There was a light drizzle, mist all around and a chill in the air. Having started from Imphal in the morning, the bus had reached the outskirts of Kohima now. Despite the horrible roads and a largely uncomfortable bus, the ride had been the most delightful, courtesy the beautiful climate of Naga Hills. My nostrils were greedily inhaling the fresh air while the tyre puncture was being attended to. There, right in front of my window, was a little shop where two pretty girls could be seen giggling.
Not many came to buy something. And those who did, most of them migrant labourers from Bihar, merely bought a small Parle-G biscuit. As if bored with the charming but dull script, came along a young man his early twenties. Spiked hair full of hair-gel and reasonably stylish in strictly urban terms, he winked at the girls and asked for a packet of ‘Lays’. Spanish Tomato, I think.
Before he could tear open his packet of chips, a middle aged but strongly built and moderately dressed man with broad shoulders came from behind and patted his back. In a language that I could not understand, what started looked like a joke that soon turned into something serious. The otherwise ‘modern looking’ young man removed his costly watch and declared a war which he chose to label as ‘Angami vs Manipuri’ (Angami is a prominent tribe of Naga Hills). It would be futile to deny that the instant ethnic flavour of what would have been a regular brawl anywhere else came as a shock to me.
Yet, the brawl faded into the darkness of the night as the little girls’ smiling faces were lit up with an electric bulb. I don’t know when my focus shifted to the latter. However, that reminded me of an interesting thing I noticed earlier in the day. I was humming a song and looking out of the window when the person sitting next to me indicated I looked out. Though I had noticed the board that said ‘Welcome to Nagaland’, he told me to not miss the other side. I rose from my seat and pushed my neck out to see that what would have been ‘Welcome to Manipur’ was whitewashed and ‘Welcome to South Nagalim’ sat smiling on top of it. (Nagalim or Greater Nagaland is a demand to integrate all the Naga inhabited areas into one state. Manipur, as a result, stands to lose around 65% of its territory)
The bus was on its way now. Resuming our earlier conversation about the ‘madness’ that was all over North-East, the old man sitting next to me asked, “Did you notice the little fight?” I nodded. “That’s how it is here. Everywhere! Army, militants, tribes – they all blame each other; but they never stop killing!” For my curious eyes, he extended a pack of nothing but Lays; American style this time. We were entering Kohima city now.
Under the cover of darkness, the city looked particularly calm and innocent. Thousands of small matchbox-like houses on the hill I could see from my window looked charming. They were like clay lamps accumulated in a Diwali tray. The old man interrupted my Diwali landscape extending a copy of Morung Express – a popular local daily; his eyes said to me, “See!” On the front page, it carried a story of a Naga Hoho conference where deep concerns were raised about increasing incidents of inter-ethnicity clashes in Nagaland leading to mass murders. I was in the middle of reading the discourse insisting on re-asserting a Christian morality in the Naga society when incessant honking outside forced me to take note.
We were in the middle of buzzing Kohima town. Odd as one may have found it in comparison to Imphal, Kohima could boast of a fairly large number of SUVs. It was evident that their Naga owners didn’t appreciate the sight of ‘others’. They honked desperately and drove rashly. But then, all of a sudden, the security forces came to the stage putting a halt to the show-stealers. All the traffic was put on hold in a flash, defaulters of any kind were put to task and for those thinking otherwise, it was a reminder that they were in Nagaland. It looked like they had taken over the city just then and were about to rearrange the whole thing, not without a collateral damage of course. Soon enough we got to know what made them so particularly quick, decisive and blunt. It was an army convoy. One after another vehicle loaded with armed soldiers passed as if in a major hurry. This was serious stuff. There was nothing charming around. But then, with the armed men, nothing ever is too charming here. In this part of the world, men with the gun are known to mean business; and of course, they are ‘specially empowered’ (for instance, through a much-hated and much-debated ordinace – AFSPA) for such operations where they can even afford to digress. ‘Overstep’ if you like, casually even, if the mood permits. This is precisely why an ask for a halt leads to a screeching one, more often than not. You don’t argue or take your chances like you may, in the rest of the country. ‘Why’ doesn’t mean much here; only ‘What’ and ‘How’ do.
However, with the convoy gone, things were back to ‘normal’. As we left the city, there was silence yet again. However, it was loaded with darkness; and anxiety. One of the two lean Bengali men sitting behind me said, “It gets dark in our part of the world too; but not as frightening as it is here!” This was despite an almost full moon which compensated for all that could’ve been wrong with the night. Every now and then, there were check posts. The bus would stop and a tentative yet firm-toned armed fellow would enter. Though everyone considered it normal, there was always a little palpitation of the heart considering how flimsy the grounds of normalcy were in this part of the world. The faces of those who came to search carried more exhaustion than question, more irritation than interest, more routine than curiousity and more hurry than urgency. Yet, somewhere at the back, a threat to life – and a very significant one at that – always lingered, for all of us. That slim possibility drove all the action.
The mongoloid faces were familiar; ‘others’ were scanned for a bit. The urban look was treated with more kindness and less scrutiny than the rural. A quick operative search loaded with familiar and accepted stereotypes did the job. The stuff in the bags and suitcases though demanded a more worthy and hence, also more rigorous search. Yet, the tiring routine having taken its toll, the boys didn’t seem to be in the mood. A cursory look through the bags using an identical law of familiarity led them through. The dirty looking bags were searched with bayonets or asked to open while the sophisticated ones were overlooked. Until one of them picked my laptop bag, opened it and looked at the laptop with suspicion. I was asked to explain what it stood for. Hesitatingly and somewhat embarrassed, I said, “Computer!” That was familiar; unlike ‘laptop’, unlike me. Though he seemed satisfied, he left me with a few questions to ask. The old man was the predictable victim. I asked, “Does it help?”
“What?” he asked.
“These check-posts and searching of tourists etc.”
“Does anything help here? I am yet to find any! These checks surely don’t. Insurgents are either happy with extortion money or they go for all-out operations.”
“But still…?” I persisted.
“Yeah.. ‘routine’ duty!” He smiled.
“Does it not erode trust then?”
“There isn’t much left anyway…”
When I got down at Guwahati, there was no mist around. Going through the barely open market places sleepy-eyed, what was running through my head was the trust question. In these parts, the stakes are way too high, be it with human beings, nature, cultures, or even identities. Also, the cost being proportionate, the circles of trust across the length and breadth of ‘disturbed areas’ have been shrinking depressingly, all over. A kind of coldness is an evident outcome. The bonds may be very strong within the circles but the circles themselves are getting smaller by the day. And of course, there are too many of them. To want to dictate terms with them using the power centralized in one huge circle that encompasses it all – the Indian identity – is not only an administrative disaster, a cultural one too, I felt. On top of that, you have Modernity to deal with – a struggle our age shall be marked with in the pages of historybooks to be written.
Oh, in case I forgot to mention, no chill in the air now; it was humid as usual.