Kalikho Pul: The quiet rebel from Walla Basti to the chief minister's office
Kalikho Pul rose from a very modest background to become the eighth chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh Photograph: (WION)
In the morning of 9th August 2016, the news of Kalikho Pul's death cast a gloom over the serene mountains of Walla Basti. Kalikho Pul was the eighth chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, having won five times from the Hayuliang Vidhan Sabha constituency as an Indian National Congress Party candidate. Pul's life embodied a unique lesson: he demonstrated what an individual can achieve in a dynamic democratic setup with the help of education and grit. His accomplishments, however, came at a very steep price.
Kalikho Pul started his formal school education in Hawai Middle School in the mid-1980s. It was my friend Manoj Jha, who had first introduced Pul to me. Very respectfully Manoj said, “He is Kalikho Pul, our general secretary”. In our school, most students turned up with their traditional sword (Daav) placed upon their shoulders. They used it to chop and collect firewood during their return journey home.
Kalikho, however, did not carry a sword. Unlike many, he did not display a masochistic attitude. In fact, he had a rather unassuming personality, yet, he stood apart from others. It is amazing how the soft-spoken boy, who would cut grass in the compounds of our teachers’ modest government quarters, rose to become one of the longest- serving finance ministers of the state and one of the youngest chief ministers of India.
Kalikho looked more matured than his peers. Unlike other students, he was not seen at a football ground after school, but was confined to his hostel-room for long hours at his desk. He was one of the few students from the local tribe who was well versed in Hindi as well as in English. Kalikho came to our school from a night school, which was attended by people of all ages from very underprivileged backgrounds. Defying all odds, Pul topped the school examination.
Kalikho did not have a protected childhood. According to the records of Hawai Middle School, he was born on the 20th July 1969. However, the date cannot be relied upon; the custom of holding birth records or issuing of birth certificates was not common during those days. The admission session in Arunachal started in July and, very likely, it was on 20th July the headmaster Mr. Ram Naresh Prasad Sinha formally admitted him to school, and that day was recorded as his birthday.
The principal sources of livelihood for Mishmi tribe around Hawai were hunting, firewood collection, and rearing cattle. Hawai is located around 160 Km away from Tezu, a distance which can be covered in two hours in most cities. However, during those days, it almost took a week to cover that distance. From Hayuliang, the only option was to trek through the mountains for two to four days along the banks of the river Lohit, which roared in its most cruel form, as if a ferocious tiger have been cursed to eternity.
The region had very high child mortality rate and adult life expectancy was one of the lowest in India. Cloudbursts happened to wipe out entire villages, which were at nature’s mercy. The food for local people was supplied through airplane droppings. Kerosene oil, edible oil, and other articles of daily use were dropped from parachutes. When the weather was bad, the only option people had was to eat chickens roasted in firewood. Even doctors and engineers living in Hawai spent a significant amount of time taking care of their chickens. The only silver lining was some connectivity, courtesy the army’s wireless sets that were used to call helicopters during an emergency.
Shortly after the birth of Kalikho, his parents passed away and his aunt took care of him. Soon, he was assigned the task of collecting firewood, as were the other boys of the area of his age. It was during the process of firewood collection that he got the first lessons of carpentry. As Hawai was one of the administrative units of Lohit district, it had a district craft center, which taught the locals basic skills of carpentry. The idea was to generate skilled labourers for the military and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps. It was during one of those days that he was called by the local school headmaster Mr. Sinha for some repair work in the school. Kalikho's meticulous completion of the work deeply impressed Mr. Sinha who advised him to get admission in the local night school where the adults were given basic literacy skills.
During those days, most teachers from regular school offered voluntary service to night schools. I still remember several teachers going to night school with torches and lanterns. They also carried sticks to ward off attacks from wild bear. People were advised to give the stick to the bear and run in the opposite direction.
As Kalikho excelled in academics, Mr. Sinha advised him leave the night school and enroll into the regular school. But the problem was Pul was already more than fifteen years old, and offering admission in the first standard was not the norm. A direct offer of admission to the sixth or seventh standard would have been considered illegal as one could get a job of a policeman with an eighth standard completion certificate. Any exception made to Pul could have encouraged similar requests from others too.
Fortunately for Pul, news reached that Deputy Commissioner Mr. Negi and the Education Minister Khapriso Krung would be visiting Hawai Middle School soon. Mr. Sinha prepared Kalikho to deliver a speech for the visitors. Upon Pul's eloquent delivery, the headmaster took the opportunity to urge Minister Krung that several talented students from the night schools needed to be taken directly into the regular school, without requiring a school leaving certificate, as was the rule.
A couple of months later, Kalikho Pul was admitted directly into the sixth standard. Mr. Sinha called up the circle officer, requesting him to arrange a job of a night watchman for Pul, as his family was financially dependent on him. Kalikho was around sixteen at that time and it was not considered a case of child labour. Fortunately, Pul did not have to do the job but was paid a regular salary which was enough to support his family.
Unknowing to us, the rebel in Kalikho Pul was quietly taking shape. At one time, the weather had been bad for months, and we all waited for airplanes to come. Finally, when it came and the ration was dropped, Kalikho fought with teachers over a larger share of ration for students. I remember, he threw the umbrella away while standing in silence. The headmaster picked it up, gave it to him and said, “keep your anger in control Kalikho. Use it for the good of society.”
Events started moving dramatically fast for Pul. In 1995, he defeated Khapriso Krung, the education minister who received a welcome speech from him more than a decade back. Pul emerged winner in all subsequent elections and worked at the helm of the ministries of finance, tax and excise, and health and family welfare of Arunachal. Over the years, he transformed Hawai from a sleepy village with barely two to three shops into a distinct administrative and business hub at the edge of Sino-Indian border. He played a key role in creating the district of Anjaw with Hawai as its headquarter. Healthcare was his special focus. As the chief minister, he could be seen entering toilets and climbing pipes during inspection.
Kalikho became the deputy finance minister in 1995 when he was elected to the state’s legislative assembly for the first time. However, his track did not remain smooth and he saw several ups and downs. He strongly advocated the needs of border districts before the state and the central governments. His popularity among the masses also created enemies for him. But he did not lose touch with the grassroot level. “On one occasion, during a visit to our house, he gleefully sat on a broken chair,” recalls Asha Sinha and Diwakar Choudhary, my former school teachers from Arunachal.
In 2004, I initiated my research on explosive detection technology with the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University. Discussions with officials from Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Ministry of Defence did not yield any result, I called up Kalikho who immediately agreed to provide support in a week. Unfortunately, the government collapsed the very next day!
One of the proudest moments of my life came when Kalikho became the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. I was making up my mind to call him up to set up an entrepreneurial centre in Hawai to help commercialise local craft in the international market. Unfortunately, he lost his chair after the Supreme Court verdict. On 9th of July, my wife Shephalika informed me of some former chief minister committing suicide, my heart sank. I was sure, it would be him. He was known to hate failures. One time in school, he was on the verge of crying as he faced an imminent defeat in a badminton match. Nevertheless, it did not cross our mind that he would take such an extreme step.
Kalikho always reached school quite early. His headmaster would softly rebuke him, “Kalikho, you have come early!”. The headmaster passed away on 25th July, 2009 and 7 years and 15 days later, perhaps, in some remote corner of the cosmos, Kalikho received the last soft rebuke from his teacher, “Kalikho, you have come early again!”