Monday, November 9, 2015

Life in and around Assam Rifles camps: A Winning Partnership of ‘TOLERANCE’

The Assam Rifles camps in towns like Mokokchung, Lunglei and Imphal once reflected image of mini-India where people of varied backgrounds including local Nagas or Lushais lived together in a perfect harmony. There would be merits in former youngsters try to revive the old friendship, more so when India is looking to rediscover ‘Tolerance’!

Quite often memories come crowding in of men and women, mostly Bengalis, Assamese, Nepalis, Biharis and North and South Indians with anxieties writ large on their faces in the capital towns of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya for fear of being asked to leave the places they had loved and lived in for many years and some of them even identified themselves with the locals. 

The memory haunts me more so at this point of time when the country is seriously debating what “tolerance’’ and “intolerance” is. Not that I am into this political debate, my mind is elsewhere and what follows may help some North-easterners to either refresh memories or raise eyebrows. 

It relates to one of the most talked-about and nearly 100-year-old para-military forces — the Assam Rifles. I have a personal affinity to this force which is maintained by the Union home ministry but under Army command to fight insurgency, because my father had served in it. And I grew up in Assam Rifles’ camps.

Moving further with this piece, let me take shelter of an old adage of journalism that a reporter might be occasionally right and often go wrong in his interpretation.  The Assam Rifles, once titled ‘Friends of the Hill People’, by its history has never been in search of a township to settle or set up its camps. Rather the townships have most of the time - if not all - have developed around the Assam Rifles camps. 
These have been the case in towns like Kohima, Wokha, Mokokchung in Nagaland, Serchip and Aizawl in Mizoram, Shillong in Meghalaya and also several rural hamlets.
Going into certain details, in Kohima for instance Assam Rifles (initially 3rd Battalion and then 29th Battalion) was set up around Mid Land area – not very far from Nagaland Old Secretariat – where the Chief Minister used to sit.   

With an Assam Rifles camp in the vicinity, an atmosphere of “security” prevailed in these insurgency-infested towns in the 1960s and 1970s. The fear of insurgents targeting public places even forced a Kohima privately-run cinema to suspend screening films. In search of entertainment, one would often go to the Assam Rifles compound to watch movies run by generators. 

One also had access to the unit’s canteens where one could buy items at reasonable prices. And the so-called “wet canteens” nearby sold jalebis, laddus and samosas. The popular Tibetan delicacy, momos, and Chinese chowmein came much later.
In Mokokchung, the hub of Ao Nagas, where I attended school for three years, Dusherra and Durga puja were celebrated in a grand manner. On Navami day, goats, ducks and a buffalo were slaughtered in the Assam Rifles compound. Special arrangements were made for “gao buras (village chiefs) from adjoining Ungma and other hamlets to attend the ceremony. They were treated with tea and halwa and buffalo meat was also given to them.

All communities participated in different festivals and also local ones. And during Christmas a fete was a big attraction. Those were the good old days indeed. Youngsters hardly bothered which community a person belonged to. Football matches were often played between the Assam Rifles team and Douglas School boys.

So well-knit was the cultural affinity that even in the 1980s, in Mizoram’s border town of Lunglei where the 18 Assam Rifles camp was situated, Christian Lushai soldiers greeted their officers with “Ram Ram sahib”. For my younger brother, “breakfast” meant “aloo-puri sabzi” from the langar (soldiers’ mess) and “Ram Ram sahib” was the Hindi version of “Good morning, sir”.

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But things started changing very fast once the soldiers lost their goodwill. There were allegations of human rights violations against civilians. By the 1990s when we were in Kohima, such happenings took place almost daily and locals often protested against molestation of Naga girls by jawans and also demanded shifting of their camps. 
But is there any logic in lamenting over spilled milk? One feels many citizens of India who grew up in these camps along with local Mizos and Nagas need to try to revive the spirit of that old friendship.
It would be a winning partnership; more so at a time when there is talk about “tolerance”. In these Assam Rifles’ camps, youngsters who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s perhaps understood very little about intellectually superlative words like “tolerance” and “democracy”, but we all lived together in harmony basking in each other’s success and unequivocally mourning the loss of lives.

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