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Indian nationalism is at ease in Arunachal
November 17, 2003
There is nothing remotely novel about a convivial outdoor party where an attractive crooner does a rendering of A R Rehman's spirited Vande Mataram or even a remix of Lata Mangeshkar's mournful Ai mere watan ki logon. Yet, this was no farmhouse dinner in Delhi. The guest list may have been the familiar sprinkling of politicians, bureaucrats and the media but the setting was very different. It was Friday evening in Itanagar. The venue was Chief Minister Gegong Apang's official residence and the occasion was the deputy prime minister's first visit to the BJP's newest acquisition -- the state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The idea of a BJP chief minister in the north-east would have been greeted with instant ridicule a few years ago. It still remains an oddity. Arunachal Pradesh was not secured by a popular election but through a palace coup earlier this year that resulted in Apang overthrowing the Congress government through defections and then steering the new formation en masse into the BJP. Today, the BJP has 37 MLAs out of 60 in the Arunachal Pradesh assembly and this impressive majority didn't come about through a popular mandate. Some over-zealous Apang loyalists insist that the size of the majority will further increase in coming months.
Maybe there is something faintly unethical about the whole thing, something that smacks disturbingly of the time in 1980 when Bhajan Lal changed the complexion of his government in Haryana from the Janata Party to Congress. The analogy may have also struck the visiting L K Advani. Addressing a small BJP delegation that was a mix of old-timers -- the BJP did have a meaningful presence in Arunachal before the Apang bonanza -- and the new converts, he said that having a MLA in the party is not a casual matter. It involves hard work and political perseverance. "There are states where we have had a presence for 25 years and yet have no MLA. I will be happy when we can have 37 MLAs in Arunachal who have been elected on the BJP ticket," he said bluntly.
Judged from a purely ideological perspective, Advani's note of caution was completely in order. A 'party with a difference' has to at least try to be different from the disreputable lot that ruled the country in the past.
Yet, the irony is that this brazen act of merger and acquisition has not provoked any outrage in Itanagar. Yes, there is some nagging sympathy among bureaucrats for the deposed Mukut Mithi who was perceived to be a good man with a reputation for integrity, but there is no feeling that Apang has done the unthinkable. Party labels, it would seem, don't really count for much in Arunachal Pradesh. The bulk of those ministers at the civic reception -- a deceptive euphemism for what is as much a party rally -- were as comfortable with the Congress tricolour as they are with their saffron coloured lotus badges.
This may be why it is inappropriate and limiting to view the bizarre Arunachal drama through the prism of morality. There are larger issues at stake. Apang could just as easily have persisted with his regional party and maintained his old links with the NDA government at the Centre. Why did he need the tag of a national party behind him?
Some of the reasons unfolded gradually during the course of Advani's visit. First, Arunachal is quite exceptional in many ways. Culturally, it is about as mainstream Indian as, say, Uttaranchal. Hindi is the link language of the state and in religious terms, some 88 per cent of the people call themselves Hindu, Buddhist and followers of tribal faiths. Jawaharlal Nehru, acting on the advice of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, prevented the entry of foreign missionaries into the state and this brave decision has enabled Arunachal to preserve its cultural identity and strengthen its Indian-ness.
The original Vande Mataram was sung at the rally on November 15 and there were no indigenous secularists to protest. Indian nationalism is at ease in Arunachal Pradesh.
Secondly, it is a state that is relatively peaceful. Only the districts of Tirap and Changlang are affected by insurgency. Here, the NSCN rebels have the strong backing of the Baptist church and to extortion is added the problem of forcible conversions to Christianity.
The Greater Nagaland demand of the rebels is only superficially about ethnicity. It is more about uniting disparate tribes under the umbrella of the Church. It is an open secret that in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, the Church provides the emotional nucleus of secessionism. Confronting the problem necessitates links and alliances that go well beyond Arunachal.
Finally, since the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the Centre has kept the development of Arunachal's infrastructure to a bare minimum in the belief that this would deny the enemy any ready-made advantage in case the state (which China claims as its own) was overrun. This is an absurd strategic doctrine that needs to be discarded urgently.
China continues to claim the district of Tawang and it is unlikely that the border talks will be able to resolve the issue. Does that mean that the area is deprived of the full benefits of being a part of India? Arunachal does not have an air link, a rail head and its border roads leave enormous scope for improvement. Yet, there is no scope for meaningful progress unless the doctrine on which this benign neglect rests is junked. That requires decisive political intervention which a regional party is not in a position to manage.
Last Saturday, Advani announced that Arunachal Pradesh will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of a mobile phone service. The decision will no doubt be resisted by the defence ministry and some of the intelligence agencies whose business it is to obstruct. As a small regional player with only two MPs in the Lok Sabha, Apang could never have forced through such a decision. He needed the political muscle of both a national party and a ruling party. That is what his new political tag gives him.
In short, Arunachal confronts certain problems that are incapable of being tackled by a regional outfit. The people of Arunachal believe they are Indian, think as Indians and want the Government of India to play a decisive role in the state. Here the issue is not autonomy but economic and political integration coupled with cultural pluralism. The Congress and BJP flags may be interchangeable but the Indian tricolour is constant.
If the Kashmir valley offers one version of the problems confronting the periphery, Arunachal Pradesh suggests the exact opposite. The seminar circuit, having enjoyed an overdose of Kashmir, should perhaps think of diverting its attention to Arunachal.