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.

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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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A day of Dickensian proportions

Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, juxtaposed the contradictory political ambience that engulfed 18th century Europe and opens with the famous lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and far removed from a divided Europe, no other lines could have better encapsulated the mood on Monday at the Arunachal Pradesh capital, Itanagar. And no two acts performed on the same day to mark the same event could have been more contradictory to each other as they were on Monday.

Monday marked a year since Pema Khandu officially took charge of the chief minister’s role. To celebrate his first 365 days in office, an official event was held at the State Banquet Hall at the Niti Vihar area, home to Arunachal Pradesh’s political elite, where a number of welfare schemes were launched for the benefit of citizens in the presence of sharply dressed ministers and bureaucrats.

A few kilometres downhill at the tennis courts premises of the Indira Gandhi Park, where no one seems to have played tennis for the past two decades and is the state’s designated protest site ala Jantar Mantar, another set of people were gathered to mark the same 365 days; albeit with a vastly different agenda.

Last year on August 9 when Kalikho Pul’s body was found hanging from the ceiling fan in one of the rooms of the chief minister’s bungalow-turned-guest house, people were outraged.

After a year of power-struggle and internal bickering, many felt that Pul was dropped like a hot potato by MLAs who had supported him earlier. That anger translated in a violent outburst as some people blamed a section of the MLAs for Pul’s suicide, claiming that they lifted him on a pedestal and pulled the rug from under his feet. The notes that Pul allegedly wrote and left behind- ‘Mere Vichaar’- certainly seem to suggest that he too felt the same way.

After the notes were made public, his family demanded a thorough investigation into the allegations that were levelled against top politicians and judges. A group of citizens even formed the eponymously-inspired ‘Mere Vichaar Andolan Committee’ (MVAC), to seemingly seek justice for Pul and his family. It was members from the MVAC who marked Monday as a ‘Black Day’.

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Dressed less formally than those in the Banquet Hall in blue denims, seated on bright green carpets laid on the floor of the tennis courts under the sweltering sun, the men and women gathered cried foul, condemned the day and sought Khandu’s resignation.

Large banners with letters in white font on black background read: Shame on the name who ruined states fame (sic). There were no portraits save for those of late Pul flanked by the MVAC’s logo on the top left and right corners of the banners, to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

On the other hand, at the Banquet Hall, Khandu’s gleaming portraits were plastered all over. From promotional banners to standees to visual slides, this too was an event to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

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Pema and Pema. (Courtesy: Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office)

While bulbs were lit to mark the launch of the UJALA scheme at the air-conditioned Banquet Hall, effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire to by the motley crew that made up the MVAC.

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Effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire during the ‘Black Day’ protests. (Courtesy: Damien Lepcha)

Whether these are mere coincidences or part of brilliant mind games is up for debate. The battle though began early Monday as was evident in some of the newspapers of the state. While the state government issued front half-page advertisements announcing the schemes that were launched, the MVAC issued full-page advertisements that carried Pul’s portrait merged against a black background calling 17 July 2016 a ‘Black Day’.

To paraphrase Dickens, for some 17 July 2016 is the spring of hope, for some it is the winter of despair.