There are certain sociological myths that have been elevated to the realms of intellectual sloganeering and, consequently, acquired the status of conventional wisdom. For every attempted generalization of Indian nationalism and nationhood, it has become almost a habit for the sceptic to respond: “But what about the North-east'”
Once labelled the “excluded areas” by the British administrators and “left to manage their own affairs with only such interference on the part of the frontier officers in their political capacity as may be considered advisable”, this exclusion has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the discourse of the political and intellectual classes. The charming tag of Seven Sisters has become an unfortunate euphemism for exotic aloofness, tribal complexities, political waywardness and volatility, and, of course, incomprehensible insurgencies. The “inner-line permit” has become symbolic of a periphery that has only a strategic bearing on the mainstream, except during the Republic Day pageantry. Even the most sincere attempt to bridge the divide — the establishment of the department of the North-eastern region by the Union government in 1998 — has produced the unintended acronym DONER, and its inevitable association with a culture of dependency.
Yet, there is a North-east and there is a North-east. Last week, the streets of Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, were awash with the saffron and green BJP flag and awkwardly-sized cut-outs of the visiting deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani. The civic reception in the heart of the city on November 15 began with a rendering of Vande Mataram and concluded with the 5,000-strong crowd echoing Bharat Mata ki jai after Advani. At a festive dinner hosted by the chief minister, Gegong Apang, at his official residence the preceding evening, the local musical talent belted out a version of A.R. Rahman’s spirited Ma tujhe salam and Lata Mangeshkar’s mournful Mere watan ki logo, a song that had moved Jawaharlal Nehru to tears in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of 1962. “We are comfortable with both Assamese and Hindi,” Omak Apang, the Delhi-educated son of the chief minister explained, “but we use Hindi as a link language.”
In many ways, Arunachal Pradesh, the state India’s Sinophiles are so anxious to gift to Beijing as the price of an enduring border settlement, is an eye-opener. True, the circumstances of Apang’s merger of his Arunachal Congress with the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier this year are suspect. A similar act of transformation would have been regarded as an outrage anywhere else in India. Yet, the very fact that a vast majority of the members of the legislative assembly were willing to shift tack from Congress to BJP suggests that they saw no fundamental mismatch between the two main strands of Indian nationalism. The perceived advantages of being a part of the ruling party at the Centre apart, the political class of Itanagar saw the party of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani as both a worthwhile option and one that is in harmony with the collective experience of Arunachal.
This is ironical. In the wake of the 1962 debacle, Nehru’s opponents — who included Vajpayee and the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia — had seriously questioned the wisdom of persisting with the policy of “excluded areas”. This insulation from the rest of India, it was argued, had made the NEFA (as Arunachal was called till 1972) vulnerable to China’s expansionist designs. The NEFA bureaucracy, one critic wrote in 1962, had conspired to keep the area “an inaccessible Shangrila for the public”. There were suggestions to resettle tens of thousands of farmers from Punjab in the area.
It is fortuitous that Nehru and his successors stuck to the principle of “excluded areas”. If Article 370 perpetuated the emotional distance of the Kashmir Valley from India, the “inner line” restrictions have made Arunachal more committed to India. The state may have been deprived of some much-needed public sector investment but it has also been spared the trauma of de-culturization. The restrictions have kept out the Christian missionaries who have successfully targeted the rest of the North-east. So much so that at last count some 88 per cent of the people described themselves as Hindus, Buddhists or worshippers of Donyi-Polo.
At one level, the opposition to Christian evangelism stems from the need to keep the indigenous social structures intact. The policy was clearly enunciated by the anthropologist Verrier Elwin who served as Nehru’s adviser on tribal affairs in NEFA. A change of religion, wrote Elwin in 1944, “destroys tribal unity, strips the people of age-old moral sanctions, separates them from the mass of their fellow countrymen and in many cases lead to a decadence that is as pathetic as it is deplorable”.
At another level, opposition to Christian evangelism stems from security considerations. During his Itanagar visit, Advani heard from officials, MLAs and social workers, reports of the links between the Baptist Church and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) rebels. Claiming the districts of Tirap and Changlang as part of their Greater Nagaland, the rebels combine extortion of illegal taxes with a policy of forcible conversion to Christianity and destruction of non-Christian shrines. There is a belief in rebel circles that an emotional identification with the separate Nagalim can be best effected through a corresponding detachment from the indigenous faith.
Empirical evidence suggests a direct correlation between insurgency and the rise in the Christian population. The worst affected districts are Tirap and Changlang, adjoining Nagaland. Here, the Christian population has grown from 0.6 per cent (for the two districts combined) in 1971 to 18.1 per cent in Tirap and 10.9 per cent in Changlang in 1991. The 2001 census may show an even greater increase, corresponding to the fact that these districts are virtually “liberated areas”.
Today, the authorities in Arunachal Pradesh are confronted with a difficult and unenviable choice. Emotionally integrated with India, there is impatience with the strategic doctrine that perpetuated a policy of benign neglect towards areas vulnerable to the Chinese threat. In his memorandum to Advani, the chief minister lamented that “Arunachal Pradesh, the guardian of the north-eastern border has been made to pay heavily for its contribution to national security. More than a generation was lost in development effort with the result that Arunachal has the lowest stock of infrastructure in the country (48 on a scale of 100) and compares poorly with other states of the region”. As a symbolic gesture, Advani announced that mobile telephony would soon be introduced and DONER is working on a scheme to bring the state into the orbit of Vajpayee’s road-building initiative. Both measures should also serve to inform China that the status of Arunachal is non-negotiable.
Yet, uninhibited integration is not what Arunachal seeks. The fierce reaction in the state to the Supreme Court decision to grant 75,000 Chakmas and Hajongs citizenship and voting rights suggests that the fear of demographic and cultural transformation must not be ignored.
A possible way out is to modify the principle of “excluded areas” so as to permit massive public sector investment in infrastructure and social services, particularly education. At the same time, the government must address cultural sensitivities and the problem of secessionism inspired by the Baptist church. Formally, the government cannot deviate from the principle of equality of all religions. At an operational level, however, steps must be taken to empower community groups committed to the preservation of indigenous traditions. Away from the glare of publicity, Nehru did precisely this. Which is why on the subject of its newest political acquisition, the BJP should embrace the Nehruvian ideal.