Between the dragon and the elephant

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As the world’s two most populous countries spar over the disputed land, Teresa Rehman finds support for India in Arunachal Pradesh

Tense times Indian soldiers attend a function at China’s Bum La post, 41 km from Tawang in Arunachal
Photo: UB Photos

WHICH LANGUAGE unites the two dozen major tribes and scores of the sub-tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, India’s northeastern-most state whose ownership China disputes? Believe it or not, it is Hindi, fostered by satellite television and Hindi cinema, and by the presence of the many Hindi-speaking defence personnel. Also taught in schools, the locals see Hindi and its fusion with their myriad dialects as an assertion of their Indian identity.

Ask Tibetan refugee Choki Lama. She sells readymade garments at Naharlagun, a scenic town 10 km from Itanagar, the state capital. Her grandparents were among the tens of thousands of Tibetans who had followed the Dalai Lama into India after he fled Tibet in 1959. She is eager for a ‘darshan’ of the revered leader when he visits the Tawang monastery next month. “I don’t understand politics but he is like God for us,” she says while tending to her customers – in Hindi. “I would shut my shop to go see him if that’s what it takes.”

China says that Tawang, one of the few remaining symbols of Mahayana Buddhism, was once its territory and should be given it. But the people here believe China is targeting Arunachal Pradesh only because of the Dalai Lama. Some worry that India might actually give Tawang to China to resolve the long-standing border dispute.

China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a 1,030-km unfenced border with it, is not new. This and China’s claim of the Aksai Chin in Kashmir were the key reasons behind the 1962 Sino- Indian War. Indian and Chinese forces had clashed again in 1986 in Sumdorong Chu valley of Arunachal Pradesh after China had reportedly built a helipad there.

India claims that the McMahon Line delineating the India-China border along Arunachal Pradesh is legal. China refuses to recognise it. Recently, Google Earth depicted Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory with places marked in Chinese with Chinese names. China has often denied visas to residents of the state, such as former chief minister Gegong Apang, saying they don’t need visa as they are from the same country.

But not everyone is upbeat about the Dalai Lama’s visit. “The Dalai Lama is of no use for us. We oppose his visit,” Takam Tatung, president of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, told TEHELKA. Adds Political Science professor Nani Bath at the Rajiv Gandhi University near Itanagar: “I would advise the Dalai Lama not to vitiate India-China ties by visiting Arunachal Pradesh.”

Most people of Arunachal Pradesh practice an indigenous religion known as Donyi Polo. But the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist populations are large. There are also many Tibetan refugees who live in designated settlements in six districts. They have been given basic facilities like education, health, vocational institutions and livelihood support.

Most Tibetans, however, are reluctant to disclose that they are refugees. Many second- and third-generation refugees have, in fact, moved out of Arunachal Pradesh. The families of Tsering Gompu, 35, and 30 other Tibetans live in the Dibrugarh district in Assam selling clothes. Gompu – whose grandfather came to Arunachal Pradesh in 1959 – has graduated in Arts from Punjab University in Chandigarh.

China claims Tawang as its territory but locals say it targets the state because of Dalai Lama

“I was born in India and I am very happy here,” he says. But locals want China to let Tibetans go back to their land. “We will not allow them to acquire assets or citizenship rights,” says Tatung. Adds another student leader, Gumjum Haider: “India’s shortsightedness on the boundary is the crux of the issue.” Blaming India for the lack of infrastructure in the state, he adds: “If China can build the world’s highest railway from Beijing to Lhasa, why isn’t there a single railway track or airport here?”

AFTER INDIA’S independence from British rule, the Ministry of External Affairs administered it. It was then known as NEFA, short for the North East Frontier Agency. In 1972, it became a Union Territory and was renamed. It was given a legislature in 1975 and statehood in 1987. But Indian citizens from outside the state still cannot enter it without a permit, a practice the British introduced in 1873 to regulate commercial relations between tribal and non-tribal people and to maintain order in the frontier areas.

At the centuries-old Tawang monastery, monks have been holding special prayers for the Dalai Lama’s visit. Everywhere, the mood among the Tibetans is festive but apprehensive. “I don’t want to be persecuted again,” says Jamba Drema, 65, the caretaker of a Buddhist temple in Itanagar. “My life is over but I think of my grandchildren’s future now.” The fragrance of incense spreading around him, Sangey Jampa, a Tawang monk at the temple, adds: “Our religious leader is always the Dalai Lama. But even if Tibet gains independence, we will continue to owe allegiance to the Indian government.”

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