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Arunachal Pradesh - People

The state's population is largely tribal, with 26 dominant tribes, each with its own language and customs, and literally hundreds of sub-groups. There are so many different groups of people in Arunachal that any categorisation is difficult and incomplete.

With an area of 83,743 square km and a population of 1.1 million, it has the lowest population density in India. The state's 26 tribes, all with distinct cultural traditions, range in characteristics from the more Tibetan Monpas in the west to the Burmese-influenced Nagas in the east. The tribes constitute about 70 percent of the population and a steady influx of outsiders, many from Assam and Bangladesh, make up the remaining approximately 30 percent.

Arunachal has received waves of migration from different directions, over centuries. The early waves were probably from Bhutan, Tibet, Burma, and Yunnan. The more recent migrants are largely from Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh. For eons, the mountains kept the various tribal clans isolated from each other, and there was not much homogenisation. In fact, each group maintained their own distinct language (and often even a different dialect), belief systems and culture. Though there are more than 125 tribes, according to the 1991 Census, only 15 of them had a population of more than 5,000 people.

Nowhere else can one find such a patchwork of discrete types of pre-industrial political economies in such a small area, including semi-nomadic swidden agriculture, terraced wet agriculture, high montane pastrolism and traditional trade and barter. Traditionally, the political organisation ranged from aristocratic ranking or stratified chiefdoms to egalitarian clan or lineage-based societies and highly corporate villages run by democratic debate in traditional councils’.

Villages are administered in consultation with the nominated village headman and the elected panchayat (local self-government) leader. Several tribes practice Donyi Polo, a religion worshipping the sun and the moon, whereas others practice animism. Missionaries have made few inroads here. Polygamy is permitted and practiced by some tribal elites. Two of the tribes exist in a master-slave relationship.

In spite of the substantial progress that Arunachal Pradesh has made in literacy, adult illiteracy in the State is still high. More than half of the adults in Arunachal are illiterate. Given the fact that most languages in the region do not have a script of their own, it is not surprising that the literacy levels in the State were extremely low. However, for a people who have recently been introduced to the written word, the progress in the last few decades has been remarkable. Along with formal education, the literacy rate in Arunachal has also increased considerably. As late as 1981, the literacy rate in Arunachal Pradesh was 25.55 percent.

The literacy rate in the State increased from 25.55 per cent in 1981 to 41.59 per cent in 1991 and further to 54.34 per cent in 2001. According to 2001 census figures, overall literacy (54.3%; male -- 64%, female -- 44%) was ten points below the all-India average. The 2002 GOI Economic Survey showed a sex ratio heavily biased against women (901 females to 1000 males) and infant mortality surprisingly low at 40/1,000. These figures are difficult to explain, as the cultures do not practice gender preference or female infanticide, and may simply reflect counting errors in this remote and sparsely populated state.

Arunachal Pradesh's indigenous communities are "protected" through the system of Inner Line Permits devised by the British. No "outsider" can enter Arunachal Pradesh without an Inner Line (IL) or a Protected Area Permit (PAP). Neither can they buy land, start a business or take up employment. The people of Arunachal, its political leaders, government officials and civil society representatives are unanimous about retaining the Inner Line system. They are convinced that by keeping outsiders away, the Inner Line is protecting the life and culture of the indigenous people.

The Chief Minister explained in 2005 that without the Inner Line restrictions, the tribes would lose their land to people from mainland India. Although Hindi is the state's official language, and "Jai Hind" is a common greeting, the passion to retain the Inner Line is an expression of the underlying resistance to integrate with the Indian mainstream that has a separate ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity. Despite suggestions that these restrictions inhibit investment and tourism -- including from the U.S. -- virtually all of his interlocutors appeared willing to pay this price to preserve the state's tribal identity.

Arunachal's long-standing feud with the Chakma-Hajong refugees highlight this desire for preservation of indigenous rights in its extreme form. The Chakmas and the Hajongs are tribes evicted from Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 1964, about two thousand families were resettled in refugee enclaves in Arunachal's Tirap Division, presumably because the GOI believed that Arunachal, as the least densely populated state in India, could most easily accommodate them. Since then, the Chakma and the Hajongs have grown in numbers whose reliable estimates are either not available or not disclosed.

Representatives of indigenous people's organizations have their own estimates -- which do not appear credible -- that predict that Chakma-Hajongs will outnumber Arunachal tribes in the not too distant future. Such portents are discussed and debated at group meetings, reinforcing the tension and the animosity against Chakmas and other "outsiders". A leader of the largest student group in Arunachal went so far as to suggest that his organization might lead efforts to violently drive out the Chakmas in future if the GOI did not take action to resettle them elsewhere.

Indeed, on December 10, 2004, the National Liberation Front of Arunachal (NLFA) - a tribal militant outfit - directed Arunachal's Chakma-Hajong refugees to leave the state in two months. The directive came after a Singpho tribal leader was abducted and killed in late November, allegedly by the Chakmas.

In contrast, there is much less animosity against the Tibetan refugee enclaves. This is partly because their numbers are fewer and partly because they have significant ethnic and religious affinity with some of the Arunachalese. For example, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet is at Tawang in Arunachal. In any case, as part of its public relation exercise, the state government organizes conducted tours of Tibetan refugee camps.

The successive river valleys of Arunachal, separated by forbidding north-south ridges, enable distinct micro-cultures to flourish in what can be very small areas. The Monpas, who have a strong affinity with the Bhutanese, occupy the valleys north of Bomdila; their largest town, Dirang, with its dzong (fort), is just before the pass at Sela. Although they practise Buddhism, focussed around the great monastery of Tawang, they retain many of their original animist-shamanist beliefs. They are easily recognized by their dress - a chuba or short cloak, made of coarse wool dyed red with madder.

The Sherdukpens live south of the Bomdila Range, in the valleys of the Tengapani, and have close affinities with their Monpa neighbours. They wear distinctive gurdams, or yak's hair skullcaps, from which jut tassel-like projections that serve as guttering - this part of Arunachal sees very heavy rainfall. Traditionally Sherdukpen men wear a sword in a scabbard tucked into their waist or on a strap. Although they have a reverence for lama-ism, their religious beliefs are a curious blend of Buddhism and shamanism, with jijis, or priests, practicing witchcraft to counteract malevolent spirits

Further southeast are the Akas, literally "painted", who paint their faces with resin and charcoal. East of Kameng, the menfolk of the sturdy hill people known as the Daflas wear a distinctive wicker helmet surmounted by the red-dyed beak of a hornbill. Protruding in front of their foreheads is a bun of plaited hair called podum, skewered horizontally with a large brass pin. The Daflas trace their descent from Abo Teni, a mythical primeval man, as do the neighbouring Apa Tanis, who thanks to the work of European anthropologists are the best known of all the tribal groups. Occupying a 26-square-kilometre stretch of hanging valley in the central region of Subansiri, the Apa Tanis are experts at terraced rice cultivation. They too wear a hat and podum on their foreheads but do not sport the distinguishing yellow ribbon of the Daflas; both men and women tattoo their faces.

In 1947, independent India inherited a sparse and inadequate health infrastructure, limited in its impact and outreach. The health status of the country was correspondingly poor. In 1950-51, Life Expectancy at Birth in the country was 32.1 years. This figure has almost doubled in less than five decades — life expectancy was 63.3 years at the end of the century.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2018 17:59:52 ZULU