UNFURLING THE National Flag isn’t just a show of nationalism on the border with China. For an orphan who is now the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, it meant an insurance against starving.
Kalikho, a blend of Assamese and Mishmi words, means ‘better tomorrow’. But every today for Kalikho Pul became a nightmare after his father, Tailum, passed away when he was barely six years old.
His mother, Koranlu, died when he was only 13 months old. “I don’t know how she looked, but she must have had a reason to name me Kalikho,” Pul, 47, said.
The name meant nothing when, after his father’s death, he fetched a bundle of firewood from the jungle adjoining his village Walla in Anjaw district’s Hawai circle bordering China-controlled Tibet.
It prevented him from going to school, but ensured a meal at the house of his aunt, who had his custody. “It was like – no firewood, no food,” he said.
The name made a little sense when, as a 10-year-old, he underwent a two-year training in carpentry at the Hawai Crafts Centre and got a stipend of Rs1.5 per day. “I would have fallen back on my carpentry skills had things not turned out the way it has,” he said.
He still has all his carpentry tools, “just in case”.
At the crafts centre, young Pul had to interact with many army and paramilitary officers who came to place orders. The compulsion to speak in Hindi and English made him take admission for night classes at an adult education centre.
“One day, the centre hosted an official function that Khapriso Krong, the then education minister and the district’s deputy commissioner DS Negi attended. I delivered the welcome speech in Hindi and sang a patriotic song,” Pul said.
Impressed, Negi sent a radio message to the Hawai circle officer from Tezu, the district headquarters of Lohit district from which Anjaw was carved out in 2010, and told him to have Pul admitted in the day school.
“it was a middle school, so I was enrolled straightaway in Class 6,” he said.
While studying there in 1981, Pul got the job of a night-watchman at the Hawai Circle Office at a monthly pay of R212. His job was to guard the office between lowering the Tricolour at 5pm and unfurling it at 5am every day.
“From a chowkidaar of a government office for 12 nocturnal hours, I am now the chowkidaar of this state 24 hours a day and with much greater responsibility,” Pul said.
“The National Flag that I unfurled every day for survival and study, now adorns my official vehicle, my office, and everything that this chair is associated with.”
But the journey in between wasn’t smooth. He became a petty contractor, making bamboo fences and thatched houses, and sold pan and tobacco to eke out a living. He graduated to making roads and building concrete structures. By the time he reached Class 11, he was the owner of four second-hand trucks and a concrete house in Tezu town.
But pursuit of financial stability did not kill his urge to acquire knowledge. He earned a degree in economics from a college in Tezu and went to a law college in adjoining Assam. Circumstances, however, forced him to leave halfway through his law course.
Before graduation, Pul contemplated committing suicide by jumping from a hanging cane-and-bamboo bridge over river Lohit, one of the three main tributaries of Brahmaputra.
“I was suffering from gastric ulcers, but had no money to undergo treatment in Dibrugarh (Assam). Two relatives offered me just R7, making me realise I was dreadfully alone in this world. I made up my mind to jump into the river, but every time I tried someone came along to stop me. I gave up after 32 minutes,” Pul said.
Negi, the deputy commissioner he had met in school, again came to his rescue and lent him Rs 2,500 for treatment. He sold a mithun – a semi-wild bovine creature that in olden times was used as currency – and slogged to return the money, earning enough to help orphans and people too poor to afford medical care.
Pul’s popularity grew, and it showed in the record margin with which he won his maiden assembly election from Hayulliang in 1995. He has maintained a 90% victory margin since in a constituency with less than 10,000 voters.
“I have been a minister for 22 years out of my 23 years in electoral politics. I take care of even those who do not vote for me, because I have gone through a lot of suffering to understand I have no right to make life difficult for others,” he said.
He has virtually turned his official residence in Itanagar into a hospital to show he means what he says. Dozens of patients stay there every day for medicines and other assistance.
“What is power and money if they don’t help others?” Pul, a father of five, said.
(A truncated version appeared in Hindustan Times on 22 February 2016)