Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

bhismaknagar

PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

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K4 Kekho: Small man casting a long shadow

Sporting two long fringes that run down to his ears and despite not being the tallest man in most rooms, Kekho Thiamkho casts a large shadow. But then again, it was not his looks that shot him into semi-stardom.

Kekho Thiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho, hails from the small hamlet of Chinghan in Tirap district along India’s international border with Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh. A relative unknown in a state with a population of around 15 lakh until two years ago, K4 Kekho became a viral sensation when his song, ‘I am an Indian’, began circulating on WhatsApp.

Sung partly in English and a dialect of Hindi unique to Arunachal Pradesh, the song deals with issues of racism and ignorance about the state and the Northeast that people from the region often face in ‘mainland’ India.

Although the song deals with serious issues, it is the satirical tone of the lyrics and the catchy tune that leave a lasting impact on listeners.
The song opens with K4 Kekho’s signature ‘ollo’ (more on that later) and introducing himself before he goes on to the first lines of the song: Arunachal Pradesh ka mein. Kya yeh jegah China mein (I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Is this place in China)?

K4 Kekho during a performance. (PC: 4K Studio and CCRD)

The ‘China’ reference acts as a double innuendo on China’s territorial claims over the state and sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Midway through the song, Kekho sings: Institutions lok hum logo ko yaha mein padhne ao boltai. Phir roadside mein koi-koi lok jegah se jao boltai (Educational institutes induce us to join their academies. But people on the street tell us to go back).

Those lines are an expression of what many from Northeast, especially those who venture out to pursue higher education, continue to experience in places like New Delhi and Bengaluru. Incidentally, Kekho never spent any significant amount of time outside the state for his education, having completed his graduation from Don Bosco College near Itanagar. However, he had heard enough from his friends to feel confident to write and rap about the issue.

“I used to listen to my friends who were studying outside talk about their experiences. They were so angry and frustrated with what they had to undergo at times,” he said.
On January 27, K4 Kekho was at the lawns of the Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok in Itanagar for the launch of a six-part poetry-themed web series called The Vivid Project where he is one of the six featured poets.

Post a brief appearance on stage, K4 Kekho took time out to wander around when I introduced myself as a fan and told him that he was the reason I came for the launch.
During the conversation, he talked about how he was introduced to music through his father’s collection of old Hindi film songs on cassettes. He even sang one of those songs on stage one year in school.

“The teachers and the older people in the audience liked it but the young students were bored,” he said. The next year he switched to rap music as a more immersive art form to connect with the younger crowd. That decision appears to have paid off.

He is now somewhat of a minor sensation in his home state (‘minor’ meaning that he isn’t exactly getting swamped by fans on the streets looking for selfies or autographs). While he does seem to be living the good life now with him becoming a regular at local gigs, life wasn’t always easy.

Kekho said that as a child he had to walk for two hours from the administrative circle of Lazu to reach his home. Not much has changed as motor-able roads still haven’t been made that find their path to Chinghan.

Kekho doesn’t rap much about subjects that do not have social relevance in his eyes and cares for issues that are close to his community and his home.

He comes from the small Ollo tribe of Tirap district in the eastern part of the state that has been inflicted with insurgency and opium addiction among young men for years. Kekho said that he is currently working on songs that address these issues.

That evening, he gave us a sneak peek to a new song he is working on.
It begins: Ollo. I was born in a village called Lower Chinghan, located in the border of Indo-Myanmar, where one cannot speak for the rights he deserves, afraid of AK-47 loaded real guns. Ollo!

The ‘Ollo’, he said, is a tribute to his tribe and can mean anything from ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘friend’.

By this time, a few of his ‘fans’ had become part of our conversation and listening intently to what Kekho had to say.

Continuing the conversation, he maintains a humble demeanour while his hands constantly wave about front and back, left and right, as if he’s engaged in rap-battle and says that his limited English-language vocabulary makes it difficult for him to freestyle. He also informed that a video for ‘I’m an Indian’, the song that birthed the K4 Kekho sensation, is in the works.

By the end of the evening, our conversation steers towards his height.

“I’m not quite five feet tall. Around 4.8 or 4.9,” he tells us.

One of the people listening in on the conversation quickly adds, “You may be small but your words are big.

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.

Dissecting the Dalai’s visit

On April 5, the fourteenth Dalai Lama will address a large crowd of Buddhists at the Yidiga Choedzin in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town. While thousands of Buddhist Monpas are eagerly waiting to see their spiritual leader speak, a man considered a living god, not everyone in Arunachal Pradesh is enthusiastic about his visit.

The Dalai Lama first came to the state in 1959 when he escaped from the Potala Palace in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, entering Tawang and passing through several places before eventually setting up camp in Dharmsala where the Tibetan government in-exile operates out of. Since then, he has visited the state seven times. Given the People’s Republic of China’s position on Arunachal Pradesh and it’s equation with the Dalai Lama, it’s hardly surprising that the Chinese government does not take too kindly to his visits to the state.

Ever since his visit was announced, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised objections stating that the state is disputed territory and that the Dalai Lama’s repeated visits further complicate matters. The Chinese officials seem to have found support to their argument from the unlikeliest of sources- a section of people from Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the turn of the last century, the Chinese have maintained that Tibet is part of China and that a large part of present-day Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls South Tibet) was under Lhasa’s control, ergo making over 80,000 square kilometres of the state a part of China. In 1962, border disputes escalated to such heights that the People’s Liberation Army forces marched deep inside Arunachal Pradesh before unilaterally retreating. Since then, border skirmishes and encroachments have been frequently reported and the Chinese continue to maintain that the region is disputed. Although India has also asserted its stand and found support from the people of the state, who happen to be zealously patriotic, some here agree with the Chinese that the Dalai Lama’s visits rough up an already rocky relationship between the two countries.

Dr Nani Bath, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University and a prominent political commentator feels that the Dalai Lama’s visits to the state are counter-productive to relations between the two countries and as such his visits should be halted.

“We must be aware of collateral damages arising out of his visits,” he says.

Former secretary of the North East Students Organization, Gumjum Haider, also says that the Dalai Lama is “a reason of irritation between the two nations” and that if “his visit does not yield any development, any benefit to the people” then it should be stopped.

Another voice of opposition to his visits is Arunachal Civil Society chairman Patey Tayum who is even planning to hold an event reasoning why the Dalai Lama should not come here.

Vocal apprehensions to the Dalai Lama’s visits however, have come from non-Buddhists only so far.

Lama Yeshi, a stocky monk at the GRL Monastery in Bomdila (where the Dalai Lama will speak) nonchalantly reacts to questions of such views by saying that “bolne wala bolte rahega (those who have to say will say anything)”. His statement is in line with what one young entrepreneur from Bomdila says is characteristic of Monpas and Buddhists.

“Our people don’t really like making political statements,” he says.

However, there is one Buddhist who breaks the mould.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk from the area who shot to limelight for his stance against large hydropower projects in the region thinks there are two reasons for inviting the Dalai Lama.

“One, inviting him gives India an opportunity to show its supremacy. Second, to bring peace and tranquillity after last year’s incident,” he says.

On April 28, Gyatso was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. A few days later on May 2, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd which resulted in the death of two young men.

Gyatso says that the Dalai Lama is revered by the people in Tawang and if he appeals for peace, people will listen. As for whether the Dalai Lama should visit or not, he is clear that there is no reason he shouldn’t.

“Our poor and the elderly cannot go out to see him. He should come,” he says.

Religious considerations aside, the Dalai Lama’s visits are more about international diplomacy.

“His visits actually stake claim metaphorically to the land as ours. It’s a refined way of asserting rather than hold placards and shout ourselves hoarse. It’s like saying this is our land, we will do what we want and call who we call,” is one view.

One observer says that “the thing with disputed issues/land/claims/property/ideas is that if one doesn’t reiterate them once in a while, people take that as a sign of the other giving up”.

Even Bath notes that the Dalai Lama “is being used by the government of India against China. As such, its motive is not to let the people see him but to counter dragon’s moves”.

Recently, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union has said that the Chinese have no right in interfering in this matter.

It said that China’s comments on the Dalai Lama’s visit are “nonsensical” and that it should refrain from India’s internal matters. Incidentally, it also said that the stapled visas that are issued to citizens from the state by the Chinese government should be accepted as valid, thereby allowing people to travel to China.

In the past, many sportspersons and bureaucrats were either not given visas by Chinese embassies or issued stapled visas which Indian authorities do not accept.

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