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Centring the peripheral

Arunachal Pradesh has many things going for it, thanks to the visionary Verrier Elwin, writes Ramachnadra Guha.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2008 22:36 IST

In 1958 and 1959, the socialist politician Ram Manohar Lohia made several unsuccessful attempts to enter the North East Frontier Agency (Nefa). An Inner Line permit was required to enter the territory, and Lohia was told he could have one if he applied. But he insisted that Indians had the right to wander freely anywhere in India without having to fill out a piece of paper. Each time Lohia sought to enter Nefa without a permit he was stopped. In a press statement issued afterwards, he blamed his predicament on “a very peculiar type of erstwhile clergyman, Sri Verrier Elwin [who] is the advisor of the Governor of Assam [in whose charge Nefa then was] in respect of matters concerning the Adivasis… This former clergyman has carved out a principle of a reserved forest in the same manner as the lions of Gir”.

As it happens, the permit system was in force from before the time that Lohia and Elwin were born. And it remains in operation now, long after Elwin and Lohia have departed this world (they both died in the same year, 1964, as did Jawaharlal Nehru, patron of one and beté noire of the other.) When I visited Arunachal Pradesh (as Nefa is now known) last month, I had taken the precaution of arranging for a permit beforehand. I was thus waved in across the border with Assam, to see, step on, and mingle with the people of one of the least known parts of India.

Arunachal is among the largest states in India and also one of the most scantily populated. It extends over 83,000 sq kms and has a mere 11 lakh inhabitants. The landscape is spectacular, with high mountains and fast-flowing rivers and deep, dense forests. The plant and animal life is staggeringly diverse (it includes a species of macaque newly discovered by Indian scientists).

At Independence, the Government of India exercised a shadowy suzerainty over these border tracts. As they sought to fill an administrative vacuum, they took the assistance of Verrier Elwin, an anthropologist who had spent the past 20 years studying the adivasis of peninsular India. Elwin designed a set of policies aimed at gently easing the tribals of Nefa into their new status as citizens of India. Their rights in land and forests were protected. Their cultures and lifestyles were valued rather than deprecated. Under Elwin’s watch, an Indian Frontier Administrative Service was created, whose officers displayed an exemplary commitment to the people among whom they lived and worked.

One of the reasons that Elwin was an erstwhile clergyman was that he had refused to take the Gospel to the tribes. He was forced to leave the Church of England for arguing that the adivasis had the right to their own myths and Gods. In his years in Nefa he worked to keep Christian missionaries out of the territory. But he also had little time for narrow-minded Hindus. In a striking phrase, he characterised the American Baptists, very active in neighbouring Nagaland, as “the RSS of Christianity”, that is, as a bunch of fundamentalists who had made a great and subtle faith into a vehicle of bigotry and intolerance.

Elwin would have been dismayed by the posthumous presence within Arunachal of the sects he detested. In my travels, I noticed several signs for Baptist chapels, as well as posters advertising an ‘indigenous faith day’, a cover for RSS pracharaks seeking to bring the tribals closer to their worldview. The members of one tribe, the Nyishis, were particularly prone to Christianity, in part because it offered them eternal bliss (in contrast, some tribal faiths have no concept of the after-life). The members of another tribe, the Adis, were susceptible to blandishments from the RSS, in part because they worshipped the Sun and the Moon, elements also central to Hindu cosmology.

In Arunachal today, there is a vigorous competition for souls, conducted between ideologies equally condescending towards tribal attitudes and traditions. Fortunately, many Arunachalis continue to uphold their ancestral religions. One of them is Buddhism. The elected Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh is a Buddhist. A highly respected MLA is a senior Buddhist priest, or Rimpoche. And the two prettiest buildings in the capital, Itanagar, are both Buddhist temples. One is a Theravada shrine patronised by those from the Lohit region, influenced by their proximity to Burma. The other is a Mahayana temple for Monpas who live close to the Tibet border.

Where their faith is brutalised and crushed in Tibet, Mahayana Buddhists can freely practise their faith on this side of the border. Their temple in Itanagar is sited on a hill with splendid views: surrounded by colourful fluttering flags, its foundation stone was laid by the Dalai Lama. Here he was an honoured visitor; meanwhile, in his own homeland, the Dalai Lama cannot exist even in the shape of a photograph (possession of which can land a Tibetan in jail).

Alone among the states of the North-east, Arunachal Pradesh has never had a major insurgency. Some, perhaps much, credit should go to the policies laid down by Elwin. His motto, festina lente, or hasten slowly, was peculiarly well suited to a territory distant from mainstream India in geographical as well as historical terms. While individual Indians willing to fill out a form are welcome, the retention of the Inner Line permit has prevented the state from being flooded by unwelcome intruders, thus escaping (again) the fate of a now Han-dominated Tibet. At the same time, where the residents of the region’s most-powerful state hoped that their tongue, Assamese, would serve as the link language of Nefa, Elwin ensured that the role would instead be played by Hindi. That was a far-seeing move; now, 50 years later, most Arunachalis speak with ease the language that most easily connects them to the rest of India.

Starting from a very low base, Arunachal Pradesh has a rapidly rising literacy rate (now in excess of 50 per cent). There are signs of a creative and self-confident intelligentsia. I was deeply impressed by my meetings with the women’s activist Jarjum Ete and the filmmaker Moji Riba, two Arunachalis who could easily work anywhere in the world, yet elect to live in their home state.

In choosing to be with India, the Arunachalis have taken the good with the bad, electoral politics with the corruption that seems regrettably (though surely not inevitably) to go with it. The biggest houses in Itanagar were owned by former or present MLAs or ministers. The main shopping complex was allegedly sold by one minister to another for a whopping Rs 25 crore. And even greater kickbacks are being made on the massive surge of hydroelectric development, a surge that will pose challenges to ecological and cultural integrity as well.

I had many stimulating conversations in Arunachal, but the most educative was one I merely overheard. This was at a farewell party for a senior official of the university, who was shortly to be transferred to Manipur. His colleagues jokingly asked what proportion of his salary would he pay as tax to the underground. He evaded the question, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

As a state capital where all of one’s salary can, if one wishes, be deposited in the bank, Itanagar is less than typical of this part of India. If nation-building, like politics itself, is the art of the possible, then New Delhi should not be too dissatisfied with the state of affairs in this territory to which it lays claim. A more history-conscious nation might even have erected a memorial to the former clergyman whose policies have helped make Arunachal Pradesh the least troubled of all the states of north-eastern India.

Ramachandra Guha, Historian and author of India After Gandhi