Wooing Arunachal: Blueprint For A Geopolitical Hotspot 



In 1957, a remarkable book was published by the North-East Frontier Agency, or NEFA, as much of the region which in 1972 would become the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh was known at the time (It became a State on 20th February 1987). NEFA was then administered from Shillong, and it was controlled by the Ministry of External Affairs—Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru held that portfolio. Then, as now, the region was a geostrategic hotspot—just five years shy of a war with China.

The book was A Philosophy For NEFA and its author was Verrier Elwin, a lapsed missionary-turned-Gandhian and a favourite of Nehru. British-born Elwin, who was the first foreigner to be given Indian citizenship, in 1954, was appointed the Adviser for Tribal Affairs for North-Eastern India, and was also Anthropological Adviser to NEFA. Elwin, even then quite a legend, had already worked extensively in the tribal regions of Central and Western India.

The book debunked myths of the noble savage and attempted to lay out a blueprint for government behaviour towards an ethnologically diverse and strategically important region of India. It addressed material, social and psychological aspects—even dresses worn by various tribes of NEFA. The hearts-and-minds exercise was plainly aimed at integrating NEFA into India.

Ironically, Elwin’s blueprint for NEFA was written just a few years after the Naga wars over Naga identity and dignity had broken out, inviting extreme retaliation from Nehru’s government—which went against the advice of several key Congress leaders from North-East India who advised negotiation and a political solution. And it came just a few years from the shock of the 1962 war with China, which led to great inroads into NEFA by China—and an Indian retreat deep into Assam—before a ceasefire.

Critics have painted A Philosophy For NEFA as somewhat paternalistic and as much a brochure for Elwin’s patron Nehru as a brochure for an enlightened, inclusive, future aimed at the legion of bureaucrats and administrators who would nevertheless have their strings tied to New Delhi. This excerpt provides a mind’s-eye view of official thinking during the formative years of a newly free, quite turbulent country by one of the most influential thinkers and policymakers in modern India—and is a mirror to how much remains to be done for the still-uneasy region’s identity, dignity, and true integration.

Map of NEFA in Elwin’s book
Map of NEFA in Elwin’s book

The Menace of the Inferiority Complex

An inferiority complex is a dangerous thing, it poisons the sources of individual happiness, making a man abnormally sensitive, bitter and resentful. It is destructive of art and culture, causing people to despise their own ideas and customs and to regard their own creations as inferior. It can ruin the political relations between two communities, and in the tribal areas can disturb the friendly association of the hill people and the outside world.

In all the tribal areas, the danger of creating this sense of cultural and political inferiority is apparent. ‘I am so ashamed of being a Konyak,’ exclaimed a Konyak boy who had a little education. One of the leading tribal interpreters in Tirap told me that he was embarrassed at being called a ‘Naga’ (which actually he was not) that whenever he went down to the plains and mixed with other people, he described himself as Chinese. The difference in the way he was treated, he said, was remarkable; at once he was given the respect and position that was denied him as a NEFA tribesman.

An Adi interpreter who once went to Delhi told me that he had been rebuked there by a leading politician for appearing before him in a loin-cloth. ‘When the great man said this to me,’ he said, ‘I thought I wasn’t a human being at all. I felt that I was a monkey and my proper place was among the trees. An Apa Tani used very similar words in describing his reactions to the magnificence of the buildings and personalities of the capital; ‘they made me feel like a monkey of the hills.’

This sensitiveness is particularly noticeable when parties of NEFA people, and indeed parties from any of the tribal areas, are brought from the interior to perform at dance festivals or to travel around India. In their own country they never pass anyone on the road without greeting him and exchanging a few words. In the villages there is a free and easy spirit of hospitality; you don’t have to call on someone before being invited to his house. Everybody sits down to a meal together and there are no classes in tribal transport…

There was a distressing incident at a Tribal Welfare Conference in a State in eastern India a year or two ago, when parties of dancers were brought long distances to entertain the delegates and, after being kept waiting for hours in the hot sun, with the most meagre amenities arranged for them, were told they were improperly dressed and could not put on their show. The shock to the generous and simple tribal mind as a result of such treatment is incalculable.

Recently a party of Adi boys went on an educational tour of India. In one State capital they visited the Museum and were shown life-size models of a few NEFA people and a number of old photographs, which seems to have been collected for the Calcutta Exhibition of 1883. In the fashion of the time, the models had ferocious countenances and were painted a pitch black; the photographer seems to have chosen the ugliest possible types to immortalise with his camera. The boys were natural upset by this, for they felt they were being ridiculed and misrepresented, as in fact they were, in the eyes of the world. Matters were even worse at another Museum I visited recently…

Integrating NEFA

When I asked Mr B.P. Chaliha, the great-hearted chief minister of Assam, what magic he had for the solution of the many human and political problems in the Autonomous Districts of his State, he replied, ‘A little understanding, a genuine respect, a lot of affection.’ This is the real magic that works wonders in human hearts.

And it is with this magic that administrators and social workers everywhere must approach the tribal people and their problems. But they must translate their ideas into very practical realities. Under the prorgrammes of the Five Year Plans they will be trying to bring greater prosperity, more food, better health, roads, clean water, education; all this we take for granted. But there is no point in growing rich if there is a thief lurking behind the house. They must guarantee the tribal folk their land, give them a generous freedom of their forests, eliminate the middleman by Cooperatives, banish the money-lender, build up the tribal councils. And they must never forget the imponderables, never forget that man does not live by bread alone, but that greatest of all treasures is a quiet mind and inner happiness. They must adapt themselves and all their enterprises to the local scene, they must revive creativeness in all those who have lost their arts … restore self-respect and a pride in their own religion and culture among those who have been infected by a feeling of inferiority, and above all give them a sense of freedom through a vision of what they can contribute to the great country they have come to love, and the hope that they will soon play their full part in administering themselves.

…The first important point is that an Administration of this kind works as a whole: everything fits together, everyone has a share in it, and it all affects in one way or another the life of the tribal people.

One of the great achievements of the last three years has been the creation of the Single-Line Administration which stresses the inter-relationship of the entire work and the importance of every aspect of it. Even those members of the staff who do not deal directly with the tribal people have it in their power to influence them for good or evil. Thus the officers dealing with supply and transport have a vital part to play in maintaining supplies for building institutions and keeping the staff supplied with the necessities of life. But equally they have the opportunity of ensuring that the goods imported into NEFA will not corrupt tribal (life) or tempt the people to waste their money on unnecessary and unsuitable things, but will rather enrich their life with the best products (within, of course, a limited price-range) that India, traditionally an artistic and beauty-loving country, can supply.

The Assam Rifles can play a large part, not only in maintaining law and order, but in setting an example to the people of smartness, discipline, self-help and the dignity of manual labour. By their friendliness and readiness to help in all emergencies, the jawans have always proved good ambassadors and their influence has been of great value in integrating the people with the rest of India. They are now being more closely associated with development programme, in the making of roads and bridges, and in the growing of food.

The work and influence of the office assistant, the accountant or the Sub-Treasury Officer is not confined to the keeping of accounts and dealing with files. The people of NEFA are remarkably sensitive to two things, the first is delay, the second is corruption. The prompt and courteous settlement of bills, whether for contracts, porterage, casual labour on roads, air-strips or buildings, a readiness to spare time to listen to a grievance, the elimination of long waits outside an office—have their social and political effect. And conversely, delay, neglect, irritability and impatience create the worst possible impression on the tribal mind and foster a sense of inferiority and alienness.

Integrity, fidelity in the keeping of accounts, a constant watch to see that Government money is put to the best possible use for the benefit of the people, the determination that the bulk of the money will be spent for their good and for the staff are of the utmost value in winning the sometimes suspicious and critical heart of the educated tribesman.

Even the motor-driver, the peon, the medical attendant in the hospital has his part to play in this great task. The tribal people look at the Administration as a whole, and however good a Political Officer may be himself, he will fail unless he can inspire his entire staff with his own ideals. One bad assistant, or corrupt chaprasi, or oppressive interpreter can undo much of the good done by higher officers.

Success in the very delicate task of steering a middle way between leaving too much alone and interfering too officiously and imposing too heavily on the life of the people will depend on an appreciation of the fundamental ideas set out by the Prime Minister. As an aid to this, administrators of all tribal areas throughout India might well adopt the following touchstones for any scheme for development, welfare, relief and expansion: the sentences within quotation marks are from Mr Nehru’s own speeches and writings.

  1. Will the scheme help the tribesmen to grow according to their own genius and tradition?
  2. Or will its result be merely ‘to shape them according to our own image or likeness and impose on them our own particular way of living’?
  3. Will it tend to make of the tribesmen ‘a second-rate copy of ourselves?
  4. Will it ‘uproot the tribal people from their surroundings’ and ‘make them grow soft and thus lose some of their fine qualities’?
  5. Is it open to the criticism that ‘it is grossly presumptuous on our part to approach the tribesmen with an air of superiority or to tell them what to do or not to do’…
  6. Will it involve too rapid a process of acculturation or, in other words, are we trying to go too fast?
  7. Is there any danger that we are overwhelming the tribes by too many projects, each good in itself, but in the aggregate imposing too heavy a burden?
  8. Will it impair or destroy in any way the self-reliance of the people?
  9. Is it really, on a long-term basis, for the ultimate good of the tribesmen, or is it simply something that will make a good show in the press or an official report?
  10. Will it, in the case of NEFA, help to integrate the tribal people with Greater Assam and with India as a whole?

NEFA offers a unique opportunity to every member of the Administration, for it is attempting an exciting and unusual experiment which, if successful, will write a significant page in the history of civilization’s dealings with primitive people. Elsewhere in the world, colonists have often gone into tribal areas for what they can get; the Government of India has gone into NEFA for what it can give. Whenever a new project is considered or a policy proposed, the one criterion is whether it will be for the benefit of the tribal people.

Excerpted from the second edition of the book A Philosophy For NEFA by Verrier Elwin (published by the North-East Frontier Agency, Shillong, in 1959, and made available with the courtesy of the Central Archaeological Library, New Delhi).

This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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