Arunachal Pradesh: The Final Frontier? – Analysis


The Modi government’s integrationist policies, designed to bolster national security and development, may further imperil the already fraying indigenous identities of Arunachal Pradesh.

By Abhimanyu Chandra*

He abjures footwear. He does not wear t-shirts. Both bits of information were borne out when we met him – Mr Tam Atum was indeed barefoot and t-shirt-less. Firewood bundled on his back, he stood bent over the wooden stick in his left hand. He wore an orange-green blanket, and a brown gunny shawl over it. A gunny dhoti enveloped him below his waist, coming down to his knees. Mr Atum’s accouterments reflected further, more classic elements emblematic of the Nyishi tribe, one of 20 tribes in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. These included a pudum, a headdress with a skewer horizontally affixed to it; two oyos, knives not sharp, but heavy and forbidding; and a long, wooden smoking-pipe.

Indigenous identities of Arunachal Pradesh are witnessing an unprecedented, multi-pronged loss. In the eyes of residents of Sagalee, a small town surrounded by the low hills of the Eastern Himalayas, Mr Atum has stood his ground, retaining the old Nyishi way – holding onto the headdress, the rural self-sustenance, the tribal language, the intimate affiliation with nature. They see him as the Unchangeable, an embodiment of the ‘Pure Nyishi’. And so they take solace when they see him on their roads or in their markets every few weeks. They themselves, like others across the state, have ceded ground: drenched to one degree or another by the hurricanes of consumerism and globalization – be it in the form of Levi jeans, or Renault SUVs, or the Korean hairstyles popular in the state, or jobs in private legal practice.

And so they idolize him.

But as often happens with idolizing, the idolizing of Mr Atum has more to do with the idolizers than the idolized. The image accorded him has less to do with his identity, and more with his fellow Nyishis’ desire to believe in the continued existence of the classic Nyishi man. According to policymakers, journalists and scholars, such anxiety – such nervousness about fraying indigenous identities – is rife across Arunachal Pradesh, and for good reason. The Narendra Modi government’s policies, albeit unintentionally, are exacerbating it.

Indigenous identity at risk prior the Modi government

The anxiety comes from a collective leapfrog Arunachal has made, especially over the last two decades. As Tongam Rina, the state’s most renowned reporter, put it, “Today we don’t speak our languages or sing our songs or even eat the traditional food.”

Traditional religious affiliations have been upended. According to officials of Khemling, a village three kilometers from Sagalee, until three decades ago every resident of the village was Donyi-Polo: an adherent of Donyi-Poloism, the shamanic-animistic faith local to Arunachal Pradesh, entailing sun and moon worship. Today an estimated 99 percent of Khemling is Christian. As for the state as a whole: In 1971, 0.79 percent of Arunachal was Christian. In 1991, this percentage rose to 10.29, reaching 18.72 in 2001. (Data on Arunachalees’ religious affiliation from the 2011 census is as yet unavailable.) Hinduism has made similar inroads.

Preferred languages are changing. In all possibility Milang, a dialect of the Adi language, is the state’s most tenuously situated tongue. According to Moyir Riba – Assistant Director of the Center for Cultural Research and Documentation (CCRD), situated in Naharlagun, a town adjacent to the state capital, Itanagar – only a few hundred people today can fluently speak the language. Hindi and English are becoming more popular to the exclusion of the state’s many tribal languages, especially among the youth.

Occupations, too, have undergone transformation. According to Lisa Lomdak, assistant professor in the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies, until a few decades ago nearly everyone in the state worked in agriculture. It is of little surprise then that the septuagenarian head of Khemling village is a farmer. He spends a large part of his day in the forest, rearing the local bull, the Mithun. However only the two youngest of his 12 children, both less than fifteen, live in Khemling. A third live in the nearby town Sagalee. The other nine inhabit the relative bustle of Itanagar, Naharlagun and Doimukh. Some are teachers, or bureaucrats, and the others are in college and look to become teachers or bureaucrats – with little interest in farming. With more and more Arunachalis moving to the state’s urban centers – urban population in Arunachal rose by 22.94% from 2001 to 2011 – more are picking up urban jobs: typically with the government, but also in the burgeoning private sector.

Mr. Atum, the Unchangeable?

Minutes into our conversation, Mr. Atum took out leaves and a stone from a bag. Murmurs sizzled: He is about to show how he lights a fire. (Mr Atum, apparently, is accustomed to being stopped and spoken with, and knows how to interest his audience.) He rubbed the stone against the leaves. Surely he couldn’t get a fire going, just like that, on some dirt and leaves in his hands, right there on a dusty road. He kept going: little sparks but no flame.

“Aaah”, everyone lit up. A flame had appeared.

Mr. Atum proceeded on his way and we bid him goodbye. “He represents the old identity”, someone said.

Even though Mr. Atum does, in various ways, represent the “old identity”, he is by no means the Unchangeable Nyishi he is made out to be. We learnt he abandoned Donyi-Poloism (and shaminism-aminism more broadly) ten years ago, embracing Christianity instead. Additionally, during our conversation, he demanded money from my translator as a condition for continued conversation. This, surely, wasn’t an expression of the pure, traditional Nyishi way.

Arunachalees’ concern

Two key reasons are behind Arunachal’s fraying indigenous identities. Chief is the central government’s increased budgetary allocations towards the state over time, especially over the last two decades. The state is resource-poor, with a small tax base, and so is almost entirely dependent on central funding. With more money coming in from New Delhi – within the context of Arunachal’s designation as a state in 1987 (it was a Union Territory before) and therefore greater national and international recognition, and India’s systemic economic liberalization of 1991 – the state economy has slowly strengthened and become more connected with national and international market forces.

Globalization in turn has played its role. There is greater penetration of the Internet and television. External businesses have identified the state as a young, untapped market. Everything from Adidas to Puma, Ford to Nissan, Baskin Robbins to Café Coffee Day has come in. Locals, too, including the many who were never involved in business before have set up shop. As Mamang Dai, the state’s foremost literary figure as well as a bureaucrat, encapsulated, “A few years ago I never thought I would see a florist set up in Arunachal Pradesh even though everyone talked about the beauty of our orchids. Obviously there must be a demand for it just as there must be for bakeries, frozen foods, and luxury cars that ply our roads today”.

A second reason behind Arunachal’s fraying indigenous identities, specific to the changing religious identities, is the activity of Christian missionaries and Hindutva groups over the last several decades.

Indigenous identities have been fraying in many places for many of these same reasons for a long time. Yet, it would be incorrect to suggest that the changes in Arunachal are unremarkable and that they do not particularly matter. They are not, and they do matter. This is because Arunachal occupies a unique cultural position; it is quite possibly the final frontier in India, and among the last few in the world that still, to a great degree, is rooted to its indigenous culture. At a time when the world’s cultural riches are under all sorts of attacks (environmental in the Amazon, terrorist in the Middle East), Arunachal’s position cannot be taken lightly. Bolstering the significance of the state’s indigenous culture are its real treasures: The state is the country’s linguistically most diverse; it is home, also, to unique, ancient faith systems, as well as an interminable variety of other riches. It is worth asking whether it is desirable – in the face, admittedly, of other imperatives – for these languages to be lost, for these ancient systems to be co-opted.

The onus for preserving their culture rests, it would seem, not insignificantly with Aruanchalis themselves. After all no one is forcing any Arunachali to jettison his language or to abandon farming. (Though it should be emphasized that overactive, even coercive conversion is partly behind the changes in religious identities.)

Yet according to a chorus of voices, government policy has long played – and will continue to play – a significant role in shaping Arunachalis’ identity. It was because of government policy that since the time of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Arunachal (known until 1972 as the North East Frontier Agency) has had something of a protected status. A key provision of this status was the continuation of a British-era measure: All non-Arunachalis (Indian and international) entering the state would require carrying an ‘Inner Line Permit’ (ILP). The permit would allow entry for a restricted time period. And it forbade non-Arunachalis from buying land in the state. The ILP system continues to date. In addition to Arunachal, it is prevalent in the states of Mizoram, most of Nagaland, and parts of Himachal Pradesh.

As explained by Nehru’s adviser Verrier Elwin, author of many classic books on Arunachal Pradesh, the rationale behind furnishing some distance between the rest of the country and Arunachal was that the state’s population was sparse, and consisted of tribal groups with non-industrial cultures. As a result, the state’s overall culture might be vulnerable before unchecked outside forces: many of which, quite possibly (as could reasonably have been speculated from the ill fate of many tribal groups across the world), might be insensitive to and coercive towards tribal culture. Arunachal, the thinking went, would benefit from some space, at least for some period of time. (Similar arguments were behind the institution of the ILP in Mizoram and Nagaland. In Himachal Pradesh, the ILP is the result of the state’s sensitive border with Tibet, and applies only to international entrants.)

New Delhi’s policy towards Arunachal was “Elwinian” for many decades. It underwent amendment with Arunachal gaining statehood in 1987, and was affected by the nation-wide economic liberalisation of 1991. New Delhi’s policy really started to change, however, as the editor-in-chief of The Arunachal Times, Taba Ajum, argued, around the reign of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee served as prime minister briefly in 1996, and between 1998 and 2004. His years saw for instance the creation of a separate central government ministry for the Northeast region, which has integrated and streamlined government initiatives towards the region.

A look at New Delhi’s budgetary allocations towards the state before and during the Vajpayee era is revealing. According to a Government of Arunachal Pradesh document, the central government approved a paltry INR 4.21 crore for Arunachal during its first five year plan (1951-1956). Funding kept increasing over the decades. A major ascent occurred in the nineties. For the 1993-1994 fiscal year, New Delhi allocated INR 293.5 crores. Within five years, in the 1998-1999 fiscal year, this figure doubled to INR 625 crores. By the end of 2004 the annual allocation was upward of INR 700 crores.

Since coming to power in May 2014, Prime Minister Modi’s administration has been taking the pro-activeness towards Arunachal a step further. Allocation for 2015-2016 is INR 10,200 crores. (And, no doubt, Mr Modi’s pro-activeness is building on that of his predecessor, Mr Manmohan Singh, who served as prime minister during the ten years between Vajpayee and Modi.) The Modi policy seeks to integrate Arunachal (and the Northeast more broadly) as closely as possible with the rest of the country.

The impetus for the Modi approach is twofold. Arunachal shares a 1,126 kilometer border with China. China has declared the state “disputed territory”, referring to it as “South Tibet”, whereas New Delhi considers it an undeniable part of India. Making matters more urgent for India (beyond the fact that its massive neighbor, to which it lost a war in 1962, partly in Arunachal Pradesh, considers the state disputed territory) is China’s superior infrastructure on its side of the border. Arunachalis often point out the robust highway systems on the Chinese side as evident on Google Earth. On the Indian side are, well, mountains, barren land, disheveled roads. In the event that Indian troops need to be deployed into Arunachal, the status quo, the Modi government’s thinking seems to be, would be untenable for India: It would pose a serious threat to national security. It is in significant part because of this concern that the Modi government has been developing more and better roads in the state, more airports (the number of civilian airports at present is zero; the target is to have one operational by January 2016, and plans are under way for five more) and more trains within and into Arunachal. Mr Modi inaugurated three trains – where, before, not one was operational – during his 20 February visit to the state. Not surprisingly, China vociferously protested against the visit.

The second key reason behind the Modi approach is domestic. Scholars, journalists and policymakers agree that New Delhi has long been distant towards the Northeast – whether for intentional, noble reasons (à la Elwin), or because of indifference towards an isolated, poor, and scarcely populated region. Only the Siliguri Corridor – known also as ‘Chicken’s Neck’, which, at its narrowest, is just 23 kilometers wide – physically connects the 2,60,000 square kilometers of the Northeast with the 30,30,000 square kilometers of the rest of India. To the north of the Corridor is Nepal and to the south Bangladesh. Arunachal’s former chief minister for almost 23 years, Mr Gegong Apang, recalled the isolation, noting over a conversation with me his first hand experience of an inaccessible New Delhi. It is in response to this history that Prime Minister Modi – at least inasmuch as can be gauged from his speeches as well as his policies – has made facilitating vigorous development in, and engagement with the Northeast’s eight states, of which Arunachal is the largest by area, a key objective of his government. It has launched a mechanism whereby union ministers (there are 65 in total) must visit their counterparts in the region at least eight per fortnight.

Building stronger infrastructure and deepening engagement with the geographic corners of the country at first seem, and in many ways undeniably are, eminent policy goals for New Delhi to have posited. And, to be sure, many Arunachalis are enthusiastic about aspects of them. Measures such as the setting up of a special scholarship fund for Northeast students, calls for greater local employment-generation, launch of new radio networks, pledges for better phone connectivity, efforts to leverage the state’s strengths in organic farming, and demands for greater accountability from the state government have all been met with favourably. Most Arunachalis also seem to be happy with one aspect of the changes in their indigenous identities. They welcome the popular embrace of Hindi and English, reasoning that they are equipping them for jobs.

Yet, the worry that indigenous identities in a broader sense will be lost in the process is pervasive. After all it is greater engagement with the rest of the country and the world that, primarily, has weakened Arunachalis’ links with their roots.

Two intra-Arunachal matters about the state’s indigenous identities must be noted before proceeding further. By no means do these identities constitute a monolith. Each is, no doubt, associated with one of the state’s many tribes; but the tribes are not the same. Also, it would be wrong to suggest that these identities would remain static in the absence of external influence. They wouldn’t. No culture ever remains static.

Based on several hundred interviews I conducted during my research, it appears Arunachalis are most concerned about the intertwined issues of connectivity, tourism and ILPs. They are uneasy about the vigour with which the prime minister’s policies impinge on them. Until January, the only means of accessing Arunachal was by road, or by helicopter. Now, since the prime minister’s recent visit, Arunachal is not only on the railway map but will also, soon, be on the aerial grid. In his speech in the state on 20 February, the prime minister noted that greater connectivity would bring many gains to Arunachal. One would be tourism, both domestic and international. That is well. But most Arunachalis worry that given their low population and already diverse demography, the presence of even a few thousand more non-Arunachalis will have an outsized, adverse effect on the state’s identity. Arunachal’s population is a little short of 14 lakh, making it the third least populated state in the country (after Sikkim and Mizoram); by way of comparison Delhi is eight times as populated. And of Arunachal’s 14-lakh residents six lakh (42.8 percent) are not native to the state, that is do not belong to one of Arunachal’s 20 tribes.

Arunachalis reason that their hold on the state’s demographics would further attenuate if the ILP regime is not enforced (especially in the context of an increased number of tourists and other entrants). A train had in fact commenced last year, and was greeted with enthusiasm. But once it began, Arunachalis were alarmed to find the absence of a mechanism for checking ILPs; local newspapers carried front-page reports of entrants without permits.

Arunachalis see the ILP as a final lifeline for the preservation of their identity. If it isn’t enforced, or if it is revoked, all the floodgates will open and Arunachal will no longer remain Arunachal – in their eyes, at least. With daily reports of ILP violation, anger billowed last year to the point that local student groups threatened vandalising railway property, were the train not immediately suspended. It was, 31 days after its launch.

The trains that Prime Minister Modi inaugurated this year, on February 20, have now been in operation for four months. This time around measures are in place for checking ILPs, and reports of ILP-violation are scarce.

Still, many Arunachalis wonder if the government will be able to ensure that entrants leave the state within the permitted time. Checking for permits at entry points is one thing. But how will the state machinery scour the state’s 80,000 square kilometers, to ensure that those who have entered are not staying on illegally? Arunachalis worry that eventually, they might become a minority in their own state.

Should Arunachal get special treatment?

In some sense the anxiety in Arunachal today exists at one level or another in all of India’s 29 states, and has existed for many decades. Most states were formed on the basis of certain culturally distinguishing and unifying factors – typically linguistic. Even so, Gujarat is Gujarati in nature only to an extent. Punjab is Punjabi in culture only to a degree.

All of this, arguably, is as it should be, is the price (and privilege) of being part of a country as diverse yet unitary as India. Arunachalis ought to understand this, and abandon at least part of their rigidity over identity preservation. This is for many specific reasons.

First, the ILP system, even though administered by the central government, is – as Arunachal’s foremost political scientist, Nani Bath, has argued – unconstitutional in spirit; the Constitution of India permits free movement anywhere in the country.

Second, anxiety about indigenous identity is a pliable, perilous sentiment, and can well transmogrify into nativist fanaticism. As anyone who is familiar with the history of violence against ‘outsiders’ in, for instance, Maharashtra knows, the “native-outsider” rhetoric is dangerous business. That local groups in Arunachal have threatened vandalism over this matter is anything but reassuring. Nativism, let alone violent nativism, is fundamentally at odds with the idea of India. Nativism threatens becoming a greater force in the state given the significant unemployment: at 14%, Arunachal’s unemployment rate is the second highest amongst all states in the country. (The national average is 4.9%.) In such a milieu, it can be easy to blithely blame ‘outsiders’ for taking up local jobs, and for problems more generally.

Third, if everyone in a country as diverse as India were uncompromising about their indigenous identity, there could be no internal movement. Anyone from another region, or state, or even village would be suspect – would be seen as an outsider.

Fourth, internal cultural diversity is not a matter unique to India, and Mr. Modi’s approach is broadly in keeping with his colleagues’ in other parts of the world. America, England, France – all of these countries are internally diverse. And they savor and allow for the savoring of internal diversity. Yet, they also demand allegiance to a certain national oneness, and to all that that oneness entails and demands.

So should Arunachal get special treatment for the preservation of its indigenous identities? It ought be noted that as many as a dozen states receive some kind of special treatment – for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. So Arunachal isn’t alone here, or even among just a few. There is an entire part to the constitution – called “temporary, transitional, and special provisions” – devoted to the particularities these states are accorded. Yet the relative autonomy that Arunachal enjoys is a shared second (along with Nagaland and Mizoram) only to Jammu and Kashmir.

And so until the ILP regime continues New Delhi would be according Arunachal a significantly special status. But given the Modi government’s integrationist policies, it appears that New Delhi’s appetite for according this status is waning. As far as indigenous identity is concerned, the ‘final frontier’ is on the pathway of becoming ‘mainstream’ – another Gujarat, another Punjab – and, therefore, simultaneously more disconnected with itself.

Given this imminent development, it appears that the Modi approach is abandoning a key, eminent element of Mr Nehru’s thinking. Mr Nehru had sought that Arunachalis should not only have to accept broader Indian culture but also be able to direct it. That’s hardly happening today. Mr Nehru’s ideals, therefore, have been betrayed over time, including under Mr Modi’s ongoing watch. With the fraying of the local, and the burgeoning of the non-local, it seems Arunachalis are accepting, and being made to accept, broader Indian and international cultures at the expense of their own.

Arunachalis matter for who they are. They shouldn’t become mere props for fulfilling a belated recognition of security and development imperatives. While Nehru was perhaps too mindful of local concerns, the Modi government appears to presuppose, inaccurately, that the long-isolated people of the state have accepted the primacy of national identity. India’s founding ideal, as articulated by Nehru, is ‘unity amidst diversity’. At a time of geopolitical threats and economic under-development, the Modi government is laying emphasis on one side of the ideal: unity. In the process, diversity – in the form of indigenous identities and local cultural treasures – is getting shortchanged, even if unintentionally.

Sure, continuing to give special consideration to a state, 70 years after independence, for purposes of local identity preservation is difficult to justify. But it is, arguably, justified, given New Delhi’s notably uneven policy towards the state – from almost total distancing to aggressive integrating – from 1947 down to today. A more even policy, over the decades, of gradual integration, would likely not have brought Arunachal to the pass it is in today. So Mr. Modi is doing well by pursuing his security and developmental objectives. But it is also significantly incumbent upon New Delhi to work towards upholding Arunachalees’ indigenous identities.

Given the many compelling, competing arguments between greater integration and local identity preservation, perhaps the real question isn’t of whether Arunachal should integrate or should be closed off. It’s of the kind of integration and the kind of closedness that might be sought, and the role that government policy should play.

Arunachalis and New Delhi ought to realize that the dynamic between integration and local cultural protection isn’t zero sum; a positive sum relation can be nurtured. If integrating entails a mature understanding of a larger national identity and closer linkages with the national and international economy, excellent. If closedness entails doing everything within the constitution to preserve local cultures, also excellent. It’s difficult to see how either of these developments could be undesirable. But if integrating means jettisoning indigenous identities and blindly embracing other practices, and if closedness means nativist violence against outsiders, those would be disastrous.

Moments after Mr Atum left us, I asked my translator to explain what Mr Atum had said in response to a question. He said he wasn’t sure; Mr Atum had used a Nyishi phrase that he, Hina Mohan, my translator – 25, based in Sagalee, a Nyishi, a businessman and activist, wearing faded jeans and Ray Ban sunglasses (as opposed to classic Nyishi accompaniments such as the headdress pudum or the knife oyo) – had no clue about. This shouldn’t be surprising. When even the seemingly unchangeable like Mr Atum have changed (from Donyi Poloism to Christianity, and toward demanding money as a condition for conversation), the changeable are bound to change, and to a lot greater degree. Arunachalis recognise this. And they are pessimistic about their culture’s ability to hold on much further in the face of existing trends and new policies.

*Abhimanyu Chandra is a graduate of the Yale College Class of 2014, and a 2014-15 Yale Charles P. Howland fellow.

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