Vijaynagar, Arunachal Pradesh: An Island of State Power

I stumbled across this article a while ago and found it greatly informative and a wondeful thought piece. From a magazine run by the Indian newspaper The Hindu, it discusses a far-flung area of the Indian Union, Vijaynagar in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Located in a valley in India’s northeast, Vijaynagar boasts an air strip, an Assam Rifles (Indian paramilitary group) encampment, and schools. Nestled in the Kachin Hills, which form part of the border between India, Bangladesh and Burma, Vijaynagar is actually further east than Yangon and Naypyidaw in Burma. Given this bit of information, its unsurprising too learn that the general area in which Vijaynagar rests is surrounded on the south, east, and north by Burma (see map below). If you’re wondering, Vijaynagar is over 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 km.) from New Delhi and that’s the Euclidean distance, I can’t even fathom how far it actually is.

What makes Vijaynagar interesting is its status as an “island” of state control in one of the most remotest areas of India. As the article mentions the settlement is completely dependent on its air link for transportation and supply to the rest of India, through the airport at Mohanbari in “upper” Assam (up river). The nearest town, Miao, is 157 km. of “thick jungles” and six days away. Residents unable to catch one of the flights to the town employ “Chakma refugees”, probably a reference to the Chakma tribe in Bangladesh, to carry loads during the trek from Miao. The Chakma, incidentally, are a non-Muslim tribe from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. At one point they were engaged in an domestic insurgency until the early to mid-1990s. With continuing Bengalization in the Hill Tracts, the government sponsors settlers from the plains to the hills, the Chakma, and other indigenous tribes, are voicing concern over the loss of their livelihoods, way of life, and discrimination by Bengalis.

Vijaynagar itself appears to be the administrative center of 13 other “recognized” villages and 1 “unrecognized” villages. Recognition is probably imparted by the Indian government and probably entails benefits, right to governance and so on. I’m guessing one of the “unrecognized” villages is still considered part of one of the recognized ones. Looking at the map and the local topography, and considering the area’s reliance on air supply, we can understand the subtitle “prisoners of geography.” The area is home to another tribe, the Lisu, that initially settled the area, which they called “Daodi”. The name Vijaynagar, City of Vijay, was named by a Major General of the Assam Rifles after the birth of his son, Vijay, in the area. That general was sent to survey the area.

This island of the Indian state border Kachin state in Burma. Home to the Kachin Independence Army, which the article says, which ran a parallel government to the one in Nyapyidaw and offered military training to militants from northeastern India. I’m guessing since the establishment of Vijaynagar and the imposition of state authority through the Assam Rifles cross-border traffic has declined somewhat. But, the terrain is rough and there’s plenty of jungle passes.

As you can imagine, Vijaynagar is enslaved by the local climate, given its reliance on air transport. The article relates the effect of cancelled sorties carrying people and necessities because of inclement weather. The people are doubly encumbered by the fact that the Public Distribution System doesn’t operate there, making Vijaynagaris subject to market prices and transport prices to get their goods. Thus, as of 2009, Changlang district was seeking to revive plans for the maintenance of a forest road linking Vijaynagar and Miao. Evidently, this would reduce travel time from six days to six hours because of the ability of light vehicles to ply the route. A couple of immediate effects would be lowering the cost of goods as transport costs decrease. Of course, Chakma refugees, who act as porters, would lose a valuable source of income to the road. While its possible the Chakma refugees could operate a taxi or trucking service, I’m sure that requires more start-up capital than refugees typically have. That means that this would be a business opportunity for a middle-classer, probably to employ Chakma refugees as drivers. Moreover, other advocates pointed out that a forest road would also permit forest guards (it is a national forest) to better patrol the jungles from poachers and illegal loggers.

Creating a forest road would fundamentally alter the presence of the Indian state in the area. Currently, the “state” can be envisioned as existing in Miao and Vijaynagar separately. While there is “some” state presence in between the two, its practically nil. If I need the United States to say, save my house from burning down (as states are supposed to do), and the best they could is arrive in three days, then no, there is no state. However, if there’s a road to my house I would certainly feel the state’s presence. Don’t read too much into this, I’m not necessarily an advocate for the state, its generally corrupt. But providing economic, social, and educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them, that’s a worthwhile state. By the same token, some states are content to sit back and let the private sector to develop nascent infrastructure, logging companies will certainly build tracks.

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