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Northeast Echoes
‘Arunachal Pradesh does not usually make splashing headlines except when the Chinese decide, in spurts, to assert their sovereignty over it’

Arunachal: the lawless outpost

Each time there is a shoot-and-scoot by militant groups in Assam, the quickest hideout is the forested Arunachal Pradesh border. On Diwali, a tea garden owner was pumped with bullets. Some spaces in these treacherous borders need to be reclaimed by the law enforcers to prevent anarchy from breaking loose.

In recent times, Arunachal Pradesh has become the next state in the Northeast where mediapersons can no longer practise their trade with freedom and responsibility.

In July this year, Tongam Rina, a leading journalist and associate editor of Arunachal Times was shot from close range while she was leaving the office.

This month, the associate editor of Echoes of Arunachal was also attacked. None of the assailants have been apprehended.

It appears that gunmen and gangsters can commit crimes and get away. This heralds a gloomy future for the state since the first thing that gets hit when anarchy prevails is the economy.

Arunachal Pradesh does not usually make splashing headlines except when the Chinese decide, in spurts, to assert their sovereignty over it. When Dorjee Khandu, Arunachal Pradesh’s chief minister died last year in a helicopter crash near Tawang, his hometown, the news made it to the national television channels when the search operation for his body was launched.

Arunachal Pradesh, formerly known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), is still a mentally remote outpost. Think of the huge expanse of 83,000 sq km spanning an entire range of mountains.

The distance between the eastern and western part of the state is difficult to bridge because you have go through Assam. Helicopters, therefore, are imperative to bridge the communication chasm especially for politicians who have to criss-cross between their constituencies in western Arunachal and the capital, Itanagar.

Tribal politics

Arunachal Pradesh is also a state where tribal politics plays a destructive role. While in Nagaland, tribes like the Angami, Ao and Sumi (previously known as Sema) have dominated the political scene and therefore enjoy a larger share of the economic pie, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Adi and Monpa tribes have ruled the political roost. The Nyishis, a tribe known for their Nyshi Elite Society, which by its very name suggests a gentrified group, have been able to get one of their own, Nabam Tuki, to become chief minister for the first time.

There is a huge contest for political resources between the different ethnic groups of Arunachal Pradesh and they often lead to violent clashes.

When Jarbom Gamlin was made chief minister after Dorjee Khandu’s sudden death, there was political unrest. Ethnic divisions are hardening and tribes are becoming more conscious of their political rights.

In this ethnic cauldron fuelled by hatred, suspicion and fierce ambition, there is also growing lawlessness. The Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh which are next to Nagaland, is an area included in the map of Greater Nagaland or Nagalim, which the Nagas demand as their homeland.

Militias of the NSCN (K) faction of Nagaland’s most rabid militant group move around and extort from this area and take shelter in its thick forests in and around Namdapha National Park adjoining Myanmar. So strong is the militia that it can even influence government formation. But bad politics has its repercussions.

Corruption menace

On the other hand, the Nabam Tuki government has announced an award of Rs 2 lakh to anyone who can name the attackers of Tongam Rina. The government has also promised to keep the identity of the informant confidential. Informers have been asked to contact the superintendent of police of Papum Pare district. But speaking to the people there, one learns that police are not free agents. They act at the behest of the government. So, even if people know the identity of Rina’s attackers, they would not dare disclose names because it is difficult for them to trust anyone. People believe that the police know who the enemies of Arunachal Times are and what their intent is but they are constrained to remain silent. The informer stands a good chance of being shot dead. For Rina, it was perhaps a warning to steer clear of controversial issues. And there are controversies and corruption galore in the state.

Recently, the Himalayan Development & Charitable Society (HDCS) questioned the sincerity of the state government to arrest culprits involved in the brutal attack on the two senior journalists.

The society suspects there are high-profile people behind the attacks, which is why the attackers are either not apprehended or allowed out on bail. The silence of civil society is also stunning. The society has also accused all NGOs and pressure groups of being “mute spectators” as attacks against the media gain momentum. When lawlessness besets any state, media is the first casualty because they report the crime committed. In Arunachal Pradesh today, the media has lost its sacred space.

Journalists are afraid to speak up and write the truth for they might pay with their lives. Apart from a generic protest, the media in the state has stopped short of naming the people involved in dastardly acts although they would in all probability know who the criminals are. The media anywhere is often much more informed than the police. But it might also mean that the police, too, have their hands tied in political knots.

Former Arunachal Pradesh MP Wangcha Rajkumar was shot dead by “an unknown assailant” at Deomali in Tirap district in December 2007. His attacker is yet to be traced. This has become almost a pattern. You can shoot, kill and extort and get away with it. A chief minister who has to depend on rabble-rousers and trouble-mongers to come to power would also have to capitulate to such forces. This indeed is the biggest threat to democracy in a region, where it is threatened by plutocracy.

Silent civil society

This power play in the murky waters of Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to mar the future of the state. The problem with lawlessness is that it creeps in slowly, silently but gets embedded. Before long, civil society is silenced. Their space for engagement is also greatly reduced on account of fear. It is a vicious cycle that must be broken. But how and by whom? In Arunachal Pradesh, people who claim to be civil society activists soon get engulfed in politics. After that they cannot but be partisan. This is problematic because there really is no unattached civil society.

Civil society has well-defined boundaries. One of them certainly is the need to be non-partisan even while engaging with day-to-day politics. Political parties are a part and parcel of democracy. But civil society is also an important entity. You cannot have one without the other and certainly cannot have political activists in the guise of social activists.

The two cannot meet. It’s when these lines are blurred and when civil society fumbles on account of its own political leanings that we have anarchy such as is evident in the Arunachal Pradesh of today. There is a restive generation of youth studying outside the state who air their views on the blogosphere. They are no longer happy to be ruled by a corrupt and nepotistic political regime. It’s time they decide to take on the reins of politics.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)