Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Romance of Hostile Borders
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Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said once: “Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”
Jawaharlal Nehru too was a romantic; he wrote thus about the inhabitants of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA): “I am not at all sure which is the better way of living, the tribal or our own. In some respects I am quite certain theirs is better. Therefore, it is grossly presumptuous on our part to approach them with an air of superiority, to tell them how to behave or what to do and what not to do. There is no point in trying to make of them a second-rate copy of ourselves.”
Though constitutionally a part of Assam, in the 1950s, the NEFA was administered by the Ministry of External Affairs, with the Governor of Assam, acting as agent to the President of India, seconded by a senior officer (often from the ICS), designated as Advisor to the Governor.
In 1955, Dr. Verrier Elwin, the famous British anthropologist who had just taken Indian citizenship, joined as Adviser for Tribal Affairs; Verrier’s concept of the development of these areas was expounded in his celebrated book, The Philosophy of NEFA.
In his Foreword to the book, which became the Bible of the officers serving in the NEFA, Nehru asserted that he “began to doubt how far the normal idea of progress was beneficial for these people and, indeed, whether this was progress at all in any real sense of the word.”
Sixty years later, one realizes that this romantic view of the border population amounted to the segregation of a large chunk of the Indian population.
It has been the tragedy of the North-East, particularly Arunachal Pradesh.
With the invasion of Tibet at the end of 1950, followed 9 years later by the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa and the consequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India, the relations between the border populations and Tibet were discontinued, while Delhi’s romantic policies led to their neglect.
Verrier Elwin and Nehru could only see the anthropological side of the problem, forgetting the strategic as well the economic aspects of the border development; it resulted in a huge development gap between the frontier areas and the rest of India.
The first Prime Minister took however an excellent initiative: he created a separate cadre for India’s frontiers, namely NEFA, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan.
On April 4, 1952, Nehru wrote to Jairamdas Doulatram, the Governor of Assam, mentioning the need a ‘special’ cadre for the border areas.
A few weeks later, the Prime Minister Nehru told the Foreign Secretary: “These primitive people especially have to be dealt with care and friendliness and require expert knowledge which our average administrator does not possess. Hence the necessity for a specially trained cadre.”
The idea of a separate cadre was not appreciated by all. First the Assamese realized that the move to have a special cadre would further separate the NEFA from Assam.
Finally in 1954, the first batch of officers was posted on the frontiers and two years later, the ‘special cadre’ was officialized.
These officers were at first drawn from All-India services such as the ICS or IPS; others had served in the Army earlier.
The initial recruitment to the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) was made by the Central Government through a Special Selection Board with representatives from the MEA, the MHA and the MoD, along with an expert in tribal affairs (often Verrier Elwin).
K.C. Johorey who later became Chief Secretary in Goa was one of the first pioneers who joined the IFAS. He still remembers what Nehru told his batch: “The staff must go along with the flag and the typewriters can follow later on.”
Johorey recalls his first posting in Along in the Siang Frontier Division: “There were two houses, one for the burra sahib [for Yusuf Ali, his boss], and behind another smaller hut. The houses were really huts made of bamboos, palm leaves and canes. Even the tables and the beds were of bamboos. There were no mattresses, no electricity and no furniture. The houses were very clean and airy. That was all,” says Johorey.
One of the most famous members of the IFAS is Maj. Ranenglao ‘Bob’ Khathing who single-handedly brought Tawang under Indian administration in February 1951.
Another officer Maj. S.M. Krishnatri has left an extraordinary account of his ‘tour’ report in what is today the Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal. Krishnatry and his wife Geeta provide a detailed description of their adventures. Krishnatry who had earlier been posted in Tibet for 7 years, explains how his expedition was different from the British’s: “Most exploratory expeditions in the tribal frontiers have been armed or armoured with heavy escorts much to the cost and suppression of human rights, occupation of their lands, burning of villages, molestation of women, looting of livestock, crops and banning of trade.”
Geeta Krishnatry religiously took notes of her encounter with the villagers on the way to the border, entering in her diary every detail of their perilous tour. It is a most remarkable anthropological and strategic document.
The former officer of the Maratha Light Infantry officer explains: “I felt that a woman was a more secure safeguard against tribal onslaught, while Geeta was firm she would rather trust peace with tribals than with armed escort in our company.”
Another remarkable IFAS officer is Col. Rashid Yusuf Ali who is today 92 year-old and lives in Shillong (Meghalaya); he has lived an extraordinary life. His father, Abdullah Yusuf Ali was a reputed Islamic scholar of Indian origin who translated the Qur'an into English. Abdullah married an English woman. Their young son studied in England, Greek and Latin amongst other subjects.
In 1941, Rashid was commissioned in the Indian Army, and fought for the British in Burma. Like several other frontier officers, he resigned from the Army to join the newly-created ‘frontier’ service. He believes that what characterized IFAS officers, was their long tours; they used to walk over long distances (sometimes for weeks) to visit remote villages near the Indo-Tibet border. Ali, a Christian, also remembers walking with his wife from the plains of Assam to Sepla (today’s Seppa, in East Kameng district).
Ali is modest when he says the IFAS officers had not much work to do; he thus explains why on their return from the annual tours, they used to write long and delightful reports, very much enjoyed by the Prime Minister.
These officers, like Brigadier (Justice) D.M. Sen, the first Judge Advocate General of India, who is now 100 years old, have still fond memories of their days in NEFA.
But when one looks at the events before the 1962 war, one realizes that ‘the philosophy of NEFA’, though based on genuine human concerns, did not take into consideration the military and strategic aspects the region.
After all, Dr. Verrier Elwin, the guru of the NEFA, was an anthropologist, and it was certainly not his task to consider other aspects of the border areas. After 1962, Nehru probably greatly regretted to have neglected the preparation of the border defence for a romantic preservation of the ‘tribal life’.
It is sad that the IFAS, an adhoc creation by the Prime Minister, was dissolved in the mid-1960s and the intrepid IFAS officers were ‘merged’ into the more boring IFS, IAS or IPS. The fact remains that these officers who decided to sacrifice their careers to join the IFAS were all remarkable personalities, and even though the cadre does not exist anymore, these individuals should be role models for young IAS/IPS officers.