Arunachal Kaafi dur hain: Ranju Dodum


A few years ago in Delhi at the Arjun Nagar locality of Safdarjung Enclave, a tailor asked me where I was from. When I told him his immediate reaction was: Achha Arunachal! Kaafi dur hain. Uske baad toh India khatam hain, hain na? (Oh, Arunachal! Quite far. India ends after that doesn’t it?)

Full disclosure: I am absolutely tired of reading reports published in ‘mainstream’ media outlets constantly reminding people that Arunachal Pradesh borders China even when the news piece itself has nothing to do with international relations.

Why, dare I ask, is it that Gujarat or Rajasthan are never described as “states that share a border with Pakistan”? If Arunachal Pradesh is a ‘frontier state’, why isn’t Kerela ever a ‘coastal state’? What’s that you say? Jammu & Kashmir is also referenced along similar lines. Well, yes but that is also because much of the politics in J&K is actually centred around Pakistan’s claims to the state. In Arunachal, such is not the case.

Yes, perhaps in anger and frustration with the Indian state, some people from the state may at times say some things to drive home their anger over the Indian government’s negligence of certain issues that drivels on the romantic idea of looking northwards to China. But such talk is hardly sincere and is often only clothed in anger more than any real assertion. The reality is that the internal politics of the state is never fought on the issue of China’s claims over the state. Here our politicians are driven, not by patriotism but by power, its manipulations and perversions.

Recently a news article in a major national newspaper about certain political development touched upon the finer points of the story detailing how the BJP central leadership had allegedly called upon the state chief minister to make clear his stance on a possible political merger. The report didn’t stop there though and the journalist made it a point to mention that the state borders China, a reference that was completely irrelevant and unnecessary to the story.

It is not just politics, but even stories of women and children overcoming social adversities are not spared from such treatment, as if a minor girl breaking free from the chains of a child marriage has something to do with the proximity (or the distance) of her home to the Chinese border.

While it is understood to some extent that foreign and visiting journalists even from outside the region get blinded by the need to present stories from the prism of their narrow worldviews, what is disheartening is the fact that many such stories are in fact written by respected journalists from Assam writing for major newspapers from their homes and offices in Guwahati. Sadder still is the fact that for many young journalists they are looked upon as mentors.

But is it fair to blame journalists for such attitudes? Perhaps a large chunk of the blame should be shouldered by the state machinery that has kept the region marginalised. In school textbooks, all that students get to learn about Arunachal Pradesh is that it is the state where the sun rises first and is home to the Mithun, that all-important bovine.

Even in policy matters, the powers that be in New Delhi cannot seem to look beyond Calcutta. And when they do turn their gaze towards the region, it is done condescendingly and collectively, lumping together all policies for the region in a singular package as if the issues faced by the eight states of the region are uniform and hence can be solved by a single policy.

While it may be unfair to put the onus of such negligence on media houses and their editors alone, they must however, shoulder some of the blame for perpetuating such train of thought.

In the present environment of racing for deadlines, headlines and break-neck speed reporting, journalists are constantly under the pressure to make the region look and sound sexy.

While protests against army atrocities in Manipur have been held for years, the keyboards start clacking only after a group of bold mothers take to the streets, stark naked with signs daring the Indian Army men to rape them.

Reporting on the lynching of a man accused of rape in Dimapur from a desk in Delhi devoid of depth and nuances of the emotions that have been piling up in the state against ‘the others’ was easier than to actually try and understand the intricacies of the incident.

And reports about the deaths of two people protesting the arrest of a hydropower activist/monk in the hands of the police in Arunachal Pradesh are segregated to the online editions of the bigger papers.

Perhaps the reason why journalists turn toward China so often is because there aren’t any home-grown armed groups that are active in Arunachal. Yes, occasionally there are reports of some underground outfits rearing their heads but their numbers are so small and their motives so shrouded in mystery that they are not worth the ink that their press releases are printed on. And the NSCN factions that function in Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts were after all birthed in other states. So in the absence of home-grown terrorism, journalists who are supposed to report from the proverbial conflict zone that is the Northeast, are faced with the dilemma of making Arunachal Pradesh sexy. Enter China.

Since the early part of the last century, China has always laid claim to Tibet and by extension to a large part of the state. It has, under different regimes, consistently refused to acknowledge Tibet’s sovereignty and India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh. It is therefore, a subject that has the baggage of history attached to it and hence a natural subject of interest for journalists. The 1962 Chinese aggression only helped fuel such a worldview.

Adding to the weight of history is the present-day rocky relationship between the two countries.

As India tries to play catch up in the economic and defence fronts, China has stopped being just a neighbour. It is, for all meanings and purposes, the competitor, the enemy even. And what’s sexier and more seductive than the enemy? Hence, whenever members of the People’s Liberation Army transgress the international border and enter the state it is but natural for the media to give it front page space. The problem lies in the manner in which it is presented.

Reports of such transgressions by the Chinese Army give the image that people in the state become hysterical during such times. Debates are held on television studios (which ironically hardly ever feature an Arunachalee face) over the Dragon’s ever-present threat to India’s sovereignty but hardly end up offering any real insights or solutions.

Yes, the Chinese are a threat and yes, the issue needs to be resolved at the earliest. But the truth of the matter is that news of Chinese soldiers entering Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t quite affect the people here as does news of bandh calls or the large-scale corruption that inflicts the state. People are more concerned about their PDS food grains then about PLA soldiers. Journalists and media houses outside the state need to realize this.

As for my conversation with the tailor in Delhi, I simply nodded in agreement. He was, after all, a victim of the image that has become part of the country’s collective consciousness; one that has been consistently projected over decades.

Ranju Dodum is a journalist based in Arunachal Pradesh.