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A Journey to India’s forgotten frontier

Setting out in search for his own Shangri-la, Jonathan Glancey first arrived in troubled Nagaland with two generations of stories and the spirit of an amateur anthropologist to show him the way.

My story begins with the Nagaland of my childhood, experienced from another continent through the writings, maps, photographs and researches of long-dead soldiers, anthropologists, missionaries and colonial officers. Without them, I would never have been inspired to see for myself, nor would I have met those Nagas whose voices and histories emerge as my story unfolds. Initially this is a tale told through British eyes; as it develops, the Nagas find their own voice and their story becomes their own.

A Guardian journalist with a passion for architecture, Glancey’s introduction to this land of green folded hills in north-eastern India and its robust tribes was through his family—his grandfather, an Anglo-Irish army general, and his father, a child of the Raj, had both known this land and its people, as had his uncle Reg who grew tea in neighbouring Assam.

The opening chapters of Nagaland are written as travelogue, but about halfway through it begins to read like a history of the region and its people, albeit one with a journalist’s rather than a historian’s perspective. The result is a book which is somewhat unclear in its objectives, although one which remains—due to Glancey’s skills at observation—an immensely readable introduction to a subject that has hardly made into print outside of specialist texts.

Tucked away in the north-eastern corner of India bordering Burma, the tiny Indian state of Nagaland with its large population of Baptists (American missionaries have been active here for ages) is geographically as well as culturally quite at a distance from the metropolises and fertile plains of India. Outside of its major cities—Kohima, Dimapur and Mokukchung—Nagaland is still a land of hilltop villages where some of the Naga tribes practise a rudimentary form of democracy, celebrate colourful festivals, often cultivate their lands using unsustainable slash and burn agriculture, though by most accounts, the traditional practise of headhunting has all but stopped. A state the size of Switzerland with a tribal population whose origins may have been Yunnan in China, Nagaland had been a region where great powers of the last century (Britain and Japan) fought bloody battles and the rising ones of the present are engaged in covert wars.

One of the reasons behind this is, of course, the presence of oil; the other is the strategically important location. Nagaland and the adjoining Manipur (has a sizeable Naga population) are the areas through which the Japanese army made their failed attempt to invade British-ruled India at the fag end of the Second World War.
The bloodiest battle of that time—the 1944 Battle of the Tennis Court—was fought in Nagaland. The Tennis Court battle was at the epicentre of the fighting in Kohima during which 5764 Japanese soldiers and 4604 British, Indian and African troops perished. The comparison with Thermopylae which the author makes, following Louis Mountbatten (Allied Supreme Commander in south east Asia) is however a bit of a stretch: at Thermopylae the Thespians and Spartans were defending their homeland against the invading Persians while in this later battle, one occupying power was holding off a new aggressor.

Naturally, the story of Subhash Chandra Bose, the fiery Indian nationalist who sought the help of Hitler and then tried to march into India with his army alongside the Japanese, gets inextricably linked with the story of the Nagas. The author seems to suggest that the route taken by Bose and the Japanese and the bloody battles that followed had illustrated the strategic importance of Nagaland (and north-eastern India) in the eyes of regional and global powers. Would the political history of the Nagas be different if Bose had taken a different route? Would their efforts at post-war self determination have succeeded? Although the author seems to answer such questions in the affirmative, the logic seems tenuous.

It is not known clearly how many Nagas sided with the Japanese (and Bose) in this battle or how many fought for the British, whom they had known for more than a century, but the numbers of the former were not small. What we know however is that many Nagas fought for independence from British rule (some with Bose’s Indian National Army) and later on one of them—A. Z. Phizo—would go on to form the Naga National Council (NNC).
The NNC led by Phizo declared Naga independence from India on 14th August, 1947. The first Indian Prime Minister Nehru would have nothing of it and with this began the second phase of the troubled history of the Nagas who had since then been locked in bloody conflict with the Indian state and between themselves.

Following an NNC administered plebiscite and a boycott of general elections, Phizo formed the Naga Central Government (1956) and took steps to unify rebel factions into a Naga army, known as Naga Home Guards. While initially armed with leftovers from the Second World War, “the army’s arsenal was slowly increased later on when, between 1967 and 1977, groups of Naga soldiers made the long trek to China, returning with modern sniper rifles, AK-47 ‘Kalashnikovs’, M-20 pistols and hand-held rocket-launchers.” The involvement of Pakistan which paid for rebel arms among other things had further irked Delhi and soon the Naga army and government were banned and Phizo had to leave the country. From 1953 onwards, there has been fierce fighting between the Indian armed forces and Naga groups and Glancey’s book describes several instances of brutalities committed and destruction inflicted by the armed forces in their efforts to control the situation.

The Shillong Accord (1975) signed by the NNC was the first attempt to forge a lasting peace after many years of bloody conflict. But within the next five years, some NNC insiders broke away to establish the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). The new group denounced the Accord and announced a manifesto that combined Naga nationalism through armed action, Maoist political and economic thinking and Christian worship. The NSCN would split into two rival factions in less than a decade which continue to fight one another. One of these groups, the NSCN (I-M) has lately shown interest in talks while the Khaplang (K) faction holds back.

The human cost of the conflict in Nagaland is variously estimated between 100,000 and 200,000. Only over the last decade or so has a fragile peace seemed to have struck roots in this beautiful hill state. While fighting between factions remains a problem the Indian army has now turned into more of an onlooker. The rise of a new generation of Nagas as well as New Delhi’s determined efforts to bring this border state into the mainstream, through investment in development, seems to be showing some results.

Nagaland has some copy-editing errors which a new edition would do well to address. For example a past Indian President is wrongly named A. P. J. Abdul Khan[1], the song “Vande Mataram” is described as India’s national anthem and the Hungarian Orientalist Csoma de Koros is said to have died in Calcutta. There are a few more.

These oversights do not seriously weaken the major thrust of book, but they perhaps constrain it from being considered a definitive work on Nagaland.

In spite of the serious subject matter, Glancey’s book never drags. Glancey organises his material into well-named chapters that flow easily into one another without halts or hiccups. Another strength is his objectivity and non-patronising, almost neutral voice (difficult indeed in the context of Nagaland), one which is however never short of anecdotes or humour.

He effortlessly serves up a rich anecdote here, a backstory there or an example of that endearing brand of British humour that they sadly didn’t leave behind when they folded up the Raj from India. Here is Glancey at his humorous best:

“Here, though, early in the morning at Kohima market, I found myself staring queasily at a clutch of tiny scarlet finches for sale on a crude wooden bench, along with a nest of yellow throated laughing thrushes, a brace of Mr’s Hume’s pheasants, a large-billed crow in a paper bag and even the sorry corpse of a great hornbill. The great hornbill happens to be the national bird of Nagaland; this, though, does not stop it from being served up as a tasty dish at supper. For me, this is like a US President tucking into a barbecued bald eagle.”
_________________________________________

Reviewed by Rajat Chaudhuri

Asian Review of Books

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