For a long time now, researchers, especially from outside Arunachal and more recently, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the right-wing Hindu nationalists – have aggressively tried linking the region with the rest of ‘Hindu India’ by citing a shared cultural and historical heritage.
From naming the state to deifying sites like Parshuram Kund and Malinithan among others, there have been sustained efforts to make Arunachal look like a part of the larger glorified Hindu sthaan – that India supposedly is in their eyes.
Despite these sustained efforts, a recent announcement from the Union culture ministry left many surprised. According to the ministry, Krishna’s wife Rukmini belonged to the Idu Mishmi tribe, a small community of less than 15,000 people that is spread across parts of China and Arunachal.
To commemorate the wedding and the journey they are said to have undertaken from Arunachal to Gujarat, the ministry recently organised the Madhavpur mela in Porbandar on the theme ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’.
The bridal group that went from the state comprised traditional priests and priestess, young girls from the Idu Mishmi community, a few community leaders, Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, chief minister Pema Khandu and governor B. D. Mishra.
Questions on cultural appropriation as well as forced integration were bound to follow this blatant misrepresentation of legends to suit the theme of the current political dispensation.
Mutchu Mithi, an MLA who belongs to the Mishmi community, calls it a “hilarious joke”; according to him, there is no mention of Rukmini in the tribe’s folklore.
“Cultural integration based on foundation of lies cannot be allowed to proliferate. We respect diversity, and based on our respect for ethnic diversity we must try to integrate, though not through some hilarious cropped up stories,” Mithi says.
Tarun Mene of the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies (AITS) at the Rajiv Gandhi University, who has been conducting anthropological research on the Idu Mishmi community for the last 12 years, says that culturally, there is not a single piece of evidence linking the Idus to the Rukmini legend – be it in myths, rituals or folk songs.
He says that the attempt to link Rukmini with the Idus is a classic example of hegemony over a lesser-known community.
There are ways of linking culture with tourism, but why play with age-old traditions and sentiments of tribal people, questions Mene, who himself belongs to the community. He argues that there are broader lessons to be learnt on cultural appropriation from this entire controversy.
Professor Jumyir Basar, also from AITS, says that while history seeks evidence, myth is created – hence it has different versions and is contextualised in different ways. Some myths are therefore contextualised through historical evidence – like now through the Bhismaknagar archaeological site in the Idu area, where Rukmini is said to have been from.
Only an in-depth archeological study, she says, will be able to provide answers to whether Bhismaknagar had material connections with the rest of India.
Filmmaker and cultural activist Moji Riba says that the larger question is not whether it is historical or not. Rather it is about the process by which the appropriation of folklore takes place and what the long-term ramifications of it are, both for the community and the audience.
However, not everyone is questioning the celebration or even the link.
Rasto Mena, the public relations secretary of the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, the apex body of the community, states that while as a science student, he himself will require evidence for Rukmini being an Idu princess, he knows that many Idu Mishmis celebrate the idea that Rukmini was indeed an Idu.
However, he has one question. Who would have known about the tiny community or even cared to hear about it, if not for the current focus on Rukmini’s connection with the Idu Mishmis?
If one overlooks the deliberate twisting of Hindu myths to fit the current right-wing narrative of ‘one India’, archeology may be able to provide some rational answers.
According to archeologists, Bhismaknagar, in the Lower Dibang Valley district, is a brick fortress dating back to the 12th century.
In their book A Descriptive Account of the Sculptures of Malinithan Arunachal Pradesh, Tage Tada and Bhaskar J. Das write that Bhismaknagar could have been the capital of the Chutia Kingdom.
All the major state-protected sites belong to the 400-year-old Chutia era that ruled parts of present-day Arunachal, before it was forced out of power in 1673.
The culture ministry appears to have discounted evidence as well archeological findings as they celebrated what has come to be seen by many as a ludicrous festival.
The questionable attempt to further integrate Arunachal with the rest of the country is perhaps a hasty thing and it is very unlikely that this will go down well with the people of the state.
Unlike others in the region, the people of Arunachal have never questioned political, physical or linguistic (Hindi) integration; indeed they have enthusiastically gone along with it. Thus, the overzealous attempts of the Centre make it seem like more than the Arunachalees themselves, it is the BJP government which has to fully accept the fact that Arunachal is indeed an integral part of India. Otherwise, what is the reason behind running a forced propaganda campaign and constantly reiterating this fact?
Several are already weary about the interference in eating habits of the people of the state. This recent forceful rewriting of myths as historical account is something that will make people question the agenda of the BJP as well as the RSS.
To a large extent, the RSS, which started making inroads in the state way back in the mid-60s with the dedicated fieldwork of cadres like former governor of Arunachal P. B. Acharya, has been able to find firmer footing in the state. The organisation works closely with several others that propagate indigenous culture and identity of the same kind that the RSS professes – that of Arunachal’s DNA being the same as that of a greater Hindu nation, notably the Arunachal Vikas Parishad and the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh.
One can only hope that in the name of integration, the repository of Arunachal’s culture and indigenous identity, folklore and oral histories are not appropriated and rewritten so drastically, just for the sake and convenience of an ideology that necessarily does not respect diversity.
If it is, there is an inherent peril that the communities of the state would themselves begin to believe only in these newer representations of who they are and where they come from. That indeed would be a sad day for the diversity that we so applaud today.
Tongam Rina is the associate editor of The Arunachal Times. Published in arrrangement with The Wire.