When a nervous army officer came between the writer and the village. An extract
We said goodbye to him and his assistants and resumed walking. We had walked perhaps a couple of kilometres without seeing another person or car when the sound of a large vehicle groaning up the track reached us. This time it was a Border Roads Organisation truck. We climbed in with two men in uniform who drove us in wordless silence to the village of Bona, 10 km from Gelling. Getting out, we stopped for a cigarette break at a roadside shop selling the usual knick-knacks: cheap biscuits from unknown brands, potato chips, dry cells for torches and slippers.
The man behind the counter was busy counting a fat bundle of hundred-rupee notes. He regarded us with the usual suspicion and proceeded to ask more questions than even the IB agents. The answers did not seem to satisfy him, but he eventually ran out of questions. We finished our cigarettes, filled our water bottles from a roadside tap and resumed our march.
After another kilometre or so of walking we heard again the happy sound of a vehicle coming from behind us. The morning traffic had been pretty much all in our direction, and everyone had given us a lift. This time it was a dumper truck. And in the cabin next to the driver, wearing his maroon robe, was the monk from the Tuting monastery who I had stopped to ask about the car in the glass case!
He stopped the vehicle, and asked us to get in at the back. We clambered up. The truck was loaded with fine river sand and bags of cement. Four scrawny labourers stood atop these bags. We joined them.
It was, by some margin, the bumpiest ride of my life. While going to the Lake of No Return on the Stilwell Road in Myanmar some years ago, I had bumped my head a few times on the roof of the Maruti Gypsy four-wheel drive we were in, as a result of being hurled out of the seat. This time there was fortunately nothing to bump one’s head against even though I spent many long moments suspended in midair. Encountering a branch of a tree in one of those moments would have been unhealthy.
The road wound steadily up, as it had since Pasighat, with the Siang by its side.
At Gelling, we ran out of luck.
A convoy of army trucks was parked on the narrow single lane road in front of us. The dumper stopped. There was no path forward. All of us got off to walk towards the village, visible less than a hundred metres ahead. An army man in battle fatigues called out to Akshay, and stopped him. He had spotted the camera. I went back to see what was happening. The soldier was joined in no time by a whole posse of others, all heavily armed and brandishing assault rifles. We were surrounded. The monk came to our aid. The soldiers were polite and respectful towards him, but they told him they would have to take us aside for questioning and could not let us pass.
The ridge of the hill facing us was the McMahon Line, the disputed de facto border. On the other side was China. The border wound a little further away to our right, where the river flowed at the bottom of the hill. There was no way down; up ahead, in the distance, we could see a waterfall, at the base of which was the last village on the Indian side, Bishing.
The soldiers, all strapping men from Maharashtra and North India, questioned us. The tone of questioning was aggressive; we were made to stand on the edge of the narrow road, with the Siang a ribbon far below us and a wall of soldiers around us. They demanded to see photos that Akshay had clicked. He had only taken photos of the scenery along the road, but they found even this to be suspicious, and forced him to delete several. They would not believe we were there to research a book. They also did not believe in the legitimacy of the Inner Line Permit we had taken so much trouble to get. They said they had not heard of any such office issuing permits in Dibrugarh and paid it no heed.
I demanded to speak to an officer. We could see, from where we were being questioned, that a tent had been put up in a nearby field where a Maruti Gypsy with the commanding officer’s flag was parked.
The officers were busy in a meeting, we were told, but the appeal to higher authority had some effect. One of the soldiers demanded our ILP passes and walked off with them. The rest kept an eye on us; a flattering array of military might watching our every move. Eventually, a young lieutenant, looking fresh out of the National Defence Academy was called. He came with more soldiers and repeated all the questions the others had already asked. He was even more suspicious than the rest; he found my T-shirt, which had a camouflage pattern, to be odd. Where had I got hold of this T-shirt, he asked. I bought it from a clothes store, I replied. However, he would not believe such T-shirts were commonly available in shops everywhere.
We had told him we were journalists from Mumbai. I had showed him my press identification, which clearly said I was the editor of a newspaper there, and my other IDs such as driving licence and voter card. He seemed unsure of what to do; he could ask his CO but seemed to think that disturbing the great man would not be right for such a trivial matter. ‘Put them back on the truck and send them back,’ he told his men, and walked off, disregarding our pleas.
That was it. There was nothing we could do. Arguing with a truckload of soldiers who clearly had nothing better to do than mill around us, after they had been ordered to send us back, was pointless. This was a place beyond mobile signals and possibilities of helpful phone calls. It was a place where the man with the gun was the law.
We waited while the labourers and the monk completed unloading the cement bags and sand, watching from afar the waterfalls we would be unable to visit.
The ease with which civilian authority is superseded by the military given the slightest opportunity is remarkable. The area we were in was a road in an Arunachal village, not a military cantonment, and there was no spike in military tensions with China at the time. We had the required government permits to be there. The army worked there, just as the Border Roads Organisation and other institutions of government worked there, and did not own the place any more than the rest of them did. The army men had seen our identification cards that said we were journalists, as well as driving licences and other documents. We answered all their questions, in Hindi, English and even some Marathi. We were two unarmed Indian citizens who had every right to walk on the street in Gelling village, and hardly launching an invasion. Yet they thought nothing of simply ignoring the ILP, the identification documents, and the press cards, and detaining us, preventing us even from simply walking around the village that was 100 m away and having a cup of tea there.
The nation’s secrets are not out there on the roadside in Gelling. They are in computers in government offices in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. In today’s world even free services such as Google Maps and Google Earth allow for sufficient resolution to see the topography of any area. Anyone who wishes to buy higher resolution satellite images can do so. The days of spies drawing maps are long over. If the military thinks it is protecting national secrets or vital installations by being suspicious of travellers, it should apply the same logic to people on the streets of Lutyens’ Delhi, around North Block, South Block and India Gate, instead of doing so only in places like Gelling. That, no security force will be allowed to do, because then everyone, even the most ardent flag-waving nationalist, remembers that this is a democracy and not a military state. In practice, notions of equality, democracy and citizen’s rights in India only extend to some communities—of the ‘right’ ethnicity, religion and linguistic groups—in some areas of the Indian mainland, at some times. It does not include everybody, and it certainly does not extend to all areas at all times. Akshay and I, despite checking the boxes for right ethnicity, religion and language, happened to be notionally in the wrong area at the wrong time.
THE BRAIDED RIVER: A JOURNEY ALONG THE BRAHMAPUTRA
By Samrat Choudhury
HarperCollins, Pages 424, Rs 479