This was perhaps the first time since the rather tragic India-China war back in 1962 that Arunachal Pradesh – The Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains – finds itself at the centre of a national debate. Barring a few incidents such as the harassment of students belonging to the state in some other territories and the grant of stapled visas by China to its residents, the state has just barely been in the news. Now, the political battle going on in the State since December 2015 has, apart from bringing its government machinery to a standstill, made Arunachal Pradesh the focus of national attention. President’s Rule i.e. Article 356 of the Indian constitution meant a “dead-page” to Dr. Ambedkar. Ironically, the dead-page was brought to life on 26th January 2016, the day we observe as Republic Day to commemorate our constitution.
Although it might seem pretty new to us, such political wrestling is not new to the people of Arunachal Pradesh. It all started on 18th January 1999, when Mukut Mithi of the Congress withdrew his support to Gegong Apang’s Congress government. It was a historic turn-around as Gegong Apang was well on course to realize his dream of surpassing West Bengal’s Jyoti Basu in the race for longest surviving chief minister. But this was shattered, when he had no other alternatives but to resign after losing a trial of strength in the Arunachal Pradesh assembly. A row of allegations started after this as the Arunachal Congress was split into two, with the Arunachal Congress (Mithi) as a breakaway party. But just before the completion of full term, again a political coup resurfaced, this time under the leadership of Gegong Apang. Replaying the game, it was Apang, back in the saddle. Apang resorted to his old tactics but was outwitted by his cabinet colleague – Late Dorjee Khandu, who had a flawless term before getting killed in a helicopter crash.
With Khandu perishing, once again, perils began to loom large in Arunachal politics. Jarbom Gamlin, close aide and colleague of the deceased CM, became the next chief minister, only to upset the already irate Nabam Tuki. Tuki, belonging to the tiny Christian minority of Arunachal Pradesh, was annoyed by the fact that he was much more active member of INC from the NSUI days and so felt that the CM post was his right. But to claim what he thought was his right, Tuki undertook all the wrong measures using muscle power and money besides flaring ethnic tensions in the disputed frontier state. It is more believed than said that, intimidations and violence in the state made it one of the darkest period in Arunachal’s political history. It was Tuki’s turn to face the heat now.
On 26th January, President’s Rule was imposed in Arunachal Pradesh on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet headed by Narendra Modi. The reason given for the recommendation was political instability and constitutional breakdown as the Nabam Tuki-led Congress government, which was formed in May 2014, had failed to convene the Assembly. The Congress won 42 seats in the 60-member Assembly in the elections held in April 2014 and formed the government for the eighth time in the State. In fact, Tuki was re-elected to power. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 11 seats and the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) and independents won five and two respectively. The PPA subsequently merged with the Congress, taking the latter’s strength to 47. The mithun and cow controversy apparently also played a big part in the recommendation of the Governor. The slaughtering of a mithun outside the Raj Bhavan (which was indeed in bad taste) also prompted Rajkhowa to believe that the law and order situation in the state has broken down as cow slaughter is banned in Arunachal Pradesh, though mithuns are different from cows and mithuns are eaten across Arunachal Pradesh, though it is simply not clear why this particular act had to be carried out outside the Raj Bhawan!
On 17th December 2015, the BJP, along with rebel Congress MLAs, had tabled the no-confidence motion against the Tuki government. What sparked off the current crisis was the dropping of Health and Family Welfare Minister Kalikho Pul from the Council of Ministers in November 2014 during a Cabinet reshuffle. Pul accused the Tuki government of corruption, financial wrong-doing, and involvement in a multi-crore scam involving the Public Distribution System (PDS). He said the government had stopped the payment of stipends to students. In April 2015, Pul was expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities.
Dissidence in the Congress began to mount when Pul, along with 21 Congress MLAs, rebelled against the Chief Minister. The BJP MLAs and two independents backed the rebels.
In the meanwhile, the Governor, J.P. Rajkhowa, advanced the sixth Assembly session from January 14, 2016, to December 16, 2015, without consulting the Council of Ministers. It should be noted that the Governor’s decision to advance the Assembly session was in accordance with Article 174(1) of the Constitution, which states that the Governor can summon the House or each House of the Legislature of the State to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session. The last sitting of the Assembly was on July 21, 2015. On December 9, the Governor sent a message under Article 175(2) inter-alia fixing the “resolution to remove the Speaker of the House” as the prime agenda for the very first meeting of the sixth Assembly session.
In an unprecedented development on 16th December, the sixth Assembly session was held on a makeshift premises of the Techi Takar community hall in the G-sector at Naharlagun after the Assembly building was locked following an order from the State administration under the direct supervision of the Speaker, Nabam Rebia, who was facing an impeachment motion, to prohibit the entry of any members. Amid massive security, 33 MLAs (11 of the BJP, 20 Congress rebels and two independent MLAs) passed a resolution removing the Speaker.
The Deputy Speaker, Tenzing Norbu Thongdok, who presided over the “session”, adjourned the House after declaring that 33 MLAs voted in favour of the resolution. Thongdok, who was mandated by the Governor to chair the winter session of the Assembly, supervised the proceedings of the House and conducted the voting, which was videotaped in the presence of the media. Later, the videotaped proceedings were submitted to the Governor for his approval. The Leader of the Opposition, Tamio Tyaga, moved the impeachment resolution to oust Rebia from the post of Speaker. Rebia challenged the Governor’s mandate and the Deputy Speaker’s decision restoring the suspended MLAs in the Guwahati High Court. In the court, Justice Hrishikesh Roy observed that the Governor’s decision to advance the Assembly session to take up the impeachment proceedings against the Speaker was in violation of Articles 174 and 175 of the constitution. Another bench of the High Court later overturned Justice Roy’s order and dismissed the Speaker’s writ petition.
The Arunachal imbroglio went to the Supreme Court when the Speaker challenged the dismissal of one of his pleas by the High Court. Senior advocate Harish Salve, who represents the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, told the bench comprising Justices J.S. Khehar and C. Nagappan that as important constitutional issues arose in this case, it should be placed before a constitution bench. The bench decided that since the matters pertained to the rights of the Governor, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, the case be referred to a five-judge bench. This happened on 14th January. In February, the Supreme Court, examining the powers of governors, on Thursday took strong note of a submission that all decisions of the governor are not open to judicial review and said it cannot be a mute spectator when democratic processes are “slaughtered”.
The interesting aspect of the whole turmoil emerged when the Union Cabinet recommended President’s Rule on 24th after an unscheduled meeting headed by Modi. The Congress filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the decision. The petition said that the action of the Centre and the Governor suffered from political malice and was an unconstitutional attempt to dissolve and disrupt a legitimately elected government.
In a rather dramatic turn of events, even as the country was celebrating the 67th Republic Day, President’s Rule was imposed on Arunachal Pradesh while the apex court proceedings on the matter were on.
For assessing the factors and people behind the breakdown of constitutional machinery in the state, let us do a time travel to June 2015, the month in which J.P. Rajkhowa was appointed as the governor of Arunachal Pradesh. Rajkhowa’s appointment was necessitated after Lt. General (Retd.) Nirbhay Sharma was transferred to Raj Bhavan of Mizoram. To our surprise Rajkhowa became the 19th Governor of the state in 28 years of its statehood. Besides being a former bureaucrat, he is a celebrated and an influential litterateur in Assam but is an unknown entity to the Arunachalees who are already expressing scepticism over the appointment of an Assamese as the governor. Mind you, to the Arunachalees, settling the boundary dispute with neighbouring Assam is very important; thus an apprehension has crept into people’s minds regarding the motives of the BJP-led central government.
Much of the credit for such a meaningless reshuffle goes to the BJP continuing the legacy of other political parties using the Governor’s position to gain an upper hand in state politics. And all this came in the backdrop of Kalikho Pul getting expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities, thereby striking at the right time to make the most of the situation. Pul infused dissidence in all MLAs except for the council of ministers and set the stage for a no-confidence motion against Nabam Tuki.
But all of this is not due to the BJP and governor’s fault or alliance. According to most Arunachalees, this was bound to happen under Tuki. Owing to the petty-minded politics of Nabam Tuki, soon Arunachal Pradesh found itself between the devil and the deep sea. Tuki – the leader of a certain section of the society – became the chief minister after a series of public protests in the name of tribal pride and dignity, accusing the then chief minister Gamlin and his family members of planting the “derogatory” report on the Nyishi tribe. Apart from dividing the pluralistic state on community lines to rise to power, Tuki is also accused of financial mismanagement leading to overdraft in the state’s exchequer, nepotism and collapsing administration. Rather than uniting and working towards a brighter tomorrow, Tuki finds his name as a leader who perpetuated divisive ideas and alienated the pluralistic mosaic of Arunachalee society. And not to mention, the supreme leaders of the Congress, like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, left the state in political turmoil. They should have taken the heed of the situation much earlier and settled down the disputes brewing in the party. But they waited until the very end for the cabinet to give assent to President’s Rule in the state. Only after this, they went to President Pranab Mukherjee citing inappropriate reasons for the recommendation of President’s rule.
Governance in the frontier state holds even more responsibility with periodic Chinese transgressions but everything in the state remains pandemonium because of such political disturbances. The impact has been very troublesome for the state as its economy continues to be one of the worst in India. The trading community has been complaining of lack of money in circulation and sluggish off-take of FMCG products from the shelves. Extortion, threats and forceful donations are in vogue. Politics and politicians aside, everyday experience and anecdotes shared by the local trading community are indeed in consonance with the statistics that peg Arunachal Pradesh at the bottom of the bottom-half as an investment destination in the entire country.
This view is certainly not completely unfounded. For instance, Itanagar, the capital city which is also one of the three biggest commercial towns on the northern banks of the river Brahmaputra, has recorded a compounded upswing in crime rate, as recently admitted by the state police department. Such an environment has had a negative bearing on the tourism industry, a core sector for the financial health of Arunachal. According to Union tourism ministry data, foreign tourist inflow fell by 52 per cent for Arunachal when the entire Northeast region witnessed a growth of 40 per cent. In 2014, Sikkim hosted the highest number of foreign tourists as many as 49,175 as compared to 31,698 in 2013 but during the same years, the figure fell by more than a half in Arunachal Pradesh to 5,204 in 2014 from 10,846 in 2013.
Finally, after a whole year of trouble, Arunachal finds itself in the hands of the indigenous People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) under the leadership of Kalikho Pul, which is a breakaway of the Congress. Now, as the political interests of the BJP confer with those of Mr. Pul, we can expect stability in the government, though those who are anti-BJP are concerned as to how the BJP can now use Pul as a pawn to further its interests in Arunachal Pradesh in the face of a decimated Congress. But party politics apart, the Arunachal government needs to improve the law-and-order situation, safeguard and protect India’s interests against Chinese transgressions, promote tourism (which has immense potential) and improve the ease of doing business. As Rumi rightly said, “Where there is ruin, there is a hope for treasure”. The ruins are there, let Mr. Pul now dig the treasures out.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)