Arunachal Diaries – 1

The ferocious Wangchu tribe and the tradition of headhunting. (Courtesy - Mr. Sachin Kadam)
The ferocious Wangchu tribe of the east with the tradition of headhunting. (Courtesy – Mr. Sachin Kadam)

We are never tired of singing paeans about diversity in India as its defining characteristic, as if its a virtue. Such a characterisation has always eluded my common sense. Our sheer geographic size lends us this characteristic. Any country of comparable size and history would have this feature. Sometimes its good and sometimes it also creates hurdles. Its just a matter of fact hardly a cause of celebration. Depending upon where the observer stands, the same picture obtains different hues. There are some who make academic/journalistic career out of this diversity by emphasising differences and stressing upon complexities. And then there are some at the other end of spectrum who try to see a continuous thread in sacred as well as consistency in temporal affairs by de-emphasising the differences. In all seriousness, any such characterisation talks more about the person speaking rather than about India. Let me first begin with the basics before coming back to these speculations.

I recently had an opportunity to visit Arunachal Pradesh for over a week and then also visit some places in Assam and West Bengal on the way back. It was a 3-week tour. Ostensibly, the purpose was to conduct a capsule course to train(?) native students for state civil service exam (APCS). However, the trip actually had three layers, one inside another –

(a) Interaction with the tribals and locals there to understand their cultures and issues and also to see the far east corner of India. There were 16 of us divided unequally in 6 groups deputed in various districts of Arunachal – right from the peaceful Buddhist Bomdi La in the west of Arunachal where Monpa tribe lives upto Khonsa in the easternmost corner where the tussle between invading Christianity vs indigenous Rung-fra movement is currently going on in full heat. Other groups were at Teju, Pasighat and Naharlagun/Itangar whose experiences are no less dramatic. Our cumulative experiences are nothing short of a treasure-trove. Genuineness of a local Arunachali is something that touched our heart. Poverty of Sundarbans and fissiporous tendencies within Assam also left indelible impression.

(b) As the tour was organised by Seva Bharati, it was a good opportunity to see how RSS works from inside, to understand their impulse, their motivations. Most of us had no background of right-wing association. Some of us may have been outside sympathisers earlier, but thats all it was. We had ample opportunity to talk to many senior officials within the RSS and its affiliated organisations working in Arunachal for more than a decade and understand their point of view. Many full-time pracharaks kindly gave their time and patiently answered our questions in full earnest.

(c) Jnana Prabodhini Competitive Examinations Centre (JPCEC) has created many fantastic officers currently working in remotest parts of India braving serious odds with full dedication. We were fortunate enough to talk to some of them in Kolkata, Guwahati, Jorhat. In Itanagar, we were entertained by many senior secretaries and directors. Right from a BDO in Majuli island to Secretary, Finance, Arunachal, we had a good cross-section of bureaucracy in the three state viz., Arunachal, Assam and West Bengal. From a layman trip to Sundarban to an orientation visit to 143 Subarea of Army at Jorhat, we saw it all.

Coming back to the oft-repeated talk about diversity, now I feel that Arunachal is an exception. I had visited most of the states in India before – from Gujarat to Bengal and from Kashmir to Tamilnadu. Its very easy to feel a common impulse beneath the superficial differences of languages and regions. But Arunachal is an exception. Its a land of magic. Himalaya there is different, the terrain is so unwieldy and rugged that mere survival is a great struggle for some. And for others, land is so fertile that even cardamom production requires least efforts. Some tribes like Nokte or Wangchu are so ferocious, with history of head-hunting, that they immediately instil fear inside your heart. Others like Monpa in the west are so polite that they never give money with single hand, always touch one hand with another while giving away money as a mark of respect. One often notices hardy men with bamboo hats and dao strung to their waist, and exquisitely beautiful females – some with nose deliberately deformed to make them artificially look ugly. Beauty abounds Arunachal and Arunachalis. After all, Rukmini was an Arunachali whose enchantment enticed Lord Krishna, we are mere mortals…:)

Arunachal is a poor state with rich people. There is no poverty but corruption is limitless. Our Kangir bhai used to say with a very serious face, “hum log hai na bahut garib hai na, hamare pass bas do parvat hai aur thodi nadi, ilayachi ki kheti hai na wo bas thodisi hai. Pass me do gadiya hai lekin petrol ke liye na paisa nahi hai na, hum bahut garib hai na…” And its true. Our conventional understanding of economics doesn’t help much. There are innumerable such incidences. There is almost no local revenue, population is extremely sparse, modernisation is happening at mind-boggling speed. Its a land where ancient time co-exists with post-modern attitudes. All these give rise to multitude of serious problems. Add to that its location – abutting three nations – Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Border states have their own share of additional complexities.

The real Arunachal that we saw is so different than what we had imagined. I will try to bring an honest perspective of what it looked like to us – neither idyllic nor gloomy. In next few articles, I will try to summarise experiences that we had, visions that we obtained – India that we saw.

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