Arunachal Pradesh’s first inter-state train, which was suspended in May,  is set to roll again soon. The 21.75-km route was halted barely a month after it started operations as student groups protested that the train was making it easier for outsiders to illegally enter the eastern state. A team from Indian Railways visited the state last week in an attempt to resolve the problem, and officials hope that service will resume in a month.

The protesters claimed that the authorities had not established an adequate mechanism for checking passengers for Inner Line Permits, documents Indians from outside Arunachal require to enter the state. (Foreigners require a Protected Area Permit.)

The permit ‒ which is also necessary to enter Nagaland and Mizoram ‒ is aimed at protecting Arunachal’s diverse indigenous groups from being stifled by outsiders.

New system

A system has now been formulated to check passengers for permits, and the train from Harmuti in Assam to Naharlagun (near the Arunachal capital Itanagar) will resume soon, said Dani Salu, Secretary of the Arunachal Pradesh Information, Public Relations and Printing department.

The train is included in this year’s edition of the Indian Railways’ publication Trains at a Glance, signalling the state and central governments’ keenness to have the train chugging again.

The train line offers many benefits. As Nani Bath, a professor of political science at Arunachal Pradesh’s Rajiv Gandhi University explained, the train would enhance development in a state almost entirely dependent on central funding, and offer tourists and business-people a convenient way to travel. The train is also important from a strategic perspective. It would improve India’s security infrastructure along the China border, especially in the wake of China’s frequent incursions into the state.

The unambiguous desire among Arunachalis to monitor entrants reflects their anxiety that their way of life is under threat. As the state’s newspapers papers are filled with reports of rapes, kidnappings, murders, drug-abuse, prostitution and theft, locals claim that these problems are a result of an influx of illegal immigrants.

For instance, last week, after the high-profile abduction and killing of a prominent businessman in Naharlagun, the state’s second-largest city, Chief Minister Nabam Tuki affirmed the popular view. According to a local newspaper, “Tuki observed that organised crime mostly involves ‘outsiders’ and therefore emphasised on effective and thorough regulation of the inner line (permit) checking mechanism.”

Though the state police say they do not have data to back the view that illegal migrants are responsible for rising crime, they believe it is true. Exact numbers on illegal migrants are unavailable, said Jailash Pertin, Assistant District Commissioner for Sagalee, one of Arunachal’s largest sub-divisions. “How can we have numbers for this?” he asked. However, he said the police does have recordings and testimonials, which establish that outsiders, especially those from Bangladesh, who enter the state without Inner Line Permits, are behind the problems.

Arunachalis claim that if outsiders are allowed into the state unchecked, Arunachal’s diverse indigenous systems and the people who follow them will be left vulnerable to external coercion. The state’s 13 lakh people are members of at least 20 tribes and speak as many as 90 languages.

“Our people are very easy to exploit,” claimed Pertin, the police official. “You can make a fool out of them in half an hour. Because there is ignorance, timidity.”

Arunachal residents worry that with trains, their existing problems will only be amplified if the permit system is not enforced. 

State of isolation

Currently, Arunachal Pradesh can be accessed by road (a bus ticket costs Rs 450) or air (via helicopters) from Guwahati. But the roads ‒ narrow and endowed with potholes ‒ are in decay, and helicopter travel, Rs 4,000 and Rs 2,500 for an adult and a child respectively, is relatively expensive. Discussions on setting up an airport have been ongoing for 15 years.

Though the railways claim to have found a solution to objections that forced the train to a halt, Biru Nasi, general secretary of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, one of the groups involved in the protests, said that he was not aware of the plan to monitor permits at railway stations. “The government has said they are working on a strategy,” Nasi said. But for now, “we are in the dark and it has been three months”.

But if the permit system is enforced, the students would have no problem with trains or outsiders, he said.