Mr. Apoorva Jeevan Barua, the AIG (Administration), Guwahati has been one of the most helpful links in planning and executing the North East part of my journey. In his inimitable style, he gave me a detailed route planning for the Itanagar trip from Tezpur; the correct turns at Charialis and visuals that one must enjoy on the way were part of the details. Added to that, Surinder Kumar, the Principal of the PTC in Dergaon, gave valuable tips on how to make the most of the journey to Itanagar. He asked me to look out for Monabarie Tea Estate, which is reputed to be the largest in Asia. The route from Tezpur to the border of Arunachal Pradesh is bounded on both sides by tea plantations and the tea produced in this part of the country is considered to be among the best one can have.
The SP Sonitpur, Mr. AP Tiwari, had detailed the SDPO of Gohpur to pilot me to the border of Arunachal Pradesh. I reached Gohpur in under two hours from Tezpur and met with Mr. Saikia, the SDPO, in the Civil IB. The SDPO explained to me the importance of Gohpur in the history of the freedom struggle and the development of the tea plantations. Gohpur was the police post of the British which controlled NEFA. Just opposite to the IB is a small pond across which is a neat little bungalow, where the SDPO now resides. This residence was the Gohpur police station at the time of British rule. On another bank is a memorial to Kanakalata Boruah and Mukanda Kakati, who were shot dead by the British when they attempted to raise a Freedom Flag on top of the police station. While the locals used to brew tea from leaves harvested from the jungles, organized tea plantations were the efforts of Robert Bruce and Maniram Dewan more than 160 years ago. Since the locals did not support the development of tea plantations as it interfered with their system of shifting cultivation plantation labor was ‘imported’ from Chota Nagpur, Orissa and Bihar. Thus were born the ‘tea tribes’ of Assam; today these immigrants have mostly integrated with the locals. Back to Maniram Dewan. Apart from helping the British agents develop tea plantations he developed a few on his own, which was resented by the British. To stymie the efforts of Maniram the British administration levied a tax on the tea produced in his farms. This aroused the revolutionary in him and the First War of India’s Independence was just the right platform for him to get his own back at the British agents. For his engagement in the War of Independence, Maniram Dewan was apprehended, tried and hanged in Jorhat for waging war against the King.
Itanagar is barely 30 kms from Gohpur via the border village of Halongi. This route is also shorter by an hour than the one through Bander Dewa. I parted ways with the SDPO Gohpur at the border. I produced the Inner Line Permit to the policeman on duty at the Post. It was not taken as he did not seem to know the procedure for entry into Arunachal Pradesh. As you drive through the border post the hills of Arunachal stare at you. The roads are winding and in many places badly damaged. It is nomenclature NH52A, the link road to Itanagar. On the way I saw an accident involving a Sumo that plunged over 100 feet down a gorge resulting in 6 fatalities.
The SP Itanagar, Mr. C Appa described Itanagar as “a large slum”, which was not inaccurate by any means. I am put up at the Police Officers’ Mess, right next to the SP’s Office. and allotted a VIP suite. The rooms in the Mess are named after the districts of Arunachal. The State is home to more than 25 tribes of which the most common are the Nyishi, Adi, Aptapi, Wanchoo tribes. The languages spoken are Hindi, Assamese and English. The population of Arunachal is about 15 lakhs and is the State with the lowest density of population.
A walk through the busy Ganga market showed up the fact that most of the shops and other commercial establishments are controlled by ‘outsiders’. I walked up to the ‘The Kerala Bhawan’, a restaurant of Biju, a bachelor from Shertalai, Kerala. He has been operating the restaurant in Itanagar for the past two years, prior to which he was doing the same business in Shertalai. He offered me a cup of coffee. While sipping the coffee I got a synopsis of the life in Itanagar. To illustrate the local ‘might is right’ attitude he narrated an incident that happened this afternoon in the market area. An old man crossing the road was knocked down by a youngster on a bike, who also lost control and fell off his bike. The latter got up from the road and almost kicked the elderly person instead of helping him to the hospital. There was neither any reaction from the crowd watching the ‘tamasha’ nor did it move the policeman on patrol duty. This corroborated the incident narrated by Fr. John, the Bishop of Itanagar. He told me that a priest had to pay Rs. 30000 compensation to a local who rammed the priest’s car from the rear. The penalty was for being where he should not have been – on the road! A Keralite had to cough up Rs. 5000 for the repairs to the headlights of the car of a local who lost control and banged into the rear of his car. His mistake – parking on the road! If you happen to be responsible for sending the soul of a goat prematurely to its Maker and not the butcher in good time, you could be compensating the owner of the unfortunate victim a few tens of thousands, depending on the age of the victim; the younger the victim, the more the compensation. The absence of land records is another fertile area for ‘dispute settlement’. A domiciled outsider stands no chance if a local disputes your title to property, as land records are not properly documented. The saving grace is that evenings in Itanagar can be ‘spiritually uplifting’ as booze is cheap – a bottle of Romanov vodka cost me Rs. 120 and will keep me warm company later in the evening.
In the morning, after ‘checking into’ the Police Officers’ Mess, I visited the Centre for Buddhist Studies in Itanagar. The foundation stone for and the consecration of the Centre was done by the 14th Dalai Lama. The setting of the Gompa and the Chorten is scenic. The elevation of the location affords wonderful views of the surrounding hills and the valley. The Museum was closed; it’s open only from Sunday to Thursday. The Ita Fort is mysterious. Records are scanty about its origin and use. It is believed to be of 14-15th century vintage. The hilltop views of the city are exquisite.
Cheers to Romanov and long live Romanov.