In Arunachal, Threats to Ban Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram 

Are anti-Chakma sentiments behind protests against national anthem in Arunachal Pradesh, asks Maitreyee Handique.

5 min read
A demonstration  in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, against the Supreme Court’s order granting citizenship to the Chakmas. (Photo courtesy: <a href=";theater">Facebook</a>)
  • Protesters led by All Arunachal Pradesh Student’s Union demand ban on national anthem across the state
  • Agitation picks up after Supreme Court grants citizenship to Chakma and Hajong families
  • Residents of the state feel insecure from Chakmas who number around 65,000
  • Anti-immigrant stir also gains momentum as Chinese dam becomes operational across Arunachal and Assam
  • Frustration stems from economic conditions -- lack of jobs and opportunities in the state

In the late 80s, at his village school, hidden in the fog-encircled hills of Arunachal Pradesh, Gunjum Haider took no time to learn two things: Sing Jana Gana Mana, India’s national anthem, with perfect poise.

And sing Vande Mataram, the nation’s first song – in Heil Hitler pose, fists clenched, right arm raised.

The 1962 India-China War was partly responsible for making the national hymns and Hindi popular in Arunachal’s multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society, replacing Assamese as the link language. The adoption of Hindi was also part of a government strategy to inculcate a sense of ‘Indianness’ among the natives in this disputed borderland, claimed by China.

But nowhere in India are the two national hymns so zealously sung as in this militarised frontier state. Children know them by heart. So do their grandparents, who greet one another on hilly paths with a ‘Jai Hind’ or ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

Singing a Different Tune

“Our people are patriotic,” says Haider. “Even if they don’t understand it, they sing along.”

But Haider, now chairman of the All Arunachal Pradesh’s Students Union’s (AAPSU) refugee committee, sang a different tune last Friday. No singing of national songs, he said ahead of leading protestors from his state to New Delhi’s Parliament Street.

AAPSU is also threatening to ban them from schools across the state.

The protest march and the suspension call on national songs has to do with the recent Supreme Court order granting citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong families living in Arunachal Pradesh for the past five decades.

Gumjum Haider, Chairman of the All Arunachal Pradesh Student’s Union. (Photo: Maitreyee Handique)
Gumjum Haider, Chairman of the All Arunachal Pradesh Student’s Union. (Photo: Maitreyee Handique)

Thousands of Chakmas became landless after the Kaptai dam submerged their homes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, then part of Pakistan. In search of livelihood, they trekked to India, and, as a relief measure, the government sent 4,102 of them, along with a few hundred Hajong families, to Arunachal.

The arrival of the new settlers was cause enough for the AAPSU to launch a violent stir, prompted by fears that their state’s ethnic composition is at risk. Chakmas, who number 65,000, is the state’s fourth largest community, according to them.


Anti-Immigrant Stir

“Some of our tribes are even smaller than the number of Indian soldiers present in the state,” says Noni Bath, Political Science department head in Itanagar-based Rajiv Gandhi University.

Noni Bath, Political Science Department head, Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar. (Photo: Maitreyee Handique)
Noni Bath, Political Science Department head, Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar. (Photo: Maitreyee Handique)

The anti-immigrant stir is gaining momentum in this strategically important state just when fears are looming over a Chinese dam becoming operational on the Tsangpo, called Dihang in downstream Arunachal Pradesh and Brahmaputra in Assam, overshadowing the joint bilateral military exercise this month. 

While the Supreme Court order ensures that the long-settled communities cannot be dislodged, moderates within the state want a practical solution: Let the Chakmas stay, but institute political safeguards for the indigenous minorities.

But AAPSU is in no mood to back off. “If the government doesn’t listen, it will bring a sea change in our thinking and the movement,” warns Haider.

They maintain that New Delhi had the Bengal Eastern Regulation Act, 1873, which restricts visitors’ entry into the state, including bonafide Indian citizens, let alone allow “foreign nationals” to live there.

Slow Pace of Development

The present frustration is also economic: Lack of jobs and opportunities in a state running on a Rs 12,000-plus budget deficit this year. India stepped up military presence after 1962, but development barely kept pace. Communication remains poor, and Arunachalis still have to travel back and forth to Assam’s plains to enter their own state.

The slow development was in step with the government’s pre-war ‘make haste slowly’ policy – a continuation of a British practice that classified this region, as well as the Chittagong Hill Tracts where the Chakmas came from, as “excluded area”.

Both these regions were considered equally backward in undivided India, needing special protection for land rights and cultural traditions.

Placards related to the protest against the Supreme Court’s order. (Photo courtesy: <a href=";theater">Facebook</a>)
Placards related to the protest against the Supreme Court’s order. (Photo courtesy: Facebook)

Changing Direction of Wind

Influenced by anthropologist Verrier Elwin, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid out his famous Panchsheel vision for NEFA: develop along the lines of their own genius. Nehru even rejected Gandhi’s favourite spiritual song – Raghupati Raghava – then sung in NEFA schools, as intrusive and unsecular. Both died in 1964, before the Chakmas arrived in the state.

Meanwhile, the ill-prepared war forced policy changes. When Chinese soldiers trooped in, people of this region were abandoned by New Delhi: officials fled, treasuries were emptied out and directions were given to blow up airstrips so that enemy planes cannot land. 

Post-incursion, Indian patrolling was intensified along the vulnerable Eastern Himalayan border and Parliament debated whether to send 100,000 farmers from Punjab to defend the frontiers. Mainland organisations like Ramkrishna Sarada Mission and Vivekananda Kendra moved in to educate the masses. Arunachal Pradesh was carved out of Assam in 1987 – the name selection made by a home ministry bureaucrat. 

“The wind of political change did not arise in NEFA but they were compulsorily blown into it by Delhi,” former Assam Governor B K Nehru wrote in his autobiography.  

But protestors are warning that the wind is changing direction. 

“Despite our differences in looks and culture, we think ourselves as pure Indians,” says AAPSU President Kamta Lapung, adding that his organisation has only two strategies for resolving the issue. 

“Plan A: We want the government to listen to us.”

“Plan B: We will go against the government (if Plan A fails).”

(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s northeast and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues.)

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