India may be busy courting Myanmar to advance its much-touted Act East Asia Policy, with promises and talks to open up borders and enhance people-to-people connect, but far away, in the remote Naga hills, a slow but definite dissent is brewing up against both New Delhi and Naypyitaw. The dissent has its roots deeply embedded in the decisions that were taken by governments of both these countries in 2016 to collaborate in fencing an imaginary boundary along the picturesque Dan village in the Noklak district of Nagaland.
Surrounded by the majestic Saramati highlands of Nagaland on its west, the tiny hamlet of Dan and other adjoining villages like Pangsha have been in the news since an abortive attempt was made by the Myanmarese government to fence about 3 km of an imaginary border that passes through these villages. The fencing work, which was stopped following massive protests from the locals of Dan, Pangsha and other villages as well as several Naga organisations, threatens to convert about 3,500 hectares of cultivable area into no man’s land and divide the Khiamniungan Naga families that inhabit these hills.
Khiamniungans are one of the major tribes among the Nagas and spread across the eastern part of Nagaland state in India and the western part of Myanmar. Khiamniungan literally means “source of great water or river” (Khiam means water, Nui means great and Ngan means source). The nomenclature is said to derive from the biggest river of the land (Laang) and the Chindwin river downhill with which the former confluences. Apart from the Konyaks, the Khiamniungan Nagas were also known to be among the most ferocious Naga head-hunters before they converted to Christianity. Their encounter against the British in 1936 and 1939 after their villages were burnt by the latter are well documented
The Khiamniungan Nagas are restive. On the one hand, there is the fencing which Myanmar may resume any time and, on the other, Indian military forces, deployed to man a security post that was set up in Dan soon after the fencing work had started, are continuously harassing local residents. “Our people are literally at the mercy of the Indian military personnel to live their lives in their own land, stopped, checked and questioned whenever they made any attempts to find their way to their fields, to hospitals, to markets, to schools and even to visit their family members,” rued Nyukha, the 80-year-old gaobura (village headman) of new Pangsha village, the wrinkles on his forehead deepening into several stripes.
“So why should we not fight back? We will if our lives and traditions are disturbed. We shall stop being good Indian citizens and prepare for something big,” asserted, P Beshim, a Khiamniungan elder in his mid-80s and an advisor of the Khiamniungan Tribal Council (KTC), an umbrella organisation of all Khiamniungan Nagas. This was perhaps an indication of an armed uprising.
When asked to explain, the answer from Beshim and members of the KTC was, “Such a thing has never happened to us, our feelings are hurt as if our body has been cut into two and, if they don’t stop harassing, we shall go to any extent.”
Truth versus hype: A visit to Dan and Pangsha
The visit to Dan was long overdue and, especially after the fencing fiasco broke out in 2016, it was important to get a sense of how things evolved since then. On reaching Pangsha, covering several hundred miles, Baba (as Nyukha, the gaobura, is known) invited me to go on trek with him through a hilly terrain in between the Dan mountains (the Dan village derives its name from the mountains) and meet his “Khiamniungan brothers and sisters” from the other side. I readily agreed but little did I realise that we were heading straight into trouble. Perhaps Baba knew but he did not let it dampen my excitement.
As we approached the Indian security checkpost, we were greeted by automatic machine gun barrels pointing at us from the bunkers that were located right in front of the entrance. Inside the bunkers sit soldiers with their finger on the trigger and outside an Assam Rifles officer in an adjacent room where every passerby from both sides are made to record their names in a register and questioned. It’s a painstakingly slow process and decisions on granting permissions to move in and out through this route is rather arbitrary. While we were allowed to go after entering our names on a register, a young Naga woman, who was injured in the left leg and needed urgent medical attention, was stopped and made to wait for long hours even as she was turning pale from the pain she was in. The woman was driven up by her relatives on a motorcycle from Lahe on the Myanmar side. Lahe is a town in the Naga Hills of Sagiang Division on the north-west frontier of Myanmar and is grouped together with Leshi and Nanyun in the Naga Self-Administered Zone under the 2008 Burmese Constitution.
“We want to take her to Kohima for treatment as she is serious,” said her escort, while pleading with the Assam Rifles officer who seemed to turn a deaf ear to the pleas.
“Please do something and take her with you to Noklak at least,” said another of her relative, this time turning to me, but to my utter helplessness, as I was also awaiting a final clearance to move along boundary area. The army officer on duty saw this and walked to where I was standing and spoke to me in his native Bangla. He said, “Aye Naga ra boja ne khali bike kore asa jawa kore, aita bishon sensitive jayaga, Burma bomb kor te para kono somay,” (These Nagas want to move in and out, they don’t realise this is a very sensitive place, Burma /Myanmar can bomb any time). I thought to myself, “Is this the kind of fear psychosis that the Indian establishment is trying to create in the minds of the Nagas of these areas?”
I felt like telling the army officer that I have spent over 10 years in Myanmar and haven’t heard of any decision that the Myanmarese government would take to bomb the hills of Nagaland. However, I had to move on to see the fenced section of the border. Before I could move Baba held my hand and said, “Look, this is what has been happening here, our lives have changed, we have not been consulted before such restrictions were imposed on us, our people are suffering, though we don’t care, it is our land and we shall not allow our lives to be cut into halves.”
Moments before that, Baba was seen confronting a Naga officer in the Assam Rifles telling him in no uncertain terms, “You are forcefully occupying our place and disturbing our lives, please get out from here.”
A day after my visit, there was another incident reported, this time with an administrative officer of Lahe who got into a verbal altercation with the Indian security officer after he was prevented from taking his vehicle to reach a Naga village under his jurisdiction which could be accessed only through the Indian side. Incidentally, the nature of mountainous terrains makes it difficult to access villages that are under one administrative jurisdiction especially on the Myanmar side of the Naga hills. Incidents such as these have been on the rise over the last two years.
Bidhayak Das is a contributing editor for The Irrawady