60,000 sq km of jungles where only ‘Baba’ Khaplang matters
What is perhaps one of the last untamed and ungoverned tracts in the world — the mountainous and heavily forested areas of Myanmar bordering India — has been in the news recently for the two surgical strikes conducted by the Indian Army on June 8 to ‘neutralise’ insurgents who had killed 18 soldiers in an ambush in Manipur’s Chandel district on June 4.
Spanning a length of about 1,300 km north from across Arunachal Pradesh to the south across Manipur, and about 50 km in width till the Chindwin river in Myanmar, the region is about 60,000 sq km in size.
“The Myanmar government has no control in the region. There are no public facilities like roads, hospitals or schools. Whatever few schools are there are run by the independence fighters,” says an insurgent leader who lived, trained and fought in this area for nearly a decade before being involved in negotiation talks with New Delhi.
The region is home to deadly guerrilla fighters divided into many groups on the basis of ethnicity, region and the language they speak. It is also infested with the deadliest of insects and wild plants which can cause deep rashes if touched.
It is from here that the insurgents from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland of the more than 50 groups make their hit-and-run strikes before running back to the Myanmar side for safety. It is here that many insurgent camps are based where the cadres are taught the art of warfare and ideologically indoctrinated.
“Impregnable forests and mountainous terrains — it is ideal for guerrilla warfare. There is no codified law here, only Baba’s word is law in the parts inhabited by Nagas,” the leader said referring to SS Khaplang, the leader of one of the main factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Khaplang (NSCN-K).
'Baba' — another word for a venerable elderly person — evokes respect, reverence and fear in equal measure in this region. The word actually gained coinage after the Assamese fighters from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) started frequenting the area consequently setting up a strong presence.
Only three leaders have been conferred the exalted status of ‘Baba’ — all hailing from the NSCN-K. “Till the ULFA went there, the topmost leader was referred to by the locals as ‘Apa’ or father. While ‘Baba’ now almost always refers to just Khaplang, two others — Baba Kareng and Khole Konyak — were also called Baba. Khaplang’s word is law in the parts inhabited by Nagas,” the leader adds.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya, one of the very few journalists to have trekked across the region for four months and who wrote a travelogue 'Rendezvous with the Rebels' on his return, says: “People live a life based on subsistence farming and hunting. One’s occupation is either food gathering or jhum cultivation. A monetised economy is still growing which was not there until a decade ago.”
“With no electricity, there is a conspicuous presence of solar panels in a few homes to harness energy, which I found to be quite an incongruity in such a remote area,” he adds.