Nagaland: Memories Sweet and Sour

Gautam Kumar Bordoloi

The passing away of the reclusive chief of Nationalist Social Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), Shangwang Shangyang Khaplang on June 9, 2017 in Taga in Myanmar’s Kachin state at the age of 77 following protracted illness—opened the floodgate of memories of the periodic conversations I was fortunate to have with some Naga friends and also the books and articles I could read over a long period of time about the beautiful Nagaland, its many tribes and their colourful heritage and more importantly, the interminable struggle of the people over 60 years seeking ‘self-determination’ and ‘protection of identity’ amid internecine feuds. It also reminded me of my very rewarding trips to a few places in Nagaland spanning decades and in between long gaps.

The last time I visited Nagaland was in May, 2012. It was a trip on an assignment to Mokokchung, one of my very favourite places in Nagaland, from Jorhat. Although the distance is only 85 km, it took more than five hours to reach travelling in a sturdy jeep, negotiating through the winding road with a number of broken patches. The road may be better or worse now—I have no idea. Not many tourists from other parts of India and abroad are seen anywhere in Nagaland mainly because of the ‘Inner Line’ restriction and also due to uncertainties pertaining to the problem of extremism. And Mokokchung is also no exception in this regard. Mokokchung town with a cluster of satellite villages is inhabited mostly by the educated and cultured people belonging to the Ao tribe. Historically, it has long been a centre of Western influence in Naga Hills. In fact, the British set up one of their first bases in the Northeast here and it was to Mokokchung that the first US Baptist missionaries came in 1872. The well-known travel writer Jonathan Glancey pointed out succinctly: “Mokokchung is certainly an interesting place. Set towards the north of the state at an elevation of some 4,500 ft., from a distance it might almost be mistaken for an Italian hill town.”

Mokokchung has certainly changed for the better from the previous time I visited the place—at least in creating a great sense of awareness among the poor, sub-urban people about tremendous prospects of horticulture sector. A sizeable number of families have taken to scientific cultivation of roses and strawberries with a zeal to catch up with the foreign markets….and it was reassuring to see their smiling faces. My host Lipokonen Jamir took all care to show me the Nature’s bounty in and around the town. The visits to the village of Mopungchuket, which has historical ties with the Ahoms in Assam and where the memorial tower still sings in the glory of immortal love between Jina and Etiben—and to the small village of Impur, which was established as a mission centre in 1894 by the American missionaries have been carefully treasured in the recesses of my mind. However, I acutely missed the cheerful presence of my dear friend Lima Aier in my last visit to Mokokchung. An energetic student leader, Lima was always ready to draw plan and work unitedly with us for social causes across the Northeast, when we too were working as ‘blind’ volunteers of the ‘Assam Agitation’ in the early eighties of the last century. Sadly, he passed away prematurely a few years before my last trip.

My journey through a few other major places and their hinterlands in Nagaland at different points of life is also replete with lively memories. The stimulating conversations my father and I had on a few occasions with the renowned social worker and the founder of the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram (founded in 1955), Natwar Thakkar at his Ashram in Chuchuyimlang—the plateful of most delicious pork I had ever had sunning in the slopes of citronella cultivation on the slanting hillside in Yaongyimsen village, Changtongya many years ago—sitting in a pine-fringed corner of the Kohima War Cemetery and brooding over the sacrifices of those soldiers in the Battle of Kohima in April, 1944—an adventurous ride through the picturesque Zuhneboto, the abode of Sumi Nagas—all these are the components of a kaleidoscope I have preserved most zealously over the years.

Well, Nagaland has always been enigmatic to most of the outsiders. Jonathan Glancey in his book—“Nagaland: A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier” has rightly mentioned: “This is a land of myths and an unfathomable ancient history, of deep valley shadows and long-buried secrets. Despite many changes of lifestyle here since the British left the Naga Hills in 1947, the intense and even spiritual relationship between the Nagas and the mist-shrouded land they dream of being wholly theirs again one day is both compelling and tragic.” The struggle initiated to safeguard the unique ‘way of life’ of the Nagas comprising 16 major tribes—Angami, Ao, Chakesang, Chang, Kachari, Khimniungan, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchunger and Zeliang as well as a number of sub-tribes—is the oldest armed ethnic movement of the post-Independence India. Since the Battle of Khonoma in 1879 to the signing of the Peace Accord in August, 2015, the Nagas have struggled a lot and suffered a lot too. The horrid memories of the “dark fifties” of the last century must be fresh in the minds of all the survivors of that turbulent period and also of all others who feel deeply about their ‘nationalistic aspirations’.

The passing away of the truculent leader S.S. Khaplang also brought along those sour memories of the bygone days and a genuine apprehension about the fruitful culmination of the ongoing peace process. The loss, in terms of human resources and material objects, over the decades owing to both militancy and the State’s reprisal is stupendous, although Nagaland is hurtling towards a semblance of normalcy in the recent times. As Glancey points out again: “Here is a land that could be both beautiful and productive, abundant in hydro-electricity, wildlife sanctuaries, coffee plantations, the manufacture of beautifully designed and crafted goods, well-tended farms and villages that could retain their character even as water flows, clinics open and schools teach.”

Along with prominent members of the civil society, the political class both in Delhi and Nagaland, including the present Chief Minister, Shurhozelie Liezietsu reiterated the importance of an amicable settlement of the Naga imbroglio at the earliest, while paying rich tribute to S.S. Khaplang for his contribution towards ‘Naga unity and safeguarding of heritage’. A new dawn that will be a harbinger of holistic growth not only in the long-roiled Nagaland, but also in the entire north-eastern region to ensure peace and brotherhood is the only answer for a secure future.

(Gautam Kumar Bordoloi is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and publisher. He can be reached at gkbordoloi11@gmail.com)