For generations, school-going students of Arunachal Pradesh have been learning that India gained Independence solely due to the Congress-led ‘non-violent’ freedom struggle, wherein, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi played a stellar role.
Like in the rest of the country, school and college textbooks in Arunachal Pradesh, the north-eastern state that borders China-occupied Tibet to its north, dwelt exclusively on the ‘contributions’ of Congress leaders to India’s Independence struggle.
Youngsters in the predominantly tribal state, however, could relate little to the Independence movement and its ‘heroes’ who were all non-tribals, and mostly belonged to the country’s Hindi heartland.
The BJP government in the state announced in 2021, an exercise to rectify and document the state’s own heroes who fought valiantly against the British rule, with an objective of ‘correcting’ the Congress-centered history of the freedom struggle.
A committee comprising historians, researchers and experts of the state’s premier Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU), headed by Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein; a history buff himself, toiled for nearly two years to produce a report on the state’s ‘unsung heroes’ and presented it to the state government earlier this week.
Members of the committee travelled to various parts of the country as well as London to fish out and study documents, diaries of travellers and officials, and other records to reconstruct a true history of the gallant fight against British invaders by the state’s own tribal communities.
“The work was a very painstaking and meticulous one that required a huge lot of dedication and hard work. The report will now be studied by the state government and the NCERT and will form part of the history taught to our students in schools and colleges,” Chowna Mein, Deputy Chief Minister, told Swarajya.
The lives and gallantry of the ‘unsung heroes’ of the state named in the report prepared by the committee will become the highlight of the statehood day celebrations on 20 January, each year.
The committee has identified 15 ‘unsung heroes’, 100 freedom fighters and 64 martyrs from various tribal communities of the state who fought the British.
“Not only students of Arunachal Pradesh, but the people of the rest of the country will also get to learn about our state’s heroes. This will be a revolutionary change because till now, our state’s contribution to the country’s freedom struggle was depicted as ‘zero’. This rewriting of history is very important to instill a sense of pride, and belonging, among our own people and making the rest of our countrymen aware of Arunachal Pradesh’s role in fighting the British colonisers,” Chief Minister Pema Khandu told Swarajya.
The research team concentrated on three main wars by Arunachal Pradesh tribes against the British: the Tai Khamti-British war of 1839, the four major battles waged by the Adi tribe against the British invaders in 1858, 1859, 1894 and 1911, and the Wancho-British war of 1875.
These wars resulted in heavy casualties for the British, while also claiming lives of many tribals who fought heroically using traditional weapons. The tribes armed themselves with bows, arrows and swords against the well-equipped British soldiers bearing muskets, guns and cannons.
“The war between the Tai Khamti tribals and the British in 1839 in which 80 British soldiers, including their commanding officer (one Colonel Adam White) was killed is actually India’s first war of Independence,” said Chowna Mein.
Chief Minister Khandu said that war memorials will be constructed to honour those who fought the British at sites where the battles took place and a state-of-art war museum will be set up at state capital Itanagar.
Khandu told Swarajya about discussions being held with the Union Government to include the state’s tribal freedom fighters at the National Tribal Freedom Fighters’ Museum in Gujarat. The state government has also encouraged and sponsored playwrights and film directors to produce plays and films on the state’s freedom fighters.
“The National School of Drama (NSD) will produce a number of plays on the heroes of the three wars fought by the Tai Khamtis, the Adis and the Wanchos against the British,” said Chowna Mein.
“Most of the records pertaining to the battles between Arunachal Pradesh’s indigenous tribals and the British between 1792 and 1945 exist in the form of tour diaries and personal diaries of British soldiers and officers, court martial proceedings (by the British), British official correspondence, images and ethnographic data in various archives and museums in India as well as the United Kingdom. We examined thousands of such accounts and documents,” said RGU’s head of history department, Ashan Riddi, who was a part of the committee.
“A lot of hard work and diligence was involved in compiling the report. We cross-checked all documents and references many times to ensure that the accounts we compile based on them are completely authentic and withstand all critical reviews. It was a painstaking but highly rewarding exercise,” said Nepha Wangsa, research scholar and committee member.
The ongoing Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, said Chief Minister Khandu, has provided a “unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to the state to document and highlight its own contributions to “India’s glorious freedom struggle”.
The state government has also roped in the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to attest the report by the committee, hold seminars around it and spread awareness about the stellar contribution of tribals of the state in resisting the British.
RGU vice-chancellor Saket Kushwaha considered this project worthy of emulation by other states, in his interaction with Swarajya. “The entire exercise was carried out in a meticulous and very scientific manner so that there was no scope for even a minute error. No one can now dispute the report of the committee,” he said.
“There is a lot to learn from the entire exercise by Arunachal Pradesh. It was a thorough and scientific effort that left out any room for error or misinterpretation. All states should follow the example of Arunachal Pradesh,” said Parimal Mukhopadhyay, eminent historian working on a project to highlight the contributions of the fearless revolutionaries of Bengal.
Historians opine that Arunachal Pradesh has set an example that can be adopted by other states in the grand project to rewrite the history of the country’s freedom struggle. This long-felt exercise is to include the contributions of countless bravehearts who were either left out or marginalised by British and Indian Marxist historians to present a distorted picture of history on India’s freedom struggle.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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