North East India region has been considered as a heaven for settlement of both Indian nationals and foreigners. Lower level of population density compared to the national level, open international border with the Bangladesh, physical and cultural alikeness with certain migrants are the reasons for which the North East region is always considered as the safest zone for taking shelter. Kishor Kumar Kalita writes


Though the state  of  India  does  not  have  any specific enactment regarding the rights of ‘Refugee‘ till date, for a couple of decades the country has been suffering from the problem of displaced person who occasionally migrate from the neighbouring countries. As India, is lacking  a well defined concept and a concrete legislation on the subject of- ‘Refugee’, most of the time, particularly after Independence, India has been adopting International notion about the refugee issue. However, as  international  political  state of affairs keep on changing, it also affects India’s refugee discourse.

The first well-defined concept of international refugee status came in 1921  under  the  League of Nations from the Commission for Refugees. Observing the large numbers of people fleeing to Eastern Europe after the second World War, the United Nation 1951 Refugee Convention ‘United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’ defined “refugee” in its Article 1.A.2. According to this definition, the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who:

  • Has been considered a refugee under the Arrangements of 12 May 1926 and 30 June 1928 or under the Conventions of 28 October 1933 and 10 February 1938, the Protocol of 14 September 1939 or the Constitution of the International Refugee Organization; Decisions of non-eligibility taken by the International Refugee Organization during the period of its activities shall not prevent the status of refugee being accorded to persons who fulfil the conditions of paragraph 2 of this section;
  • As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term “the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national

The Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which came into force on 4 October 1967, removed both the temporal and geographic restrictions as mentioned in the UN convention of 1951. The Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa expanded the 1951 definition, which the Organization of African Unity adopted in 1969. It says, “Every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.” The United Nations  High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the sole international platform for the problems of refugee, in 2011, in addition to the 1951 definition, recognizes those persons as refugees “who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.”



The Indian state right from its  inception has been espousing an ad hoc approach to different refugee influxes to the country, as India is neither a party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol. Therefore instead of having codified law on the status of refugees, the Indian Government has administered the whole issue by political and administrative decisions. Such approach of the Government has also resulted in varying treatment of different refugee groups. Some groups are granted a full range of benefits including legal residence and the ability to be legally employed, whilst others are criminalized and denied access to basic social resources. The legal status of refugees in India is governed mainly by the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Citizenship Act 1955. These Acts do not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other foreigners; they apply to all non-citizens equally. Under  the Acts it is a criminal offence to be without valid travel or residence documents. These provisions render refugees liable to deportation and detention.

In the context of North East India, the whole region has been considered as a heaven for settlement of both Indian nationals and foreigners. Lower level of population density compare to the national level, open international border with the Bangladesh, physical and cultural alikeness with certainmigrantsarethereasonsforwhichthe North East region is always considered as the safest zone for taking shelter. As mentioned earlier though the Indian state does not distinguish a refugee from a migrant, whether legal or illegal by any specified code, informally a number of migrants group have been recognised as refugee because  of particular socio-political situation that forced those group to migrate from their own native land to this part of the country. Interestingly, some of such groups like Chakmas and Hajongs are trans- border in nature and are also indigenous to North East India besides their country of origin. These groups who have been considered as refugee both by the Indian government as well as the people  of the region due to racial and cultural affinities have a different story to tell than that of the other refugees. Here is an account of such groups who have taken asylum in North East India.

Tibetan Refugee:

Though India never been a party to either the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol ,Tibetans who arrived in India in the late 1950s and early 1960s were accorded refugee status by the Indian government. These Tibetans were issued registration certificates, which must be renewed once or twice a year. Tibetans who were born in India are also eligible to obtain a registration certificate once they are 18 years old. While the Indian government allowing Tibetans to enter the country, it has not afforded them the same legal status as it has given to those Tibetan who entered into this country immediately after the Chinese incursion in 1951. Because of such Chinese incursion and massive abuse of human rights in Tibet, Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader was forced to flee from his own place. His flight was followed by an exodus of Tibetan people who were unable to live under Chinese oppression. In 1959, approximately 80,000 Tibetans fled to India with a steady flow filtering into India in the years that followed. Today, there are approximately 150,000 Tibetan refugees living in India and among them a huge number of Tibetans are settling in different parts of the North East India.

Nepalese Bhutanese:

The phenomenon of identity crisis had also occurred in our neighbouring state Bhutan where up to the mid to late 1980s, the Bhutanese authorities began to view the growing numbers of Hindu Nepalese in Bhutan as a direct threat to Bhutanese ethnic identity. Therefore deterring the exact number of Nepalese outsiders within the territorial boundary of Bhutan, a census was carried out in the early 1980s. As a result of the census, the Citizenship Act of 1985 was enacted which set out new conditions for citizenship of Bhutan. A great number of Hindu Nepalese became illegal residents overnight. This act stipulated a particular condition that if anyone wants to retain his/her legal status as a citizen of that country, the person must have to prove his/ her residence in Bhutan for the previous 15 years. As a result, many naturalized citizens lost their status. The Act also allowed for any naturalized citizen to be stripped of his or her status if they had shown, by act or speech, to be ‘disloyal’ to the King, country, or people of Bhutan. This provision has been used frequently to revoke citizenship from Hindu Nepalese under the pretext of ‘disloyalty’. As a result of such measures taken by the Bhutanese authority lakhs of Hindu Nepalese had been expelled from Bhutan and these people took shelter in the bordering areas of Assam as well as other parts of the North East India. Since 1949, Bhutanese citizens have been permitted to move freely across the Indian border. An open border between India and Nepal and India and Bhutan is provided for by a treaty between the respective states which again updated in February 2007. Both the Indian and Bhutan Government reciprocally grants equal treatment and privileges to citizens of the other country .The right to residence, study, and work are guaranteed without the need for identity papers. For this reason, the Indian government has not acknowledged the ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese who were forced to flee to be refugees, and nor has it provided any sort of assistance.

Hindu Bengali Migrants:

Before the enactment of Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Indian government did not recognize this group to be refugees and as a result, they are unable to acquire residence permits and found it difficult to gain employment. The Indian Constitution and the Indian Citizenship Act 1955, however, made specific provision for those who were born or whose parents were born in undivided India to apply for Indian citizenship. The Citizenship Amendment Rules 2004 specifically provide for Pakistanis to apply for citizenship in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The conditions for citizenship are that the individual must have been continuously resident in India for five years, rather than for 12 years as is the case with other foreigners applying for citizenship, and intend to settle permanently in India.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed by the Parliament of India on 11th December 2019. It amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 by providing a path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities migrated from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. By amending the principal act i.e. Citizenship Act, 1955, a proviso has been inserted in section 2, in sub-section (1), in clause (b), that provides as such-”Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made there under, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act.” Again to granting such citizenship, the BJP led Central Government has also reduced the time period of staying in India for those migrants who belong to the above mentioned religious classes. The amendment has relaxed the residence requirement for naturalization of these migrants from eleven years to five and for facilitating such time relaxation another proviso to the clause (d) of Third Schedule to the principal Act has also been inserted that read as-’Provided that for the person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the aggregate period of residence or service of Government in India as required under this clause shall be read as “not less than five years” in place of “not less than eleven years”. Now under the provision of the said act the Indian government is trying to distinguish the migrants on the basis of religion which again goes against the spirit of the Indian constitution.

Chakmas and Hajongs: The Chakmas are the largest ethnic group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region in south eastern Bangladesh. This group has also a firm existence in the Mizoram and Chakma Autonomous District Council has been created to provide autonomy under the Indian Constitution. Alike the Chakmas, Hajongs are also ethnic people who lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, most of which are located in Bangladesh. Chakmas are predominantly Buddhists, while Hajongs are Hindus. The Chakmas and Hajongs living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts fled from erstwhile East Pakistan in 1964-65, since they lost their land to the development of the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River. In addition, they also faced religious persecution as they were non-Muslims and did not speak Bengali. They eventually sought asylum in India. The Indian government set up relief camps in Arunachal Pradesh and a majority of them continue to live there even after five decades. According to the 2011 census, 47,471 Chakmas live in Arunachal Pradesh alone. A good number of Chakma people are also living in Tripura and Assam.

The Chakmas and Hajongs opposed their inclusion in undivided Pakistan during Partition. They later opposed their inclusion in Bangladesh when East Pakistan was fighting the Liberation War with West Pakistan, on grounds that they are an ethnic and religious minority group. A group of Chakmas resorted to armed conflict with Bangladeshi forces under the name ‘Shanti Bahini’. The conflict increased the inflow of refugees to India. In 1997, the Bangladeshi government headed by Sheik Hasina signed a peace accord with the Shanti Bahini, which resulted in the end of the insurgency. According to the accord, the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang and Tanchangya were accredited as tribes of Bangladesh entitled for benefits and a Regional Council was set up to govern the Hill Tracts. After this treaty the Government of Bangladesh has promised to resettle these displaced tribal people in their own native places, but most of them were unwilling, fearing the return of religious persecution.


In 2015, the apex court of India had given a direction to the Central Government to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajongs who had migrated from Bangladesh in 1964-69. Now after the passing of The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, these tribal people who were mostly taking shelter in India for the fear of religious persecution may get the Indian Citizenship along with the Bengali Hindus. While the indigenous people of North East India has been relentlessly opposing the indiscriminate citizenship grant to the Bengali Hindus, at the same time these people are posing a liberal view in the matter of giving shelter and citizenship to Hajong and Chakma tribes. The Central Government should understand that the inner sentiment of the local people of North East India, who has been keeping two different views irrespective of religion to the Bangladeshi migrants. Here, instead of religious sentiments a kind of tribal culture and affiliation have been operating that does not wants to give space to certain class people who are predominantly aggressive in nature.