Saturday, October 16, 2004

Assam: Of the beauty of the hills, and man’s vileness

[ These are pathological killers. And note the people who have been selectively slaughtered: Bengali-speaking settlers, including woodcutters (most of them Muslim), and a few Marwaris, from a family which has lived in Assam for generations. Note also the head of the family had been killed 13 years ago for refusing to pay under intimidation to Bodo armed groups. There had been a contact between the Government of India with the Bodo leadership in Bangladesh a few days ago and the reaction was positive. But clearly the leaders aren’t in control of their cadres. And there was no regret, no remorse over the killings in his statement to the media, conveniently emailed so that no tough questions could be asked. ]

NORTH by NORTH EAST

SANJOY HAZARIKA

Of the beauty of the hills, and man’s vileness

We left Shillong early, driving into a crisp morning, with a cloudless sky above and a bright sun – as different from the past four days as you could imagine: thunderous rain, furious gusting wind, tree collapses and landslides and mudslips in the hills, going much of the way down to Guwahati.

We had gotten used to the constant rumble of the sky and the drumming, nay, pounding of the rain on tin roofs, an experience that has become as rare as it is wonderful: wonderful because of the very reason that it is rare – many of the tin roofed bungalows of Shillong, the largest and, to me, the prettiest hill station in India, have been demolished to make way for concrete and brick monstrosities, as starkly alien to the environment and landscape around as a Ferrari on Guwahati’s non-roads, down in the plains.

The rain took a toll of life and property in Shillong – the stream running by the Polo Ground burst its banks, as it has been doing every year, and washed away a few houses. A number of people were swept away by flash floods, including a policeman who was collecting firewood with his wife, or killed in house collapses and land slips. Roads, especially those hurrying down sharp slopes, were chewed up by swift streams running across them. But amidst all this, the trees and grass took on a luminous green hue, reflecting and rejoicing in the purity of the season and the rain.

It was a sombre time – reflecting on the beauty of nature and its resurgence, its capacity for renewal and the contrasting vileness of man. Most living creatures on earth kill to survive or protect. Man alone kills without adequate reason. This was most visible in the recent slaughter of innocents in Assam and Nagaland, especially in the mowing down of men, women and children in the former state by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

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These are pathological killers. And note the people who have been selectively slaughtered: Bengali-speaking settlers, including woodcutters (most of them Muslim), and a few Marwaris, from a family which has lived in Assam for generations. Note also the head of the family had been killed 13 years ago for refusing to pay under intimidation to Bodo armed groups.

The message is clear: ethnic cleansing. It has nothing to do with independence or a better deal. It has everything to do with extortion and a desire to sweep the place clean of “outsiders” who are as much outsiders as the “insiders” – they’ve been around for long enough. It is ugly, pathological hatred. Those who pulled the trigger deserve no leniency. They need to go to a psychiatrist, apart from facing the criminal system, and not be “rehabilitated” with all their sins forgiven.

Two days after the mayhem, which reminded those of us who have reported from the troubled Punjab in the 1980s and then Kashmir of those areas complete with pulling people out of homes and buses, lining them up and shooting them, the head of the NDFB calls for a cease-fire, under his “Bodo” name, DB Namgla, otherwise known as Ranjan Daimary. He is known to be based in Bangladesh, as are other men wanted by New Delhi for criminal offences – Paresh Baruah, Arabinda Rajkhowa and other leaders of United Liberation Front of Asom.

A point here: could it be that Daimary alias Namgla sent a message instructing the killings and then decided on the cease-fire? There had been a contact between the Government of India with the Bodo leadership in Bangladesh a few days ago and the reaction was positive. But clearly the leaders aren’t in control of their cadres. And there was no regret, no remorse over the killings in his statement to the media, conveniently emailed so that no tough questions could be asked.

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We ran into a major traffic pileup beyond Umiam or Barapani, the man-made lake and major hydro power station, 14 km down from Shillong. There were not less than a couple of hundred trucks, buses and small vehicles held up in the small highway. We sped up the mess, thanks to the sharp driver and his neat little Indica, before we saw the reason: two trucks in their haste had run into the soft earth. A number of drivers and passengers watched, others shouted encouragement, some threw small rocks and stones on the tyre tracks hoping the stranded monoliths would get out and clear the way. Another truck a bit further ahead, on the other side on the road, speared to have also sunk into the slush.

It was going to be a nightmare. But the paan chewing driver, a Bengali resident of Laban, said to me, “We’ll take another route, sir, through the country.”

And I bless him that we did: it was like ambling through the English countryside, so exquisitely beautiful, with rolling hills and mist clinging to the slopes, rich jungles and vines, tiny hamlets and people talking by the roadside at leisure. The streams rushed past as we drove. A cat, obviously unused to cars, refused to move out of the way and we had to swerve aside to avoid hitting it. I looked back to find it crouched in the same position!

An osprey hawk swooped out of the woods, winging its way across the trees. “It must have a nest nearby,” the driver mused. Our nice but bumpy ride took us on a semi-circle across hill and vale, touching Kynrendikrieh, the village where the Pawan Hans helicopter had crashed recently, killing all passengers on board, the hamlet where powerful thermals rush like the funnel from the warm Assam plains below to the Khasi hills above. Tragedy surrounded by beauty.

If you ever travel between Shillong and Guwahati and even if you don’t get caught in a traffic jam near Umiam, take this road, the one less travelled. And, as Eliot said, that will make all the difference – you will be richer for it.

Statesman 16/10/2004