PHOTO ESSAY: A Journey Along India's Assam-Nagaland Insurgent Border

PHOTO ESSAY: A Journey Along India's Assam-Nagaland Insurgent Border
Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

What you need to know

The 400-km-plus border in northeast India, site of periodic eruptions of conflict, also bears witness to friendship, family and hope.

By Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya & Ankita Bora

The two northeastern Indian states of Assam and Nagaland share a 434-km boundary. Ever since the state of Nagaland was created carving out parts of Assam’s Naga Hills district in 1963, the two states have been disputing their shared border -- on occasions leading to deadly skirmishes.

The government of Assam says Nagaland has been encroaching upon over 66,000 hectares of its land -- roughly equivalent in size to the south Indian city of Bengaluru -- of which over 80 percent is reserved forestland. The Nagaland government, on the other hand, insists that these tracts “historically” belong to the Nagas and need to be freed from Assam’s “occupation.”

The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isaac-Muiva (NSCN-IM), an armed insurgent group, has been fighting for decades to establish a sovereign Naga state integrating Naga-inhabited areas of northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. The cartography of the proposed Naga state -- “Greater Nagalim” -- also includes large tracts of Assam, which further fuels the dispute.

Two major clashes over the Assam-Nagaland border dispute took place in 1979 and 1985, leaving at least 100 persons dead. On Jan. 5, 1979, in Assam’s Golaghat district, 54 villagers were killed in a series of attacks by armed men from the Nagaland side of the border, while over 23,500 persons fled to relief camps. In June 1985, a major flare-up at the border town of Merapani left 41 persons dead on the Assam side.

A more recent major incident was reported in August, 2014, when conflicts erupted between residents of two villages straddling either side of the border leading to the death of 15 persons.

In spite of the two state governments engaging in talks on and off for more than two decades, they have yet to figure out a way to resolve the issue.

Chandan Kumar Sharma, a professor of sociology at Tezpur University in Assam, India, says, “Contemporary political discourses of borders are based on (territorial) nationalist ideologies and space-centric, juridico-political-administrative arrangements. If we are to resolve the Assam-Nagaland border issue, we must extend our political imagination beyond this.”

Also, Harvard University anthropologist Michael Herzfeld reminds us about the ‘porosity’ of borders -- that even the most fiercely guarded borders can be, and are, penetrated making room for permeations, flows and mobilities of peoples, capital, and material cultures.

The Assam-Nagaland border conflagrations notwithstanding, the border areas and the foothills, have historically been a site of diverse experiences: a site of exchanges and interactions, of friendship and shared hope, among different communities such as the hill-dwelling Nagas, the Assamese plainsmen, and the Adivasi tea plantation workers who the colonial tea-planters brought to the area from central India in the 19th century.

The Naga foothills also bear multiple colonial imprints: colonial-era missionary churches that altered social dynamics and tea plantations that massively changed the landscape and ecology.

Traveling through these foothills, we try to chronicle personal narratives, physical sites of memory, as well as quotidian lived experiences of the diverse populace dwelling the border space vis-a-vis closures, openings, frictions, and permeations in the border.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 1: The dilapidated building of once vibrant ‘Plains and Hills Amity Centre’ in a place called Nagabat, in the foothills along the Assam-Nagaland border, which was a traditional trading route frequented by Naga traders and travellers alike. Prabin Gogoi, a local Assamese leader, was part of the peace initiative that built the Amity Centre in the late 1960s in a bid to bring peace between the two belligerent states. It was popularly known as mitur ashram, which in the Assamese language means “a friend’s abode” and invokes a language of friendship.

This amity centre once served as a resthouse for Naga traders and commoners traveling to the foothills and the valley as well as Assamese valley-dwellers traveling to the foothills and the hills. It also provided skills training on weaving, handicraft, and other small crafts promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as part of a strategy to boost India’s village economy.

For Gogoi, now a sexagenarian, this falling apart structure is more than just a passing memory: “I can still vividly remember the beautiful ladies from the hills and the valley weaving traditional Naga and Assamese clothes in the ashram. They not only wove clothes, they wove bonds between pahar (hills) and bhoiyam (valley).

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 2: The forest-covered foothills near Nagabat have now become a place for clandestine activities of varied sorts: illegal coal mining, a place to hide stolen vehicles, and more. On the morning of Sept. 10, 2017, we walked through the foothill settlements near Nagabat that spread up to the forested hills of Nagaland’s Wokha district and found two cars without number-plates hidden deep in the bush. There were also signs of illegal coal dumping.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 3: A woman walks the potholed, muddy road that cuts through the heart of the foothills area of Merapani, a small foothill town with overlapping claims by India’s Assam and Nagaland states. While Nagabat has a history of friendship, Merapani was the site of one of the violent clashes in the 1980s, believed to be over border disputes between the two states. However, when we visited Merapani on Sept. 15, 2017, the “disputed and disturbed area” of Merapani presented a vibrant and friendly place replete with motley populace.

As we loitered around, Y Lotha, a local Naga shopkeeper, enquired if we were journalists. “If you’re journalists, please don’t write rubbish about Merapani and border disputes. Media -- from both the plains (Assam) and the hills (Nagaland) -- has already done enough harm to the people of Merapani,” he says. Inviting us to sit in his shop, he added, the original highlanders (“Naga”) and lowlanders (“Assamese”) of Merapani have always been friends. “It’s only with the advent of outsiders, mistrust has spread and tensions brewed.”

“Outsiders” here particularly directs to the Bengali-speaking Muslims -- or the so-called “Bangladeshi immigrants.” In the early 2000s, many flood-displaced Bengali-speaking Muslims from sand bar areas of western and central Assam valleys came to settle in the disputed area of Merapani. They were immediately dubbed “Bangladeshi immigrants” by locals. Lotha said, “They came here because it was possible for them to settle here as no state administration -- neither Nagaland nor Assam -- exists here.”

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 4: In Merapani, a vehicle coming down from Nagaland’s Wokha town is seen plying on what looks like a dirt track amid a paddy field rather than a road. The disputed zone is also a no-development zone since multiple ambiguous authorities prevail in such places, keeping peoples inhabiting them in a state of limbo.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 5: Lizehe Sema, a 70-year-old resident of the foothill village of Mithe Basti located inside Assam state on the Jorhat-Wokha section of the Assam-Nagaland border. Lizehe’s father, originally from Zunheboto in Nagaland, settled in Mithe Basti in the 1940s, and his extended family still lives in Zunheboto. Lizehe’s wife, Jutuli, is a Gorkha woman from the valley in Assam and one of their sons is an officer with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muiva). Lizehe has deep ties with the neighbouring Assamese villagers. “Most of my dearest friends are from the plains of Assam,” he says. By political scientist James Scott’s metaphor, Lizehe is a person whose feet rest on two spaces -- the valley and the hills.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 6: The small river that flows by Mithe Basti was knee-deep and muddy in mid-September. Apart from the Sema Naga villagers, a few former tea plantation labourer families from the Adivasi community also live near the river in the village of Mithe Basti. In the colonial era, European tea planters tricked and forced scores of Adivasi families from central India to migrate to Assam to work as laborers in the tea plantations. Today the Adivasi community forms a major chunk of Assam’s population.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo7: Thirty-year-old Asum with her three-year-old son in Mithe Basti. Asum says their small kuccha house with slatted bamboo walls doesn’t have enough space for her son to play in, so he plays with other children—from both Sema Naga and Adivasi communities—in the village churchyard. However, Asum says, her son prefers to spend much of his time on her back. Most of his playthings are made of bamboo. Children in Mithe Basti come of age playing and working with bamboo-made stuffs.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo8: Y Sema, a septuagenarian in Mithe Basti, is exercising his bamboo craftsmanship. He says practising bamboo craft skills is a sweet pastime. “Naga material culture has a deep connection with bamboo. I’ve been making various articles from bamboo since I was a little boy,” Sema says.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo9: Villagers from New Tsorrie village, situated atop a hill in Nagaland’s Wokha district, come down to the foothills village of Phulbari inside Assam to sell their agricultural produce and procure essential commodities from the valley.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 10: Even children and teenagers from the Naga hills carry loads of produce on their backs to the foothills to sell. These trade networks are part of a vital lifeline for the villagers that thrive not only on material and economic exchanges, but also on social and emotional interactions between the hill-dweller Nagas and the plainsmen in Assam.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 11: L Lotha, a New Tsorrie villager, brings his home-grown papaya, banana, and veggies for sale. He has to visit Kohima, the capital of the Nagaland state, five hours drive from his village, the following day for some work, so he is selling his stuff in the foothills to collect money required for the trip. It isn’t the weekly market day, so he must be content with less than usual price for his produce.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 12: Tired, a Naga villager from New Tsorrie sits for a while after carrying loads of agricultural produce on his back to the foothills of Phulbari.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 13: J Lotha, an elderly villager from New Tsorrie, who says he has been selling his agricultural produce in the foothills inside Assam for at least 40 years -- since he was a little boy -- and the Assamese village of Phulbari in the foothills is his second home. “We call the Assamese plainsmen mita (friend). No physical boundary can stop our friendship and divide us. Here (in Plulbari) we feel as safe as we do back home in our village.”

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 14: Yanthan Lotha Shop. The shop selling tea, biscuits, and groceries stands just where the valley ends and the hike to New Tsorrie starts. In the absence of a clearly demarcated border between the two states, one can conveniently assume that this is either the last shop in Assam or the first shop in Nagaland in this part of the border.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 15: GIVE AND TAKE, reads a line written in Yanthan Lotha’s shop which is situated in an in-between space and a crucial place of interactions among the peoples from the valley, the foothills, and the hills. One would easily meet a lowlander Adivasi man fluently conversing in the highlander Lotha Naga dialect, or a Lotha Naga speaking in one of the lowlander Adivasi dialects or in Assamese with equal ease. The lingua-franca of these foothills, however, is Nagamese.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 16: The Naga foothills are not only a place of interactions between upland peoples of Nagaland and the valley-dwellers of Assam. Even non-human persons are an important part in these permeations, flows and mobilities. Along with a group of upland Naga villagers from New Tsorrie, Shelley, a New Tsorrie dog, trudges down to the foothills with her owner Jessy, the lady holding the umbrella.

As we were trekking up to New Tsorrie, the forested hilly track offered a mesmerizing soundscape: cicadas sang and the Naga villagers accompanying us produced the “ho-ho” sound a Naga is known to produce while climbing up the hills, which intermingled with words uttered in Nagamese, Assamese, and Lotha languages.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 17: Mabini Patan Lotha and his wife -- who requested us to address her as “Maa” meaning mother in Assamese and Nagamese languages -- accompanied us on our hike to New Tsorrie. They sold papaya, banana, and gourd in the foothills and bought salt, biscuits, tea, lentil, and other grocery stuffs from Yanthan Lotha’s shop.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 18: Mabini, “Maa,” and their granddaughter, who came running towards us as we were entering New Tsorrie village, situated atop a steep hill in Nagaland’s Wokha district.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 19: Villagers stop for a while on their hour-long uphill trek to New Tsorrie on their return from the foothills.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 20: On our downward trek from New Tsorrie to the foothills, we stumbled upon a group of Lotha Naga villagers returning home after selling their agricultural produce in the foothills of Assam. They said, “Please tell your friends in towns and cities how tough our lives are."

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 21: The Pastor of the village church in New Tsorrie, whom we met on our way back to the foothills. He asked if we were “true Assamese.” Once we said we were, convinced we weren’t “Bangladeshi immigrants,” he was very friendly with us and invited us to his place during the imminent Christmas celebrations.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 22: A few houses along the hilly track to New Tsorrie. We met with an Adivasi family who moved up from the foothills to settle in a hillock just before reaching New Tsorrie. “Here we can easily find firewood, fiddlehead ferns, and other wild foods. So we’ve moved upwards,” the woman of the house told us.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 23: A “Naga Hora”. This bamboo-made receptacle is a ubiquitous device used by the hill-dwelling Nagas for carrying various articles on their back.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 24: A woman collecting firewood from the forested hillocks in the foothills of New Tsorrie. Firewood collection is an important task carried out entirely by women in the Adivasi households along these foothills.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 25: Children of the foothills. We came upon many ex-tea plantation worker families scattered across the foothills. Impoverished, most of them cultivate paddies on small plots of land. Some of them also enter into sharecropping arrangements with their Naga neighbours to cultivate on the slopes of the hills. Despite India’s adoption of Right to Education Act, which makes education free and mandatory for every citizen up to the age of 14 years, not all children here go to school and the school drop-out rate is alarmingly high along these foothills.

Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Photo 26: A view of Tiru Hills Reserve Forest abutting Seleng Tea Estate on the Jorhat-Mokukchung patch of the Assam-Nagaland border. In precolonial times, Tiru forest was one of the numerous commons situated along the Naga foothills. However, the 19th century British colonial administration brought many of these commons under erstwhile Assam’s jurisdiction and opened them for clearing in order to set up tea plantations. Pabitra Gogoi, a resident of the nearby Assamese village called Rongkham, said that a few years ago there arose a conflict with the Nagas of Yajang C Basti, the first Naga village across the border, over 804 sq km of forestland, a part of Tiru Hills Reserve Forest.

Gogoi said, “We (the villagers of Ronkham) thought we would use the forest resources as sustainably as we could as it fell within the border of Assam. But to our dismay we discovered that more than half of the forest was cleared from the Nagaland side. I think there’s support from outside -- maybe from the NSCN and the local political establishment there. The local villagers from Yajang C Basti alone can’t -- and won’t -- do this.” He also admitted that once they discovered that the Nagas were clearing and reclaiming the forest, the Assamese villagers of Rongkham too cleared a patch of forest measuring 67 sq km from the Assam side. This finally led to a stand-off between the two states in 2014.

The discourses on ethnic identities and resource ownership in Rongkham and Yajang C Basti indicate an entanglement of the politics of nation-state with the politics of nature. It appeared to us: where there’s natural resources -- the last surviving commons -- along the border, there’s conflict.

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