Intolerant governance

[ Tongam Rina ]

The state government’s unwillingness to accept any form of dissent was in full display as its police arrested lawyer-activist Ebo Mili and graffiti artist Nilim Mahanta (a native of Assam) for defacing a controlled river mural on the wall of the civil secretariat, the seat of the government in Itanagar, to celebrate the 50th year of the renaming of Arunachal. The mural with controlled water gates depicts the journey of hydropower development in Arunachal. The two allegedly painted ‘no more dams’ and a sign of resistance over the hydro mural, triggering discussions on freedom to dissent and the pros and cons of hydropower in Arunachal.

The defaced mural has since been covered with a dark sheet by the government, symbolic of the protest.

The best step should have been to ignore all or leave the portion as a site where people can express themselves.

Sensitive to criticism and replicating the rest of BJP India, where criticism isn’t accepted, Pema Khandu’s government went ahead and arrested them, thereby unwittingly reigniting a debate on hydropower that it definitely does not need right now, given how sensitive the issue is. Not used to any form of dissent and blinded by its supporters who reacted as if the very idea of Arunachal has been threatened by the defacing of a tiny portion of a wall with the image of a controlled river, the government reacted with pettiness seen on earlier occasions too.

By arresting the two, the government and its agents that like to have a good time in the company of music and festivals have shown that the government may patronise art and music, but not when it’s used to question.

Tomorrow, I won’t be surprised if a lyricist is arrested for writing songs questioning the government, or even a government employee locked up for questioning the government on social media. Or just a random citizen questioning. Anyone could be picked up for questioning the government.

Caught in controversy and the bad publicity that came with it, the government issued a very lame statement. It tried to pitch Arunachalis a superficial narrative that the two hurt the sentiment of the state by defacing a mural celebrating the state. They just defaced the portion of the mural which depicted a controlled river. Instead of keeping quiet after it made a blunder, the government indulged in something more sinister. These are dangerous games, and in the long run, they will backfire. The citizens can see the games.

The government has ambitious hydropower plans. It also knows that not everyone is in favour of hydro dams. It very well knows that hydropower has a bloody past. People have died protesting hydro dams.

Drunk on absolute power, with nobody to question it, the government tried to intimidate those opposed to hydropower by arresting two young people. Intimidation rarely works in tribal societies, where everyone is regarded as equal human beings, where discussions and debates are still the norm. Instead of trying to scare off people, it would be good to initiate discussion, be open about the pros and cons of hydropower development and its likely implications on the fragile nature of Arunachal. Uttarakhand and Bhutan have similar topography as us. Has hydropower worked there? If too lazy to go that far, look at Ranganadi. It’s an example of how terribly run-of-the-river projects can affect lives and livelihoods and have long-term impact on the life of a river.

While discussions will go on, one lesson for the government is that it should learn to listen, whether one agrees or not. Arresting voices of dissent will only make you look silly.