Remote and largely inaccessible to foreigners, the Indian state of Nagaland is tucked into the far northeastern corner of the country. It borders the states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Myanmar. Created in 1963, the state is home to some 16 Tibeto-Burmese tribes, or nearly 2 million people, many of whom, cut off from the rest of the world, have been fighting a remote and rarely reported war for independence from India, on and off, since the early 1950s.
Naga independence movements and guerilla armies, split today into warring factions, have been fighting for both freedom and a greater Nagaland that would unite all the Naga tribes — 4 million people — living across these eastern borders in a land of their own. To date, more than 200,000 Nagas have been killed, along with many Indian soldiers.
India, though, is unlikely to let Nagaland go, much less to encourage the creation of Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland. For, unexpectedly, this far off corner of the world has been a pinch point of grand political ambitions. In the 1940s, the Japanese came this way hoping to seize India; in the 1960s, the Chinese considered attacking India the same way. Nagaland and the Naga tribes remain pawns on a global chessboard. And there is oil here, the worldwide enemy of independence and peace.
For all the cordite and crackle of guns over the decades, though, it is a compelling place — Shangri-la seen through a glass darkly — largely unknown even within India. My family has generations of strong military ties to India, and I had wanted to visit this high and haunting land since I was a child. For many years, though, Nagaland — surrounded by red tape and the guns of the Assam Rifles — remained a dream destination, much as Kafiristan had been for Brothers Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, Freemasons and soldiers of fortune, in Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, a short story that I had read over and again as a boy.
Eventually, I got to Nagaland, and have returned several times over the past 25 years. I have trekked its flower-bedecked hills and precipitous ravines. I have crossed the high and slippery mountain border into Myanmar, where the eastern Nagas live in a hidden world of animism: head-hunting, feathered, beaded, horned; wearing sea-shelled costumes and living in magnificent hilltop villages that have barely changed for many hundreds of years.
It was so very hard to get here and yet I was bemused to learn that TV chef Gordon Ramsay has been here for a food program. Hunting deer, I think, rather than heads. In the past, Nagas were known, if at all, as the world’s most enthusiastic headhunters. Though officially banned decades ago, few doubt that the practice continues in remote and warring areas.
When I began to write my book on Nagaland, I went to see Michael Palin, who had been there to film part of his television series on the Himalayas.
“I had made a comedy series years before called Ripping Yarns, with Terry Jones,” Palin told me. “These were send-ups of Boy’s Own-style tales of Victorian derring-do during the days of the British Empire, with one silly chump battling up the Andes with a party of frogs, and another being struck down by some ancient curse made by the god of the tribesmen in the Naga Hills. We knew nothing really about the Naga Hills, but the name sounded wonderful, full of the mysteries of the colonial East. When I finally got there, I was quite aware that we were only being tolerated by the authorities and that the true Nagaland lay somewhere up muddy tracks in those misty hills. Even the mighty BBC couldn’t take us to where very few Indians have ever stepped foot.”