Book Review: Who says no one writes about the chief anymore

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Few journalists have done this and fewer still would probably do what Rajeev Bhattacharyya and his colleague, Pradip Gogoi, have accomplished. They crossed into Myanmar illegally and trekked the upper, mountainous region of the Sagaing Division of the country to the combined headquarters of several rebel groups from the Northeast under the benign hospitality extended by the enigmatic Naga rebel leader S.S. Khaplang, to meet the ULFA`™s elusive chief of staff, Paresh Baruah. The entire assignment took them over three months to complete.

Bhattacharyya`™s book which came out of this unusual adventure `Rendezvouz with Rebels` (Harper Collins 2014; Rs. 399), is as much a travelogue as it is about a journalistic assignment to interview an important insurgent leader of Assam and indeed the entire Northeast, who is among the rare league of rebel leaders who continue to steadfastly hold on to the ideal of winning sovereignty for their land and people, at a time most others have decided to hang up their boots and think of negotiated compromises.

The book is timely as it comes in the wake of another vertical split in the ULFA which has put the rebel organisation in a virtual existential crisis. The organisation`™s chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, now leads the pro-talk ULFA faction having left the armed struggle for Assam`™s independence and pledging to achieve the same end through negotiations with New Delhi. Chief of staff Paresh Baruah remains at large, but speculations have been that his faction has been almost completely marginalised and rendered effectively irrelevant.

The journalist duo were escorted by ULFA cadres from somewhere in the border area of Nagaland into adjacent territory of Myanmar, that the rebels refer to as `Eastern Nagaland` and from there on, on a month long trek to where Paresh Baruah is headquartered, a safe liberated zone under the sway of NSCN(K) leader, S.S. Khaplang, where a number of other Northeast insurgent groups have also found sanctuary.

The accounts of the journey itself is fascinating for the sheer novelty of the encounters with the Konyak Nagas and Konyak align tribes living in near complete isolation from the outside world in their hill top villages. The author`™s temptation to often assume an anthropological tone, though obviously untrained, is understandable. Whenever this happens, he does not however, and wisely too, allow himself to digress far into a field of study he is not too familiar with.

The first half of the book is thus about the journey itself, recounting the difficult terrain and the dangers it posed to untrained mountaineers, the captivating sceneries, the simple but hospitable Naga hill villagers… What comes across as amazing is the almost total absence of signs of the authority of the government, either of India or Myanmar. This should have been disconcerting, but strangely the sense is one of security. Rebel soldiers walking in an out of villages seem to have become nothing eventful and a routine part of life of the villagers. Perhaps this is because of prior information passed on by the rebel network of the arrival of the author and his team, but seldom were they taken note of with any wonderment by the villagers, and life in the villages carried on as usual.

From the author`™s account, there did seem to be another unwritten law that bound every villager intuitively `“ that of the NSCN(K) leader, S.S. Khaplang. Everybody seems to hold him in great esteem, and it was as if in awe and respect of his wish that the Northeast rebels were allowed to move amongst these villages without the fear of facing hostilities anywhere. Again, as if it was their bounden duty, the villagers provide porters for the rebel groups whenever sought, without any charge. As to whether such accounts are settled at the organisational level of the rebel groups with Khaplang`™s underground government, is not known.

Although the author was forbidden and does not indicate the route taken in their trek to meet Paresh Baruah, or name the villages they halt in, there are unintended hints that many of these places were not too far from the Indian border. At some of the hilltops the author talks of receiving mobile signals (obviously of Indian service providers), and at some of the villages, caution had to be taken as there were reports of movements of Assam Rifles soldiers in the vicinity. Moreover, this journey was also done by Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist, nearly 30 years ago, though his was a much longer journey, and Eastern Nagaland was only the first stop. His accounts of that journey, with graphic details of the routes taken, are there in the author`™s classic Land of Jade: A Journey Through Insurgent Burma.

If the Bhattacharyya successfully makes the first half of Rendezvous with Rebels rife with a sense of anticipation of the upcoming encounter with Paresh Baruah, the meeting and interview with the ULFA chief itself were somewhat a letdown. At the end of the series of interviews, stretched out over a week, and punctuated with football matches, chess games, shooting practices at firing ranges, inspections of freshly acquired armoury, many of the most eagerly awaited answers pertaining to ULFA`™s future remain unanswered. Baruah does not appear so forthcoming, but equally Bhattacharyya did not probe aggressively enough. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of cordiality that existed between interviewer and interviewed, between guest and host, or perhaps it was a case of the interviewer overawed by the towering charisma of the interviewed, sadly the interviews shed no fresh light on many important questions, as for instance on genesis of the rift in the ULFA between Baruah and Chaiman Arabinda Rajkhowa.

Practically nothing likewise was said of the much speculated fault line between Upper and Lower Assam, with the ULFA base continually being confined to less mainstream Motok Ahom and aligned communities in the Upper Assam, and Lower Assam drifting away from secessionist ideologies of ULFA. If Baruah answered queries on these matters, they were more in the nature of platitudes and homilies, and the interviewer also did not show much journalistic aggression to corner and extract more. Instead the interviews drearily meandered on issues and incidents already worn out and exhausted by decades of discussions, such as the reason for Sanjoy Ghosh`™s killing, Bhutan operations, Baruah`™s narrow escapes from capture etc. which amounted at best to encouragements for the latter to go into leisurely nostalgic anecdotal flashbacks. Although the interviewer did not force the issue, Baruah`™s elusiveness does in some way does come across as his having not too much to demonstrate of his faction`™s strength at the moment.

If the Baruah interview was a damp squib, Bhattacharyya`™s interview of Khaplang, which he said he got unplanned, is a worthy bonus. Khaplang was forthcoming and forthright, and revealed interesting information without even being nudged to do so. He explained for instance that the sanctuary he gives Northeast guerrillas is also of benefit to him, for their presence as his allies serves as a deterrent for the Myanmar army to make forays into his territory. He also did not hold back anything when he said although he would not compromise on sovereignty for his people in Eastern Nagaland, he has agreed to a ceasefire with the Myanmar government for the sake of his people`™s peace of mind.

He also tells the interviewer that the unity amongst his people was initially forged by their fight with their neighbours, the Kachins, and later their conversion to Christianity, which he says ironically the Kachins brought to them. He also revealed to the interviewer that part of his early schooling was in Margherita in Assam, and that he converted to Christianity in 1957. This is contrary to widely held beliefs amongst the Indian intelligentsia that he was a non-Christian till as late as the 1980s, and that this was another factor in his rift with other NSCN leaders from the Indian side of the border. Although this is nothing new, he also explains he decided to break off from Muivah and Swu in 1988, for he was convinced the two were preparing to make compromises with the Government of India, something which Muivah and Swu deny vehemently to this day. All in all, Bhattacharyya`™s interview does make Khaplang sound very much like a revered and undisputed leader of his people.

It would be interesting to round off this review with a very short comparison between Rendezvous with Rebels and Land of Jade, as they are of the same genre and because both talk of the same issue. Lintner pitched tent at the same rebel headquarters Bhattacharyya stayed but the dramatis personae at the camp are different. When Lintner was there, the NSCN was still undivided, though it would be only a year or so later. He was hence writing of the camp when the seeds for the split were beginning to germinate quietly and unseen.

It is possible there is a bit of hindsight knowledge he introduced in his book which was first published in 1990, to augment his actual, on the spot observations, but it must be said his accounts of the Naga camp does give the reader a sense of foreboding of the animosity building up at the time between ordinary Eastern Nagas and NSCN leaders and cadres from the Indian side of the border. The latter he described were arrogant and condescending in their dealings with the then very backward Eastern Naga villagers, and also forcefully converted them to Christianity which the latter resented bitterly. When the massacre of NSCN cadres and leaders happened in 1988 by the Khaplang group, in articles Lintner wrote at the time, he could be heard almost saying, `I always knew this was coming.`

Rendezvous with Rebels leaves readers with no such sense of foreboding, but this per se cannot be a fault. There probably is nothing grand or cataclysmic in store for ULFA in the near future and it will be the same road of dreary low intensity conflict it is destined to walk for much of the foreseeable future.

This said the book is interesting as an unusual travelogue and for the courage of the writer in undertaking the journey. Despite whatever its weaknesses, it will also remain an important addition to the growing body of literature on insurgency in the Northeast. If there is a subsequent edition, the editors can note that the readability of the book can be enhanced considerably by tighter copy editing. A little more library work can also add to its value. As for instance, when the two journalists crossed into Myanmar territory, the author notes that they passed through `no-man`™s land`™ and that this is called so because no government has ever been able to establish its authority in the area. We know of course this is not the case. Such copy sloppiness are no big blunder, but they do flatten the flavour of the book a little each time.

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