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Into the North Eastern mist

Many years ago (I think it was 1996/7), I was invited to speak at a convention of North Eastern journalists and information officers in Gangtok, Sikkim.

What I remember most clearly about that gathering was a) how much curiosity there was about the rest of India and b) how much apprehension there was among many of those who attended the convention about how they would be treated when they visited other parts of India.

 

Most of them had experienced some kind of racism in their interactions with people in other parts of our country. Many young people in their states, they told me, had been so seduced by the satellite TV culture (MTV was the rage) that they began to wonder if they didn’t have more in common with say, viewers in Bangkok than with those in Benares. At least there, nobody would make jokes about their appearance or use racist terms to describe them.

 

   Much of that has now changed. The North East is much better integrated with the rest of India than ever before. Whole sectors of our big city economy – the hospitality business, for example – would probably collapse if they could not rely on talent from the North East. And because we are more aware of the North Eastern states, we are less prone to prejudice and the sort of casual racism that comes from ignorance.

 

   And North Easterners, for their part, have responded warmly to our changed attitudes. It used to worry me, 30 years ago, when they referred to the rest of ‘us’ as ‘Indians’, almost as though they were not part of our country. That’s changed too.

 

   Even so, not enough of us go to the North East. We know vaguely that it is supposed to be very beautiful (which it is) but we are not sure how to get there or what to do once we reach.

 

   Most North Eastern state governments are aware of this and are making determined efforts to attract visitors from the rest of India.

 

   Except that it is not easy.

 

   Pema Khandu is the young and charismatic Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh (he played in a rock band when he was young so terms like ‘rock star CM’ are routinely bandied about). Born into a Congress family (his father was also chief minister), he took his followers into the BJP for the usual reasons. (“Nobody in the Congress high command would even give us an appointment etc…”.) Now, he wants more of us to visit Arunachal and to this end, organises an annual Tawang Festival where all kinds of important (the US Ambassador) and unimportant (me) people are invited to witness days of festivities, cultural activities and celebrations.

 

   It was a big event in Tawang. (Too big, almost. All shops shut and restaurants closed early in the evening as the entire population gathered at the festival.) And those of us who had flown in were delighted to be a part of it, because it gave us a chance to see a microcosm of the culture of Arunachal.

 

   Some of us may dimly remember the India-China war of 1962. Part of the reason for the conflict was the Chinese claim that Arunachal (called NEFA for North East Frontier Agency in those days) was a part of Tibet since ancient times. The Chinese had already claimed Tibet for themselves and pushed the Dalai Lama into fleeing to India. Now, they said, NEFA was also part of the Chinese empire.

 

   India resisted and adopted a Forward Policy of engaging the Chinese army. It was a foolish strategy because we had not trained our troops for warfare at that height. In 1962, the Chinese declared that they would ‘teach India a lesson’. Their army advanced with such ferocity that it not only over-ran NEFA but pretty near cut Assam off from the rest of India.

 

   NEFA was occupied for several months till a cease-fire was declared and the Chinese army withdrew.

 

   The defeat scarred the Indian nation for decades. And it has remained at the back of our minds in every discussion about China. Even today, the Chinese don’t recognise the Indian passports used by the citizens of Arunachal and given that the Chinese border is just a few miles from Tawang, I wondered what the mood in Arunachal would be.

 

"One consequence of the absence of much development is that Arunachal is one of India’s most beautiful states."

   I was pleased to find that the state is actually completely integrated with India. I couldn’t find one person with a good word to say about the Chinese. Most of their popular cultural reference points related to Delhi or Mumbai. (They even invited Kapil Sharma to perform at the Tawang Festival and from the kind of welcome he received, you would think that this was Hoshiarpur.)

 

   This is a state where more people speak Hindi than do in, say Assam or even West Bengal. They love Hindi cinema and wear their patriotism on their sleeves. The older generation would even greet each other, I was told, with ‘Jai Hind’.

 

   I asked people (most of whom were, admittedly, children at that time) what Arunachalis remembered of the Chinese occupation. Their memories were mixed. Many recalled that the Chinese had bent over backwards to be nice to Arunachalis. But they also remembered that if the Chinese came upon an Indian-looking person, they assumed he was a retreating soldier and shot him on the spot. The people of Arunachal (or NEFA as it was then) were not taken in by the Chinese and their overtures of friendship and many conspired to dress Indian soldiers in local clothes and help them escape.

 

   Bit by bit, everything about the triumphant patriotism of the Arunachalis began to make sense. First of all, there is the religion factor. Many Arunachalis are Buddhists and their kind of Buddhism is closely related to Tibetan-Buddhism: the Dalai Lama is universally revered.

 

   So, they were hardly likely to side with the army that over-ran Tibet or with a nation that had done so much damage to Tibetan Buddhist culture.

 

   Then there was the linguistic factor. Arunachal is the largest of the North Eastern states but because of the terrain, the population is less than say, the population of South Mumbai. Its 25 districts can be far apart and the multiplicity of tribes means that there are between 30 to 50 languages, many of which are totally distinct and unrelated to each other.

 

   As time has gone by and Arunachalis have travelled within their state, Hindi has emerged as a link language. When two Arunachalis from different tribes in different parts of the state meet, Hindi may well be the only language they have in common.

 

   All this should make Arunachal the perfect tourist destination. But access remains a problem. I went from Delhi to Guwahati and then took the helicopter service to Tawang. These are large helicopters that regularly shuttle people from Guwahati to Tawang (they seat about 14, I think, and look like small planes from the inside) but they only operate for certain months of the years. Moreover if the weather is bad, operations are suspended. The alternative is to drive from Guwahati but that takes 14 hours or more. Even within Arunachal it can take 10 hours to drive from Tawang to the state capital of Itanagar.

 

   Nor are there many good hotels. I stayed in what might well be India’s worst-run three-star hotel though other places seemed much better-managed. It will take at least a year for a good hotel (now under construction) to be completed and the lack of access means the big hotel chains are really not interested in opening in Arunachal.

 

   But you should go. We hear so much about the beauty of Bhutan. This is India’s Bhutan (they are neighbours): beautiful, unspoilt and pristine. You can see centuries old monasteries and the moving War Memorial dedicated to the martyrs of 1962.

 

   Or you can just stare at the natural beauty as I did. One consequence of the absence of much development is that Arunachal is one of India’s most beautiful states. It is still pretty much as it was 200 years ago with blue lakes, mist-covered mountains and roads full of wandering yaks. The people are friendly and eager to communicate and the local cuisine is terrific though (in common with much of the North East), the restaurants tend not to serve much local food.

 

   But go you must, if only to recognise that the idea of India is so powerful that, at the very eastern edge of our country, in the middle of the wet, cold mist, you could bump into a stranger and be greeted with ‘Jai Hind!’

 

   That’s the glory of India.

 

 

Posted On: 23 Nov 2019 03:30 PM
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