On February 16, two days after the Pulwama terror attack, hundreds of people — political leaders, students and the migrant business community — held a candle-light march to “honour the martyrs” in Pasighat, a town on India’s eastern tip along the banks of the meandering Siang river, bordered by the Abor hills of the Himalayan ranges.
Among those leading the march were Pasighat East constituency’s BJP MLA, Kaling Moyong, and the man he had
defeated in the 2014 assembly elections by a mere 50 votes, Congress’s Bosiram Siram. Both are on either side of the political divide again — for the assembly elections alongside the Lok Sabha polls. But on that day, they marched together on that “patriotic walk” from the Mahatma Gandhi statue in the local market to that of the late Daying Ering, a former Parliamentarian from this town.
“The feeling of nationalism is very strong across Arunachal Pradesh. We love India and hate China,” says Kanggong Tayeng, a 25-year-old B.Ed student at the Daying Ering College of Teacher Education, who took part in that march.
On April 11, Pasighat decided which way it wants the country to go — and now, it’s the wait for May 23.
So is this election all about nationalism?
After casting his vote in Sibut village, 11 km from Pasighat, where he was also a polling agent for the BJP, Tayeng says, “(Narendra) Modiji should return as Prime Minister and continue with the bold steps against terrorism. There should be no appeasement of terrorists.”
But what he says next frames the major debate in these parts for Elections 2019. “Also, as someone from the NorthEast, I feel that if and when the BJP government brings back the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), this region should be left out of it. The NorthEast is not a dumping ground for illegal migrants,” he says.
However, experts and political leaders across town say that while those may be the two main talking points here, there is much more to any election in Arunachal — the call of tribes and clans, a concoction of money and inter-personal community ties.
Tribe ties, money & politics
To get a sense of this mix, consider this evening scene at the home in Pasighat of Kento Rina (70), MLA of Nari-Koyu
assembly constituency, which is a 90-minute drive away. In the make-shift kitchen set up for everyday gatherings, Rina’s relatives prepare litres of “apong”, the traditional rice beer, and fry kilos of beef and pork, while overseeing the preparation of “rice-dal-sabji”.
“We do not buy anything other than spices and oil. Rice, vegetables, chicken, cows and even wood… everything is donated by supporters. People come here to be with him and have a good time… we look after around 500 people through the day,” says Leena Rina, 49, one of Rina’s sisters-in-law and the unofficial boss of the kitchen.
Meanwhile, two young women walk into the living room and ask for Rs 30,000 to buy a laptop. One of them is a final-year B.Com student at the town’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru College (JNC), which was established in 1964 and is the oldest in the state — the other is her younger sister. The money does not materialise and the two leave disappointed. “Many of them want money all the time. The dominance of money culture in elections is the worst thing to have happened in this state,” says Rina, the MLA.
“Candidates do not represent a party or ideology, but their clans or communities. They will seek support from their clan members by displaying their material resources. The monetary factor comes first, followed by clan affiliation and personal charisma. Once candidates get clan support, they go all out to get official nomination from the party in power,” says Nani Bath, who teaches at the department of political science at the Rajiv Gandhi University near Itanagar.
For instance, Chief Minister Pema Khandu won on a Congress ticket in 2014 before defecting to the regional party PPA and then to the BJP.
‘Youth want jobs, businessmen contracts’
Around 2 km from Rina’s house, in the town’s market, Tobom Dai, general secretary of the powerful All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), says that “when the electorate is so small, everyone has an expectation from the leader”. “The youth want jobs while businessmen want contracts. Unemployment is an issue across the state. Every youngster wants a government job. The system is such that the MLA will try to fulfil their demands and that increases the probability of corruption,” says Dai, who was born in Pasighat and lives in Itanagar.
According to the 2011 Census, Arunachal’s population is 1,383,727 with a density of 17 persons per sq-km (lowest in the country) — the Delhi/NCR region’s is 11,297 persons per sq-km. Pasighat comes under the Arunachal East Lok Sabha seat for which state BJP chief Tapir Gao and Congress’s James L Wanglat are the main candidates this time.
The town itself was established in 1911 by the British as an administrative headquarters — a first in what is today Arunachal Pradesh. Since then, it has seen a steady stream of migrants, mostly working as labourers, government employees and businessmen. Today, Pasighat is home to around 25,000 people, with a majority comprising non-tribals.
Early this year, there were intense protests in the NorthEast against the now lapsed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (CAB), which proposes to make non-Muslim minority immigrants from three neighbouring countries, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, eligible for Indian citizenship through comparatively relaxed norms.
But Arunachal has a sense of “nationalism” that is unique, say analysts, more so after the India-China war of 1962 — “Jai Hind” is a common greeting and Hindi is a common language. “The indigenous people of the state, unlike the rest of the states in the Northeast, are oriented to be nationalists because of successive policies of the government, keeping in view the geostrategic location of the state,” says Bath, the academic.
Pasighat also has an airport, a general hospital, and prominent educational institutes — temples for Hanuman and Kali, an Assamese naamghor, and a gurdwara stand next to each other in the town’s central market area.
Road to Delhi
This year, the town’s journey to Delhi has hit the national headlines for more than one reason.
On April 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a gathering of over 4,000 people at the General Stadium. The night before, poll officials seized Rs 1.8 crore from two vehicles that were part of the entourage accompanying Chief Minister Khandu, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein and state BJP chief Gao outside the government guest house.
At the rally, Modi spoke mainly about the “false promises” of the Congress. And after the EC action, the state BJP distanced itself from the seizure. Click here for more election news
On the ground, however, the buzz in a local WhatsApp group, which B.Ed student Tayeng is a part of, is mostly about whether the local MLA has been able to develop infrastructure in their village and why a bridge has not been completed yet.
“But irrespective of these debates, there is an overwhelming support base for Modiji. People here speak Hindi and watch a lot of Hindi news channels. Arunachalis are patriotic and we understand how Modiji is talking about national interest,” says Tayeng.