Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Last Frontier Post

Raining on Menchuka
In its section Agenda, The Sunday Pioneer publishes The Last Frontier Post, a report of my visit to Menchuka in West Siang.

Menchuka in Arunachal Pradesh remains one of the most unexplored regions in India. Claude Arpi tells about its people, its Sikh connection and, of course, its grievances

Explorers always loved the ‘blank’ on maps. It is perhaps the hallmark of the human spirit to want to know what it does not yet know. Even for modern Google Earth explorers like me, ‘blanks’ are fascinating. It is perhaps what encouraged me to visit Menchuka, the remotest, large village before the McMahon Line dividing India and China, in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
While researching for a book on the McMahon Line, I spent weeks exploring archival materials to understand this distant part of India, called the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) by the British. I eventually found maps of most of the Frontier Divisions (Lohit, Siang, Subansiri and Kameng), but very little on the Siyom area. British explorers such as Capt Frederick Bailey and his colleague Capt Morshead surveyed the Himalayas ‘beyond the snow line’ (that is Tibet) to prepare the ground work for Sir Henry McMahon, the British Foreign Secretary, to draw his famed map, or later Francis Kingdon-Ward, the intrepid botanist and explorer who never visited the area or the nearby Manigong valley. It is strange because the passes from these two valleys are the easiest route to reach the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Siang after crossing the Indian border, and later the Brahmaputra in Assam).
The road from Arunachal Pradesh’s capital Itanagar, which passes via Assam, was uneventful, thanks to a customary Assam bandh which left the road free of its usual traffic; it is only after Likabhali, the ‘checkpoint’, that one re-enters Arunachal; after showing the authorities an Inner Line Permit (or Protected Area Permit for foreigners), that the adventure really starts.
Along (now written ‘Aalo’ by the local administration), the district headquarters, is located 130 km from the Assam-Arunachal border. During the six-hour journey, one starts experiencing the luxuriant vegetation. Suddenly, I understood better why the British preferred to keep the area ‘unadministrated’ between an Inner Line (the interstate border) and an Outer Line (the McMahon Line after 1914). It was simply too costly for the Empire to run a normal colonial administration on this terrain.
Only when circumstances forced them, the British ‘penetrated’ these impenetrable hills and imposed the Empire’s administrative system and ‘civilisation’ on the heterogeneous and often unruly tribes. The murder of Noel Williamson, the Assistant Political Officer at Sadiya, by an Abor tribe near Komsing village in East Siang district in 1911 was one such event. Meanwhile, one question had started bothering the British: Can China encroach in southern Tibet? This set the ball rolling and two years later the tripartite Simla Conference was convened which eventually resulted in fixing the India-Tibet border.
To reach Menchuka from Aalo takes an entire-day’s drive on the road poorly maintained by the Border Road Organisation, an Army outfit. But what a day! The road follows the turbulent Siyom river, cutting its way through deep canyons to the lowlands where it meets the Siang. The landscape is magical with dense forests, flocks of white clouds hanging over the deafening river and the imposing waterfalls; crossing small villages with a few large houses constructed of bamboo and local materials and built on high pillars, makes the trip even more picturesque.
The 180-km route to Menchuka is a treat in itself; during the nine-hour journey in a local Tata Sumo (the only car plying in the area), I never felt jaded for a minute. Having left Aalo early, I arrived in time in Menchuka (in Arunachal Pradesh the sun sets at 4.30 pm), to discover another world: A long plain with a large village built around the longest advanced landing ground of the State manned by the IAF, with houses looking like Icelandic cottages. As I was looking at the Menchuka plain surrounded by snow-peaks, my local hosts asked me: “Don’t you think it looks like Switzerland?” Perhaps, but it has a charm of its own.
Though this remote administrative Circle of West Siang is located just 50 km from the LAC (McMahon Line), Menchuka has been opened to tourism a couple of years ago and a few days after my visit, a Menchuka Tourism Festival was inaugurated by the Chief Minister.
There’s a controversy on what is the true name of the place — Menchuka or Menchuka? ‘Me’ means fire in Mempa, a Tibetan dialect; ‘Chu’ is water and ‘Ka’ is snow; as for Menchuka, it would mean the ‘land of the medicinal plant and river. Each visitor is left to decide the meaning.
Tourism could be a great boon for the local population which remains deprived of modern facilities such as newspapers, Internet or even a petrol pump. One of the most surprising attractions for the visitor is the cave where Guru Nanak once meditated. After driving some 15 km towards the Tibet border (close to the end of the motorable road), I reach a bridge where we have to leave our vehicle. After a steep climb of a few hundred meters, I arrived at a small dwelling built around the cave where the first Sikh Guru stayed, probably on his way to Tibet. A few years ago, I had seen another cave, north of Tawang, where a Nanak Lama would have done some tapasya; here too it was probably Guru Nanak. In Menchuka, the Guru left marks of his turban in the rock; you can even see his sandals. Walking down perilous slippery stairs made of planks, to reach the tumultuous Si river, I am told to fish for a stone in a small cavity on the river bed. To bring out a white stone is extremely auspicious and indicates that the blesings of the Guru are upon you. I am lucky to get one.
On the way back, I visit the old gompa (monastery). It is the oldest of the district and it belongs to the Nyingma tradition of Guru Padmasambhava. As the road to the Gompa is still under construction, to reach the top of the hill where the Gompa is perched is not an easy hike. But if you make it, the sight takes your breath away. The 360 degree panorama is most impressive. Not too far away is the snowline selected by McMahon and his Tibetan counterpart which today separates India and Tibet. I marvelled at the Si river meandering tumultuously in the valley; it will become the Siyom after joining the Yomi in Tato village, 50 km downstream.
One historical aspect of Menchuka is always present: China occupied the area for a few weeks in November 1962. Some old people still remember the Chinese ‘visit’. I was told: “The Chinese soldiers were not aggressive; they just told us: ‘you are Chinese like us, we will never harm you; you don’t have long noses like the Indians, your eyes and skins are similar to ours’.” Today Beijing still calls the area ‘Southern Tibet’.
One general regret in Arunachal Pradesh in general and Menchuka in particular is that the Union Government has done very little to develop the road network during the past 50 years. The road in the last 37 km between Menchuka and the border is still not motorable; the situation is worse in the neighbouring Manigong valley.
One litany I heard during my stay in Menchuka is, “Why don’t we have proper roads to the border? Why can’t Delhi reopen the border like it did for Nathu-la in Sikkim?” I have no answers. Ironically, the Chinese recently announced the opening of a highway linking Metok with neighboring Bomi town, located not far away north of the McMahon Line.
On the last day of my stay, I meet ‘the oldest man’ of the area; he is 101 years old. He was already a gaon burah (village headman) when the Chinese came in 1962. When I ask him about his most cherished dream, he says: “Tell the Prime Minister to reopen the border, I want to visit my relatives in Tibet and bring back yaks; the species has become extinct on this side of the border.” Is the Prime Minister listening?

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