India needs to nurture civil society heroes at borders

Sonam Wangchuk, the Ladakhi educationist.

Phunsukh Wangdu, the main protagonist of Bollywood blockbuster Three Idiots, was inspired by Sonam Wangchuk, the Ladakhi educationist. The film was released eleven years ago. While Sonam was quietly working in his region for decades, it took India 32 years to recognise him as an icon and civil society leader of Ladakh. Unfortunately this recognition, which has come a bit too late, should be agitating every Indian’s mind.

Wangchuk’s character was played by well-known actor Aamir Khan. Over the period of time, due to his political activities, he has become a thorn in the flesh of the Chinese government. So much so that he was featured in Chinese Communist Partybacked publication Global Times recently.

 On Indian television we are watching him speak about his ideas on way forward for the India-China relations. He has been saying Indian traders should start cancelling orders from China so that it would send a powerful message to the Chinese government that antagonising India will extract a huge price.

By doing so the Chinese government will be apprehensive that the Chinese population may turn against it because trade is the only support for the people of that country. So if their income from trade is hit hard there could be a possibility of a revolt.

He says that it is imperative to ensure that the boycott of Chinese products is successful. And that the conduct of Indians can become an example for the rest of the world to follow. His YouTube video message in this connection got 20 lakh views in just two days. His idea of boycott of Chinese goods may not seem to be practical at this juncture, but his feeling of patriotism and his national sentiments do matter.

 Wangchuk’s core achievements which make his selfless efforts special are in the field of education as a civil society activist. He started his innovative school, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, in 1988. In spite of all odds in the underdeveloped region, he managed to turn it into a success story, where the school nurtures the cultural heritage of the region. It is his conviction which is important. Such heroes should not be expected to hold guns and go to fight at the border but do their bit of relentless development in their region. And set an example for others.

 The campus runs on solar energy and he has been instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope in 1994, a collaboration of government, village communities and civil society to bring reforms in the government school system. This is not a small achievement.

He has become an icon for youngsters in the border region, which strongly believes in the idea of India. His projection has helped integrate thoughts of Ladakhi people with the rest of the country. But he has come into prominence only after the state reorganisation of J&K, abrogation of Article 370 and making Ladakh as a Union Territory. Many believe the mistake of the past has been rectified by the government and now Ladakh is getting the due attention as far as development is concerned.

 India shares land borders with seven countries including Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Maritime borders with Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia. It has 15,106 km of land border and a coastline of 7,516 km including its island territories. McMahon Line, Radcliffe Line, Durand Line, Line of Actual Control and Line of Control demarcate Indian’s boundaries.

 In this vast expanse of the country’s borders there are hundreds of other heroes like Sonam Wangchuk, whose success stories are waiting to be told and inspire their region. Leaders like Sonam better understand local people and thus have the potential to lead the people of their region into the nationalistic fold. But Wangchuk’s achievements were recognised by a filmmaker. This brings us to the question: Why have successive governments been slow on identifying our civil society heroes of the border region? Why have such leaders not been groomed in other regions as well?

 It is a fact that only over the last five years India has given a big push for strategic development in Ladakh region. In the past governments of the day, both politically and diplomatically, have not been consistent in all-round development of the bordering region of India. India develops these regions only due to military, strategic compulsions and not otherwise.

The concerns of people living at the borders have been neglected ever since India’s Independence. So much so that the process of issuing them identity cards, which could be described as the origin of Aadhar still continues.

 A theory of the past has been that building of infrastructure and development activities by India at the borders would ruffle our neighbours’ feathers. It could lead to serious diplomatic and military issues with other countries.

Those privy to developments of the past dispute this assessment and claim those apprehensions to be mischievous in nature. They attribute the lack of intent for nurturing the region due to influence and lobbying by Chinese and Soviets. They claim agents working for the two nations in India had penetrated Indian politics, media, trade and business to cause the inertia.

It is also a fact that governments have not paid enough attention to recognise the psyche of people living in the border regions. Whenever geographical and political borders have been shifted, artificially drawn borders have created a tragedy for people living in those regions. The psychological and emotional needs of people living along borders have been peculiar but not addressed as well as they should have been.

Unfortunately in India most of the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders had been drawn artificially, on the basis of political compulsions of the day, by force and treaties. The participation of the locals was not there either in the demarcation or the decision making. For instance, a historically well integrated population of Jammu, Punjab and Gujarat suddenly found itself on the border, utterly confused about its existential and security needs.

In Ladakh, the free-flowing movement of people along the Indo-Tibetan border caused a similar disruption as all of a sudden the people became residents of a hostile border. Now people cannot freely move and visit monasteries across the border. And so their vulnerabilities have changed. People in border areas also have a right to live as normal citizens. There should be no doubt that those people could be strong nationalists.

Along the India-Nepal border, people on Nepal’s side are not willing to accept Nepal’s new Seema Rekha (boundary line) as per their new map. A constitutional amendment bill has been brought in the Parliament of Nepal to rework the boundary along India. This bill has had the consent of the majority of political parties. But the people living on Nepali side of the border are opposed to the idea of new boundaries as it would adversely affect their free movement and business they have been doing for centuries with Joshimath and Garhwal. Clearly India has not done enough to cultivate good leaders in the Uttarakhand region, leaders who could engage with their friends and relatives across the border. Also, the civil society along one of the longest borders with Bangladesh has not been properly tackled. One of the stalwart political leaders Ghani Khan Chaudhary has not been able to achieve the desired impact. The reality of this region has actually been its economic backwardness

Consequently both China and Pakistan have made such strong inroads in the once friendly state of Nepal. This penetration is likely to have a long lasting impact. Intelligence inputs suggest two years ago China had funded the sarpanch level elections in Nepal. A majority of the political, police and Army class of the buffer state have been subverted by the Chinese. Islamic Sangh of Nepal is being backed by Pakistan and has the potential of encouraging subversive activities against India and creating an antiModi, anti-India and antiHindu narrative.

India’s borders are unnaturally carved in Punjab, Gujarat, Jammu, and all along Bangladesh. At the time of Partition people of Punjab never thought their borders would be shifted from Peshawar to Amritsar. Until 1947 they lived in the North-Western Frontier Region. They were uprooted but their cross-border needs remained; they could not continue with their barter system. Those people were not even conscious of the borders until the day they were asked to take permission to buy their daily essentials needs across the border.

A person who was residing near the India-Afghanistan border suddenly found himself in Dera Baba Nanak, though he never bothered about what was happening in Sialkot before. Similarly, for people of Barmer, Rajasthan, the capital used to be Hyderabad Sindh in Pakistan, but their capital suddenly shifted to Jaipur. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had drawn the line between India and Pakistan, according to an account, merely took a week to carry out the demarcation exercise. It was done hastily, strategically and not from a development point of view. Due to the cumulative effect and apathy it is difficult to recall any new-age leader in the civil society.

Also there has been a sense of distrust among the people living along the borders. People residing 4 km inwards International Borders have a different psyche and are subjected to peculiar vulnerabilities due to competitive and inimical forces on either sides of the borders. In villages they are viewed with some suspicion among themselves — of fear of being agents or double agents. The people become a subject of manipulation by subversive forces.

In Northeast India natural barriers have served as frontiers. There too there is a great potential to cultivate local leadership but not fully explored. In Arunachal Pradesh, if you speak Hindi you are welcome. However in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur you will not be so welcomed. This disparity needs to go. And this could happen only when local leaders stand up and integrate local people with the rest of India.

Interestingly in this region insurgency has seen rapid decline in recent years, with a 70 per cent reduction in insurgency incidents and an 80 per cent drop in civilian deaths in the Northeast in 2019 compared to 2013. In the 2014 general elections, there was an 80% voter turnout in all Northeastern states, the highest among all states of India. Authorities claim that this shows the faith of the Northeastern people in Indian democracy. As of 2020, the arc of violence in the entire Northeast has shrunk primarily to an area which is the tri-junction between Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and north Nagaland.

In Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang, the sentiment of national integration is pretty strong. In spite of China showing the region as its territory on its map, there is a strong inclination of people towards India. The region has seen development activities, though due to local politics government benefits aimed at the people of Arunachal Pradesh have not percolated down to the last strata.

Mizoram is a big success story, where Laldenga, originally a constable in the Indian Army, later worked as a clerk in the Government of Assam, was cultivated with much effort. Disappointed by the government›s indifference to the severe famine in the Mizo district in the late 1950s, he rebelled against the government. As a leader of the Mizo National Front (MNF), he led a secessionist war seeking Mizo territory’s independence from India. He was captured many times, and spent most of his time in exile in Bangladesh. The guerrilla movement lasted for sixteen years till the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986, by which he became the Chief Minister. Ever since the state has seen no major unrest and has by and large remained peaceful. This has been made possible because India›s finest intelligence officers went out of their way to cultivate Laldenga. A lot of hard work and efforts were put in this direction.

Economic, social and emotional integration and assimilation of the traditional frontier residents and those who became the border people overnight, is a challenge that India has not addressed methodically

There is a need for a comprehensive strategy from the development and security point of view. Encouragement of genuine local leadership like Sonam Wangchuk, with a nationalistic outlook and commitment, would be an effective safeguard against foreign attempts at incursion and subversion. Efficient border infrastructure is the key to growth and national bonding, and a sense of selfesteem and belonging should be carefully nurtured.

More than anything else, India’s strength is its principles of freedom and democracy. It is these principles which have attracted people to the idea of India. It is because of these great ideals that people like Sonam Wangchuk are strong nationalists. And people living on both sides of the China border, may it be Ladakh or Tibet, love India more than China.