It was with palpable excitement that I had taken the flight to Dibrugarh from New Delhi on February 21. The excitement was on two counts: that I will get to cross the Bogibeel bridge, the country’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, across the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time, and that my Assamese feature film “Ishu” will be screened at the 1st Itanagar International Film Festival to be held in the capital city of Arunachal Pradesh from the next day.
The Bogibeel bridge gives a panoramic view of the massive Brahmaputra, and we took just about 10 minutes to cross the river across the 4.94-km-long bridge, which has come as a real boon for people of both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In a few hours’ time, we had crossed Gogamukh, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur towns to reach Bandardewa, the town on both sides of the inter-state border.
Here we were told, after the border sentries had checked our Inner Line Permits, that we will have to wait for an escort vehicle as there was a 48-hour bandh called by several local organisations against the government’s decision to consider giving Permanent Resident Certificates (PRC) to six non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (non-APST) that had migrated from Assam many decades back and settled mainly in the Namsai and Changlang districts in southern Arunachal Pradesh. These communities are Deuri, Mishing, Moran, Sonowal Kachari, Adivasi and Gorkha.
We reached Itanagar by around 9pm without any fuss, barring a road blockade by a group of youth who let us pass after some initial protest. Next morning, over breakfast at the Waii International Hotel, I met several film personalities from across the Northeast and rest of India – veteran Bollywood director-producer-actor Satish Kaushik, Shillong boy Ronnie Lahiri who has produced all of Shoojit Sircar’s directorial ventures and a few others, National Award-winning filmmakers Pradip Kurbah (Meghalaya), Lipika Singh Darai (Odisha), Meghnad and Biju Toppo (Jharkhand), Haobam Paban Kumar and Oinam Doren (both Manipur), Joseph Pulinthanath (Tripura), Manju Borah and Samujjal Kashyap (both Assam), actress Lin Laishram, musician Joi Barua and directors Sanjib Dey, Mukul Haloi and a few others.
As we got ready to proceed to the opening ceremony, we were told that it has been postponed till the evening because of the ongoing bandh. None of us had foreseen the brewing dark clouds – either during the whole day when we mostly lounged around, or in the evening when we were told that the programme has been postponed till the next day because of disturbances in the town.
It was past midnight, when everyone was ready to retire to his or her room, serious trouble started – we saw some fires erupting at a distance in the area where the Dorjee Khandu Convention Centre, the festival venue, stood. Slowly more fires erupted, and by around 1 am, the entire area surrounding the convention centre and the nearby Indira Gandhi park, was aflame. We could hear tear gas shells going off and then bullets being fired. Later, we got to know that the protestors had become violent as one of them had been injured in police firing earlier in the evening as they tried to storm the Secretariat building.
While we were safe at the hotel, nearly 100 people, mostly performers who were practising for the opening ceremony and personnel of the organizing team, were trapped in the Convention Centre. With Internet having been shut down, there was no way to find out what really was happening, and when I called up Sattriya dancer Answesa Mahanta, who was among those trapped, I could sense a real sense of fear in her voice. “The protestors have told us that they have nothing against us and won’t harm us, and has forbade us from going out from here, but everything is burning outside, and we don’t know what will happen next,” she had told me. Every vehicle parked outside the Convention Centre and at the IG park area were burnt and many musicians, including Alobo Naga of Nagaland and Suman Kalyan Dutta of Assam, lost all their equipment in the fire. Fortunately, nobody was harmed physically by the protestors.
All the five inflatable cinema halls, erected by Picture Time, were burnt down to ashes. So were the numerous food and other stalls around the venue. With the situation still tense but seemingly under control next day, arrangements were made to take all the stranded festival participants out of Itanagar to Assam border via the Itanagar-Gohpur road. Later, as we reached Dibrugarh late evening, we got information that massive violence had erupted again in Itanagar and Naharlagun again, and three people had been killed in police firing. The violence continued the next day (Monday, February 25), with the mob damaging and setting afire the private residence of Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein, damanged several shopping complexes, car showrooms, government offices and had looted stores. This, despite the Army having staged flag marches and curfew having been imposed.
Chief Minister Pema Khandu later tweeted and spoke at a media interaction to state that the idea of giving PRC to the six communities had been dropped. Earlier, the government intended to implement the recommendation of a Joint High-Powered Committee (JHPC) to give PRC to the six communities.
Looking from a neutral viewpoint, both sides of the PRC debate have their valid arguments. For its 83,743 sq km area, Arunachal Pradesh is very sparsely populated – it has a population of just 13.84 lakh according to the 2011 Census – with 26 major and over 100 sub-tribes making up its ethnic diversity that is an anthropologist’s delight. Many of these tribes have populations less than 50,000, some even less than 10,000. Most of them oppose the idea of giving PRC for the six non-APST communities whose total population would be not more than a few lakhs, saying such a decision would negatively impact the smaller tribes. They contend that giving PRC will lead to influx of more members of these communities from Assam, leading to threat to existence of communities like Singphos who are just around 6,000 in number.
On the other hand, the members of the non-APST communities argue that because they do not have PRC, they cannot get land pattas, deprived of government jobs, and cannot for UPSC and other competitive examinations, among others problems.
Quite clearly, it’s a complex issue concerning right to live and right to dignity on one side and right of smaller communities to exist without any ethnic pressure on the other – an issue that must be handled sensitively and carefully in the long term. In the short term, of course, the all-round violence has dented the image of otherwise peace-loving people of India’s easternmost state, an image they themselves won’t like to harbour for sure.
(The writer is a National Award-winning filmmaker and film critic)
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