By Atul K Thakur
Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men
Author: Rajeev Bhattacharyya
Publishers: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 399 (Indian)
More than Pakistan and China, India seems to be waging a greater battle in its own backyard in the northeast consisting of eight states that are racially and culturally different from the mainland. It became a hotspot of conflict within years after independence when the Naga National Council began its campaign for an independent Nagaland. The conflict dragged and engulfed other states and, by 1980, as many as five states were burning. Faulty assessment of the situation led to erroneous policies with the result that the fire of insurgency assumed uncontrolled proportion. By the early 2000s, more than 100 armed organisations were on the warpath with a bewildering range of ideologies from extortion to separatism. Manipur alone had more than 40 groups.
Truly, India’s northeast has been a hotspot of conflict that will undoubtedly range among the top not only in South Asia but in the world. On many occasions, groups have surrendered but there were others to wage the armed struggle demanding redressal of their grievances. But gone are the days when all the rebels in this region were fighting for independence. Now, most of them are demanding autonomy within the Constitution. Of the 50 odd insurgent outfits active in the northeast, around nine are demanding independence. These separatist groups have camps deep in the jungles of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division in a region that is still beyond the control of Naypyidaw. And they have joined hands with a local Naga organisation called the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K). Nothing much is known about this region, which is why it is often called no man’s land.
Viewed from this perspective, Rajeev Bhattacharyya’s Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey To Meet India’s Most Wanted Men is a special contribution to reportage on conflict. He stayed covertly in the region for nearly four months, braving the hostile terrain and the danger of being sniped by the Myanmar army, and interviewed top rebel leaders spearheading the campaign in India’s northeast. Editions such as this are hard to find in Indian journalism. There is no other instance of any journalist from India sneaking stealthily into a neighbouring country for reporting on rebel bases. It is for this reason that the book will be regarded as extraordinary for all times to come. Moreover, there are not very many books on this region that can truly be regarded as one of the last unknown places on earth.
Accompanied by a journalist colleague, the duo were escorted in the hilly terrain by a squad of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a banned insurgent outfit in Assam that has been demanding the independence of the northeast. What Bhattacharyya observed and assessed are astonishing about the region. He mentions that headhunting, the customary practice of decapitating heads from the bodies of villagers from neighbouring villages, was practiced as late as the early 1980s among the Nagas in Myanmar. Money is a new concept as a mode of transaction and clothes have become easily available only since the last three decades or so.
The chapter ‘Blood, sweat and tears’ gives an account of the bloody wars that engulfed the Naga region when sometimes entire villages were wiped out by rival forces. There are eight pages of photographs as well that help the reader connect to the situation in the region.
The journalists were able to interview the ULFA chief of staff, Paresh Baruah, many weeks after they reached the camp of the outfit. Subsequently, they were witness to many interesting events like the football matches that were played among all the separatist groups to celebrate their decision of forming an alliance. Incidentally, the alliance was formed last April and named the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) with the objective of forming a government-in-exile as well. Another interesting episode was the interview by the author of the Naga rebel chief, S S Khaplang, who had no qualms about admitting that he had a very friendly relationship with the Myanmar army. No wonder that the repeated requests by New Delhi to the Myanmar government to eliminate the camps have not produced any effect so far.
This book should generate interest among enthusiasts of the South Asian region.
(The reviewer is a New Delhi based journalist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Daily Times, September 15, 2015