ITANAGAR: I remember it distinctly. It was in the tenth standard after classes in my boarding school in Assam when a student from Nagaland, two years my junior, asked me: Why do you guys from Arunachal speak in Hindi with each other?

Until that day almost two decades ago, I had never really given much thought to the idea of why we spoke in Hindi (or at least a form of distorted gender-neutral Hindi where whether male or female, everyone khana khata hain and yaha se waha jata hain).

“We are Indians. What other language could people from a state that has over 100 different ethnic tribes, each with distinct languages, communicate with in the absence of a naturally-evolved lingua franca? Hindi is our lingua franca,” I thought to myself.

It was at that stage and my subsequent years in Delhi that I realised that out of all the people from the eight different states from the Northeast, it is the everyday Arunachali that wore his/her patriotism and allegiance to the Indian nation on his sleeve, lips, and heart, and would spare no opportunity to make a proud declaration about it.

My friends from other states from the region, on the other hand, were more subdued. Of course, a cricket match between India and Pakistan would incite patriotic fervour from even the most hardened of those who seemingly appeared to first sign allegiance to their ethnic identities. But having lived through the experiences of excesses at the hands of the armed forces for decades, often leading to deaths and rapes of family members and the freehand provided to them by the powers in New Delhi, I began to understand where their apparent indifference stemmed from.

What I still failed to understand was where this vocal patriotism of the average Arunachali stemmed from.

“We never had an idea of nationhood before the British came and set up frontier tracts (administrative divisions),” explains Moji Riba, a filmmaker and assistant professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University here.

He says that it was only when the British came that the tribal people of the state felt “some semblance that we belong to a larger political entity”. Before that, he says, “we were all individual village-states”.

Riba feels that the difference between the indigenous communities of Arunachal Pradesh and most ethnic groups of other states is that the histories are not the same.

“Our point of assimilation was with the political entity of India first,” he says, adding that the Arunachali identity is one that was constructed later; something that came about when multiple different tribes with arguably varied cultures were clubbed together in one administrative unit of, first the North East Frontier Tracts, then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), then the union territory of Arunachal Pradesh in 1972, and finally to the state of Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.

He says that the idea of a Naga or a Mizo identity evolved naturally and the Arunachali identity developed before Indian Independence.

Apart from small sporadic armed separatist groups that have been quickly disposed of, Arunachal Pradesh has never had a history of home-grown insurgency that has at some point or the other marked almost all other states of the region and continue to do so in some places.

Riba attributes this to two main factors- one is the flow of financial funds that the Centre has continually doled out to the state, and the other being the linguistic imposition of Hindi in the state.

Before the India-China ‘war’ of 1962 when Chinese Army troops marched through, it was Assamese that the people of the linguistically diverse state communicated in to speak to people of different tribes. As a language spoken widely in the plains of Assam, it seemed like a natural development. In fact, even the medium of education until the late 1960s was Assamese and almost all school teachers were Assamese themselves.

It was only changed to English after student leaders from the state agitated and in a post-1962 Arunachal Pradesh, New Delhi was eager to send in Hindi-speaking teachers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

“A number of factors contributed to Arunachalis becoming as patriotic as we have,” says political commentator and professor Dr Nani Bath.

He agrees with his colleague from the university that Hindi played a major role.

“Replacement of Assamese-speaking teachers from Hindi heartland...,” he puts it.

Bath says that the post-independence policies regarding the administration of NEFA, including “Nehru's tribal policy of development” was another factor.

“He took many of our tribal leaders for India tour telling them that the Taj Mahal, Victoria Memorial, Red Fort, all belong to them,” Bath says.

Almost by chance, a veteran politician, Kamen Ringu, informs that he had gone on one of those Bharat Darshan tours.

Ringu is the working chairman of the lone regional political from the state- the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA). It’s a party that he has been a member of for most of his 41-year political career.

The stately and sagely politician lists the same concepts of linguistic imposition and the constructed identity as factors that have made the Arunachali patriotic.

Unable to escape the zeitgeist, the conversation steers into the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A) from Jammu & Kashmir.

“Personally, I feel there was no other alternative although it was hastily done,” Ringu says, adding, “we are one country, why should we have different flags”.

Ironically, he wants the continued implementation of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation that stipulates that all non-indigenous Arunachal Pradesh citizens from other Indian states and regions must procure an inner line permit (ILP) to enter the state.

Ringu also does not see a clash of ideologies in swearing allegiance to the Indian flag whilst helming the affairs of a regional political party.

“Bharat is a union of states. It is the various regions that makeup India,” he says.

Former student leader, Gumjum Haider, who earlier served as the secretary-general of the North East Students’ Organization, almost blames this idea on an apparent lack of exposure.

“Most people in Arunachal have not had the exposure to discrimination, lack understanding human rights issues, the right to self-determination,” he says.

At a time when nationalistic rhetoric is in vogue, Haider says that “every so-called intellectual Arunachali says the same thing”, that “they put Bharat Mata on top of everything”.

Nending Laji, who runs an event management firm out of Itanagar feels that the use of Hindi is at the core of the issue.

“Whether or not I am patriotic throughout the year, during August 15 and January 26, I feel a sense of Indianess,” he says, and that the fact that Hindi is ubiquitously used across the state is a key factor in that.

“We listen to Hindi songs, watch Bollywood movies because we understand the language better than most others from other states in the Northeast. Therefore we identify ourselves more with a Salman Khan we see on screen,” he adds.

Jumyir Basar, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University’s Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies, presents a more nuanced opinion.

She says that the acceptance of the mainland (read places outside Northeast) Indian culture may be higher amongst people of Arunachal Pradesh and that ethnic groups of other states have stronger ‘sub-national culture’ but that that does not “make them less patriotic than us”.

“The valour of Naga Regiment during the Kargil War cannot be undermined because of a separatist movement,” she says.

Basar also says that people from other states likely “feel the same pride when India does something great or even in case of a cricket match”.

She echoes Riba on the notion of the “nation-state” where for people of Arunachal Pradesh it has always been “India that we have known. The British or the missionaries could not influence us like they did the Nagas or the Mizos. Tibet never fully accepted us nor had any major influence”.

A young student leader, Marli Kamki, struggles with the same question.

“How do you measure a person’s patriotism,” he asks.

We go back and forth with our conversation and he tells me that he’s been thinking about the question to find an appropriate answer.

I pose a hypothetical question: Imagine that you’ve just watched the movie ‘Uri’ with a friend from another state from the region. Answer honestly and from your heart, who among you is more likely to come out chest-thumping and swelling with pride over the apparent prowess of the Indian Army?

“Me,” he says without hesitation, adding that its “natural and not planted (patriotism)”.

“But why is it natural for an Arunachali,” I shoot back.

“Because we are Indian and we have accepted the idea of India as a nation,” he shoots back even quicker.