Utpal Borpujari

May 5, 2019

Of anti-PRC protests, a film festival and a violent night in Itanagar

https://www.firstpost.com/india/of-anti-prc-protests-and-a-violent-night-in-itanagar-6244891.html Published on 12/03.2019

By Utpal Borpujari

It was with palpable excitement that I had taken the flight to Dibrugarh from New Delhi on February 21. The excitement was on two counts: that I will get to cross the Bogibeel bridge, the country’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, across the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time, and that my Assamese feature film “Ishu” will be screened at the 1st Itanagar International Film Festival to be held in the capital city of Arunachal Pradesh from the next day.

The Bogibeel bridge gives a panoramic view of the massive Brahmaputra, and we took just about 10 minutes to cross the river across the 4.94-km-long bridge, which has come as a real boon for people of both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In a few hours’ time, we had crossed Gogamukh, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur towns to reach Bandardewa, the town on both sides of the inter-state border.

Here we were told, after the border sentries had checked our Inner Line Permits, that we will have to wait for an escort vehicle as there was a 48-hour bandh called by several local organisations against the government’s decision to consider giving Permanent Resident Certificates (PRC) to six non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (non-APST) that had migrated from Assam many decades back and settled mainly in the Namsai and Changlang districts in southern Arunachal Pradesh. These communities are Deuri, Mishing, Moran, Sonowal Kachari, Adivasi and Gorkha.

We reached Itanagar by around 9pm without any fuss, barring a road blockade by a group of youth who let us pass after some initial protest. Next morning, over breakfast at the Waii International Hotel, I met several film personalities from across the Northeast and rest of India – veteran Bollywood director-producer-actor Satish Kaushik, Shillong boy Ronnie Lahiri who has produced all of Shoojit Sircar’s directorial ventures and a few others, National Award-winning filmmakers Pradip Kurbah (Meghalaya), Lipika Singh Darai (Odisha), Meghnad and Biju Toppo (Jharkhand), Haobam Paban Kumar and Oinam Doren (both Manipur), Joseph Pulinthanath (Tripura), Manju Borah and Samujjal Kashyap (both Assam), actress Lin Laishram, musician Joi Barua and directors Sanjib Dey, Mukul Haloi and a few others.

As we got ready to proceed to the opening ceremony, we were told that it has been postponed till the evening because of the ongoing bandh. None of us had foreseen the brewing dark clouds – either during the whole day when we mostly lounged around, or in the evening when we were told that the programme has been postponed till the next day because of disturbances in the town.

It was past midnight, when everyone was ready to retire to his or her room, serious trouble started – we saw some fires erupting at a distance in the area where the Dorjee Khandu Convention Centre, the festival venue, stood. Slowly more fires erupted, and by around 1 am, the entire area surrounding the convention centre and the nearby Indira Gandhi park, was aflame. We could hear tear gas shells going off and then bullets being fired. Later, we got to know that the protestors had become violent as one of them had been injured in police firing earlier in the evening as they tried to storm the Secretariat building.

While we were safe at the hotel, nearly 100 people, mostly performers who were practising for the opening ceremony and personnel of the organizing team, were trapped in the Convention Centre. With Internet having been shut down, there was no way to find out what really was happening, and when I called up Sattriya dancer Answesa Mahanta, who was among those trapped, I could sense a real sense of fear in her voice. “The protestors have told us that they have nothing against us and won’t harm us, and has forbade us from going out from here, but everything is burning outside, and we don’t know what will happen next,” she had told me. Every vehicle parked outside the Convention Centre and at the IG park area were burnt and many musicians, including Alobo Naga of Nagaland and Suman Kalyan Dutta of Assam, lost all their equipment in the fire. Fortunately, nobody was harmed physically by the protestors.

All the five inflatable cinema halls, erected by Picture Time, were burnt down to ashes. So were the numerous food and other stalls around the venue. With the situation still tense but seemingly under control next day, arrangements were made to take all the stranded festival participants out of Itanagar to Assam border via the Itanagar-Gohpur road. Later, as we reached Dibrugarh late evening, we got information that massive violence had erupted again in Itanagar and Naharlagun again, and three people had been killed in police firing. The violence continued the next day (Monday, February 25), with the mob damaging and setting afire the private residence of Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein, damanged several shopping complexes, car showrooms, government offices and had looted stores. This, despite the Army having staged flag marches and curfew having been imposed.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu later tweeted and spoke at a media interaction to state that the idea of giving PRC to the six communities had been dropped. Earlier, the government intended to implement the recommendation of a Joint High-Powered Committee (JHPC) to give PRC to the six communities.

Looking from a neutral viewpoint, both sides of the PRC debate have their valid arguments. For its 83,743 sq km area, Arunachal Pradesh is very sparsely populated – it has a population of just 13.84 lakh according to the 2011 Census – with 26 major and over 100 sub-tribes making up its ethnic diversity that is an anthropologist’s delight. Many of these tribes have populations less than 50,000, some even less than 10,000. Most of them oppose the idea of giving PRC for the six non-APST communities whose total population would be not more than a few lakhs, saying such a decision would negatively impact the smaller tribes. They contend that giving PRC will lead to influx of more members of these communities from Assam, leading to threat to existence of communities like Singphos who are just around 6,000 in number.

On the other hand, the members of the non-APST communities argue that because they do not have PRC, they cannot get land pattas, deprived of government jobs, and cannot for UPSC and other competitive examinations, among others problems.

Quite clearly, it’s a complex issue concerning right to live and right to dignity on one side and right of smaller communities to exist without any ethnic pressure on the other – an issue that must be handled sensitively and carefully in the long term. In the short term, of course, the all-round violence has dented the image of otherwise peace-loving people of India’s easternmost state, an image they themselves won’t like to harbour for sure.

September 20, 2017

Misinformed comments do Priyanka – and the NE – no good

By Utpal Borpujari


(Published in http://www.hindustantimes.com on Sept 14, 2017; http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/priyanka-chopra-your-misinformed-comments-about-sikkim-did-a-huge-disservice-to-northeast/story-OdgSqJC3N93AD8FzwTEVJK.html)

Only a couple of days ago, the cleaning lady at one of my fellow Assamese friend’s music studio in Mumbai had asked him where Assam was. The lady is a Tamilian, who has lived in Mumbai for long, and has not gone to school beyond a few classes. My friend jokingly told her, in his Assamese-tinged Hindi, “Jaise aapka Tamil Nadu India ka niche hai, waise hi Assam India ka upar hai”, meaning just as Tamil Nadu is in the south, Assam is in the North – or the Northeast to be more precise.

It’s a fact that a huge number of people still have either no idea about the Northeast region or India, or just have a vague idea about it. And they include not only the unlettered or social-disadvantaged class, but also what we know as educated and socially-aware classes. As a Northeasterner living in Delhi since last 23 years, and having worked in the media all this time, I personally can vouch for the fact that even within the media, the awareness about the Northeast, and its complex issues, is hardly worth anything to write home about.

But it is also a fact that the visibility of and awareness about the region has improved to some extent now, as compared to even, say, ten years ago, thanks to the multitudes of Northeast cultural events, increasing population of people from the region in the NCR and other parts of the country, and also the increasing number of journalists from the region working in the media houses.

From the initial years of anger and outrage that I would feel when someone otherwise “informed” would make a silly observation on the region, now it’s the feeling of more of a pity on such people, as I increasingly feel that the fault lies more in the lack of virtually any information about the region in the primary, secondary and higher education curricula. If we people from the Northeast know about the Chola dynasty or Chhatrapati Shivaji, it’s because we had read about them in our school books, and if people elsewhere do not know about Lachit Barphukan or U Tirot Singh (to give two examples), it’s because they are absent from the school books elsewhere.

But even then, the misinformed comments on Sikkim by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Assam Tourism Brand Ambassador and “Mary Kom” star Priyanka Chopra – in an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival while talking about her production “Pahuna” – rankles. An unlettered cleaning lady in Mumbai not knowing about Assam is one thing, and a hugely-popular and talented star like Ms Chopra giving wrong information about a region that she is genuinely trying to connect with (if we go by the latest announcement that she is producing an Assamese film with legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, coupled with her production of Sikkimese film “Pahuna”) surely is another.

Ms Chopra is a known name now internationally, thanks to her appearances in television series “Quantico” and Hollywood movie “Baywatch”. She is, as we all know, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, she is the brand ambassador of one of the Northeastern states. Along with that, she is a top name of Indian cinema. So, anything she says, goes out to a huge audience, through conventional media as well as social media.

Therefore, when she says that Sikkim is an insurgency-hit state, and that “Pahuna” is the first feature film to come out of the state, it is quite natural that many would believe both the statements. The only problem is – as social media have already stated emphatically and angrily – that both statements are incorrect. Quite clearly, Ms Chopra is misinformed, or – as most people tend to do – paint the entire Northeastern region with one brush. It is a fact that for most Indians, the term “Northeast” is used to describe a region that has a history of insurgencies, is full of exotic tribes, and a region that lies beyond the mental boundaries of “mainland” India (though it is a dichotomy that the same “mainland” term is never in terms of India’s two island territories of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep). While it’s a popular coinage, it also works in a strangely negative way – by homogenizing the immense geo-political, social and cultural diversity of the region and its eight states.

But even if one considers this aspect, talking of Sikkim specifically as insurgency affected is far beyond being far fetched. In fact, if there is one state in the Northeast that has stayed free from any such trouble, it’s Sikkim. In fact, it’s one of the most-peaceful states all across India, with an absolutely low crime rate, leave aside insurgency or terrorism. Sikkim actually is mostly talked about for its positive aspects – such as having one of India’s highest per capita incomes, being among the leading states in literacy level, being one of India’s cleanest states, being the first Indian states to be declared Open Defecation Free way back in 2008, and being India’s first – and only one till now – fully organic state.

Sikkim is also a tourism-intensive state, and had led the country in introducing home stays and heli-tourism. A large number of domestic and international tourist visit the peaceful state every year, and Ms Chopra’s comments could hugely impact the tourist inflow as for any lay person, it’s easy to believe a Northeastern state to be insurgency impacted going by the image of the region, especially when it comes from a figure whose comments are quoted widely across media. No wonder, the Sikkim government, along with the people of the state and the region – as well as informed people from across India – has reacted with anger at the comment.

Ms Chopra’s other comment about “Pahuna” being the first film to come out of Sikkim, has also been ridiculed, and rightly so. Sikkim does not have a film industry per se, but films have been made in the state quite regularly. In fact, only this year, Sikkimese film “Ralang Road”, by director Karma Takapa, had its world premiere at the Competition Section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the highly-respected film festivals of the world. The film will also be screened at the forthcoming edition of the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival. “Acharya” and “Katha” by another young filmmaker, Prashant Rasaily, has also earned acclaim earlier. And these are just three examples from among the films that have been made in Sikkim over the years.

It’s laudable the way a top Bollywood actor like Priyanka Chopra has taken to producing cinema in various Indian languages, including those in languages from states that have very small domestic markets such as Sikkim and Assam, but her comments in the context of “Pahuna” have unnecessarily diminished that effort while belittling the works of the local filmmakers who make films with unimaginably-limited resources.

It’s quite befitting that the actor has tendered her apology to the Government of Sikkim for her comments regarding the state being insurgency affected. Perhaps, she could also issue one more to the filmmakers from Sikkim, whose works have got negated by that interview in Toronto.

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