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Enter The Forbidden Land

The Forbidden Land: an adventurous account of three unfruitful
attempts to enter the homeland of the Naga Peoples

by Frans Welman

Enter the forbidden land
Elephant tramples mouse in:

T h e   q u e s t   f o r   N a g a l i m

He couldn't say that he was not warned. For more than fifty years India has successfully limited access to Nagalim. Apart from the Armed Forces of the Union of India, hardly anyone enters Nagalim. Even the Indians themselves are not welcome. Not quite, for they too must first obtain permission to enter the mountainous home of the staunch, freedom seeking, Naga Peoples. What to do? He knew he would go anyway. If only to find out and see what would happen? That is what he wanted to do and that is what he did. Where does this unknown land lay? Looking at a map, one sees the North East of India dangling precariously on its umbilical cord, its sole attachment to the motherland. How odd it looks, as if it is going to be severed from its mother any time soon. As he stood for the third time in Kolkata, the gateway to the North East, he wondered if this time, with a little help from his friends, he would be able to enter the forbidden land. The people of the land would receive him with open arms. He was very aware of that. The Indian government should give him permission to go in or else he would have to sneak in. He knew very well that if he went in officially, he would be delivered into the whims and fears of the local authorities and, knowing the hierarchical stratification of the Indian decision-making process, he would only be allowed to enter if the current restrictions in the region were lifted. This time he would be going without their knowledge. And, with enough determination, he would enter Nagalim. He knew that. So, when the plane landed in Guwahati, he thought he was prepared for the consequences.

Ah, but then! Moments after he had walked into the arrival hall a plain-clothes official stopped him and asked for his passport.

"Sir," he said in a smooth voice, "I have already entered the Union of India through Kolkata. My visa has been checked and my passport has been stamped to prove I entered your great country this very day." He was asked where he would be heading, what his purpose is in India and whom he would go and meet.

"Sir, I told your colleagues that I would be going to Guwahati to see some friends."

"Could we know the good names of your friends," the official asked him.

"Yes, of course," he answered, "If you would be so kind and give me the name of your wife, children and relatives. I would like to check on them."

"Why?" he replied.

Welman thought for a moment, and then answered truthfully:

"Well, sir, when you not only ask me a personal, but also an impertinent question, surely you have no objection to answer one yourself!"

And he walked off to the revolving belt where his luggage would soon be waiting.

"This, Sir," once more directing himself to the person behind the little desk in Guwahati who had asked for his passport, "is my response to impertinent questions. Now is there anything else that you would like to know? I believe Assam, and therefore its capital Guwahati, has no restrictions for tourists, is that correct?"

"Please Sir," pleaded the official, "I am required to write down your name and passport number, that is all. Please comply or I will be in trouble and you may be too."

Welman, weighing his own feelings, looked at the man for a second. Tempting the authorities was on his mind, but he knew that a higher-ranking official would appear should he resist the request. This, of course, would attract much unwanted attention for his friends who were waiting outside to whisk him off to a safe destination. Not wanting to jeopardise his trip, he felt that it would be better to comply with the potentially innocent registration procedure. The immigration official nervously tried to avoid Welman's contemplating eyes. Then Welman was sure he would avoid the risk of being seen as a troublemaker. He went for his pouch.

"Indeed they do sir", Welman replied and with that answer they parted, both wearing a smile. (This reply does not make sense it does not follow the line of conversation that has occurred)

Lots of people were feverishly waiting outside the terminal. Apparently a person of high standing, someone said Sonia Gandhi, was expected to arrive. Although the very thought crept into his mind, Welman didn't think the reception was meant for him. He knew that nobody would attempt to obstruct his passage into Nagalim if he was received in this way. He moved carefully through the crowd, while casually looking for a friend who would be waiting for him. It took some time before he saw a tall man he knew, but had not been expecting. The man winked ever so slightly, signalling Welman to follow him. It was the man he had met during his first attempt to enter the forbidden land. Then, he was known as 'our man in Kolkata'. Now, as Welman was about to learn, that man had become 'our man in Guwahati'. After carefully checking the scene to confirm that all the shadowing figures had vanished, they embraced and quickly entered a waiting car. They started to reminisce as soon as the driver pulled away from the curb.

The first attempt to enter Nagalim was really something! Rather than putting him off, which is no doubt what the Indian authorities had wanted, it strengthened his resolve in the quest to reach Nagalim. The first attempt to enter Nagalim was made with Jacques de Kort, once co-ordinator and the driving force of the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), now a consultant to the Indigenous Council of the Netherlands. They had decided to attempt to enter Nagalim after they were invited by the Governor of Manipur to attend the Luingani festival, a yearly Naga event. They thought that the festival would prove an excellent opportunity to shoot a documentary on the culture and daily life of the Naga peoples. Perhaps other topics could be covered too, they thought. At the time, Welman was a board member of the NCIP. How did the NCIP, de Kort and Welman come to know about the Nagas?

Around 1988, a Naga general who was seeking help for his people, visited the NCIP. He told stories of a rich culture, and of untold miseries. General Mo's tales were highly contrasted and captivated both de Kort and Welman. Although the stories of exquisite landscapes, unique cultures and the sheer horror of recent events were very impressive, de Kort and Welman were unable to fully accept the words of the General, and set out in search of documents that would verify at least some of the facts. They did not find much for the land of the Nagas, which they claim to be historically their own since time immemorial, has been isolated from the outside world since India became an independent nation.

Intrigued by stories beyond belief and stimulated by the timid friendliness of the Nagas who followed in the footsteps of General Mo, de Kort and Welman developed a desire to visit Nagalim. This desire grew into a full-fledged intention and in 1997, when the first attempt was seriously planned, the intention quickly proved to be much more difficult to realise than they had anticipated. True, they knew it was not going to be easy, but with the Indian Embassy regularly calling from The Hague to inquire about the whereabouts of the Naga visitors, both de Kort and Welman had naively assumed that one day India would grant access. Surely India would do so, they thought, once the NCIP had succeeded in internationalising the long conflict by introducing the Nagas to both the UN Working Group for Indigenous Peoples and the UNPO, an alternative organisation to the unrecognised Nations. These institutions would enable the Nagas to present their grievances and have people listen to the story of their quest for freedom. Still, they knew very well that it would not be easy for the Nagas to be heard: Jacques de Kort and Frans Welman, despite working as representatives of an organisation for indigenous peoples, knew little or nothing about the plight and predicaments of the Nagas. What then could one expect from ordinary Europeans who have no knowledge of the plight of indigenous peoples? The subject alone would raise disbelief:

"Nagas? Nagas, you say? A war with India? 150 000 dead? 200 000 Indian troops fighting a guerrilla outfit? Man, if this were true, everybody would know about it! It would be splashed all over the news! Are you crazy?"

And right they are! Who could believe that a great country like India would attempt to try and eradicate a small nation with a population of just four million souls. India, the country that takes pride in and advertises itself as the largest democracy in the world, would do that? A country that attracts Europeans, Americans and Australians alike who submerge themselves in the contradictory wonders of Hinduism: poverty opposite computer technology, religious bliss opposite corruption, the caste system opposite militarization, Brahmans opposite Dalits or the untouchables, the lowest opposite the highest and so it goes, on and on. The attraction? India, the Beauty and the Beast. High profile actors, singers and musicians have found inspiration through the music, literature, culture, history and religion of India, portraying India as the land in which anything happens. Both celebrities and tourists are attracted to mother India like insects of the night to the light. But, do these people know about the North East in general and Nagalim in particular? No, as they can't enter. They are not allowed in. Consequently nobody knows about Nagalim and strange stories abound. It is too dangerous, it's a wild west full of people carrying guns, or as renowned newspapers write even to this day: Nagaland is a land full of former head hunters, of warmongers. It is not safe to go there; it is prohibited, forbidden, for your own safety. So, that leaves only one way into Nagalim. To enter, one must go undercover; one must slip in. With this in mind, de Kort and Welman's desire to visit the forbidden land called Nagalim faded into the background. Until 1997!

In 1997, the second cease-fire between the two parties was agreed upon. A second cease-fire?

© Frans Welman 2002-2003

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