Travelling through the plains of upper Assam one late October afternoon, wending our way from picturesque Tawang to Arunachal’s capital Itanagar, an irony keeps hitting us at every turn. To access one part of Arunachal from another, we must suffer this tedious journey through Assam. It’s here that we run into Ritesh (name changed), an indigenous Arunachali who’s a journalist with a government media agency based in Itanagar. He recalls the day he went across the McMahon Line, which divides India from China, for the first time in his life—and saw what China was all about. Actually, Ritesh didn’t really see mainstream China but the region euphemistically called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
The visit was a mind-bending experience for Ritesh, prompting him to take a relook at his assumptions, at the idea of India he had inherited. He, after all, belongs to what can be called the post-’62 generation, those born in the years following the Indo-China conflict. They know of China as the aggressor, an image recurring in the narration of their grandfathers. Now, however, Ritesh has seen the other China—a superpower in the making, hurtling down the road to development at breakneck speed.
Whose goose is being cooked: Arunachali tribals resent the loss of their way of life and dilution of their tribal identity
Quite understandably, China dominates the thoughts and memories of most Arunachalis. The tribes here still lingered in their pre-industrial ways of life when in October 1962, as the winter chill set in, the Chinese stormed into India through Bum La on the west and the Dibang valley in the east, sweeping past Indian defences to advance to the gates of Tezpur in Assam. The ’62 war sent shock waves countrywide. But for Arunachalis—indigenous people aeons away from the mainstream in material culture—a modern war machine playing out its drama on their territory marked the end of innocence. Indeed, 1962 isn’t just a year for them. For many, it is the beginning of the end.
Says Moji Riba, an erudite and articulate filmmaker whose father was briefly the chief minister years ago, “Our society developed at such a speed that we couldn’t catch up post-’62. Most people like my grandfather never saw a wheel when they emerged from the jungles. And yet, they saw jets flying in the air. From pre-wheel to jet age in 40-odd years, can any society evolve in this manner without consequences?”
Riba belongs to a new generation of Arunachalis in search of their ethnic identities, frustrated as the youth is with New Delhi’s insensitive policies. “They club us as the Northeast. But a Naga tribal is as alien to me as he is to you. Then why should we be clubbed together and why should our paradigm for development be the same?” Riba now spends his time travelling through the state documenting the oral histories of the various tribes of Arunachal. It is, in a way, his protest against the post-’62 onslaught of Hindi.
What are we defending?: An Indian army soldier patrols the snow-clad mountains of Tawang
Riba explains, “People of our age now speak to each other in Hindi, our second language, because it was taught for years in our schools, while our ancient tribal languages were forgotten. New Delhi never bothered to understand or value our culture. Now, we seem to be getting lost in the deluge.” For many like Riba, Delhi is a colonial power, imposing its will on a people and deciding their fate. And what a fate New Delhi has decreed for them.
An accomplished fiction writer, Dai makes her disappointment with Delhi quite evident through her writings in the local papers. Citing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s October visit to the state as an example, she notes sardonically, “He comes in on a special plane, makes lofty announcements, waves and then leaves. How does he expect to understand us? Look at the special Rs 24,000-crore package he announced for Arunachal in January last year. Has any of those proposals moved beyond the files? Nothing.” In fact, Dai’s anger was articulated in a letter current chief minister Dorjee Khandu submitted recently to the PM in Delhi (see box).
Perhaps this also explains the lack of development in the state, its decrepit roads and poor communication facilities. Ironically, in Arunachal’s border districts, the Airtel signal pops up on cellphones from towers located across the McMahon Line. These districts are yet to get similar mobile towers on the Indian side. Likewise, a strategically important road such as the Tezpur-Tawang-Bum La highway resembles a dirt track. “How can a state that India claims is so important have such pathetic roads?” asks Dai. Lost on New Delhi is the fact that these are the very roads that 2,420 Indian army officers and soldiers died defending, fighting the Chinese with their bare hands after exhausting their ammunition. Says taxi driver Tsering Dondup, who takes 18 hours to cover the 465-km distance between Tawang and Tezpur, “A few trips on these roads are enough to condemn any vehicle. How do you expect people here to survive? We hear the Chinese have trains running to Tibet. Here, we can’t even build roads.”
New Delhi’s chattering classes often cite India’s democratic credentials as one reason why Arunachalis would never want to live under the Chinese. Ironically, it’s this very democracy which is playing havoc with the Arunachalis. Alleges Bamang Tago, who has been fighting the planned power projects in the Dibang valley, “Just look at the statistics. Over 30 MoUs of the 103 power projects were signed in the five months preceding the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. That means the funds for the elections came from the MoUs.”
All this has alienated Arunachalis from India. They believe they have been exploited and neglected, their tribal identity deliberately diluted. Lack of development has begun to agitate them because they have woken to the possibilities, illustrated by what China’s achieved across the McMahon Line. Democracy and freedom are India’s advantage over China. But as Dai points out, “With democracy playing havoc with Arunachal Pradesh, there’s a murmur in our society asking: wouldn’t we be better off under Chinese rule?”
I’m an Arunachali and am angry not because of the reasons the filmmaker and the fiction writer cite in your story but because it took China laying claim to our land to bring us to the notice of other Indians and the central government (On the Wrong Side of Geography?, Nov 16). The Delhi University recently sent a call letter to a teacher in an Itanagar college to Andhra! When we, brought up in India’s remotest part, know every bit about the country, why can’t the rest of the country at least try to locate where we are too? I’m totally indifferent to being taken over by the Chinese because we’re anyway called Chinese in our own country! Rachel, Itanagar
Your cover story is a great satire on the Indian government’s lopsided approach towards strengthening our border areas. The story of Arunachal repeats itself across the Indian borders contiguous to Chinese territory. The Uttarakhand border, for instance. One visit to the people of Mana Pass or Munsiyari and you come across this neglect. It takes more than 50 hours to reach Dharchula beyond Pithoragarh from Bareilly to reach the Indian border. H.C. Pandey, on e-mail
India may offer them neglect, but at least it’s a democracy. Who knows one day Arunachal goes to China and the next we know China enslaves its people on sezs. Abhijit, Oxford, US
As long as the Indian government does not realise that the key to integration is corruption-free development of social opportunities, wounds in the Northeast or for that matter anywhere else in the country will never heal. It’s not that no money is allocated to these states; it’s just that the leaders supposed to put them to constructive use cannibalise 90 per cent of the funds. Navien K. Batta, Muscat, Oman
The neglect that spans a spectrum of geographies and issues within the country will prove to be India’s undoing. For long, the Northeast has needed better integration with the country by way of better infrastructure, better investment, better education and job opportunities. However, a dire lack of these has made the region a good ignition point for fissiparous tendencies. If New Delhi does not watch out, it will fall victim to its own myopia. C.K. Jaidev, Dubai
To imply that there was corruption in the election of three Congress MLAs, including CM Dorjee Khandu, is hearing only one side of the story. One has to remember that the Arunachal Times is a local daily owned by former CM Gegong Apang’s wife. He, incidentally, lost the recently-held assembly elections, as did his son Omak. Inter-tribal politics plays out big time in government formation and portfolio allocations. Khandu and the other two MLAs who were elected unopposed belong to a small tribe called the Monpas. The latter must have realised that it was wiser to send these men back to the legislative assembly as Khandu had a good chance of becoming CM again. It could have taken several decades again for a person from a smaller tribe to reach that position. Not all candidates, winning or otherwise, would have spent the speculated Rs 15 crore. It would be unfair to most candidates who won because of the hard work they put into their respective constituencies and to the fact that many non-performing MLAs were shown the door by the people this time. I’m surprised no one brought up the disturbing trend of highly placed government officials fielding their wives or brothers to contest these elections. And we all know where they got their money from! Joseph Tabang, Itanagar
Did Outlook think of the headline first, and then commission the story? Rajeev, Delhi
“People of our age now speak to each other in Hindi, our second language, because it was taught for years in our schools, while our ancient tribal languages were forgotten.” The imposition of Hindi has led to frustration here and, more than a binding force, it is becoming a threat to national integration. Shaan, London
Hindi wasn’t meant to be an imposition, it was meant as a bridge language among the different tribes which had no common language of their own. On the other hand, Chinese has been imposed on Tibetans even when they have a common language. Maneesh, US Minor Outlying Islands
Of course development has not taken place in the Northeast but the whole notion of preserving tribal identity has also been a reason for it. You cannot have one without diluting the other. Homogenisation is the price you pay for development. So instead of fighting this homogenisation, one should make an effort to identify what we can preserve about this tribal identity and what we cannot and be at peace with it. You can at least think of such a thing in India, any attempt to preserve cultural identity in China can either land you in jail or in the graveyard. Look at the Uighurs and Tibetans. Arpan Banerjee, Durgapur
China’s only competition in the world is poor India. However, India itself is a long-term contender. It’s not making cheap toys, fake drugs and other products that fall short of international standards. China is in a hurry, and nations in a hurry do not achieve greatness. The only redeeming thing about China is its hard-working people. And they are becoming fodder to the state. Vikram Chandra, Visakhapatnam
Arunachalis are just like any other xenophobic Indians who are scared that development will open up the floodgates for migrants who will eventually destroy the culture of the state. By this reckoning, Delhi and Mumbai should be completely cultureless now! Ramon Terence Iyer, on e-mail
The seeds of New Delhi’s neglect of Arunachal lie in the years before and after Partition, when Nehru and then Assam chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi gave in to Pakistan’s claim for Sylhet, which had a deep political and economic relationship with India (On the Wrong Side of Geography, Nov 16). Had Sylhet remained with us, it would have given the Indian mainland broader terms of engagement with the Northeast and overall strategic depth. Mihir K. Datta, Ohio
New Delhi and all our bureaucrats have been quite foolish all these years in deciding not to antagonise China, and trying now to wake up to its intimidation. The moment China invaded India and let go, India should have focused on development in the region and shored up its defences instead of just conducting elections. Paul Deepak, Chennai
On The Wrong Side Of Geography? (Nov 16) was a rather thought-provoking piece. The Buddhist areas of the Himalayas have always been patriotic Indians. The reward? Consistent neglect by New Delhi. Compare us with Kashmir, a hotbed of secessionist sentiments and terrorism. Kashmiris are rewarded with phenomenal concessions and subsidies. It’s another matter that all the money hasn’t translated into real development due to corruption. Ladakh is a ‘beneficiary’ of the Kashmir problem, otherwise it would have been as neglected as Arunachal. But Buddhists here are being reduced in numbers by systematic family planning. There is also an influx of Muslims from other places. In fact, we are on the brink of extinction. Tsering Stobdan, Leh
While it’s true Arunachal lacks basic development, the Centre alone should not be blamed for this. The state government is equally responsible for the backwardness. And never do we think we’d be better off under Chinese rule. Raju, Tawang
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