Dissent in the Naga Hills as India-Myanmar Border Follies Linger  

By Bidhayak Das 7 May 2018

Even as India is 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 contact, far away in the remote Naga hills a slow but definite dissent is brewing 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 Myanmar government to fence about three kilometers of an imaginary border that passes through these villages. The fencing work, which was stopped following massive protests from locals of Dan, Pangsha and other villages as well as several Naga organizations, 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.

The unfinished border fences constructed by Myanmar at Dan village. / Bidhayak Das

The 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 converges. Apart from the Konyaks, the Khiamniungan Nagas were also known to be among the most ferocious Naga headhunters before they converted to Christianity. Their encounters against the British in 1936 and 1939 after their villages were burned by the latter are well documented.

The Khiamniungan Naga are restive. On the one hand, there is the fencing that 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 on their own land, stopped, checked and questioned whenever they make any attempt to find their way to their fields, to hospitals, to markets, to schools and even to visit their family members,” rued Pape, 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 adviser of the Khiamniungan Tribal Council (KTC), an umbrella organization 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 Pape the gaobura is known) invited me to trek with him through the hilly terrain 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 realize that we were heading straight into trouble. Perhaps Baba knew but he did not let it dampen my excitement.

Indian army checkpoint in Dan village. / Bidhayak Das

As we approached the Indian security checkpoint, 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 sat soldiers with their fingers on the triggers and outside an Assam Rifles (an Indian paramilitary force) officer sat where all passersby from both sides were made to record their names in a register and questioned. It was a painstakingly slow process and decisions on granting permission to move in and out through this route were rather arbitrary. While we were allowed to go after entering our names on a register, a young Naga woman who was injured on her left leg and needing urgent medical attention was stopped and made to wait for 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 Sagaing Division on the northwest frontier of Myanmar and is grouped together with Leshi and Nanyun in the Naga Self-Administered Zone under Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 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 relatives this time turning to me, but to my utter helplessness as I was also awaiting a final clearance to move along the 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 realize this is a very sensitive place. 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 Myanmar 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. 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 of here.”

Pape, the New Panghsa gaobura with Khiamniungan Naga youth on the border. / Bidhayak Das

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 an Indian security officer after he was prevented from taking his vehicle to reach a Naga village under his jurisdiction that could be accessed only through the Indian side. Incidentally, the nature of mountainous terrain makes it difficult to access villages that are under one administrative jurisdiction especially on the Myanmar side of the Naga Hills. Incidents such as this have been on the rise over the last two years.

Genesis of the Imaginary Boundary and the Fencing Story: Who is Fencing and Why?

The imaginary line that cuts across Dan village and parts of new Pangsha is shrouded in mystery. While it is well known that the Naga hills were divided by the Anglo-Burmese Yandabo agreement in 1826 and later in 1953 under the Indo-Burmese demarcation in Kohima on the Naga territory by Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, the then prime ministers of the two countries, there is virtually no information to suggest drawing of an imaginary line across the hills that houses villages belonging to the Khiamniungan Nagas.

Elderly members of the KTC remember two futile attempts, once a joint India-Myanmar initiative in 1970 when soldiers of both nations suffered heavy casualties after they were confronted by underground groups and 35 years later in 2004 by the Lahe administration of Myanmar. Each time the Khiamuingans stood up to thwart attempts to fence the border. “The British never told us of any imaginary line after 1947. We lived as free Nagas and will do so forever,” claimed KTC president L Ngon.

There have been conflicting stories regarding the fencing with most media reports apportioning the blame squarely on the Indian government. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been quoted in several new media outlets as saying “India has nothing to do with the fencing.” The KTC is of the view that both India and Myanmar are responsible. “The Myanmar government constructed the fences with their men and labor, with the Indian army guarding them.”

A walk from border pillar number 139 to pillar number 146, which is at the edge of a helipad that was used during the World War II, reveals that about three kilometers of land have been cleared to make way for the fences. The fences lie half-done with only the skeletal frame made of iron rods on two sides covering about half a kilometer. The fencing plan runs through agricultural land, a playground and even a school called the Straightway Mission school that caters to the education needs of the Khiamniungan Nagas on both sides of the imaginary line.

As many as 244 villages, 44 on the Indian side and 200 in Myanmar, are facing the brunt of the fencing. The villages that have found repeat mention though are Dan, old and new Pangsha on the Indian side and Pounyiu and Woilan on the Myanmar side considering their strategic location, proximity to the Indian security post, and the bigger size of their land area and population. A visibly upset Bishem, who has roamed the hills and mountains since his childhood, is afraid that the fencing will rob the villagers of 3,500 hectares of their cultivable land and destroy the age-old traditional jhum (slash and burn) cultivation cycles forever.

Local Khiamniungan Nagas carry firewood at old Pangsha. / Bidhayak Das

“Over 10,000 people’s livelihood will be affected. The most hard-hit will be our fellow Nagas from the other side and we can’t allow this,” he affirms, saying: “If the free movement regime (FMR) is taken away then we will have to decide to leave all the 244 villages either in India or in Myanmar. We cannot live in two countries if the FMR is taken away.”

An FMR billboard inside the Indian security checkpoint clearly states that “citizens of India and Myanmar living within 16 km of the border are most welcome to cross the Indo-Myanmar border. It also states that “the free movement regime has been formalized to promote economic and social interaction between the two friendly countries,” and that the free movement regime will safeguard the rights of the tribal communities accustomed to free movement across the land borders.”

On the eve of my departure to these villages, KTC members planned a meeting in Noklak to give me a bird’s eye-view of the problem and its implications on people’s lives, livelihood, the Naga peace process and the potential of a new armed conflict.

Fencing Gains and Losses for India and Myanmar

From my interactions with the KTC, village council members, farmers, local administrative officials and elderly folks that have lived in these hills for almost 100 years have convinced me that the losses far outweigh the gains if any at all. Firstly, most of the population in Pounyiu and Woilan have been dependent on Dan and Pangsha to eke out a livelihood by selling and buying goods and food. “We don’t have any hospitals and medical centers so we have to bring our patients to Nagaland for treatment,” was what one of the relatives of the injured woman at the checkpoint had told me as if to corroborate what I have been hearing from the KTC and Village Council members of Noklak. Finding a doctor and a hospital in Nagaland is 10 times easier than having to travel to the nearest town in Sagaing or to Mandalay, which could take days if not weeks.

People living in these hills have developed a robust and self-sustaining economy of sorts which in many ways should lessen the worry for local administrators in Lahe and in Naypyitaw. For the Myanmar government, the Naga hills have always been difficult and inaccessible terrain and thus a fence, which they are eager to construct, would only add to their worries. So the push for a fence is intriguing to say the least and perhaps is a million-dollar question that only Naypyitaw can answer. For India too, supporting the local economy would be perhaps more prudent so as to prevent food scarcity, reduce pressure on the land and forest and prevent changes to climate and the environment.

On the security front, India stands only to lose. The argument that the checkpoint will contain cross-border insurgency especially in checking movements of the banned Naga insurgent group—the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K)—does hold not much water. If this was the case, then why for so long, especially when insurgency was at its peak before and during the 80s and the 90s, did neither government seem to think that fencing was a plausible solution to contain the insurgency? Besides, it would seem bizarre to say that fencing and a security post would suffice to check cross-border movements when there are many more passages along the snaky mountains and forests through which movements would continue and would be virtually impossible to fence.

Going by the interaction with an Indian army major at Dan, I am given to understand that protecting the border is part of “national sovereignty.”  The army officer referred to an attack on the post by the NSCN-K only eight months prior, which left an Indian army officer dead and also casualties suffered by the insurgent group. NSCN-K which currently operates out of Myanmar had in 2015 abrogated a 2001 ceasefire accord it signed with the Indian government and since then it has been engaged in offensives and counter-offensives with the Indian security establishments in and along the international border with Myanmar in Nagaland and Manipur.

The Khiamniungans too seem to agree that the presence of NSCN-K cadres could be most visible reason for the border fencing, but they also feel that’s its unfair for both the Indian and the Myanmar governments to unleash their anger against the outfit on the Khiamniungan Nagas. But there are also reasons to believe that the Khiamniungan Nagas could play a role in enhancing people to people contact and thereby reduce tensions in the areas.

 The Politics of Open and Closed Borders

I had no answers to some of the questions that were asked by the Khiamniungan Naga youth such as “what is this hypocrisy regarding the Act East Asia policy that talks of opening borders?” Interestingly, the Indian government began the process of developing Dan as an international trading post in the early 90s. The former Chief Minister of Nagaland S C Jamir laid the foundation stone of an International Trade Center (ITC) in November 1996, which stands right in the middle of the imaginary line where the fencing was coming up. The land now falls on the Myanmar side. Subsequent state governments under Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio (who is also the current chief minister of Nagaland) developed other infrastructure like a marketing shed and a rest house, which have all now fallen into Myanmar territory.

The abandoned rest house constructed by the Nagaland State government on the Myanmar side at Dan village. Bidhayak Das

The youth are demanding that they get back the 500 hectares of land that they donated to the Indian government for setting up the ITC. “The Pangshas (as the Khiamniungans living in the vicinity of the boundary villages are also called) want their land back and we also want to know why land was taken from us to construct the infrastructure on the Myanmar side,” said Hanching, a youth leader from Pangsha. Most of the youth were baffled that “instead of bringing up development activities, the ITC India is providing security for the fencing.”

Hanching was of the opinion that “if India is serious about implementing its Act East Policy then it should be concerned about people’s well-being. The policy is about connecting people, not dividing people. This baffles us and we cannot find the answer.” He is definitely right, as the very idea of fencing is antithesis of the aims of the Act East agenda. “Other states are constructing roads and bridges to connect but in our area, fences are being constructed even though we also share the same strategic space with other states that are connected to Myanmar.”

Besides, at a time when the Indian government is in a peace mode with Naga insurgent groups led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah faction (NCSN-IM) and the chance of the NSCN-K joining the fold is not being ruled out by New Delhi, the developments in Pangsha and Dan only raise more eyebrows.

The Khiamniungan Nagas appear to not be convinced as well. “The Indian government is not truthful,” retorted octogenarian Beshim, who has been a part of several administrations in Pangsha and also in Lahe after India and Myanmar became free nations. “I have grown up seeing this, and I can tell you that if fencing has to be done, it should be done everywhere, not just here at Dan,” he asserted, sending out a stern warning. “We are Mongoloids and from a small community that endears its lands and people so any form of pressure on us could force a big outcome.” His caution resonates with what Baba said when he saw me at a cliff near an inauguration stone for the ITC. Baba said, “We shall cooperate and try to find a solution but if a fence is created and our land is occupied, go and tell the Myanmar government and the Indian government that we still can use the dao to defend ourselves.”

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.