Two things strike you when you arrive at the North-East Indian border town Moreh – the jungle would overtake the town if given a chance, and some serious rioting had been going on in the streets.
The British annexed the region in the 19th century after the first Anglo-Burmese war. India gained independence from Britain in 1947 and Bangladesh was partitioned from India. The North-East was almost land-locked, except for a corridor between Bangladesh and Bhutan, 21km at its narrowest. This didn’t help to establish an Indian identity.
It was up until the 1960s only two states – Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Separatist pressures dissolved Assam into six states – Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam. The Himalayan state of Sikkim was annexed in 1975. There are over 220 ethnic groups and many feel they never were nor want to be Indian. To give an idea of the scale of this issue, in 2014 193 people died in terror related incidents in Kashmir. In the same year there were 413 deaths in the North-East. There are 94 active terrorist and insurgent groups in the region.
On August 31st of this year, an amendment to the legislation was passed that required people to provide proof that their families lived in the state of Manipur before 1951. Land resided on by tribal people without adequate proof could legally and forcefully be bought out by the government. The government claims their aim was to prevent migrants (mainly from Bangladesh) from settling in the area.
In protest to the legislation, rioters set fire to the homes of seven lawmakers. One person died while trapped in a burning house. Police shot dead two arsonists. Hundreds of people angry about the shooting surrounded the police station. Outnumbered, the police open fire again, killing two and injuring three. A curfew was imposed and the paramilitary deployed. Then we showed up.
In an effort to encourage tourism in the region the government recently relaxed permit requirements for foreigners to Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram. The Indian Army is keeping a lid on further incidents to keep this initiative rolling.
At the fourth checkpoint across the border, they made us a cup of tea and filled us in on some finer points of cricket. Yes, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer were the best opening pair in recent TEST cricket history, but the little master Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly were the best ONE-DAY opening pair. We’ve never followed cricket, but it’s a great ice-breaker in this part of the world.
We were told this was the last checkpoint but the locals had other ideas. They set up their own strike another 5km down the road and requested we stay for the night. The views were good but the company too agitated about recent events for us to sleep soundly so we negotiated our onward passage. It was a good reminder that tourists are not the target of their grievances. This is a safe place to travel.
The North-East has one of the wettest monsoon belts in the world which sustains an estimated half of India’s total biodiversity. It’s fifty shades of green. At the time of our arrival at the end of the wet season, the mountain roads were in a state of repair and the fuel supply was cut. The crafty, black-market traders didn’t waste this opportunity to sell us fuel at $3.80/L.
We were told in the morning before departure from Imphal that the road to Kohima was now clear. This was the beginning of a trend in India of being told what we want to hear, not what’s true. It’s not out of meanness. Locals want to see you happy. 10km out from Kohima the road was blocked. Had been for days. We backtracked 3km to an alternate route. Turned out to be a great road for the bikes, and carnage for trucks and buses.
Out on the Assam plains traffic gets crazy. Expect trucks, scooters, tuk-tuks and horse-and-carts sharing the roads like Myanmar, only now there’s MUCH more of it. India also introduces the biggest threat to your life on the road – cows. They’re everywhere and they’re not an object you can hit at speed and walk away from. There is an obvious solution to simultaneously improve road safety and feed the poor.
Seven nights only affords a taste of what North-East India has to offer. It was enough time to figure out to steer clear of the cities. The countryside is a gem.