Arunachal: Between the Dragon and the Elephant

Asserting that Arunachal Pradesh is very much a part of India and not China, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) on Monday staged rallies in the capital Itanagar and Tawang near the international border to protest against the Chinese government’s ‘renaming’ of six places in the state.

Last week, China’s civil affairs ministry had issued a notification changing the names of six places in the state (giving them a more Sinicized touch), saying it had a “lawful right” to do so since those areas were part of what it calls South Tibet. The move is being seen as retaliation to India ‘allowing’ Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit the state earlier this month.

Since then, the rhetoric from China has grown steadily, even warning that India will ‘pay’ for its actions. The latest move of renaming six places though has angered many in Arunachal Pradesh. None more so than the students’ union, whose members even took to burning an effigy of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.

Monday’s protests, however, are symbolic of a greater characteristic that is unique in the region where emotions are driven more by ethnic identities rather than the idea of being Indian.

AAPSU members burn Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s effigy.

Many people in Arunachal Pradesh proudly state that the citizens here are more patriotic than anywhere else in the country. A popular anecdote often repeated here is that people in the state greet each other with a ‘Jai Hind’ which is proof of their patriotism (although it’s unclear how much of its usage actually stems from a sense of patriotism rather than anything else).

Dr Nani Bath of the Rajiv Gandhi University here and a prominent political commentator feels there are several factors that have contributed to this sense of ‘Indianess’ among the people here.

“We are trained by the successive governments,” he said, calling it a deliberate policy.

“First, Nehru tried to win hearts of tribal leaders by taking them to visit places like Delhi and Kolkata, then Assamese was replaced with Hindi as the language of formal education in schools with teachers from UP and Bihar posted here and the creation of SSB for anti-China propaganda,” said Bath.

Journalist Azing Pertin expands on the idea of patriotism stating that “before the concept of nationhood emerged among us, we tribal people found ourselves already in the Indian Union. As such we have accepted and lived with it. The talk of South Tibet and China claiming Arunachal is a bogey and false since the majority of tribals of the state were independent of the Tibetan kingdom and had their own tribal council systems which governed them”.

Others such as former general secretary of North East Students’ Organization, Gumjum Haider, who made the jump to electoral politics in 2014, said that other factors too have influenced people.

“A lack of exposure and a lack of self-retrospection make our people not realise their self-worth. Arunachalis are very naive and they can be manipulated easily,” he said.

However, he is firm that whether it is “India, North Korea, China, America or Cuba, nobody has right to alter our names” and that “that should be very clear to all”.

AAPSU general secretary, Tobom Dai, is more pragmatic in his approach.

“You never know about the Dragon. At least we are enjoying all democratic rights here in this country,” Dai said, adding that “we have never seen China or for that matter experienced its governance. So it will be like trudging into an unknown realm. In this context, for me, patriotism is by choice”.

Dai’s statement is somewhat reflective of the state of affairs here unlike in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and even Jammu & Kashmir where separatist groups are well and active.

“The history of the Nagas, Meiteis, Kashmiris are different from us.  An Arunachali identity is not possible as we belong to different ethnic communities,” Bath feels. And indeed he is correct.

The state is home to at least over 20 major tribes and an even larger number of sub-tribes. Since the tribes have their own unique customs and languages, the lingua franca here is Hindi (or at least a form of Hindi with influences from Assamese, Nepali, Bhojpuri, and Bengali).

Haider said that “Hindi and Bollywood have penetrated so much in our minds but we are not doing anything to safeguard or to promote local languages”.

Dai also agrees that safeguards need to be placed and that “AAPSU should start a process whereby the defective statehood act can be rectified” in order to give the state and its people complete rights over the land and resources as is the case with Nagaland and Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.

As for Monday’s rallies, there were some mixed feelings.

While Dai understandably called it a success “in spite of heavy rains”, the turnout itself was lower than expected, most likely due to sudden rains and examinations that are on.

Pertin said that “youths and students voicing their angst against the non-stop Chinese interference is an issue which needs to be dealt with seriously. Students taking out the rallies reflect the common and popular opinion against Chinese disturbances”.

Although he could not be part of the rally at Itanagar, Haider said that “we should not aim (our stance) at China alone” and that the people of the state must “assert our indigenous rights to both countries”. A sound statement considering the fact that while the Chinese may have given their own names to places in the state, the name ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ itself has no resonance with any of the indigenous tribes here.

Another view was offered by current NESO co-ordinator, Pritam Sonam, who said that “it’s not necessary that time and again we should show our patriotism and tell the world that we are Indian”.

Taking to social media, Sonam said that “we are Indian by origins and by birth but let’s ask the fellow mainland Indians if they know about Arunachal or even they consider us as fellow Indians”.

All photos by Damien Lepcha.

Lax policies cause of concern for conservation

For over a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working with communities in West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh to preserve forest resources and make them self-reliant. While considerable amount of success has been achieved, without proper policies in place, successes will mean little in the long-run. 

WWF-India began its work in Thembang in West Kameng in 2004 with the introduction of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) which comprises of a village-level management committee that is given the responsibility to conserve natural resources and address local livelihood means. 

Among its goals is to engage villagers in collective dialogue and decision-making relating to conserving natural resources found in the forests of the area including wildlife. After their initial success, the WWF replicated its model in Zemithang in neighbouring Tawang district in 2007. 

Zemithang has an important role to play in conservation as it is one of the two remaining wintering sites of the black-necked crane in the state- the other being Sangti Valley. Earlier, the birds were reported to have been sighted at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district too but have since stopped coming after a few of them died when they got entangled in electrical wires. 

The riverbed of Nyamjang Chhu that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane.

Kamal Medhi, the Western Arunachal Landscape co-ordinator for the WWF who has been working in the region for years, informed that there were 21 sightings of the birds from last November to March this year- a significant improvement from the past. 

The WWF’s work has also led to increased awareness amongst the people, Medhi said, and that people these days inform the WWF officials whenever they see the birds which come to the dry riverbed of the Nyamjang Chhu. The birds are of special importance to the Buddhist Monpa tribe who consider the black-necked crane sacred. 

And while game hunting in the area has never been a major issue, Medhi informed that the musk deer, called laa-va locally, is hunted for its bile which is used extensively in Chinese traditional medicine. Reportedly, the animal is hunted and its bile extracted before making its way to China through Nepal. 

Medhi said that the hunting of the deer is not an issue amongst the seven villages in the Zemithang area that are part of the WWF’s CCA but that there is a threat from villages outside of the area. 

“Villages in Zemithang have served notices to the other offending villages to curb the problem,” he said. 

There are also economic benefits that villagers are slowly beginning to witness from conserving forest resources. 

Recently, the Pangchen CCA Management Committee (comprising of Lakhar, Lumpo and Muchat villages) began manufacturing incense sticks that are used extensively by most Buddhist tribes of the state. It’s an initiative that could become an alternative to a widely used product that is currently brought in from the North Bengal area. 

Other challenges however, remain. 

The WWF currently has 1,200 square km of land under the CCA model including villages in Thembang, Zemithang and Manlaphu (which was inducted last year). But that figure is relatively small compared to the work that needs to be done. 

“We are saving a small portion of forests through the CCA model,” Medhi informed and that around 30,000 square km of land is still officially designated as Unclassed State Forests. 

“The government should come up with policies to give the management of forests to the local communities, whether in the form of CCAs or any other model,” he said. 

Aside from the lack of a clear policy on the tribal people’s rights and use of forest resources, at the policy level the issue gets more complicated due to the region’s proximity to the sensitive international border it shares with China. 

Foreigners are not permitted to enter Zemithang, even with special permits, which can affect the tourism of the area. 

Although homestays have sprung up, the place has been unable to attract foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Recently, a group of environment enthusiasts from Bhutan who had wanted to visit the area for the black-necked crane were given a hard time due to the existing laws. 

Ironic, considering that traders and pilgrims who belong to the same Monpa community but live across the border in Bhutan regularly venture into the region with ease, as theIndian armed forces personnel are not aware of the subtle differences in the traditional attires of the cousin communities. 

12 years a wait

A colourfully dressed man wearing an intricate mask is brought near a large flaming altar. Two men guide him with a tightly-wound cloth around his neck. He kicks his legs up in the air, jumps about and quickly collapses to the ground before the cloth around his neck is loosened and he is quickly rushed inside the monastery.

At around a height of 100 feet, the Chorten is an intimidating structure to say the least.

Every twelve years, the gates of the Gorsem Chorten, a large stupa in Gorsem village near Zemithang, around 90 km from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, are opened to the public who can pay their respects to the scriptures and statues kept inside the centuries-old structure. While pilgrims and followers make rounds (kora) of the stupa on a regular basis, it is only every twelve years that the people are actually allowed inside it. This year a special four-day mela was held from March 25 to 28 to mark the event.

Considered a major religious site, no written records about its origins exist now. Legend has it that the stupa or chorten was built at around the 12th century by a monk from the area called Lama Pradhar. Monks and locals said that the stupa was built after Lama Pradhar visited Nepal and saw the Swayambhu stupa. Realising that for most people from the Mon region of the state it would be an immensely difficult task to walk across to Kathmandu Valley to make the pilgrimage, Lama Pradhar decided that a replica should be built at its present site. Here is where the story becomes somewhat apocryphal.

According to monks and people from Tawang to Zemithang, and indeed the popular version of how things unfolded, is that the monk made a scaled model of the stupa in Nepal by carving out a radish. Unfortunately, that radish became somewhat shrivelled on its journey and hence the slight variations in the size of the replica from that of the original!

The stupa in Gorsem also makes up the trinity of similar stupas in Nepal and Bhutan.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

Legends and stories aside, the stupa is definitely an impressive and imposing structure. With a large white base, topped off with a golden top, the chorten stands around 100 feet tall.

An important event, made evident by the sea of believers that had gathered to gain a glimpse of the inside of the structure, the reason why it opens only once every twelve years depends on who you ask.

While some said that it was in the Year of the Rooster as per the Tibetan calendar (which has twelve cycles) that the chorten was completed and hence it’s opened on the same astrological year (such as 2017), there was another reason that was offered.

Apparently, the chorten gates (at the top of the structure) were earlier opened regularly. However, frequent thefts of the relics and valuable statues led to their closure and formulation of the twelve-year rule. For the faithful though, the reasons matter little. Thousands upon thousands converged in the small village just kilometres from the Chinese border to climb the top of the chorten to get a 20-second glimpse of the statues and scriptures.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

Reportedly, Monpa pilgrims belonging to the same tribe as their Indian cousins turned up from neighbouring Bhutan too, although technically the area is off-limits to foreigners.

While pilgrims come to conduct the kora (circling of the structure) and see the inside of the chorten, an important part of the last day is the forecast ceremony that is held towards the end and before the sermon and blessings given by Thegtse Rinpoche of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

A young monk explained to us that the colourfully-dressed masked man happens to be a government official from Bomdila in West Kameng district who acts as an oracle and is able to see the future. People believe that once the oracle is possessed by the spirit of Nyari Gachen (sic), he is able to speak and write in the Tibetan language, thereby able to make predictions about the area and/or reveal important information for the prosperity of the people. The prediction however, is revealed only to the Rinpoche.

Zemithang is a small administrative circle at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. Much like throughout Tawang district, it is home to the Buddhist Monpa people. Its religious importance aside, Zemithang is also one of the only two remaining wintering sites of the vulnerable black-necked crane in the state. The birds are safe for now after the National Green Tribunal last year suspended the Union environment ministry’s clearance granted to the 780 Nyamjang Chhu project in 2012.

During such present times when much of the region is trying to balance the demand for modern development with that of the need to preserve the environment, one can only hope that the oracle had good news to share.