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French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had once said: "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… 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, seconded by a senior officer (often from the ICS), designated as an adviser 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, which became a sort of "bible" for all the officers serving in the NEFA.
Near 70 years later, one realises that this romantic view of the border areas amounted to the segregation of a large chunk of the Indian population. Verrier Elwin and Nehru only looked at the anthropological side of the problem, forgetting the strategic as well the economic aspects of border development; it resulted in a huge development gap between the frontier areas and the rest of India.
All factors, including military, need to be taken into consideration to arrive at a holistic "philosophy".
However, the first Prime Minister took an excellent initiative: he created a separate cadre for India’s frontier areas, namely NEFA, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan: "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."
It was the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS). This was shut down in the 1960s.
Today India is changing fast, particularly the border areas. One could say that the New Philosophy of the Northeast (this is also valid for Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh or Ladakh) is at present being rewritten and this time it should not to segregate the border populations but to integrate them into India.
Take the example of the Chumig Gyatse Holy Waterfalls in the Yangtse sub-sector of Tawang. This is one the most sacred places in Arunachal Pradesh, blessed by Guru Padmasambhava, the great yogi and tantric master who lived in the 8th century AD; it has now been opened to visitors.
The Great Guru extensively visited the border areas and his legacy can still be found in many places (for example, the Taktsang monastery near Tawang, Rewalsar in Himachal Pradesh or Gurudongmar in Sikkim).
On the exact spot where the Guru is said to have created 108 waterfalls, the Yangtse clash took place between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the night of December 9, 2022.
Several other border areas are now being opened to visitors.
An article in a national newspaper mentions: "The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) has decided that tourists, mountaineers, and trekkers will no longer need an Inner Line Permit to visit Milam Glacier [located at 18,000 feet]. The Inner Line Permit has been one of the most mandatory requirements for decades now. It is one of the most famous places for adventure enthusiasts in the Kumaon Himalayas [of Uttarakhand]."
The article explains: "The Inner Line Permit requirement had many adverse effects on the tourism sector." But it goes beyond that: these areas are within Indian territory and there is no reason why permission should not be required to visit them. The "susceptibility" of the northern neighbour should not be New Delhi’s concern.
Interestingly, one newspaper had reported in 2015: "As villages along the international border in Uttarakhand face out-migration on an unprecedented scale, uninhabited areas lie open to territorial claims by the Chinese."
The reporter had studied the case of Niti, the last Indian village, located 26 km south from the Niti Pass which demarcates the border between Tibet and India, 88 km from Joshimath. For centuries, the village saw traders, pilgrims and officials freely moving between the two countries and the area flourished. Unfortunately, all this stopped in 1962.
In 2015, only 35 families remained in the village, while a few decades ago there were 250. After the trade with Tibet (today China) stopped, the area is virtually closed to outsiders and slowly it became a "ghost" region, with most young people moving to the plains in search of education or a better life.
Hopefully, the "philosophy" is changing fast and the village can now develop with eco-tourism.
In Ladakh too, the UT administration along with the Indian Army and the ITBP are making all-out efforts to change the trend to stop the out-migration. For example, on July 15 and 16, a Nomadic Festival 2023 took place not far from the Line of Actual Control in Hanle, famous for its observatory and white cranes. It was open to any visitor who could witness cultural troupes from different villages in Changthang presenting dance, songs and traditional sports: "The main focus of the festival was to present a kaleidoscopic view of the nomadic lifestyle and traditions of the people of the region… Nomadic communities in Ladakh lead a challenging but self-sufficient lifestyle, adapting to the harsh climatic conditions and high altitudes. They have a deep connection with nature and maintain a strong sense of community and cultural identity," said a release.
A couple of months later, Umling-la, the world’s highest motorable road at 19,024 feet, entered a Guinness World Record by hosting the World’s Highest International Fashion Runway, under the Vibrant Ladakh Festival.
All this is good for the local population as well as the defence forces: a populated border is a stronger border.
But the real factor that the Government of India, the UT administration and other stakeholders should not forget to keep in prime focus is the environment. Nobody wants to see another Joshimath or Chunthang (Sikkim), where a number of people lost their lives due to man-made disasters.
And perhaps the government should also think of re-creating an IFAS cadre, with motivated and dedicated officers ready to serve at the remote borders of India.