Mapping the states of India

Loveliest & loneliest frontier

A land with a heritage as varied as it is ancient, Arunachal Pradesh followed a largely atypical path — with little to no regional aspiration — to achieving eventual statehood

The establishment of Arunachal, first as a UT, and then as a state runs counter to the general format of this column: the aspiration, if at all for a separate entity, was rather muted and there was no assertion either. While Arunachal does have a boundary dispute with Assam, and there are issues with regard to the Tibetan settlements, the Chakmas and Hajongs, this does not take away from the description of the State as 'the loveliest, loneliest and the least known outpost of the Northeast, a vast variegated swathe of territory that encompasses much of Brahmaputra Valley in a giant horseshoe'. The State is marked with extraordinary diversity: with one hundred and ten tribes, of whom twenty-six are considered to be major tribes, many of whom migrated centuries ago from Tibet and Burma, stayed on in isolated hamlets as movements across the mighty rivers were not easy to negotiate — thereby explaining the diversity of culture and the babel of tongues.

While the earliest history is now being reconstructed on the basis of archaeological finds, Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee opines that this region was part of the sacred geography of the Mahabharata and Jambudweep. As per popular legend, this is where age Parashuram atoned for his sins, King Bhismaka founded his kingdom and Lord Krishna married Rukmini. During the medieval period, Mahayana Buddhism held its sway over Tawang, Dirang, Kalaktang and Mechuka.

We also get some idea about these tracts from the writings on Mir Jumla's campaign against the Ahom kingdom in 1662, which apart from describing the rugged terrain, also talk of the mesmerising beauty of the Mishmi women! Détente ensued between the Ahoms and the Mughal governors of Bengal, but as the East India Company, with its capital in Calcutta became the dominant political power, in 1818, the Ahom King sought the assistance of the British against the armed incursions from Burma. The Treaty of Yandaboo saw the Ahom kingdom cede part of its territory to the Company. From 1875 to 1904, the areas inhabited by sub-Himalayan tribes on the borders of Darrang and Lakhimpur between the Bar Nadi on the Darrang Kamrup boundary on the north of the Brahmaputra and the Disang river on the extreme Southeast of Lakhimpur district on the south bank of Brahmaputra, touching the Sibsagar district were brought under British control. In 1914, the Foreign and Political Departments extended the Assam Frontier Tracts Regulation, 1880 to the Hills inhabited or frequented by Adis, Miris, Mishmis, Singphos, Nagas, Khamtis, Bhutias, Akas, Nyishis and designated it as the North Eastern Frontier Tract.

With the Constitution of India coming into force, a change was visible in the administrative set up of the Frontier Tracts. The Government of Assam was relieved of its responsibility for the administration of Northeast Frontier Tract and the discretionary powers were re-vested in the Governor of Assam, as the agent of the President of India. Although the region was still part of Assam, the legislative jurisdiction was not extended to the Frontier.

Prime Minister Nehru's policy was based on the views of the defrocked missionary, Verrier Elwin who as the Adviser on Tribal Affairs had considerable clout in the policy-making for the region. In 1954, a full-scale administration of the area was inaugurated, with the promulgation of North-East Frontier Areas (Administration) Regulation of 1954 and the acronym of NEFA became the new descriptor. The establishment of the IFAS was not without strong resistance from the Home Ministry, the Government of Assam and the members of the opposition, and it was perhaps because of this that NEFA was placed under the MEA of which he was also the Minister. Writing to his Foreign Secretary, Subimal Dutt, Nehru said, 'The real question is of building up a cadre, specially selected and specially trained … I think that Mr Verrier Elwin could be of great help to us because of his wide knowledge and experience and human sympathy for these (tribal) folk'.

However, after the 1962 debacle, when the Chinese forces occupied substantial parts of NEFA, and certainly after his death, NEFA was moved from the External Affairs to the Home Ministry, the IFAS officers were seconded (and finally merged) with the IAS and the IPS, and the isolationist policy was reversed. It was rightly felt that the political participation of the people at all levels would be the best way to integrate the region with the country. In fact, based on the recommendations of the Daying Ering Committee, the President promulgated the 'Northeast Frontier Agency Panchayati Raj Regulation, 1967'. In fact, it can be said that this was the precursor to the 73rd CSTA for the implementation of Panchayati Raj structure to the rest of the country in 1992.

The Northeast Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 provided a new political status to the region as Arunachal Pradesh and in 1972, it became a Union Territory. The credit for the new name goes to Sri Bibhabasu Das Shastri, the then Director of Research and KAA Raja, the then Chief Commissioner of NEFA!

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun

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