In search of citizenship

518

Chitra Ahanthem

The fight against India is not uncommon anymore: there has been a long history of questions over citizenship that most of us living in this country know or hear about vaguely. What stands out then is when the State does not recognize “citizenship” and the subjects look forward to being recognized as citizens…
Confused? Well, don’t be for there is indeed a place where this irony is a reality: Arunachal Pradesh. And no, this is not going to be on how people in the region feel strongly about India and swell with patriotic fervor (which they do) when the dragon across the border (read China) says Arunachal is part of China. Rather, it is about how a community living in parts of Arunachal, live in a country without any official papers that recognize them as citizens and what that means in their daily lives.

I was headed to Avoipur, a sleepy place in Diyun block under Namsai, in Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh. This was going to be my first trip to the state and was all the more better since it was going to be a solo journey by road from Guwahati. It would take me 14 hours to reach Diyun, Namsai being another hour by a pick up van. But first, I had to take an inner line permit (ILP) to be able to enter by road: ILPs regulate movement to certain areas located near the international border of India (Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland in the North East). Ironically enough, my ILP did not get used as none of the security guards at the border check post cared to ask for it- they looked at my small narrow eyes, my flat nose and probably figured I was from Arunachal Pradesh while they asked a girl with sharp features to show her ID even though she was a Bengali, a domicile and did not need an ILP. But the guards at the check post seemed to go by looks and I was left bemused. People familiar with the terrain of Arunachal Pradesh say it is often easier to travel within the state through Assam, rather than travel from one point to the other within the state itself! The bus ride within Assam was smooth but once it stopped at Namsai, from where I was taking a hired van to proceed to Avoipur (about 33 kms away), it took me about an hour and a half more since the roads were more gravel than anything else. Most people commute on bicycles or simply walk: there is hardly any public transport system and there are more Buddhist shrines than vehicles on the roads. Electricity is a new entrant, so much so that the poles dot the landscape to some extent but the electric cable wires were yet to make an appearance.

I was headed to look at a school initiative taken up by the Chakma community and the nature of the terrain and the political dynamics made me realize just why that school was special. The Chakma community once inhabited the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, whose region got into Pakistan in 1947 though the main religion followed by the group is Buddhism mainly and Hinduism to some extent. In 1964, communal violence and the construction of the Kaptai hydro-electric dam displaced nearly 100,000 Chakmas out of which a large number sought refuge in India, mainly in the districts of Lohit, Changlang, and Papumpare. In the years since, the Chakmas and the Hajongs (another community, mainly Hindus who also came into India from CHT) have culturally assimilated into the social fabric of the state. Yet, less than 2000 out of an estimated 60,000 Chakma population are handed valid IDs (voter cards, ration cards etc). The community got pushed back: schools with Chakma children got burnt down and many others were arbitrarily expelled and with time, Chakmas were being cut off from access to education. But those who had gone out of the state would eventually come back to set up a school which has till the 9th standard (they would be in 10th this year). Yet, the fate of its students hangs in the balance as the Government is yet to give recognition.

My stay is for three nights and I am game to walking 3 kms to the headmaster’s house. It turns out to be another experience: there are no roads. We walk through fields and always through muddy slush and I am told by my ever smiling host that I am lucky I got in after the monsoons or else there would have been more mud to wade through (this, when the mud reaches till my knees). There are no lights and I blindly follow the teachers who are escorting me (my sneakers in hand) and all the while praying that I don’t fall down in the mud. But there is one major obstacle: a meter wide stream over which there is a bamboo pole that I am to cross. It made me cry, wail rather: I have this huge phobia of walking over water bodies and I can’t for the life of me move without having something to hold on. I was crying before 3 strangers: the headmaster and his two teachers but there was no way I was going to cross that! It was getting more and more dark and finally I was asked to close my eyes and take the hand of a teacher who would walk before me while the other teacher held my other hand!

Once we reached the head-master’s house, we found his wife cooking dinner for us: it was a treat watching her cook fresh fish with a dash of lime; grounded ginger, garlic and herbs in a paste which she then wrapped in banana leaves. All of that went into a hollow bamboo, which she then heated in the hearth. Later, she told me that Chakma cuisine hardly use oil and masala or cook by frying, with steaming being the mode of cooking. The night wore on me with the crickets chirping way merrily. Morning saw me surrounded by lush green fields and mud of course. But the idea of crossing the stream on the bamboo pole two times everyday wasn’t good and I had to request that I be shifted anywhere, not without being ashamed a bit since two small boys: one the headmaster’s small son and another, a boy coming all the way from a village about 20 kms to study were leading me in the morning! The other boy was being looked after at the headmaster’s house since his parents wanted to send him away to Nalanda to become a monk while the little one wanted to study.

But it wasn’t just him: majority of the students had battled many odds to be studying in the school. A 6 year-old boy walked as many kilometers as his age to school (one way): his small legs taking him about close to two hours. He would start from his house at dawn broke everyday as classes started at 8.30. As in his case, most children’s parents were illiterate farmers, bent on giving education to their children who often take their shoes and socks in hand to negotiate long muddy stretches on their way to school from home and back, wearing them in the school campus only. One things that struck me was how common people looked towards being part of “India”: each house regardless of economic status had framed pictures of one or more Gandhis (the Mahatma, Indira, Rajiv), Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. Once parents get to hear of a visitor, invitations rushed in like a wave: for tea, lunch, supper, dinner, breakfast and anything in between.

End-point:
A major surprise was when a Manipuri woman came to meet me: it turned out that her ancestors had settled at Cachar in Assam generations ago. They were domiciles of Assam but followed Manipuri customs and traditions in terms of worship etc and yet, she was wearing the saree and had the red ‘sindoor’ in her hair parting which was something Manipuris would not do. Her husband was a Government employee posted at Diyun and when she heard a fellow Manipuri was around, she had come to meet me: our conversation was difficult since her Manipuri was garbled in intonation, modulation and pronunciation. It was strange talking to someone who considered herself a Manipuri despite not having visited where she considered her roots to be even once but the irony struck me: the Chakmas too had over time considered themselves Indian though they did not have the official papers. So, what then is this polity and intimacy of belonging? Is it official papers or is it the emotions ? I still don’t have any answers.

Posted: 2010-10-17

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