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Arunachal Matters Beyond The China Threat – OpEd

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Recently, with China characteristically acquisitive of Arunachal Pradesh (protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s February 20 visit to the border state), the Indian media, too, followed script. It followed script in waking up from its cyclical stupor, realizing an entity known as Arunachal Pradesh in fact exists; it must exist, given, after all, China is contending over it yet again. The media reported China’s vitriol indulgently: That China continues to consider the Indian state disputed territory was the news of the day.

But Arunachal matters to India for reasons beyond the China threat. And news organizations purporting to cover all of India ought to be awake the year round, reflecting Arunachal’s intrinsic worth through coverage of its internal issues.

It hardly needs being said how insulting it is for anyone to be told he matters only in relation to his big, always-talked-about neighbor. This is the reality Arunachalees face. The media’s indifference towards Arunachal’s internal affairs, however, is perhaps unsurprising given not one national paper has a bureau in all 80,000 square kilometers of the state. The implication is that Arunachal’s 13 lakh people do not matter for who they are: Arunachalees, Indians; 13 lakh individuals with 13 lakh stories, all irrelevant.

Of course, the reality of Arunachal Pradesh is entirely different—as would be obvious, and as I can personally attest from four months of reporting from the state.

Arunachal is home to exciting achievements. These are literary: The state is home to the likes of Mamang Dai, a Padma Shri laureate, and Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, a Sahitya Academy awardee. These are linguistic: The state is home to 90 languages, more than that in any other state in the country. These are sporting: Genung Tekseng, for example, won an archery gold medal in the recent National Games. Tekseng has been selected to represent India in the Asian Archery Cup in Thailand later this month. These are agricultural: The state just won the 2013-14 “Krishi Karman Commendation Award” for overall grain production—for a third consecutive time. All of these and other achievements merit the national media’s attention.

The state faces critical questions about its future—and the media ought to play a seminal role in nurturing debate. To take two examples: First, the future of free speech in the state needs examination. In the past, journalists in the state have faced intimidation, to say the least; for instance in 2012, associate editor of The Arunachal Times Tongam Rina was shot outside her office. Second, law in the state faces an unclear, exciting future. The state underwent a separation of powers only last year! Until then, it had no independent judiciary. The institution of the Gaon Burah (Village Elder) continues through recognition by the state government, in accordance with a pre-independence law. The law empowers Gaon Burahs to adjudicate based on tribal mores. One can imagine that tribal mores often clashes with the Indian Penal Code, leading to all sorts of legalistic confusion. Further complicating law in the state is the continued existence of “kings,” who sometimes exercise informal authority on judicial matters.

Based on just these examples one would hope any national-level editor, anywhere in the country, will agree that Arunachal is home to many, many desperately interesting and important issues.

Then there are the internal problems—just pure bad things that require continuous, rigorous coverage. The state is home to insurgent groups, which carried out attacks only recently. Native languages are dying, including Khamtee, the sole Arunachal tongue with a script of its own. Today only a handful of elderly people can read it. Drug-abuse is persistent. Crime is seemingly inexorable. The private sector is miniscule. Currently, the state imposes no income tax on its denizens. Partly because of this the New Delhi-Arunachal relationship continues to be an unhealthy, patron-client one. And based on several hundred interviews, it appears Arunachalees are in despair over what they see as a state of unhinged corruption in the state.

If all of these reasons for Arunachal’s significance, in its own right, are not enough, what makes the national media’s China-centric approach to the state even more absurd is that the average Arunachalee is not thinking about China, at all. He or she is worried about jobs, about the delayed payment of government salaries, about the god-awful roads, about the state’s fraying indigenous identity. For Arunachalees China is distant. Editors ensconced in Delhi and Mumbai, however, seem to think China is all that matters as far as the state is concerned.

The Modi government’s efforts towards according the state all-round attention is admirable—and signals a refreshing break from New Delhi’s long paternalistic approach to the state.

It’s past time the national media change its approach, too. For the most part it did not, as one example, consider reporting on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion and a gun battle in the state, which led to three deaths, on February 6, sufficiently important. But maybe the omission is not the news organizations’ fault; maybe there is just some confusion over identity and jurisdiction; The Times of India and Hindustan Times, for instance, might usefully change their names to The Times of Scandal, and The International Times. Entire parts of India, clearly, are extraneous for their purposes.

*Abhimanyu Chandra is a graduate of Yale College and currently a Yale Charles P. Howland fellow. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.

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