“Hopefully no problem, the road is more or less safe now,” replied the Head of the Naga Chiefs, Kohima’s local Enfield club. We were sipping tea with him outside a dusty workshop on the outskirts of Nagaland’s capital as one of his mechanics worked on reversing the effects of the local jungle on the performance and appearance of our bike. I’d anxiously been asking him about the next stage of the route, the one I’d been dreading the most since we first pulled out the map to plan our trip several months back.
The problem is that the official border crossing from India into Myanmar is at Moreh (it’s also closed to foreigners, but more about that later). And getting to Moreh means driving through Manipur, which lately has been the most troubled of the Seven Sister states. Just to get from Kohima to Imphal, the Mainpuri capital, means driving down the notorious Highway 39, or the Highway of Sorrow as the Times of India likes to call it. The challenge is not landslides or plunging drops but instead regular blockades, hold-ups and robberies, carried out seemingly as much by rogue police as by the rebel or criminal outfits for which the state has become notorious. Whilst a previous German 4×4 expedition had received a police escort all the way down, we unfortunately had no such connections in high places. Paul from the Naga Chiefs now assured us he’d recently travelled the road without incident, but then again this was with an accompaniment of 250 other bikers, which we imagined might be rather a deterrent for all but the most hardened of bandits.
In any case we took his word for it, though our nerves were soon on edge again when the night before we planned to set out two buses were stoned and then robbed while travelling the route. We rode out of Kohima on Sunday afternoon in the end, figuring that this should be the low crime point of the week and endeavoured to drive as fast as was safely possible all the way down. After an hour or so we started to relax a bit, seeing that, as ever, the vast majority of people were just friendly villagers, going about their Sunday business. As we got nearer to Imphal though, the army presence started to increase and a couple of times we had to pull over as an armoured car complete with goggled machine gunner gesturing out of the roof came roaring up the other way escorting some senior government official or VIP.
Imphal itself is not quite the haven of peace you’d hope for at the end of such a road. In the preceding two weeks there had been four bomb blasts in the city, the last exploding the day before our arrival. Two more were to go off within a couple of days of our departure. While no-one has yet claimed responsibility, accusations have been levelled both at rebel movements fighting for Manipuri independence and at the Indian army themselves, the argument being they are seeking civilian casualties that can be blamed on the rebels in order to weaken popular support for the nationalist cause.
As we came into the outskirts of town, the razor wire, army foot patrols, and armoured personnel carriers gave us the distinct feeling of entering a warzone. Suddenly there was an engine growling loudly behind us accompanied by incessant horning and shouting. Nervously pulling the bike over and cutting the throttle, it was with a sigh of relief that we found our pursuer was armed with a Bullet but no gun – it was the leather-clad leader of the Royal Riders, Imphal’s local Enfield gang, who’d been alerted by the Naga Chiefs in Kohima to our travel plans and very kindly ridden out to meet us. As he escorted us to our hotel, a handful of other tough-looking but utterly charming gentlemen joined us on their Bullets and on arrival we all sat down for, this being a dry state, a nice cup of tea and started to find out a bit more about the real Manipur.
The independent kingdom of Manipur faced increasing meddling from the British in the late 19th century, culminating in a takeover in 1891. An unwelcome thrust into the centre of international affairs followed: World War II brought two years of continuous bombing as the Allies tried to prevent the Japanese breaking through from Burma into the Indian plains. When the Brits eventually pulled out and India won its independence in 1947, the Manipuris had no intention of joining the new state, instead declaring the restoration of their kingdom. The celebrations were short-lived however as barely two years later New Delhi succeeded in pressuring the Maharaja into signing an agreement that annexed Manipur to India, without any prior consultation with his people. An organised and increasingly violent insurgency movement demanding independence gradually gathered pace and today more than 30 separate groups are campaigning for a free Manipur. The state now has more militant activity – and thus inevitably more Indian security activity – than anywhere else in the North East. And even more so than in neighbouring Nagaland, these militant groups have diverted large amounts of their energy into fighting rival factions as opposed to the Indian army along with cashing in on the lucrative cross-border drugs and arms trade with neighbouring Myanmar. Indeed, in an unguarded moment an Indian official in Moreh later confirmed to us that several Manipuri rebel groups are based just across the border in Myanmar and launch their attacks from there with the blessing of the Myanmar Government who, he claimed, comfortably tolerate their presence as long as they pay the necessary “taxes”.
Nevertheless our new biker friends assured us that we’d be quite safe in their company and invited us out on a little tour of the city. So, ignoring the online advice we’d received to bolt ourselves in our hotel room throughout our stay, we headed out onto the streets. We’d happened to arrive in Imphal on the night of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. As anyone who’s been in India for this wonderful event knows, it’s no longer just small clay lamps that are used to provide the light symbolising the triumph of good over evil. Instead the streets and skies are filled with a deafening cacophony of fireworks, bangers and not-so-safe homemade firecrackers. These regular explosions did little to lessen the warzone feel as we rode through the backstreets of Imphal by night, past the army patrols stopping and searching local young men. Nevertheless we found a charming and vibrant city and were even warmly welcomed at the annual food festival (though I have never seen so many AK-47s and flak jackets at a culinary event in my life) and plied with delicious morsels of local fare and some underground rice beer.
Next morning we rode out of Imphal with a full motorcycle escort, having been once again charmed by what we’d heard was one of the most dangerous corners of India. As in Nagaland, we’d found people vastly different from mainland Indians, people who are quite baffled at their forced link to distant Delhi and whose language, look and lifestyle are more Bangkok than Bangalore. But India’s Look East policy and Manipur’s increasingly important frontier with Myanmar unfortunately make those dreams of independence look ever more distant.