Time to reclaim our history

Monday Musing

[ Bengia Ajum ]

A few years ago, a friend from Delhi wanted to send me stuff and asked me to share my surface mail address. As I live in the Vivek Vihar area of Itanagar, I gave him my mailing address. He was like, “What? Are you sure it’s Vivek Vihar?”

Actually, my friend was shocked to hear a name like Vivek Vihar in Arunachal, and asked me how come a tribal area has such a name. This is just an instance of how slowly but surely the people from mainland India are erasing tribal culture, history and tradition by changing the names of our places and by appropriating our history and places.

Consistent attempts are being made to try to link us with mainland India by using fake religious narratives. It is a known fact that, before 1947, the majority of the tribals of Arunachal had no relation with outsiders and were happily living in the jungles on their own terms. Often I wonder, Is it really necessary to develop an imaginary story to try to link us with the rest of India? This is actually disrespectful to us.

Arunachalis are very proud Indians and will remain so forever. Today there are several places in the state where the outsiders have taken over the land using religion as a tool. These places once used to be very important religious and spiritual sites for the indigenous tribal communities of the state.

One of the best examples is what is happening in Mechukha in Shi-Yomi district. The holy Buddhist pilgrimage site of the Memba community, known as Neh-Pema Shelphu, has been converted into a Sikh shrine. Despite many objections raised by the Memba community, the area continues to be known as a Sikh shrine, whereas it is actually a Buddhist shrine.

It is said that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and three others, namely, Khandu Yeshi Chogey, Menmo Tashi Chorden and Nyamde Arasale, meditated in the cave for several years. To justify their claims, the locals say that historic evidence of the body and head prints are seen in the rock inside the cave. The locals also made it clear that there was no evidence of Sikh and Guru Nanak’s influence in the Mechukha area before the deployment of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army in 1987.

As per the version of the local people, things started to change when the Sikh Regiment was deployed in Mechukha in 1986-87. Some personnel of the regiment not only started considering the Pema Shelphu cave as the meditation point of Guru Nanak, but also started constructing a temporary gurudwara nearby.

Initially, the believers of two faiths – the local Buddhist Membas and the Sikhs – did not oppose each other. But as time passed, the differences between the two communities started growing, particularly in the matter of ownership of the pilgrimage site.

The differences in interpretation of the structures within the cave and outside the cave and the differences pertaining to food and drinking habits on the pilgrimage day, which falls in March every year, grew. In the late ’90s, and in recent years, the Membas started objecting to the activities carried out around the cave.

Memorandums from the lama fraternity, youths and public leaders were also submitted to the state government for immediate intervention and restoration of the pilgrimage sites to the rightful local owners. But the matter is still pending. Likewise, there are so many places across the state where the locals are being denied ownership of their land and history due to distortion of tribal history, faith and culture by the outsiders.

It is time we reclaimed our history and ownership of our land. Instead of Vivek Vihar, why not give the area a local Nyishi name? There are hundreds of Vivek Vihars and Ganga Lakes across India but very few Gyekar Sinyis.