In the 19th-century colonial discourses governing hill-valley relations in Northeast India, the foothills of the ‘unruly’ Naga hills have largely remained absent and invisible – but not ‘silent’ and devoid of action.
The colonial legislation, rooted in what anthropologist Dolly Kikon has called the “colonial sensibility of savagery versus civilization, or ‘wild’ spaces and regulated places,” restricted mobility and movement between the dwellers of the hills and the valley – and rendered the fluid spaces like the foothills invisible.
Although these colonial border-making projects brought closures to – or restrictions on – precolonial mobilities and rendered the foothills invisible as a space, the foothills have always been sites of vibrant lived experiences. They have been a site of friendships and contestations, social and commercial networks and collaborations, and a conduit of interactions between the hills and the valley.
In the backdrop of a hills-valley distinction naturalised through the powerful colonial border discourse that has persisted well into the postcolonial times, a politics of reiterating (fictional) cultural and ethnic purity of communities have long taken root in the foothills. Etienne Balibar speaks of ‘internal borders’ of social units–ethnic communities, in this instance; and uncertainties and anxieties associated with how the ‘inside’ can be adulterated by its relation with the ‘outside’.
Contemporary political discourses of borders, based on (territorial) nationalist ideologies and space-centric, juridic-political-administrative arrangements, also tend to rigidify the hill-valley distinction further.
On the other hand, Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld reminds us about the ‘porosity’ of borders – that even the most fiercely guarded borders can be, and are, penetrated.
The borders and the foothills bear colonial imprints everywhere: missionary churches that altered social dynamics and tea plantations that massively changed the landscape and ecology.
Through lens and words, we try to chronicle personal narratives, physical ‘sites of memory’, as well as quotidian lived experiences entangled with such ‘closures’, ‘openings’, and ‘permeations’ in the borders, and see through how things unfold in the everyday lives of people in the Naga foothills.
Nagabat today falls near the border that separates Nagaland’s Wokha hills from Assam’s Jorhat district. As the name suggests, Nagabat was a route frequented by Naga traders and travellers. Though traffic has dwindled through this route, it still reverberates with past memories of amicable exchanges between the hills and the valley.
This dilapidated building of the once vibrant ‘Mitur Ashram’ or Plains and Hills Amity Centre at Nagabat is one such physical ‘site of memory’ that stands even today.
Prabin Gogoi, as a teenager, was part of the peace initiative led by Koka Nilmani Phukan, freedom fighter Hari Narayan Baruah and Professor Bhadra Phukan that built ‘Mitur Ashram’, a peace edifice, in the disturbed foothills of the 1960s.
The name ‘Mitur Ashram’ invokes a language of friendship typical of the foothills. This amity centre once served as a resthouse for Naga traders and commoners travelling to the foothills and the valley, as well as valley-dwellers travelling up to the hills. It also provided training on weaving and other crafts promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. For Gogoi, now a sexagenarian, this falling-apart structure is more than just a passing memory, “I can still vividly remember the beautiful ladies weaving traditional Naga and Assamese clothes in the Ashram.” The Amity centre, set up in 1966, had originally a 80-bigha-plot covering portions of two daags: 76 bighas in daag 22 and four bighas in daag 352 in Borholla mouza under the Bekajan panchayat. But the land has been encroached and occupied by 28 houses, 13 shops and a coal dump.
The forest-covered border areas have become a place for clandestine activities of varied sorts: illegal coal mining; a place to hide stolen vehicles, and many more. On the morning of September 10, 2017, we walked through the foothill settlements that spread up to the forested hillocks–and found two cars without number-plates hidden deep in the jungle. There were also signs of coal dumping.
While Nagabat has a history of friendship, Merapani saw one of the violent clashes in the 1980s, believed to be over border disputes. However, when we visited Merapani on September 15, 2017, the ‘disputed and disturbed area’ of Merapani presented a vibrant and friendly place with its motley crowd.
As we loitered around, Y Lotha, a local shopkeeper, enquired if we were journos. “If you’re journalists, please don’t write rubbish about Merapani and border disputes. Media–both Assam and Nagaland media–has already done enough harm to the people of Merapani,” he said. Inviting us to sit in his shop, he added, the original Assamese and Naga inhabitants of Merapani have always been friends. “It’s only with the advent of outsiders, mistrust was spread and tensions brewed.”
‘Outsiders’ here particularly directs to Bengali-speaking Muslims–or the so-called ‘Bangladeshi’.
In the early 2000s, many flood-displaced Bengali-speaking Muslims from sandbar areas of western and central Assam settled in the disputed area of Merapani. They were immediately dubbed ‘Bangladeshi’ by locals. Lotha said, “They came here because it was possible for them to settle here by bribing the commander of the neutral forces, and no state administration–neither Nagaland nor Assam–exists here.”
It turns out that many Assamese and Naga landowners in Merapani and other neighbouring areas in Jorhat and Golaghat employ poor flood-ravaged Bengali Muslims from Nagaon and Morigaon as cheap agricultural labourers. Ironically, at the same time, a strong anti-‘Miyan’ discourse runs high among these Naga and Assamese elites.
As we sat in Y Lotha’s shop, a woman walks the potholed, muddy road that cuts through the disputed area of Merapani.
The disputed zone is also a no-development zone since multiple ambiguous authorities prevail in such a place, keeping peoples inhabiting such spaces in a state of limbo.
Mithe Basti–or mita’s basti meaning friend’s village–is a peaceful Sema Naga settlement in Wokha-Jorhat foothills that came up in 1937, when the British administration alloted land to a Sema family from Zunehboto.
Lizehe’s father, originally from Zunheboto, settled in the foothill village of Mithe Basti in the 1940s, and his extended family still lives in Zunheboto. Lizehe’s wife Jutuli is a Gorkha women from the valley, and one of their sons is a National Socialist Council of Nagaland officer. Lizehe has deep ties with the neighbouring Assamese villagers. By James Scott’s metaphor, Lizehe is a person whose feet rest on two spaces – the valley and the hills.
Apart from the Sema Naga villagers, a few ex-tea labourer families from the Adivasi community also live near the river. English-educated young Nagas call it ‘Village River’. Jiten Munda, an Adivasi man standing by the river, however, told us it’s ‘billet liver nadi.’ Munda says he can speak ‘Sema katha’ as he’s lived all his life with the Sema Nagas.
Asum says their small bamboo house doesn’t have much space for him to play in, so he plays with other children–from both Sema and Adivasi communities – in the village churchyard. However, Asum says, he prefers to spend much of his time on her back. Most of his playthings are made of bamboo. Children in Mithe Basti comes of age playing and working with bamboo stuff.
Y Sema is a village elder in Mithe Basti. When we met him he was sitting on his veranda and exercising his bamboo craftsmanship. He said working with bamboo is a sweet pass time, “Naga manuh bamboo laga deep connection ase (Naga offers a deep connection with bamboo.)”
New Tsorrie is a peaceful Lotha settlement in Nagaland’s Wokha district that abuts to Jorhat, Assam.
Villagers from the Lotha Naga village of Wokha district’s New Tsorrie come down to the foothills to sell their agricultural produce and procure their daily essential commodities.
Even Lotha teenagers carry loads of produce on their backs to the foothills. These trade networks are part of a vital lifeline for the villagers that thrives not only on material and economic exchanges, but also on social and emotional interactions.
L Lotha brings his home-grown papaya, banana and veggies for sale. He has to visit Kohima for some work. Hence he’s selling stuff in the foothills to collect the money needed for the trip. It wasn’t the weekly bazaar day, so he had to be content with less than usual price.
Tired, a Lotha villager sits for a while after carrying loads of agricultural produce on his back to the foothills for sale
He’s been selling his agricultural produce in the foothills for at least 40 years – since he was a small boy.
The shop selling tea, biscuits, and groceries stands just where the valley ends and the hike to New Tsorrie starts. In the absence of a clearly demarcated border, one can conveniently assume that this is the last shop in Assam – or the first shop in Nagaland in the area.
‘Give and take’, reads an inscription on Y Lotha Shop, situated in an in-between space, and a crucial place of interactions among the peoples of the valley, the foothills and the hills. One would easily meet an Adivasi man fluently conversing in “Lotha katha”, or a Lotha speaking one of the Adivasi dialects or Assamese with equal ease, or a Sonowal Kachari speaking in Adivasi or Nagamese. The lingua-franca of these foothills, however, is Nagamese.
The foothills are not only a place of interactions between upland and valley peoples. Even non-human persons are also an important part in these permeations, flows and mobilities. Along with a group of Lotha villagers from New Tsorrie, Shelley, a New Tsorrie dog, also trudges down to the foothills with her owner Mabini.
As we were trekking to New Tsorrie, the forested hilly track offered a mesmerizing soundscape: cicadas sang, the Lotha villagers accompanying us produced the “ho ho” sound that a climbing Naga is known to produce, that intermingled with words uttered in Nagamese, Assamese and Lotha.
We met Mabini Patan Lotha and his wife on our hike to New Tsorrie. They had sold papaya, banana and gourd in the foothills and brought back salt, biscuits, tea, lentil and other grocery needs from Yanthan Lotha Shop.
Just entering New Tsorrie village, situated atop a steep hill. As we were about to arrive Mabini Lothas’ place, their eight-year-old granddaughter, who was waiting for them, came running to us.
Villagers stop for a while on their hour-long uphill trek to New Tsorrie.
In our downward trek, we met a group of Lotha villagers returning home after selling stuff in the foothills. They said, “Please tell your friends in the towns and cities, in Guwahati and Dimapur, how tough our lives are.”..“Koi dibo ami kiman kosto kore.”
The Pastor of the village church in New Tsorrie. We met him on our way back to the foothills. He asked if we were “true Assamese.” Once we said we were, convinced we weren’t ‘Bangladeshi’ (!), he was very friendly with us. He invited us to his place during Christmas.
A few houses by the hilly track to New Tsorrie. We’ve seen an adivasi family settling atop a hillock before reaching New Tsorrie. “Here we can easily find firewood, fiddlehead ferns and other wild foods. So we’ve moved upwards,” said the woman of the house.
Naga-Hora. This bamboo-made stuff is a ubiquitous receptacle used for carrying things on the back of a hill-dwelling Naga.
Most of the families scattered across the foothills below Old Tsorrie are poor ex-tea garden labourers belonging to the Adivasi community. They cultivate paddy on small plots of land, and some of them enter in sharecropping arrangements with the Lotha Nagas of Old Tsorrie to cultivate on the slopes. Not all children here go to schools, and school drop-out rate is alarmingly high.
Rongkham is the last village in Jorhat and Yajang C Basti is the first village in Nagaland’s Mokukchung district along that patch of Jorhat-Mokukchung border. Between them stands parts of Seleng Tea Estate and Tiru Hills Reserve Forest and several other plantations, and a lepers’ colony, now known as Rajabari Christian Gaon (autonym) or Bimari Basti (exonym). Rongkham has been a site of violent contestation between the Assamese and the Naga, sparked over attempts to reclaim land and extract natural resources.
Pabitra Gogoi, a Rongkham villager, told us early this October that a few years ago there arose a conflict with the Nagas of Yajang C over a patch of 600-bigha forestland. “We thought we villagers would use the forest resources since it falls within the boundaries of Assam. But a few years back we discovered that more than half of the forest was cleared from the Nagaland side. I think there’s support from outside. Yajang C villagers alone won’t–and can’t–do that,” he said. He admitted that once they discovered the Nagas were clearing and occupying the forest, Rongkham villagers too cleared a forest patch of around 50 bighas. This finally led to a stand-off between the two states in 2014.
The discourses on ethnic identities and resource ownership in Rongkham and Yajang C indicate an entanglement of the politics of nation(-state) with the politics of nature. It appeared to us: where there’s natural resources along the border, there’s conflict.
Photos: Ankita Bora
Text: Bikash K Bhattacharya
Special inputs: Parag Deka