Leaving Bhutan to re-enter vast India yet again is a bizarre experience. After weeks of mountain driving, you encounter a few last mean hairpin bends, then suddenly drop down into the Indian plains at Samdrup Jongkhar. It’s not only the landscape that changes; here we were back into India’s world of intense heat, traffic, street vendors, plastic waste and billboards; all quite foreign to Bhutan. But whilst we sadly departed from Bhutan’s amazing scenery, picturesque buildings and endearing people, we rejoiced in our regained freedom to choose ourselves where to go, in which hotel to sleep, and what to eat. No more standardised Bhutanese hotels or emu datse (HOT chillis with cheese); that we were sure of.
From Samdrup Jongkhar it was a 4-hour ride to Guwahati, the capital of Assam and gateway to our next destination: India’s North East. To prepare a little for this new world that we were about to launch ourselves into, we passed a quiet night in Guwahati followed by two peaceful days in Kaziranga National Park. And then it was into the unknown – from the start of the journey India’s North East had been the place where we’d felt we knew least what to expect. But one thing we were certain of: it was going to be a world apart from the rest of India.
The Seven Sisters – the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – contain a large variety of tribes that differ hugely from India’s plains people in terms of language, religion, appearance, dress and food. Many of these tribes wonder how they ever got attached to India; indeed, geographically the link is undeniably precarious. It is maintained only by the “chicken’s neck” – a thin sliver of land, sometimes only a few miles wide, that squeezes between Nepal and Bangladesh like a placenta snaking out to the North East to keep its people attached to the “mainland.” Even so, Imphal, the capital of Manipur, remains closer to Hong Kong than it is to Delhi.
Each of the Sisters has experienced drawn out internal struggles for some degree of autonomy or full independence from the rest of India; struggles that have all too often fractured internally to leave faction fighting against faction as much as against the Indian State. The most well known of these is probably the campaign for an independent Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland by the Naga people. It was through their homeland that we were to travel first.
A little background on the Nagas: for many centuries they have occupied the hills stretching from North Eastern Assam and Southern Arunachal, to Northern Manipur and North Western Burma. Well into the 20th century, they were a collection of fierce, independent warrior tribes, battling each other and the outside world. They were particularly famous for headhunting, a practice that despite the somewhat unifying effects of Christianisation might have continued up till the 1980s. Captured heads would be displayed on shelves in the village club or long house, or hung from a tree in the central clearing. Unsurprisingly, when the British first encountered the Nagas in the early 19th century, they considered them too much trouble and largely left them to their own devices. A treaty was signed under which the Nagas allowed the establishment of Indian Army bases in the hills; other than that civil and criminal administration remained in Naga hands.
However during WWII Nagaland unexpectedly became the central stage of battle, when the Japanese tried to push from Burma to Calcutta and Delhi through the Naga Hills. The Allied forces managed to stop the Japanese at Kohima (now the capital of Nagaland) and Imphal, after which they would retain the initiative until the end of the war. Large WWII cemeteries are still meticulously maintained at Kohima and Imphal, the former containing the famous Kohima verse (see photo).
Despite prior promises to the contrary, in 1947 the Naga Hills were proclaimed part of newly independent India and, making things even worse as far as the Nagas were concerned, were not even constituted as an independent state, instead being annexed to Assam. The Nagas resisted, and after seven years of ineffective negotiation, were invaded by an Indian army 100,000 strong. Tens of thousands of Nagas were herded into makeshift concentration camps where many died from starvation or contaminated drinking water. Such brutal military actions only strengthened public support for the independence cause, upheld by the Naga National Congress. Tensions were eased a little when a settlement was reached in 1963 which saw the Indian Government endorse a separate Naga state if not independence. This was followed by the Shillong Accords in 1975 in which the Nagas (1) accepted the Constitution of India, (2) surrendered their arms and (3) were granted “reasonable time to formulate other issues for discussion for final settlement.” However, the legitimacy of the Naga signatories is contested and point 3 largely remains unimplemented. As such, various factions of ‘insurgents’ continue to battle for independence – and to fight amongst themselves – up to the present day.
As Jonathan Glancey describes in Nagaland – A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier,:
“Although increasingly represented in the wider world … all Nagas remain, at heart and in their bones, antipathetic to their powerful and hugely neighbour. Most Nagas certainly live very differently from those in the rest of India. Nagaland remains a rural state. More than four-fifths of the population lives in small, isolated villages. Built on the most prominent points along the ridges of the hills, green in the day, blue and then purple as the sun drops behind them, traditional villages remain stockaded with massive wooden gates, approached by narrow, sunken paths, just as they were centuries ago. Even by Indian standards, Nagas are very poor: the official per capita income of Nagaland, although reliable figures are hard to come by, is something like $120 a year, although those living in the most inaccessible valleys earn, if anything, considerably less… Between them, Nagas speak at least seventeen languages, including Angami, Ao, Chang, Konyak, Lhota, Sangtam, Sema and English. And of course there are countless dialects. What Nagas will not speak, except when career mongering or working in shops and the new service industries in Dimapur.. is Hindi.”
So much for the books… We could feel that Nagaland is a place unlike other places in India immediately when we crossed into the State at Tizit in the North. We had already been stopped and checked by Indian soldiers a few kilometres earlier and after bumping over an old iron bridge found ourselves in front of another military check post signifying the border of the state. We knew that this northern area was the more remote part of Nagaland, but were still overwhelmed by the heavy army presence, the immediate deterioration of the roads, the thatched huts that had replaced the brick houses of Assam, and the confused, hard stares of the few people we passed, seemingly shocked to see outsiders. As we bumped and rattled over the road to the town of Mon, the stunning beauty of the lush green hills swathed in mist could only temporarily divert us from an overall feeling of eeriness and unease and from those tales we’d been reading of rebels, drug traffickers and rogue Indian army units that were apparently somewhere out there.
However, the next three days we would spend in Nagaland brought us into contact with some of the most open, hospitable, and good-humoured people we’ve met along the way. We were to pass two nights with a Naga friend of a friend in Shiyong Village, by whom we were hosted with such grace and generosity that we were almost permanently embarrassed. And on the day we intended to travel from Shiyong on to Kohima, we found ourselves instead stranded at Tamlu village, having advanced only 20 kilometres through the jungle due to a battle with the worst road of the trip to date, a semi flooded mud bath that meandered through the hills and threatened to finally defeat the Enfield. In the middle of the Naga Hills, hours from the nearest hotel, we were taken in by a heart-warming old couple and their daughter who together spoke no more than 20 words of English. They dried our clothes around their open fire, insisted on cooking us a hearty meal and then shepherded us into the bed of their absent eldest son. The next morning we found half of the village outside ready to give us a spirited send off.
Although we didn’t meet any rebels or independence fighters and the Indian Army units we encountered were more keen on shaking our hands than shaking us down, we certainly got the feeling from the Nagas that we met that their desire for independence is alive and well. They clearly feel very different from the rest of India and would love to have their own country. Indeed “Indians” are talked of as a foreign people and Andy received a heartfelt request from a septuagenarian gentleman around the campfire to carry a letter to the King of England on his return requesting independence for Nagaland. The desired ‘Nagalim’ or Greater Nagaland would stretch beyond the current boundaries of the State and unite its 2 million people with the additional 2 million Nagas living in the bordering areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar. However, the unlikelihood of Assam, Arunachal and Manipur abandoning parts of their states for the sake of creating Greater Nagaland, is clear to many. Myanmar would be even less likely to budge. While Naga areas in Myanmar’s Sagaing region have been granted self-administration, the area officially includes only three townships (Leshi, Lahe and Namyun), excluding other Naga tribes in Sagaing and Kachin, and remains one of the country’s least developed zones. With the prospect of ‘Nagalim’ as unlikely as it is, we got the impression that many civilians in fact resent the constant upheaval caused by the ‘rebels’. Reluctantly, but also cheerfully, they would rather see their fellow Nagas focus on more constructive efforts.
As such our first introduction to this unknown corner of India, where for the first time we really started to feel far away from Delhi, and nearer to Myanmar…