It’s been relentless – Beijing’s unbridled propaganda offensive against India since the bloody clash in the Himalayas. Threatening rhetoric on Chinese military superiority, punishing reminders of 1962, seething editorials attacking India for being a US lapdog – all packaged for mass dissemination outside the great firewall – are now routine.
The handing over of five Arunachali youth detained by the PLA for allegedly foraging on the other side made news recently, but it was a tweet from a Chinese handle that amusingly went viral – “PLA handed over five Indian nationals who crossed LAC to China side to seek for a better and safe life. The youths reluctantly returned to India to face poverty and coronavirus back home.” Here was Psyops 101 with Chinese characteristics.
Far away from New Delhi, in Arunachal Pradesh such statements do elicit reactions. An interaction with a cross section of people during a visit to the state last year was telling of the aspirations of people, who are among the primary stakeholders in developing and securing India’s borders.
It was revealing that in the border state which dominates headlines in part due to Beijing claiming it as Southern Tibet, China’s mind games – issuing of stapled visas, renaming of six districts as part of ‘standardisation’, burning of maps etc – received no traction. However, there’s a genuine desire among people to discredit what they see as a false narrative that disregards their inalienable right to a land safeguarded by their tribes over centuries, and protected by the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution.
Take the case of the spectacular Ziro Valley in lower Subansiri – home to the Apatani tribe, who practise a unique agriculture system and are recognised globally for championing ecological sustainability. Their ingenious cultivation of paddy-cum-fish culture without any modern farming tools has put Ziro on Unesco’s tentative World Heritage Site list. Yet, the Apatanis of Ziro came into mainstream media focus only in August 2017, when the Chinese claimed them as their own during the Doklam crisis.
It was reported widely then that ‘China Travel Guide’ magazine had featured tourism promotion in ‘southern Tibet’ spotlighting ‘Ziro’ as a destination within China’s borders. Six pages profiled the region, describing the inhabitants as Lhoba Apatanis, a ‘Chinese’ tribe. Experts clarified that Lhoba are diverse Tibetan speaking tribes living around Pemako, a region north of the McMahon Line, and recognised officially among China’s 56 ethnic groups. Beijing followed this up by producing a series of films showcasing the ‘tribes of southern Tibet’.
“There is no basis for their ridiculous claims” – said a village elder or gaon burha, in the Apatani village in Ziro to me during a conversation. Visibly agitated, he recalled his memory of the 1962 war, recounting with great pride the ‘Longju incident’, where Shere Thapa, a valiant soldier of the Indian army, held back a major assault by the Chinese.
Thapa’s bravery won the hearts of the locals who still hold him in very high esteem, and many have demanded honouring Thapa’s legacy posthumously. Debunking Chinese claims, the village head then argued that the Apatanis follow the Donyi Polo religion or are nature worshippers, and trace their oral history to routes north of Subansiri and Siang areas, rejecting any historical interaction with the Chinese. “Let’s not waste our energy on China’s deviousness, we have to fix the future for our children,” he said emphatically.
A youngster translating for him, working as an English teacher in a private school, chimed in, “this has been debated widely on social media” – adding, it was “time to call out rewriting of history” while “making both tourism and promotion of our culture” a priority of the state.
Across generations, this seems to be the uniting theme. Tourism and development require connectivity, and Arunachal is today racing against time to overcome critical gaps in infrastructure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who according to locals enjoys wide popularity in the state, has shaken up the inertia of socio-economic development, and they have high hopes from New Delhi to do more.
In February 2019, the PM flagged off projects worth Rs 4,000 crore for connectivity in the state, including construction of the Hollongi greenfield airport. This would finally improve access to the capital Itanagar, currently connected only via Guwahati airport.
The severity of the challenge is put into perspective when one travels by road to distant locations, where fresh cut roads disappear overnight – either washed off by torrential rains or buried under by landslides. No wonder that a remote state tehsil Vijayanagar makes news for receiving 2G connectivity, even as it sits 157 km away from the nearest motorable road. This underscores why connectivity debates on our borders need to be informed by expectations of locals and tempered by ground realities.
A state administrator in Ziro summed up local perceptions beautifully – “Arunachali identity is first defined by our tribal identity which is passed down by our forefathers. Our people are fiercely patriotic, we were ruled by no one, India is our home. We in Arunachal and New Delhi need to think of the future of our children – education, connectivity and development which respects our fragile ecology should be our priorities.”
As India stands firm on its resolve to improve last mile connectivity, it’s an opportune moment to mainstream voices from India’s frontiers who keep the flag flying and let them shape conversations from the ground.
Shruti Pandalai thinks of herself as a Journalist by training, foreign policy wonk by practice and an academic work-in-progress. Currently understanding India’s policy challenges at premier Indian think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, her research specialises in India’s strategic thought and practice, great power relations, and media and national security issues.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.