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Let’s begin at the very beginning, shall we? A mithun is not a cow, just like a Shivlinga is not a rock. Lassi is not spoilt milk and sambar is not yesterday’s dal gone a little bit sour. How does this relate to Arunachal Pradesh? Well, it is a difficult time to be from that place. As a matter of fact, it seems to have been so from the very moment the state came into being; the name itself is incongruous—so much unfounded optimism! Even the word is not homegrown but borrowed from Sanskrit, a ready metonym for the appropriation of its history.
Linguistic hegemony apart, even the existence of the state in the minds of Indians seems to solidify only in what a Discovery Channel programme titles the Worst Case Scenario. I mean, think about it: a courageous mother of two from the state conquers Mt Everest twice in 10 days, but doesn’t make headlines. A village boycotts elections—the very basis of our democracy—and not a panel debate is heard on television, loud or otherwise. Our sportswomen and men win gold in international competitions, not even a bugle is blown, except in the local newspapers. Come to think of it, even when I was awarded the Rolex Awards for Enterprise (associate laureate) in 2009—one among only five Indians at that time to have won it—I was casually kept away from interviews, comments or any invitation to write a piece on the work we were doing. Nor was I to be seen in the letters page of the very magazine I am writing for now.
But come the slightest remark from a neighbour about its claim over the land of this state, the merest whisper of a visa denied or a stapled visa not denied, we are frogmarched into prime-time spaces. At times like these, people in Arunachal are somehow expected to wear patriotism on their sleeves—and to studiously ignore that in everyday life; we do often greet each other with “Joi Hin” (a pidgin of Jai Hind).
Unsurprisingly then, with this President’s rule thing, like in all ‘worst case’ moments, we are back in the news. Long after the news channel debates have died down, long after the verdicts of the right ‘honourable’ courts have been dissected and analysed to their bone, indeed to the marrow—our memories will be relived and the loudest will be that of uncertainty and apathy. Ever since the precursor of the crisis emerged many months ago, people here have been prey to a collective feeling of listlessness and confusion. With claims and counter-claims flooding the local media space and sundry organisations coming out in support of one or the other group, nervous inertia reigned supreme. The newspapers say that the state assembly is in a state of suspended animation today. Its people have been in this condition for almost a year. The 2014 general elections—with which the Arunachal assembly elections were also held after a pre-term dissolution of the House by the chief minister in the face of dissidence—no doubt threw up a 42-MLA Congress majority regime in the state, bolstered further by the subsequent joining of all five regional party MLAs of the People’s Party of Arunachal.
The bonhomie soon gave way to an extended period of unattended discord within the Congress, which in retrospect would appear to have led the state to where it is today.
A mithun is not a cow. This is an animal that has its own cultural and historical context. So the overcooked debates about eating beef do not apply to it at all.
But political machinations is not the topic of this piece, apathy is. As the state reeled under the spell of “inner-party dissidence” within one party, and might I say “outer-party diffidence” within the other—the people of the state who had voted in the assembly in the first place were left with no claim beyond that of helpless spectatorship in the theatre of the absurd that has unfolded since. Politics in Arunachal, like life itself perhaps, has been a long series of fantasies about the ‘what ifs’. Having a relatively short timeline, with the first general elections only held here in 1979, democracy in the state can at best be said to be fragile. After all, how else does one explain an uninterrupted reign of one chief minister for 19 years, and then a succession of five in the remaining 11, of which four have been through rebellion, later legitimised by choreographed elections.
To come back to apathy—as the Congress indifferently allowed problems to fester like an open wound, and the BJP cleverly manoeuvred itself into a position of bargaining, someone somewhere forgot to ask the people of the state what it was that they wanted. The powers-that-be forgot what their electorate wanted, the mainstream political parties forgot (or chose not to remember) what ‘local issues’ there were, and the rest of India, expectedly, waited to respond to China’s next move on the Arunachal question. As always, the periphery and its aspirations were let be. And the point really is not what the BJP is doing or what the Congress has not been able to do. From where the people stand, it is just a confirmation that marginal people and marginal spaces will always be just that.
So much, that even major mainstream media houses, and even the odd highly-regarded columnist, in their frenzy to report news and report it at breaking speed, neglect to get even the basic facts right. They would not care to explain to an unsuspecting readership that the animal that figures in the governor’s report to the Supreme Court is a mithun, not a cow; that the animal in reference has a cultural and historical context quite different from the trending beef debate which even a basic Google search will be able to inform you about. Or that, if you chose to find out, socially it is a highly valued animal in the 26th state of the Union of India; or about the sheer diversity of the communities here who may appear similar but have very distinct identities. Whatever happened to the old school credo of journalistic research and getting facts right? Is it passe, or has it become okay to report sloppily about marginal spaces? Both possibilities are equally worrying. In any case, Arunachal has had its two days of fame; its unprecedented 60 minutes of prime-time. Will it be able to live with the price?
Even as appeals and counter-appeals are filed in the Supreme Court, the state itself has been taken over by an uneasy stillness. The evenings wrap up earlier, shops longingly wait for patrons before shutting down as paramilitary forces take over the streets, frisking ordinary people in their vehicles on way back from work, setting up naakas at will, all of it ostensibly to ensure that law and order is maintained and things are stable. There is a mix of emotions when people gather. While there is a general sense of being let down by the elected, there is also a feeling of reassurance and hope that something definite will emerge from all this.
And yet, the land is not quiet—it longs for people on the sidewalks, even the reckless young bikers who used to tear dangerously across the streets. There is certainly a sense of tranquility, but it is a nervous calm as people come to grips with living under the President’s rule, amidst questions of what the future may hold. Though Arunachal was also under PR way back in 1979, under a similar cloud of political turmoil, no one quite knows or remembers what really happened at that time or even how one is expected to respond. Are we allowed to stroll? To party? To walk hand-in-hand with friends in groups of more than four people? Officials and the person on the street alike are taking baby steps. I only worry that this is taking away the very spontaneity that people in the hills are known for; as everyone becomes wary, life is lived ‘sehma-sehma’ despite press communiques from Raj Bhavan that appeal otherwise.
The only thing I am not complaining about is that every time India’s 67th Republic Day is discussed, someone invariably wonders—wasn’t it when Arunachal Pradesh was put under President’s rule? History, in its convoluted logic, will remind us that without peripheries there is perhaps no centre.
(Filmmaker and activist Moji Riba teaches documentary film at the Rajiv Gandhi University)
Known as the sial, the gayal and of course, the mithun, this giant bovid appeared around 8,000 years back. It is said to be the evolutionary descendant of the wild Indian gaur and is found grazing in various parts of South and Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, China and Bangladesh. It is said that the Lushais, one of the eleven peoples of Mizoram, originally domesticated the breed. The meat is sought after for both food and sacrifices.