The last few weeks we have seen a flurry of activity in certain circles of Arunachal’s ‘civil’ society, in which there are repeated and sustained calls for a repel of the Tibetan Rehabilitation Act and the deportation of all Tibetan refugees.
Where does this sudden and vicious campaign of hatred come from?
Many Tibetans fled to Arunachal in the 1950s, fleeing the expanding Chinese army and administration that progressively occupied the Tibetan plateau, killing anyone who resisted, closing monasteries and nunneries, imprisoning civil servants and other office bearers. Most of them came from the areas bordering Arunachal – Lhokha, Tshona, Nang, Kongpo. Many of them already had contacts and relations in the places they settled – Tuting, Menchukha, Tawang, Dirang. The last big group of Tibetans came to Arunachal in 1962, when the Chinese army used the region of Pemakö, just across the border from Tuting, to attack India. Tibetans trained by the CIA had been fighting the advancing Chinese army with help from local Tibetans and Tibetans that had found refuge in this area during the 1950s. Although for some time they resisted the Chinese, the PLA pushed them further and further till finally they crossed the border into Arunachal.
For several years the Tibetan refugees stayed were they were, but then the Indian government got worried they may have Chinese sympathies, and resettled them in a few big refugee camps – Tezu, Miao, Tenzingang. Only a few, those with relatives among indigenous Arunachalis, settled in town such as Tawang, Dirang, Tuting and Bomdila. Many Tibetans left to other parts of India, and camps such as in Odisha have a lot of people that were originally settled in Arunachal. The Tibetan refugees in Arunachal were not allowed any of the benefits that the indigenous tribes had, such as owning land. Except for the land of the three camps, which is on a long-term lease basis, they couldn’t buy additional land elsewhere, and becoming farmers was not an option. They were not entitled to free education or government jobs, but the Central Tibetan Administration sent their children to schools elsewhere in India. But to survive, most had to do something different: in the beginning, many Tibetans found jobs as road workers, constructing the roads that Arunachal’s indigenous people use till now, some giving their lives in the process. And many Tibetans did what they are good at: small business. So, that’s why we find so many Tibetan-run shops, restaurants and hotels. Is it wrong, that they are making a living that way? Instead of living off handouts by the government, expecting the government to give them anything and everything, like so many tribal people seem to do? Instead of depending on the Arunachal or central government, support to the Tibetan refugees came from the Central Tibetan Administration, who in turn got their funds from international agencies and outside donors. And they worked hard themselves to survive.
So how many Tibetans are there in Arunachal. Well, probably not that many. In recent years, 1,000 were taken to Canada to start new lives there. Most of the younger generation live in Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and other cities elsewhere in India where they work in IT, call centres and other companies. In the three camps you will mainly find older people who have nowhere to go. In some towns we find the Tibetans as shopkeepers or running restaurants. And some Tibetans married with local people, especially with Khamba and Memba in Tuting, with Memba in Menchukha, and with Monpa in Tawang, Dirang and Bomdila. So how many Tibetan refugees are there left? The official 2009 figure by the government of India is just 7,530. Do the opponents of the policy have any reliable figures that state different? Probably, even the figure of 7,530 is an overstatement, considering 1,000 were taken to Canada AFTER 2009, and many people who are registered in the camps and across the state do not physically live their anymore but have just kept it as their official registered address. So, what are we talking about, 5,000 people at most?
In any case, there are not enough Tibetan refugees to form any ‘threat’ to the indigenous people of Arunachal and their culture. In a country like India, where there is no force from the state, culture is preserved – or not – by a people themselves. Not by some small outsider group. It is not like in Tibet where the Chinese government has consistently tried to destroy the Tibetan culture, or at least modify it to their own ideals. If people feel their Nyishi, Mishmi, Monpa, Tangsa, Adi or other culture is degrading, it is because they themselves are incapable of preserving it, not talking their own language but broken Arunachali Hindi, converting to foreign religions, forgetting about their own history and traditions, wearing fancy western dress and using make up instead of making traditional facial tattoos. Don’t blame these things on others.
And what does the Tibetan Rehabilitation Act actually state? Did any of its opponents even read it? Does it give Tibetan refugees the status as Scheduled Tribe, with all the advantages? Does this give them the right to buy land, apply for government jobs, and be competition to the indigenous Arunachali’s? No, it just specifies the fact that the land (the camps) they live in remains under lease; and ADVISES state governments to extend services of centrally sponsored schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) and National Food Security Act (NFSA), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and infrastructural facilities and basic amenities like roads, electrification, drinking water schemes in or around the Tibetan Settlements; ADVISES state governments to undertake skill up-gradation and training programmes for the Tibetan Refugees; ADVISES state governments to give permission to the Tibetan Refugees to run Tibetan Bazars to trade in Tibetan Artefacts, handlooms and handicrafts; and ADVISES state governments to allow the Tibetans to undertake such economic activities as they may desire and to that extent trade licenses/permission be given; and states that Tibetan refugees should be entitled for flood/famine relief as is extended to the Indian Citizens; and that qualified professionals from amongst the Tibetan refugees MAY be permitted to pursue/take jobs in PRIVATE and NON-GOVERNMENT sectors in any field for which they are professionally qualified. How is ANY of these things going to threaten the culture and rights of the indigenous Scheduled Tribes of Arunachal? Why are they afraid that 7,000-odd people, of which only a few are educated, most of the educated ones living outside the state, will ‘steal’ their jobs, especially knowing you will ONLY get a job in Arunachal if you have the right contacts and enough money at hand anyway?
Hence, the ‘facts’ that the proponents of these anti-Tibetan rants in social media and beyond present are not real ‘facts’. They lie about the numbers of Tibetan refugees and the perceived threat that Tibetan refugees pose to their land ownership, their culture, and their jobs. What do they need to find a scapegoat for? Are these groups perhaps so much courted by the YouTube videos of the Chinese propaganda machine?
And will the people of Arunachal stand by and silently let innocent lives be destroyed because of this persistent hate campaign? Stop it before it happens! Everyone seems so much scared of a few people in Arunachal and their bigotry, and no one is willing to speak out against them committing injustice to a vulnerable group.
And finally, a big question is: why is the Pema Khandu government and Kiren Rijiju’s Home Ministry apparently unable or unwilling to genuinely address the concerns that appear to be have developed among part of the Arunachali public? Why are they not providing the public with facts and figures to take away these concerns and counter fake news and misinformation in the (social) media? Will they just stand by and wait for things to turn ugly?
This piece has not even mentioned another, closely related issue that is making the news a lot lately: the Chakma Hajong refugee issue. I don’t have sufficient information to counter the news, but it would not be surprising if even this issue, the figures, the concerns, are largely based on misinformation, scaremongering and scapegoating. Hopefully, this issue too will finally attract the attention of some dedicated people who are willing to stick out their necks, find the facts, and appease the feelings and concerns of the people of Arunachal before things turn ugly there too.
We all know Arunachal is a fragile state, stuck in the corner of India, bordering three different countries, with a highly diverse indigenous population that – quite surprisingly and commendably – has maintained peace among themselves and with others for as long as it exists. The people have not been deterred by the lack of development, the lack of infrastructure, the poor education, the limited job opportunities, and rampant corruption and nepotism by the political elites. At a time of unseen changes and developments, when in a span of a few decades the lives of the indigenous people has turned completely upside down, from almost completely self-sufficient societies to a forced integration into the mainstream Indian socio-economic and political set-up, the concerns of the people need to be heard and addressed. Arunachal cannot afford to slip into communal tension caused by religious, ethnic or political prejudice and hatred. Such a development will be a bigger threat to the indigenous cultures than any perceived outside influence.