Arunachal Pradesh, arguably the most scenic of the seven Northeast states, has always stood apart from its neighbours. Not just because it is remote or only sparsely populated (density: 17 persons per km, as per the 2011 census), but also because it is by far the most peaceful state in the region. There is no violence here, beyond the routine, nor any indigenous insurgent group creating law and order problems. Recently, though, for the first time in my travels to the state since 1986, I have seen rage on the streets.
Anger at the abysmal condition of the only road that connects the frontier town of Tawang to the foothills of Assam has boiled over. Bearing the brunt of the resentment is the hard-working staff of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), entrusted with widening and improving the roads. In the past six months, enraged residents, no longer able to bear the hardship, have attacked BRO officials, destroyed their vehicles and pushed heavy tippers and bulldozers down the steep valleys. I’d heard from friends in the military about the worsening road condition. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the hardship that one encounters in travelling up the hills from Bhalukpong all the way to Tawang—the main theatre of war in 1962. In a 20-km journey, there are stretches that can take two hours or more.
Half a decade ago, in a belated realisation, India’s highest decision-makers opted to build up and improve infrastructure here, especially on the roads leading up to the China border, overturning the earlier policy of keeping the area underdeveloped lest the Chinese—if they launched an offensive once again—used it! Elaborate plans were made but five years down the line it is evident that making plans is one thing and implementing them on the ground is quite another. And this for a country that built a 250-km “Garland Road” in Afghanistan in record time under the shadow of the Taliban.
With the Indian army deploying one more Mountain Division (approximately 20,000 soldiers) in this sector, building infrastructure has become all the more critical. But the BRO, despite its best efforts, is unable to cope for a variety of reasons. The challenges of weather and terrain apart (it rains heavily four months a year; most areas are snow-bound for another three), one of the major hassles that the BRO faces here is the acute shortage of skilled labourers. Officers say they are facing a 70 per cent shortfall in manpower in this sector alone. The locals keep away and the labourers from Jharkhand and Bihar, who made up the majority of the workforce earlier, no longer find it attractive to travel the distance since there is plenty of work available back home now. The result: missed deadlines and work half done. And with the lone helicopter service now suspended following a spate of accidents, I don’t foresee easy access to Tawang for the next three to four years.
The road to Tawang is dotted with numerous war memorials built and maintained by the army as a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in that unequal battle with the Chinese in the winter of 1962. The one at Nyukmadong is dedicated to the more than 900 soldiers and officers killed while retreating from the heights of Se La Pass down to Bomdi La town. Some were also captured by the Chinese waiting here in ambush. In Tawang town, near the brigade headquarters, there is a central museum-cum-memorial for the 2,500-plus soldiers killed in this theatre. But none comes close in popularity to the “shrine” at Jaswantgarh, sited halfway between Bomdi La and Tawang. Named after Rifleman Jaswant Singh of the 4 Garhwal Rifles, who won a Mahavir Chakra posthumously for his valour in trying to halt the Chinese in their tracks here in November 1962, Jaswantgarh is a must-stop on this road. A steaming cup of tea and hot pakoras from the smiling soldiers provide a welcome treat on the tedious and tiring journey.
Half a century is long enough to heal the scars of war. Or so I thought until I met Netin Tashi. A spy with the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau in 1962, Netin, now in his mid-80s, recalls the war as vividly as if it happened yesterday. He recounts how people fled Tawang; how the PLA occupied hamlets and pretended to help the locals. “They are sweet in their initial interaction, but later they will shoot you. After all, they are Communists,” he says. The wizened old man has advice for the government: develop the area quickly lest the younger generation, which sees and hears about progress in China, not have the same loyalties for India his generation had.