Rashtrapati Jinping speaking: A propagandist proposal
“Rashtrapati Xi Jinping ne aaj Beijing mai patrakaro ko sambodhit kiya. (President Xi Jinping addressed journalists in Beijing today).”
These words in a peculiarly-accented Hindi crackling out of my car’s radio sounded odd but significantly timed, given the fact that I was driving across the Bogibeel Bridge, the strategic rail-cum-road bridge connecting Assam with Arunachal Pradesh. But then, this is how it has been here for some time in many parts of India’s Northeast. China is marking an increasingly firm digital presence over the region. Medium wave radios catch signals of multiple Chinese broadcasts, including from the China Radio International, in Hindi, Bengali, and Nepali.The Chinese broadcasts can be available even in areas where the All India Radio (AIR) signals are poor or absent.
Various social media platforms are also geo-tagging areas well inside Northeast India as various Chinese provinces, such as Tibet.
The significance of radio and digital tools of communication should not be underplayed here, given the legacy of the ill-fated radio communique of the then-Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to people of Assam in the wake of 1962 Chinese incursion —"My heart goes out for the people of Assam”— that is considered to have wounded the Assamese psyche for years to come.
Tawang clash’s message: Militarised LAC is the new normal
If this technological war was afoot for some time, the on-ground war also became apparent on December 9 when a scuffle broke out between the armies of India and China in the high Himalayas of the Yangtse region of Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh. It led to injuries on both sides. As per the official sources, the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) returned to normal after flag meetings between concerned officers.
The armies of the two nuclear-armed neighbours have also been locked in a stand-off in the same area in the previous years. The December 2022 clash has been considered as the most serious one to have occurred between the two armies since June 2020 when a clash in the Galwan region in Eastern Ladakh resulted in heavy causalities on both sides.
Earlier in January, Tapir Gao, Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, alleged that a 17-year-old boy was abducted by the Chinese military— People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In recent times, there has been an unmistakable rise in the allegations against of PLA grabbing land, carrying out abductions, and transgressing into Indian territory, specially across the Eastern Himalayan sector in Northeast India.
The Indian government has officially accused the Chinese of trying “to unilaterally change the status quo”. What does this escalating dynamics signify for the future relations between the two Asian giants?
Where people have lived through wars
For the perceptive eyes and ears, it is not difficult to come across elders along the upper ridges of Eastern Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh who have vivid memory of the 1962 Chinese invasion into their places and who holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only people in post-Independence India to have lived —even if briefly— under foreign occupation.
A sense of fragility that the particular experience imparts is that its legacy is real and durable in many sense. Tenuous roads and treacherous connectivity have long added to such feelings. The road to Tawang sector passes through major bottlenecks. Nechiphu pass in West Kameng district and Sela Pass in Tawang district are shrouded in severe fog almost throughout the year and the tunnels being constructed by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) are yet to be completed. The road connecting Tawang from Kalaktang side passes through narrow and weak single-track bridges that can move one truck at a time.
One needs to remember that these were precisely the areas, starting right from high altitude Tawang to foothills below Kalaktang, that were run over by a belligerent PLA decades ago. Six decades on, the defence of the land still rests on fragile bridges and incomplete pillars. Repeated tension along the Eastern Himalayan sector and the rise of a nationalistic government has imparted a sense of urgency into the completion and upgradation of such projects. In informal parlance, new infrastructures like bridges and tunnels is referred to as ‘China gift’ in Arunachal, alluding to the China factor playing the predominant influence. An overwhelmingly security centric approach shouldn’t however relegate the need for organic and locally relevant infrastructure to the margins.
From hills to the sea, Quad begins from Himalayas
The Quadrilateral security dialogue –Quad— comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States now needs to be taken in an expansive meaning, where the path to Indian Ocean begins from the ridges of the high Himalayas.
The Northeast India is what connects the Southeast Asia to Indo Pacific in this discourse. The increasing role played by the Government of Japan in the entire scheme of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ in the region is already illustrative of such lines of thinking, thereby providing tacit counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Can the particular culture, history, and geography of the place become an important factor in the tangled diplomatic ties between geopolitical players
Making best out of the multi-cultural advantage
Despite the rapid infrastructural expansions into the region, enhancing the logistics and transportation capabilities along the LAC, the nuances of Northeast India, its people, cultures and societies are yet to sufficiently touch the ‘Indian’ mind. It’s critical absence that has been called out more often in the recent past. Ranging from representation of the region in popular culture —thus beginning to bring the region into ‘popular imagination’— to inclusion of the region’s history and culture in national school curriculum, these processes have only begun to unfold.
This ignorance, stemming from the designs of the colonial British empire in the past and perpetuated for a long time by the dominant traits of the post-colonial order, is however inversely connected to an increasing salience of the ‘idea of India’ into the nooks and corners of Northeast India, specially into those deep pockets of geopolitical contestations in Eastern Himalayas.
Many a times Sino-India conflict is dubbed as a pre-destined ‘clash of civilisations’, the ‘twains shall never meet’ scenario. One shouldn’t forget, however, that many a communities in India’s Northeast are trans-national, sharing historic homelands in China and Myanmar. And this is where India’s strength lies. Acceptability into the minds and hearts of people who otherwise might have cultural, ethnic, and racial ties with people on the Chinese side. This psychological resistance from communities on ground has been as much a factor as any diplomatic or military reason in foiling the attempted ‘Sinofication’ of spaces, renaming of places in Arunachal in Tibetan, calling the whole of Arunachal as South Tibet (Zang Nan) and so on. India needs to work more on this advantage, give it its due acknowledgement, make the best out of it.
(Dr. Kaustubh Deka teaches at the Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, Assam. Formerly, he was with the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His academic interest includes, besides others, issues of ecological politics in Northeast India.)