Journalist and filmmaker Sanjoy Hazarika draws upon decades of work in India’s North-East for a new book on the region.
The Indian Army came to the village on the high ridge of the Naga Hills after a brief mortar attack. The first mortar shell blew to bits a young mother who was nursing her child. Every man, woman and child, barring one old man, fled into the jungles. The old man stayed behind because in the tradition of the Zeliang tribe, villagers do not return to a settlement that they have abandoned completely. Instead, they set up a new one. The harvest remained uncut for months; the women would stealthily slip down to the stream at night, babies strapped to their backs, to collect water; there would be no fires lit to cook for fear of alerting the soldiers.
The granary bins in every home of Benreu were ransacked. Vegetables, pots and furniture were destroyed by the intruding forces.
Only when the fear had abated after 3 or 4 months – nobody is sure exactly how long because it happened a long time ago and those who remember it are old – did the villagers return to their homes. “When the forces came, they would beat and harass anyone, either on suspicion or just like that, it was a time of great fear for everyone,” said one village elder. The humiliations were constant as patrols came, hunting for insurgents and informers.
This was the last village to fall to the Indian Army after AZ Phizo, the charismatic leader of the movement against India, had called upon his people to revolt. Phizo was from the Angami tribe but held the support of other tribal groups – there are 16 in Nagaland – as he forged an alliance of the Naga National Council and what it called the Federal Government of Nagaland. The fighters had held their ground but retreated in the face of superior forces, armed with better weapons and mortars. The guerrillas faded into the jungle, to ambush and harass the security forces or SFs as the army and paramilitary forces came to be called. To the Government, its media as well as the independent press, the guerrillas were simply “hostiles” – an ugly, anachronistic term that conjures up images of a shadowy group of evil intent, bent on bloodshed. By designing and persisting with this caricature of the Naga opponent, the media, both Government and independent, and India’s existing and soon to become even larger gargantuan bureaucracy, especially its intelligence and security agencies, pitted India against its tribals, without considering a madhyam, a middle path.
The “for us or against us” ideology, so simplistic, patronising and nationalistic, immediately strengthened the resistance to the “idea of India”. For if as Gandhi said, India was a garden with many flowers, then were the tribals, because they thought and lived differently, thorns to be plucked out?
Benreu, like many parts of the Naga Hills, had little contact with the rest of Assam and the plains, let alone the Indian mainland. Like other upland groups in South and Southeast Asia, spanning the entire Himalayan range and the fingers of ranges that radiated southeastward from India’s east, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, they had rarely been conquered but sometimes defeated. They were brutally oppressed by Siu-Ka-Pha, the first Ahom king, who mercilessly tortured his captives as a lesson to other Nagas when he crossed the Patkai and ran into resistance. That treatment silenced them, historians say, for over 150 years although they began raids afterwards. They held ownership and control of the salt mines near Namrup, which they traded with the Ahoms. There was a time when various Ahom monarchs, irked by the harassment, led punitive expeditions against the hill groups but to little avail, for their adversaries vanished, as did the ones at Benreu and elsewhere in the 20th century, into the forests. Atanu Buragohain, the premier of one Ahom king, counselled the ruler against such campaigns, comparing the effort to that of an “elephant entering a rat hole”. So the Ahoms settled for a patchy peace with the hill tribes, giving them a pusa or tax to keep away from their territories. There are also references in historical accounts to social relations between the Ahoms and other Assamese groups and the hill tribes. One example that is frequently cited to underscore the good relations between the two is that of the fugitive Ahom king Godapani, who was protected by the Nagas in the 17th century when he was briefly overthrown. Godapani, while in exile, is said to have married a Naga woman.
So, given the long history of non-relations between India and the Nagas, it was hardly surprising that army soldiers were the first “Indians” that the Zeliangs of Benreu were to encounter. This unfortunate chain of events set a counter-image in their minds – as across the Naga Hills – that the “armies” as the security forces are referred to in conversations in villages, were representative both of Indians and their country. Just as the word “hostile” imprinted a stereotype on the Indian psyche, among the Nagas and other hill groups, a different and equally powerful stereotype of India emerged.
Benreu, like many other Naga villages, hugs an escarpment and commands the strategic heights on four sides.
Even today, thick green jungle, washed by spring rains, covers the plunging hillsides and a journey from Kohima, barely 100-km away, can take 6 to 8 hours because of the slush on roads and frequent landslides which block travel.
There was one saving grace, in the form of a Captain Dorairaj of the Garhwal Rifles, who reached Benreu before 3 other army units – the Manipur Rifles, the Rajputana Rifles and the Sikh Light Infantry – which rushed the heights from other sides. No one could tell me Dorairaj’s initials or first name. He was just “Captain Dorairaj” and they respected him because, to his lasting credit, he refused to allow soldiers to burn the village, as had many others in the Naga Hills. That was, if not a tradition, a practice followed by the army at the time.
That was 54 years ago and it was the Indian Army that went in to control the first armed revolt against the “idea of India” in the hills of Assam. Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds. It wasn’t just an occupation. It was a military response to the holding of Benreu by the Naga fighters, members of the Naga National Council of AZ Phizo, who headed the Federal Government of Nagaland, fired by the vision of an independent homeland where they could live free of the institutions and power brokers of a foreign land. In the words of a teacher from these parts: “This was the last village held by the Naga fighters to fall in this district.”
Benreu was lucky: many other villages were razed, residents killed and women raped. It’s a long painful history of which we should be ashamed – and for those who dispute this, it’s well documented. Nari Rustomji, who served in Bhutan and later became Chief Secretary of the state of Meghalaya, described that time as “a dark and senseless” period.
Conditions are now better, there is no harassment; electricity and mobile phone connectivity have reached this remote outpost of the Indian nation. Yet the nightmare and horror of those days still haunt the people of Benreu.
For our elegant young researcher, Lungshang, who looks more like a college student than a mother of two and a teacher at Nagaland University, it was a traumatic return to her roots. She discovered that the woman who had been blown apart by the first mortar shell lobbed into Benreu was her aunt, and the child she had been feeding, her cousin. For many years, this information had been held from her by the woman’s brother, Lungshang’s father, concerned about the impact it would have on her. Her father had been a member of the Naga underground, who to this day, no matter which faction they belong to, are called national workers.
Lungshang cried that day, as she listened to this story and other stories of beatings and harassment, in the hearth of a village home, in pain and deep abiding grief for two lives she had never known, for the hurt of not knowing, of that knowledge being kept from her. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying as she wept, “I don’t know, I did not know, I can’t help myself.”
It’s not easy to get to Benreu – it took us over 6 hours from near the capital of Kohima. Scattered showers welcomed us on our journey through hill and plains, including a decapitated forest that was now a rice bowl. At one point, the Bolero in which we were riding got stuck in slush caused by incessant rain and a landslide on a narrow, bumpy, winding road through thick forests and a spectacular view of the hill ranges that stretch across Nagaland and sweep into northern Manipur.
We tossed twigs, branches and stones in the creased muddy lane to help the tyres get a grip. After much sliding and complaining, the jeep got onto firmer earth and with the car and our shoes caked in mud, we bumped our way into Benreu’s little square. Below the square stood a great traditional thatch home, not less than 75 feet long, smoke rising peacefully from the hearth, as villagers waited on the veranda of the village council building, protected from the gusting cold wind and rain showers.
To understand why the idea of separation from India remains so attractive for so many in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast, it is important to listen to their stories of grief, their songs of sorrow and to realize with horror that for decades here and in countless villages of this state, of Assam, Mizoram and Manipur where the conflict has been sharpest, few have come from anywhere in India to listen; there has been no counselling to enable them to cope with their trauma and the nightmares which haunt their waking and sleeping hours.
In 54 years, we were the first independent group to come to Benreu.