A one-and-a-half day journey from Itanagar by road, on the bumpy and meandering hill track, is Limeking—a village inhabited by the Tagins, an indigenous tribe living in the Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Just 12 kilometres further north is a smaller settlement, Katenala. At Katenala, the concrete road comes to an end and with it vanish all other traits usually associated with villages: independent economies, electricity, schools and medical centres.
In November this year, I was part of a motley group of ten hikers that was on their way to Taksing, a village in the same district that is three kilometres from the Chinese border. We camped at Katenala for two days while arranging for rations, porters and a local guide. According to news reports, last year, the Chinese had come menacingly close to the Indian army establishment in this region with armoured personnel vehicles last year. My plan was to examine the details of the incident and confirm if the media reports were actually true.
While we prepared for the rest of our journey, we noticed around thirty wooden huts built on plinths that were lined up on the banks of the Subansiri river, along with a few shops selling essential items such as food and supplies. The Subansiri flows from Tibet through the Upper and Lower Subansiri districts in Arunachal Pradesh, before joining the Brahmaputra river in Assam. It is one of the biggest tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The 300-metre long settlement was flanked on either end by two small army camps with medium-sized artillery pieces covered with camouflage nets. In 1962, during the month-long Sino-Indian war that ended in a ceasefire, a column of the Chinese army had descended from the border into Arunachal Pradesh through at least four regions that included Upper Subansiri. The Indian army appeared to be ensuring that it is not caught on the wrong foot again.
Although the icy winds and a perpetual thin mist made for an eerie stroll, it was made eerier still by a pall of neglect that seemed to hang over Katenala. There was no school in the entire village. It lacked health facilities and electricity, even though it is not located in the hills. There was one PCO (Public Call Office) in the village that is run by the government telecommunications company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). It provided service only for a few hours in the evening and was often occupied by army jawans who were eager to talk to their families.
Tapak Mara, a local resident, lamented that no government existed for the people who live in Katenala. “It is only during the election that we see political leaders visiting these places and making tall promises,” he said, before adding, “This state of affairs would not have existed if India felt that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of the country.” Mara told me that the situation was worse near the border, a fact he believed I would be able to confirm with ease during the course of my reporting, once I reached Taksing.