From Ethnicity to Power Play, the Drama in Arunachal Pradesh Has it All

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday on the imposition of President's rule by the Centre in Arunachal Pradesh

The NDA Government may have given Arunachal Pradesh a powerful presence in the Home Ministry through Kiren Rijiju but the North-eastern state, by and large, has always been distant – both from the gaze of national politics, cutting across party lines and also of the national media. After all, with just two Lok Sabha seats, how important can a state be in the prevailing politics where numbers matter?

But suddenly, in the past week or so, that remote state has been getting front page attention in national newspapers and on television channels. All thanks to an ongoing ugly face-off between the State Chief Minister Nabam Tuki and the Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa and the Centre invoking President’s Rule last Tuesday. Both sides are now awaiting the Supreme Court’s hearing on the matter this coming Monday to know whose stand is Constitutional and whose is not.

While waiting for Monday, one can look back at the scaling up of the showdown, which, interestingly, has quite a few dimensions to it – from ethnic to financial to sheer power play — between the Centre and the State, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

A former Chief Secretary of Assam, Rajkhowa was sent to Arunachal in June last year as its Governor. A delicate state bordering Myanmar and Tibet which has in its list of ex-governors retired Army generals, former foreign secretaries and a former RAW director (There were some politicians too in between), the selection of Rajkhowa (an IAS officer of the 1968 batch) was significant.

“Apart from the fact that a bureaucrat was sent to the border state after two governorships of former army generals, Rajkhowa was the first from the North-east to become the Arunachal Governor, someone who speaks a language (Assamese) that most Arunachalis understand. This makes the showdown all the more unfortunate,” points out New Delhi-based journalist and North-east commentator, Kishalay Bhattacharjee.

Ill-timed selection

However, the fact remains that from the ethnic angle, Rajkhowa’s selection was ill-timed. He took over Raj Bhavan at a time when the border dispute between Assam and Arunachal was in a heightened state, with incidents of violence lacing it, leading many Arunachali politicians across party lines to doubt his “devotion” to the state for being an Assamese.

Says Jarpum Gamlin, a State BJP member and the Editor of The Eastern Sentinel, “Many disgruntled Congress and BJP members did want a change of Governorship as Lt. General (Retd.) Nirbhaya Sharma was being looked at as too soft on Tuki and his corrupt ways. However, Arunachalis were unhappy at Rajkhowa’s selection because of his Assamese roots. Because, for us, settling the border dispute between the two states has been more important than the issue of the McMahon Line with China.”

In May-end last year, Gamlin expressed that “public anger” in an article for a Delhi-based online news website, saying, “Besides being a former bureaucrat, he (Rajkhowa) is a celebrated and influential litterateur in Assam but is an unknown entity to the Arunachalis.” In a report sent in January by Rajkhowa to the Centre to argue that there has been a constitutional breakdown in the state, he did mention his “Assamese roots” being targeted, apparently by Tuki-sponsored protesters.

However, on looking back at Rajkhowa’s two predecessors – Lt. General (retd.) Nirbhaya Sharma and General (retd.) J.J. Singh it is clear that the state’s leaders had problems with them too, even if they were not “ethnic” ones. In that article, Gamlin touched upon it, “There were anecdotes of how Singh attempted to treat a full-fledged state like a union territory by summoning cabinet review meetings at the Raj Bhawan during his initial days, thereby causing heartburn among lawmakers.” About Sharma, he wrote, “He shall be remembered as a gentleman but also as one who failed to guide a chief minister, a failed mentor who could not create a performing team.”

Rajkhowa, however, soon overcame his ethnic disadvantage with the disgruntled politicians of the state by reaching out to them, which, according to an Itanagar-based journalist who wanted to remain unidentified, “was part of an action plan by the Centre.” He began “getting involved with the opposition and ruling party members’ allegations of financial bungling by Tuki and began writing letters to the CM asking questions.”

Financial indiscipline 

The political problems that the Governor supposedly began stoking, go back to November 2014, when Tuki’s Health Minister Kalikho Pul — he was elected the Leader of the House in that famous assembly session in a community hall on December 16 — began accusing him of “serious financial indiscipline”.

“I was Arunachal’s Finance Minister for over 14 years under four Chief Ministers. But never have I seen such fiscal indiscipline. Since 2013, Tuki Government has been taking overdrafts from the Reserve Bank of India. It led RBI to order State Bank of India a couple of times to stop payment to the state. It stopped the salaries to Government employees for months together, also scholarships to poor students,” Pul said to The Wire.

“The total overdraft since 2013 comes to Rs.1294 crores. The Government has to repay the amount to RBI with 13 per cent interest, a huge sum for a non-revenue generating state,” he adds.

The outstanding amount, he states, “is going to affect the state’s next budget. Under the 14th Finance Commission, Arunachal is to get Rs.7200 crores from which the debt amount will get deducted. But the Government has already spent over Rs.6000 crores from that amount under the non-plan head.” 

Pul, along with some Congress members approached the state Government, the then Governor and the Congress high command on the issue “but they refused to listen to me. Instead, I was dismissed from the Cabinet in December 2014,” he says. He went to Rajkhowa because he “wanted him to act on the financial bungling, and not because I was hoping that he will make me the next Chief Minister.”

According to Gamlin, “Rajkhowa wrote 18 letters to Tuki and didn’t get reply to any.” Alongside writing letters to Tuki, he was writing to the Centre too. Since September last year, he reportedly sent over 15 notes on the state’s “law and order” issues.

In one of those notes, Rajkhowa also accused Tuki of “indulging in corruption”. A Guwahati-based senior journalist who also prefers anonymity, though points out, “Across party lines, Arunachal has been one of the most corrupt states not only in the NE but in the entire country. After all, where do you find a deputy CM’s private house with a helipad and a football ground because his son has to train in the game? But what is surprising is that Centre is suddenly seeing it as a reason to clamp President’s Rule.”

As per the Governor’s counsel Satya Pal Jain’s January 27 deposition to the SC, another reason cited by Rajkhowa in a four-page report to the Centre, was that “Tuki was engaging with NSCN (K), a banned outfit.”

“The Governor’s reference to the armed militia, NSCN, is not new. The politician-militant nexus in parts is well known by the people and the Centre and this can’t be a reason for this sudden proclamation of President’s Rule in the state,” says Bhattacharjee.

Governor’s cow reference mocked

Among all the Governor’s reasons, the one that got the most attention was a “cow slaughter” incident cited as a sign of law and order collapse in Arunachal. He was mocked, particularly in the social media, first for calling the state animal, the Mithun (a bovine), a cow and secondly, for raising “a non-issue” as the Mithun is reared in the state mainly for meat. Also, cow slaughter in Arunachal is not banned.

Says Pul, “The way it was done was offensive. Mithun is a sacred animal for us, sacrificed with religious rituals. But what happened in front of Raj Bhawan on December 17 was political. It was a violent mob of 100 to 200 people led by the Home Minister T. Byaling and two other Cabinet Ministers who sacrificed the animal to intimidate the Governor. If the Home Minister is involved in such activities, how can the police act?” Reportedly, the Governor sent his first categorical request to clamp President’s rule in the State just after that incident.

While both Pul and Tuki are now camping in New Delhi waiting for the SC verdict on Monday, Gamlin told The Wire, “Pul and his supporters are not as smart as Tuki is, who has successfully turned the attention from the corruption charges against him into a bitter Congress-BJP fight.”