradesh government on July 31, 2022, after a call for an agitation by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union if the issue of RPCs to Chakmas and Hajongs was not stopped.
Without their RPCs, Chakma youth from Arunachal Pradesh will not be able to join the Indian Army and Central forces, leading to even higher unemployment for the community. This in turn will boost the human trafficking trade. Trafficked Chakma children have been engaged as forced labourers and sex slaves in various places. They are also used as drug peddlers and are forced to participate in other criminal activities.
Having been vulnerable to trafficking for some decades now, some new generation Chakma students are trying to create awareness among their community. The APCSU has been surveying the trafficking cases of Chakma children from 2016 onwards. This has led to the rescue of many trafficked children. Significantly, the traffickers are Chakma people too. Unemployed, they traffic children from their villages to earn their living, giving false addresses to the parents of the trafficked children to misguide them. A 12-year-old girl who was trafficked to Itanagar from Mudoidweep village was recently rescued by the APCSU after it heard reports that she was being sexually abused. She is now living with her parents and has a one-year-old son whose father’s name she does not know.
According to the APCSU, 27 Chakma children went missing from villages in Dyun Circle in 2021. The eight-year-old daughter of Debojyoti Chakma, who was trafficked by one Dilip Kumar Chakma to Naharlagun, and a nine-year-old child from Mudoiweep, who was trafficked by one Sundur Kumar Chakma to Itanagar in 2021, were rescued earlier this year by the APCSU. A 15-year-old Chakma girl trafficked for immoral activities and four Chakma youth from Changlang trafficked to Delhi NCR to work as domestic help and kept in captivity were also brought back home by the APCSU this year.
Even when the APCSU knows the names of the traffickers and reports them to the police, no action is ever taken. Since the community does not have even basic citizenship rights, the police are under no obligation to act against the traffickers.
The Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh have been reduced to a primitive state of life. Like all stateless people, they are vulnerable to various external threats including human trafficking. To save their children from traffickers and improve their condition, the Chakmas should be granted all their rights as Indian citizens.
Farhana Ahmed is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and social activist based in North Lakhimpur, Assam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is @Farhana77177 on Twitter.
Featured image: A child with his grandmother in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district. Both are members of the Chakma community. The child’s mother was a victim of trafficking and rape. Photo: Farhana Ahmed/The Wire
This article was first published on The Wire.