We are all familiar with the narrative of how as a collective population, us Arunachalis are perhaps the most patriotic lot in the entire country. Any and every time politicians from New Delhi come calling, it has become mandatory for them to invoke the same repeated line that Arunachalis are so patriotic that they greet each other with calls of ‘Jai Hind’.
Whether that is true or not is beside the point. While the ‘Jai Hind’ rhetoric may simply be just rhetoric (and an example of jingoism), the fact is that Arunachalis really are a patriotic lot. In a region of the country where ethnic and tribal divisions mark out clear cut interests, and where sub-nationalism is a strong defining character and occupies much space in the public discourse, Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat of an anomaly.
So famous is the proverbial patriotic Arunachali that even the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, cited it in a recent meeting.
The how and why this distinctive characteristic came into being require a discussion for another day. In light of the recent events that brought the state capital to a standstill, what is needed now is an explanation and introspection on how even the ever-patriotic Arunchali turned against the state.
THE IDEA OF IDENTITY
Where and how does an individual, a group, or a community draw its identity from? How do we distinguish the ‘us’ from the ‘them’? Is identity fluid? Are we members of a tribe for most parts of the year and don the suit of the collective anonymous Arunachali when we require it?
The issue of giving permanent residence certificates (PRC) to non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (APST) is hardly a new one. It is a demand and a topic of debate and opposition that has lasted for decades.
The recent protests, violence, deaths, and excessive display of force by security personnel were played out amidst growing concerns that the state government was seriously mulling awarding PRCs to the six non-APST communities in question.
Although the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to submit its report and recommendation that PRC should be awarded but with certain riders, there was never a Bill that was listed for passing in the Legislative Assembly. The chief minister later did say that the report was listed for discussion only.
Nevertheless, the very fact that the JHPC had recommended issuing PRCs (with or without terms and conditions) did not sit well with not just organised unions and bodies but also with the general tribal populace of the state.
For tribal communities, the idea of identity is one that is drawn from the land that they belong to. Without getting into the philosophical aspect of whether we belong to the land or the land belongs to us, suffice to say that as a collection of tribes, we are of the land, for the land, and from the land. It is the land that gives us a sense of who we are.
For communities like ours where even stretches of rivers and entire mountains can belong to an individual or a clan, the connection to the land and the people are inseparable. Is it really surprising then that the idea that we may have to share this land and its resources with those perceived as not being indigenous to the land ignited the kind of reaction that it did?
Much of the anger that fuelled the protests came from the perception that the six communities in question are ‘others’; that they do not fit into our idea of who is indigenous to the land.
The question that we must ask here is what factors go into deciding what makes someone indigenous to the land and someone else, not.
Representatives of those communities argue that they have been living in certain parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh for generations and that all that they are asking for is a proof of address that they are domiciles of the state. That they have been living inside the political boundary of the state of Arunachal Pradesh when it was a union territory, separate from Assam.
Of course, the issue is not as simple as that and that PRCs will simply make it easier for members of the communities to apply for central government jobs (since they are already issued temporary residence certificates).
Acquiring PRCs will also bring with it other benefits and ease businesses for the communities in question. The JHPC on its part did say that awarding PRCs will not equate to extending tribal rights. The Committee even went further to add in a clause that the communities will not make any demands seeking APST status or seek benefits meant solely for APST persons such as reservations in state government jobs and educational institutions in the future.
One of the arguments from the other side has been that there is no guarantee that the communities now seeking PRCs will not demand APST status in the future. Indeed, one of the communities- the Deoris -did temporarily hold APST status until large-scale protests led to a retraction two decades back.
Perhaps it is ironic that some of the same people who argued against awarding APST status for the community are part of the JHPC that recommended awarding PRCs.
Another oft-cited argument is that awarding PRCs will lead to an influx of members of those communities who are living on the Assam side of the interstate boundary.
A state where large swathes of uninhabited fertile land exist, the idea of migrating here is an enticing one. While the JHPC recommended adequate checks to ensure that it does not happen, every true-blue Arunachali and anyone familiar with the astronomical levels of corruption that exists in the state knows that such measures will be compromised at the slightest of chances to the highest bidder.
The violence that took place in Itanagar and Naharlagun has certainly left citizens shell-shocked. Perhaps only once before in recent history has such violence taken place that left the capital paralyzed the way it did. That protest too ended in death, as has this.
Whether the protests were sustained by motives other than those of pure emotions is something that may perhaps be revealed at a later date. What is undeniable, however, is that the anger was palpable. There is no doubt that anger had been fermenting for quite a while now and that anger spilled over to the streets.
As people took to the streets and damages were brought to several government and commercial buildings, security forces indulged in excesses and actions that should have been avoided. As of now, it is unclear what laws were invoked to incite such military action and as to who ordered the firing on the crowd of protestors in several places.
Amidst the protests that left at least three young men dead and several others injured, a number of people saw the chaos as an opportunity to update their wardrobe and electronic appliances. Cartful of clothes were being rolled away from one shopping centre while some made good with LED TVs and refrigerators.
On the other end of the two towns, the families of those who had died mourned.
So, where do we go from here? Is the outright rejection of the JHPC recommendation a permanent solution to the decades-old question? For now, the issue may have been diffused and the capital may be limping back to normalcy but it is bound to dominate discussion and debate come election season. And it is an issue that will be raised sporadically.
Can the issue be wished away? Or is greater debate, not destruction, required lest we want to see more young lives laying waste to the barrel of the gun?