Arunachal Diaries – 4

Sunset @ Sundarbans (Credit - Aniket Marne)
Sunset @ Sundarbans (Credit – Aniket Marne)

It took us 4 days to reach Itanagar. At 4 o’clock in the morning, our ILPs were checked at Bandardeva. This is the gateway to Papum Pare district wherein Itanagar is located. The ITBP jawans standing at the check-post appeared very lackluster early in the morning. Our ILPs were not scrutinised thoroughly as if it was a mere formality. Actually, coming to think of it now, it’s very easy for miscreants to forge ILP to get entry into the state. It’s just a paper with one stamp and names of entrants written with pen (along with entry/exit points and duration of stay). There are no photos, no barcodes, no seals, nothing. Simple and plain paper with one stamp… And the boundary of Arunachal with Assam is very not impenetrable. As said by Gladstone –Laws only constrict the freedom of good intentioned people, for bad people, these are anyway useless.

This is one issue which has potential to dramatically stir the whole political atmosphere in the state. Afer decades of slow progress, last year, the rail service finally reached directly to Naharlagun (part of Itanagar complex). The whole nation expected Arunachal to be happy alas. However there were many protests…! Locals wanted the Railways either to check the ILP of each passenger or to stop the operations. Railway understandably refused to accept saying it to be the job of the state government, thus outside its mandate. After many protests, people forcibly stopped the railway operations. Arunachal must be the only state in India not welcoming Railway connection. And here we keep harping on our old tune of lack of infrastructure in the NE. Finally, some arrangement is made with the state government where ILPs will be checked at Naharlgun before un-boarding. This news came in when we were about to leave the state.

The issue of ILP is a very complex and its history very contorted, chequered. The tribes in Arunachal were (and are) very ferocious. The British could not tame them. The Sahibs actually didn’t even intend to rule over this inhospitable area for lack of its economic value, hardy terrain and brawny people. Not only it was very arduous to tame these tribes, the constant inter-tribal warfare never let the land rest in peace. Intention of the Sahibs was two-fold. To secure the plains of mighty Brahmaputra from raids of upland people and secondly to keep this area as buffer between India and China which was being approached from north by Russia at that time. William Moorcroft was sent to explore the higher Himalayas, Tibetan plateau and then to Central Asia at the height of the Great Game during the times of the Hon. Company. From then till the time of 1911 Treaty with Russia, the outer Himalayas served the purpose of a buffer. Meanwhile, the tea plantations in the doors of Asom turned out to be very profitable (along with the trade in elephant of course). Asom also served the purpose of passage to the Pegu/Burma which had to be safeguarded. British were satisfied by restricting the troublemaking tribes to their own lands. (Anglo-Abor war was one terrible mistake) And thus they introduced Outer Line Permit and Inner Line Permit. These permits regulated the movement of people in these areas in these protected areas.

The OLP was revoked sometime later. The ILP continues till date. It disbars outsiders from entering the area without special permission. The intention at the time of independence to continue this ILP regime was sort of idealistic – to save tribal identity. Verrier Elwin persuaded Chacha Nehru that the pace of modernisation has to be different in different areas and the Arunachal (then NEFA) was not yet ready for outside influence. The current situation however is somewhat anomalous. The urban and town living tribals have costliest of the gadgets in their pockets, wear latest fashion jeans, speak English, watch BBC, purchase China-made illegal goods. Some of them even own apartments in Lavasa. Many go outside Arunachal for some years – mostly for educational purpose. Modern communication has rendered such artificial sagregation of any part of the word impossible and in turn a part of the ILP argument invalid.

On every possible opportunity we asked this question. Ranging from simple students to Finance Secretary Arunachal, a father of the first Catholic Church in Arunachal, an RSS Pracharak, an AVP Head, and Director Industry Arunachal to one senior person in PWD. The answers vary and so do their reasoning. The question is very very delicate. It has many facets – cultural, political, economic. It’s at the root of Arunachal-Assam boundary problems, it’s connected to economic backwardness and it’s also connected to many other identity issues.

The beautiful Siang river near Pasighat. Its called Brahmaputra after it enter the plains of Asom and other rivers like Lohit meet with it.
The beautiful Siang river near Pasighat. Its called Brahmaputra after it enters the plains of Asom and other rivers like Lohit meet with it.

The ILP makes non-tribals and non-Arunachalis a sort of secondary citizen within Arunachal with no property rights and voting rights. We were told that the tribals are exempted even from paying income tax and outsiders working temporarily working in the state (like University professors) have to pay it. This inequality has now assumed very intense political dimension with entrenched interests. Mind well, Arunachal is a state with area even larger than that of Assam and population less than 15 lakh (of which only around 8,00,000 are tribals). Assam, on the other hand, is bloated. Bengalis, Biharis and Bangladeshis are everywhere. People are land-hungry. If you look closely at the map, Arunachal starts where Himalayas start. All the plain area is in Assam (except at two places, one of those being Pasighat area). Assamese thus till the land upto the very boundary further from which they can’t buy any land. Arunachalis on the other hand, are hungry for plains and many of them are now turning to farming in the plains. The state is also looking desperately for some plain area. Arunachalis can go into Assam and buy lands adjacent to the boundary. They can do whatever they want and then get back into their safe hideouts in the mountains. (Sometimes, inter-tribal affairs pour out into Assam) If Assamese try to track them down; they can’t even easily enter Arunachal without ILP. And getting ILP takes time, needs some local contact and there is a whole procedure for it. This has created a lot of problems. Continuous boundary disputes, riots, gang-wars. Such unequal rights and mutually contradictory needs are at the basis of Arunachal-Assam boundary disputes.

To be continued…

Arunachal Diaries – 3

Group of 16 on the arrival in Kolkata. The morning of 5th Jan 2014.
Group of 16 on the arrival in Kolkata. The morning of 5th Jan 2014.

We finally reached Kolkata after traveling by Azad Hind for around 30 hours. Few amongst us were coming out of Maharashtra for the first time and their reactions were worth noting. So excited was Shubham that he used to loudly utter one word after every few minutes jumping simultaneously in his sit. ‘Didi’ he would exclaim suddenly and then remain quiet for a minute or two. Then, out of nowhere, he said say ‘Roshogulla’ and again went on silent mode. After a few minutes ‘Ganguly’, silent, ‘Howda bridge’, silent, ‘Tagore’, silent, ‘Eden Garden’, silent. At least, these were some positive notes. Later on he switched to ‘Sharada scam’, silent and then even ‘Bangladesh.’ It was so funny watching him… after 20 minutes or so, he stopped as he must have felt emotionally exhausted.

Our first visit was to Shri. Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) currently posted as ADCP Airport, Kolkata. He had made our local arrangements. We had a fantastic chat with and he also delivered a very motivating speech. Answered almost all of our questions patiently and gave us sufficient time. In the end, he kept insisting us on asking more till we ran out of questions. The topics ranged from his earlier postings in Maoist areas to many of West Bengal’s current issues – law and order, political and otherwise.

Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) - an inspiration for all. Currently ADCP, Airport, Kolkata, he talked genuinely about various subjects and gave his perspective on many issues.
Santosh Nimbalkar (IPS) – an inspiration for all. Currently ADCP, Airport, Kolkata, he talked genuinely about various subjects and gave his perspective on many issues.

Our way back to Howda station was a unique experience. The rear axle of our Sumo broke down bringing the vehicle to grinding halt. The PI then arranged for another vehicle. Meanwhile we had lost precious half hour. And then were we stuck in the notorious Kolkata traffic. One vehicle went ahead with the police banner while the replacement vehicle was being driven by some civilian, who was not so dashing. For travelling around 10 km distance, it took around 2 hours. We almost missed our train by hair’s breadth.

During the second stay at Kolkata on our way back, we consciously avoided Kolkata traffic. It needs some serious work. The trams are actually useless for they travel very slowly, don’t carry many people, are poorly connected and act rather as speed reducers in the midst of the roads. Premier Padminis and Ambassadors are plentiful everywhere. The oldest Metro rail in India is in Kolkata but its expansion is so slow that it has only one north-south line, leaving most of Kolkata unconnected. Even on the famous Hooghly River, there are only three bridges, one of which was built before independence. Vidyasagar Setu, built relatively recently is so badly designed and located that it has created additional problems instead of solving some. Downtown infrastructure is also very pathetic. Only the area around erstwhile Fort Williams is in good shape. Just a stone’s throw away from the Park Street starts Chowrangi Lane with all its ramshackle houses on both sides, with semi-open gutters and roadside hawkers selling food to no one. If you want to shoot Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971) or Kharij (1982), it can be done very cheaply as there is no need of any film studio or set. You can go in any alley and start shooting. Nothing has changed since then. Some old buildings, same old hoardings and same old people with same old behaviour.

I had an opportunity to see the hinterland of West Bengal in 2010 when I had visited Shanti Niketan. The road was so tardy and the scenery around was so gloomy. Even Kabi Thakur’s (Tagore’s) Shanti Niketan is in disrepair. The whole West Bengal appeared so lifeless then. This time, we visited Sundarbans. The boat fare for around 400m ferry ride to cross one Ganga channel in the delta region to reach an island was beyond my comprehension. It was mere Rs 1..! Anything above that and people either can’t afford to pay or the old communist habits won’t allow. Such artificial depression of prices has stopped the growth. Thankfully this time we did not face any habitual bandh or hartal. The whole region starting from Canning to Godkhali is like another planet. The bounties of nature have turned into a curse. The region once had issues of Malaria and communication. Even today, half of the homes seem not connected to electricity grid. The roads were not paved but of bricks. The vehicles were custom-made – by attaching one small diesel engine and a chain to a cycle. There are no dredgers and thus no all-time river-channels to cross islands. One has to depend on high tide for ferries to get started. Everything is very slow. People do watch TV and know all that is happening around them. But nothing reaches them. There is only one ambulance-boat which does not work after sunset. If on some island a medical emergency erupts, it’s all in the hands of god till the morning with high tide. Even the Sundarban tourism seems not to have benefited the local populace. Some guides are from local villages but most of the forest machinery is from elsewhere in Bengal. The boat-riders are locals but there are hardly 40 boats giving employment to less than 200. And total number of guides is only 40. The Royal Bengal Tiger can’t even support 1000 families..! In addition to that, there is a continuous migration to this inhospitable terrain, from Bangladesh and from lower Odisa where living conditions are even more precarious. These people have made many islands in Subdarban their home and delivering services at their house-door is very difficult.

A typical house in Sundarban islands...
A typical house in Sundarban islands…
Boat ride in Sundarbans - from Dobanki to Sanjekhali. (Khali probably means khadi in Marathi, and there are many khalis - Godkhali, Sanjekhali and even Naokhali)
Boat ride in Sundarbans – from Dobanki to Sanjekhali. (Khali probably means khadi in Marathi, and there are many khalis – Godkhali, Sanjekhali and even Naokhali)

Minor forest produce has long been the mainstay of these people. Some communities are acknowledged for their skill in collecting honey. These people are awarded licenses by the forest department. Almost every small roadside vendor had bottle-full honey on sale. Sundarbans also produce timber – hard as well as soft – used from local boatbuilding activity to some newsprint. We could not meet any local government official. On the positive note however, we noticed three things giving us some optimism. First, fresh water is so easily available there that they take rice thrice a year, like in Kerala. (Sometimes though, floods bring brackish water into their fields and make those useless for some years. This is a severe problem there.) Secondly, many of the houses are using solar panels. And lastly and most importantly, almost every house had devoted a portion of their plot for horticulture – they grow beautiful flowers and vegetables – probably for Kolkata which is around 90 km away. Things (and people too) are moving but the pace is excruciatingly slow.

But this was all while our way back home from Arunachal. We took Kamrup Express to reach Guwahati where we received our ILPs and then by bus it took us around 10 hours to reach Itanagar via Tezpur.

Just two days earlier, violence had erupted in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar. On our way to Arunachal.
Just two days earlier, violence had erupted in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar. On our way to Arunachal.

Arunachal Diaries – 2

Kangir Jijong - our guide and friend from Adi tribe
Kangir Jijong – our guide and friend from Adi tribe

Arunachal, erstwhile NEFA, was made into a full state in its own right in 1987. It was an ill-considered and a hasty step according to many. The grant of full statehood introduced politics into a state which is economically totally dependent on the centre and at the same time lacked history of instiutional politics. The combination of these two ills has created a deadly situation and root couse of many ills besetting the state today.

One positive voice on the other hand termed the current situtaion as transient in nature, giving Arunachalis experience in carrying their own affairs within modern institutional framework. The point in the making was the creation of the first two municipal councils at Itanagar and Pasighat. These are the first ever municipal bodies in Arunachal. Elections were held over an year ago but the people there dont know what to do with these bodies. Let them learn by experience. (These are not 73/74 amendment institutions directly but are created by the state as per the enabling provision)

The second example was the introduction of common law system and Indian judiciary. There is one full-time bench of Guwahat highcourt in Itanagar and a few district courts elsewhere. People still don’t go to the courts directly, they either settle their cases by heeding the counsel of gaon-burrha (gao-budha). Sometimes they may take recourse to dao and sometimes the traditional kebang takes place. Kebang is the unique and interesting institution. NP Nawani, during his stint as a DM at Ziro and Koloriang in 1968-69 has given a very vivid and lively version of such an affair in his book on district administration. Rajeshji, a real avaliya whom we met at Naharlagun, has spent about two decades in Arunachal and is more an Adi than a Marathi now. He has attended many kebangs and can speak authoratatively about it. Judiciary recomends such ADR methods and people love kebangs. These are very costly affairs. People like arguments which are accompanied by festivities and dances. Elaborate system of computing compensation with the help of sticks puts huge burden on both the sides. In the end it becomes a question of honour. One cock killed by accident may incur compensation of around 50,000 rs. The whole affairs goes on for days.

Most interesting and delicate are the inter-tribal affairs, for which even the conduction of kebang becomes difficult, if at all resorted to. Heated arguments take place. Diplomacy and experience of people from the two tibes in such an adversarial proceedings finally come to help. Yet the eventual usage of dao is not unknown. Many tribes have history of mutual conflict. Idu Mishmis, living uphill, used to raid the bastis of Adis in foothills, take their Mithuns and girls away as war-booty. British Indian Police generally stayed away from inter-tribal affairs and in some extreme cases used to carry out punitary expeditions, burning the whole bastis.

IPC and CrPC are considered secondary while primacy is given to customary law. Customs vary according to tribe and there is hardly any codification. The oral tradition was very strong until very recently. Kangir Jijong is from Adi tribe. His people could retel the story of their migrations of last 200-300 years, everyone knew their 40 ancestors by heart. There are may community dances and dramas and other functions where they teach these things to their new generations. That oral tradition is dwindling now. (NGOs like Riwatch in Roing are working on conservation of sch traditional oral knowledge) Yet, the institution of gaon-burrha is well respected and recognised even by the government. These gaon-burrhas are also recruited as political advisors by the government and given some honorarium. This has been the case since the times of Alexander Mackenzie (surveyor, ethnographer and anthropologist of Arunachal in the 19th century). They were used as liasoning officers to help outside bureaucrats in governing.

Such is the interface of tribal with modern that gave rise to many complicated issues. All this has not happened overnight. Sardar Patel’s oft-quoted infamous rebuff about intergration of Manipur saying ‘Isn’t there a Brigadier in Shillong?’ and Chacha Nehru’s hapless resignation on AIR after the fall of Bomdi La saying ‘my heart goes out to the people of Assam’ are two famous instances indicating apathy shown by the centre to this part of India. This apathy stopped us from taking many strategic and important decisions and Arunachal was left to itself. Even after 1962 nothing changed. Things moved slowly, if at all. And then we saw rise of China. K Sundarji doctrine was finally put to rest after Operation Parakram. Year of 2008 was a watershed where we finally buried the policy of not developing the infrastructure in the border state. In the Eastern Sector, now we are seeing some changes on the ground. (Separate articles on Eastern Command and border infrastructure coming soon)

Suffice it to say here that the neglect by the centre only caused modernity to reach the state in a very devious way. Social structures are being affected adversely, culture is being maimed. ILP can’t stop invasion of ruthless modernity. Tribal vs non-tribal is a political hot potato. General political mobilisation takes place through students as in Assam. If compared to rest of the NE, Arunachal appears a relatively peaceful state. That does not however mean that everything is fine. There is so much to talk about. I will deal with some themes in the next few articles.

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.

Sanity in Transparency

What Pratap Bhanu Mehta thinks on the issue of reckless demand for transparency in selection process/appointments.

“Transparency is an attractive idea, but its contours need to be clearly defined. A bit of historical context is in order. One of the reasons we got a more mediocre judiciary, or in some aspects, civil service, is that we had this illusion that no one needs to exercise complicated judgement. The only way to appear to be fair and transparent is to come up with objective criteria. Seniority became the default criteria, albeit occasionally manipulated. One danger with certain demands for transparency is that it cannot happen without a counterproductive reductionism. The use of transparently accessible numerical criteria in academic selections is a good example of perverse incentives.

There is a clamour for selection committees to explain their appointments publicly. This is nonsense. There are good reasons not to malign reputations or cast doubt on the competence of rejected candidates. If they are serving judges, it might undermine their authority. It is possible to select one without suggesting others were unworthy; but public articulations make this difficult. Do you really want unelected judges or senior counsel to go with a sign on their head: “unworthy of the Supreme Court”? All institutions run on something called presumptive worthiness. Undermining this has long-term consequences for the institution.

Selection is a matter of judgement. It is not just a matter of objective qualifications but involves subtle points of judgement like institutional fit, temperament and so forth. These are all relevant. But the more selection committees have to explain themselves, the less likely it is that the relevant criteria will be taken into account, because these criteria are context specific. In India, there is also the misconception that the US process is transparent. It is transparent in the sense that their political system transparently accepts the political nature of judicial appointments. Public hearings are not about selecting the best candidate. Few would accuse the Supreme Court of the United States of achieving that distinction. I doubt we are ready to accept a politicised judiciary in that sense.”

Source – Indian Express