GADGETS DO the job these days. But the armed forces often rely on a 78-year-old’s eyes and ears for information on the China frontier.
As a long-time gaonbura (GB, village elder) of Mangang village, Dorjee Purba Chukla’s primary job is to ensure law and order locally. He also has to update the army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, intelligence agencies and the local administration on any suspicious Chinese activity on the border.
Reason: Mangang, in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district, is the village closest to India’s border with China-occupied Tibet.
Mangang is northeast of Mechukha, a sub-divisional headquarter 492 km from state capital Itanagar but just 29 km from the nearest point of the McMahon Line that separates India and China.
Arunachal Pradesh’s border with Tibet is 1080 km long.
“Our men are vital for the armed forces as guides and informants. They also keep a watch on the border while collecting yarje gomu (a high-altitude insect believed to have medicinal properties), which people from across the border also treasure,” Chukla said.
Chukla is one of 75 GBs in Mechukha sub-division who are the faces of the government in 112 villages. They are judges too, settling family and social disputes with punishments for the guilty such as fines or community service.
“We try to use our wisdom and settle minor cases. The police and magistrates take care of major law and order issues such as murder, rape and communal clashes but only after we refer these incidents to them,” Kesang Goiba, the GBs’ president, told Hindustan Times.
The GBs are a vital cog in the administrative wheel in a difficult eastern Himalayan subdivision where many villages have to be covered by foot over four-five days, said additional deputy commissioner Tungge Loya.
“We need their help in ensuring peaceful co-existence among five major tribes of the area,” Loya said. These tribes are the Buddhist Menpa or Memba, Bokar, Ramo, Pailibo and Tagin.
The Bokar, Ramo, Pailibo and Tagin are sub-tribes of the Adi community while Membas have 23 clans.
The GBs’ assistance is also crucial because there are barely 15 policemen for the entire subdivision straddling 83,743 sq. m of mountains at an average altitude of 6,500ft.
An army officer of a frontier unit, declining to be quoted, said the GBs are important for civic action programmes besides strategic help on a treacherous terrain. “We need the support of the local people as much as they need ours for emergency medical aid and supplies,” he said.
Goiba, 60, insists the GBs are impartial in their discharge of duties despite the fact that they are selected by a few, not elected. The all-male GBs try to be fair with cases involving women too.
“Many of the cases of crimes against girls and women we have handled have gone against males,” Goiba, who was selected GB president eight years ago, said.
A GB gets an honorarium of R200-250 from the government. It is a pittance for the trouble they take, but the social status that comes with the job is more than worth it, the GBs say.