Lives lived at the Borderlands of Arunachal Pradesh


Twelve kilometres from the India-Myanmar border in the Patkai hills of Arunachal Pradesh, is the last Indian town that goes by the name Nampong. The town appears crucial in India’s Act East Policy for being located on the historic Stillwell Road built during World War II, which starts from Ledo (in Assam), passes through Nampong (in Arunachal Pradesh), and several towns in Myanmar, finally connecting it with Kunming in China.

While doing my fieldwork in Nampong which is in Changlang district in Arunachal, I received the news of two youths being shot at by security forces in case of mistaken identity in the nearby district of Tirap. The incident happened close to the town of Khonsa where I grew up in, and is second such incident within fifteen days. This happened a day after AFPSA was extended in the three districts affected by insurgency in the eastern Arunachal Pradesh- Tirap, Changlang, and Longding (TCL)- which are categorised as ‘disturbed’ area by Indian state.

My mind goes back to the conversation I had two days back where one of the respondents in Nampong told me that “though such incidents in the town and nearby districts unsettles them there is noise only where there are political party people, for rest their lives remain engulfed in silence as their unexpressed emotions remain buried alive”.

In the policy documents of the government, Nampong is an emerging border town with prospects of vibrant cross border trade with Myanmar. On the ground, life appears slow and an unusual calmness surrounds the town. This may appear as a normal definitive characteristic of small towns, but inhabitants of the town know the fragility of this normalcy which gets easily disrupted by frequent counter-insurgency operations in the region.

Such operations are regular in the region and the lives of people along this borderland continue to remain entangled between insurgents and security forces. Now, all that people of this borderland want is peaceful coexistence with their neighbours across the border. The local respondents in Nampong belonging to Tangsa community, who trace the origin of their ethnic community to Myanmar, share with me that they have family members across border whom they hope to visit if the restrictions on cross border movement are eased in future.

One of the counter insurgency strategies of the Indian state in the three insurgency affected districts of Arunachal Pradesh has been to bring development to the TCL region, but for those living in the town, the pace of development is very slow. One official who has grown in Nampong and is presently in charge of trade development officer tells me that the “pace of development is so slow in town that it is invisible to him, but tourists visiting the town after decade may be impressed with the newly built tarmac roads.”

The nature of developmental projects in Arunachal Pradesh has been characterised as being ‘pickled’ or ‘selective’ development due to the intermittent nature of development. It is surprising to note that Nampong which is being visualised by the Arunachal Pradesh government as a border trade town that will be their entry point in Southeast Asia doesn’t even have a bank till now. Nampong had a land customs office since 1951, but it is yet to have a formal post for trade with Myanmar. Over the years several buildings have been constructed as customs office, along with a weighing bridge, storage house, double-storeyed building in the market for traders and a shopping complex, but all of them remain shut or defunct. Despite having all the structures in place, formal cross border trade has failed to take off, and yield revenues for the government.

The informal cross border trade which used to happen thrice in a month with the neighbouring town of Pangasu remains suspended for the last two years due to the pandemic. An elderly shopkeeper, Mr. Morang who also acts as a Burmese interpreter for the government officials and security forces, tells me his business has been severely impacted by the closing of the border, as most of his customers were from the neighbouring border town of Pangsau in Myanmar. People from Pangsau used to travel to Nampong to buy their daily necessities including food grains, salt, and cosmetics. Their dependence on Nampong was due to the absence of good connectivity with nearby towns within Myanmar.

As Myanmar is undergoing civil unrest, I asked him if he feels worried about his relatives in Pangsau who are at present trapped by their geography. The road which exists and leads them to Nampong is closed after the pandemic, and the towns which are open to them in Myanmar are not accessible to them due to poor road connectivity. He replied stoically that there is no point being worried about them because he cannot help them either through his words or money. He informs me that Pangsau doesn’t even have a good telecom connection or international banking system, and movement across the border remains suspended.

The Free Movement Regime which operates between India and Myanmar is implemented along 32 km stretch in the borderlands, where people who can prove their domicile within 16 km of the border are allowed to navigate till 16 km across the border. I am told that before the implementation of this regime, people from across Arunachal Pradesh and India could travel to the border with a permit from the local administration. Ironically with the implementation of the Free Movement Regime, several mobility restrictions have been imposed even on the local inhabitants who live in neighbouring towns of Nampong but fall outside the 16 km limit.

Before the pandemic started cross border markets served as a meeting place for a lot of these families divided across borders, but its suspension has robbed these borderland communities of that opportunity too. In this militarized borderland where the local inhabitants continue to find themselves tangled in this convoluted universe of insurgency, militarised borderlands, and dying economic opportunities, their only hope lies in revival of cross border mobility, trade and social connections which may pave for durable peace in this ‘disturbed’ borderland.

Shubhangineee Singh is a PhD research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University with research interests in citizenship, border studies, borderland communities, and governance in Northeast India. Presently she is working on her thesis ‘Governing Borderlands: State, Communities, and Border Management in Arunachal Pradesh’. She has submitted her MPhil. on “Differentiated Citizenship in the Protected Areas of Northeast India: Case study of Arunachal Pradesh’.

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