The ungoverned territories

Source: By Patricia Mukhim (The Statesman, 6 February 2011, accessed 11 February 2011). 

ONE of the blessings of journalism involves forsaking the beaten track for the road less travelled. On one such trip to the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Namdapha National Park in Changlang district, I met a group of people who called themselves the Lisu and occupy that fringe which is India’s border with Myanmar. The Lisus claim they live on their own land, which comes under the Vijaynagar area of Changlang district since the early 19th century. But they have virtually lived like refugees, uncared for and with no administration. They are one of 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by China. In Myanmar, the Lisus are known as one of the seven Kachin minority groups and a small number of them also live in Thailand. The Lisus call themselves the Yobin tribe in Arunachal Pradesh.

There is an Army base camp at Gandhigram under Vijaynagar circle which, like all frontiers of Arunachal Pradesh, is accessible only by helicopter. The Lisus get their essential food items all the way from Miao, 157 km away. They have to trudge through the Namdapha forests for four days, camping at  night before reaching there. The Border Roads Organisation has made a grand plan for connecting Vijaynagar to Miao but work is yet to be completed. Interestingly, the Lisus of Arunachal Pradesh are deprived of their Scheduled Tribe status because they were equated with the Chakma migrants of Bangladesh who were allowed to settle there by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964.

Following the anti-Chakma movement in Arunachal Pradesh, the Lisus unwittingly were tagged with the Chakmas and lost their ST status. Arunachal Pradesh is geographically very vast. There are parts so remote that administration is simply not possible because there are no roads. Vijaynagar is one such place. In fact, many academicians are confused about the exact status of the Lisu people. In September last year, a seminar to discuss the “confusing” status of the Lisus of Arunachal Pradesh and attempt to give them a voice was held under the aegis of the Sokjar and Gamde Gamlin Foundation. Lisu representative Phusa Yobin, president of the Yobin Tribe Welfare Committee, claimed his tribe had an historical attachment with Arunachal Pradesh since the North East Frontier Agency days. He questioned the “confusing” stand of the state as well as the Centre’s not according them their correct status. Perhaps it is their small number that makes the Lisus voiceless. After all, democracy is about how much noise a particular group can make. The total Lisu strength in Arunachal Pradesh at present is a mere 1,293, too small to make an impact and not enough to make sense as an electorate. Surprisingly, their literacy rate is nearly 72 per cent and those who are educated teach their illiterate brethren Lisu, Hindi and English. There is a middle-English school at Vijaynagar where the young are taught.

The group of Lisu men and women I met at Miao spoke impeccable English and their attire was regal despite the four-day journey. In fact the women were costumed akin to Mongolian attire. A couple of young Lisu men study at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong.

Let’s now focus on Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district. Here slavery or bonded labour is still prevalent. There are, according to studies, about 3,500 slaves working under various masters. The Nishi and Miji tribes of the state actually keep slaves to this day. A botanist surveying medicinal plants in the verdant forests of eastern Arunachal came across this peculiar situation. He found a slave girl murdered by her master for not performing a certain task. Her body was dumped in the nearby forest. There is no law but that of the jungle. In 21st century India it is amazing that such stories should continue to be part of our narrative.

But this is also the reality of India where the peripheries continue to bleed because of neglect and a complete vacuum of governance. A few studies have also confirmed that slavery/bonded labour is alive and kicking in Arunachal Pradesh and that the slaves have no identity, no citizenship and no rights.

Other stories emanating from this easternmost frontier of India are equally interesting. They beg the question whether Arunachal Pradesh, despite the pro-India rhetoric adopted by its affluent and educated class, is really an integral part of this country. If so, can the Indian Army explain why in some of the extremities of the state the Chinese airdrop blankets and food items to people living there on a regular basis? According to those villagers, even bad weather does not deter the choppers from doing their rounds. For these scattered villages, unreachable by any government programme and too far away from civilisation, the airdropped food and materials help them tide over harsh winters. There is, in fact, a certain bonhomie between the people there with the Chinese and they feel much closer to their neighbours on the eastern frontiers than to Itanagar.

Such are the vagaries of life. Boundaries and borders may be the topic of high diplomacy but for the ordinary mortal survival comes from knowing who one’s friends are and whom one can depend on when the going gets tough. It is also no surprise why the Naga militants share a fraternal bond with the Chinese and have depended on them for all their strategic needs. There is something about the hill tribes that highly civilised, highly feudal and socially stratified Indian society — ruled by a set of people who are dyed in Chanakyan philosophy — will never comprehend. Not that they have ever tried to. The metaphor about the man who will never know what it takes to walk in someone else’s moccasins rings true all the time.
Does India care that slavery in one form or the other is still alive and kicking in many of its states? Does the current governance model take care of the large swathes of remote North-east India? Do the rulers in Delhi know what it is like to be outside of the public distribution system and to have to depend on a friendly neighbour for those supplies? The Indian bureaucracy functions like an unthinking machine gone rusty through overuse; a machine that churns out junk most of the time.

The politician, no matter which state he represents, is a picture of venality. Whether at the Centre or in the states, they all share the common traits of corruption and nepotism. But these politicians are patronised by a Centre that seems to have made it an agenda to puff up a tiny tribal elite that will carry out its bidding. This tribal elite is pursuing its wealth-pilfering agenda to the hilt and sowing the seeds for future revolutions.

It, therefore, sounds a bit incongruous when people in Delhi speak of governance deficit. You can be governance deficit only if you have experienced some kind of governance. Not when you do not even know what governance is and have had to survive on your wits.

The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at


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