Seikholun Haokip never once doubted where his home is: in India, along the country’s eastern international boundary in Manipur, where he lives with his close-knit family and a large brood of ethnic Kuki cousins and aunts.
Then, some trucks laden with barbed wires trundled into his village.
In 2010, the contractors accompanying the trucks told him that the small thatched hut he built with his own hands was not actually in India, but in Myanmar. A fence would be erected right along the village road, so he’d better move in quickly, or else be left marooned on the wrong side of the border.
Haokip, a poor illiterate farmer who grows pumpkin and maize, protested. So did the other 170 residents of Govijang village. Since 18 Indian soldiers died in the June 4 ambush about 55 km from here, this area has seen heavy patrolling in recent weeks, with the military passing through Govijang in search of militants responsible for the strike.
A Village Without a Country
The village’s misfortune is that it’s right on what is known as ‘Zero Line’ of two nations. As it stands now, 14 of the 37 houses are in situ across the international border. Even their modest church is split into two — the pulpit falling in Myanmar, the prayer hall in India.
Govijang is within an ‘unsurveyed’ forest land, declared a ‘village’ in 1977. But house taxes have been paid from an earlier date, according to Thangkhopao Kipgen, the village chief.
In 2009, Indian and Myanmarese officials carried out a joint survey to settle pending boundary issues. The villagers were, however, surprised that no official bothered to inform them of the outcome. The trucks simply moved in, without prior notice.
Kipgen decided to take a stand: “We can’t split the people. If the government pays compensation, we are ready to shift.” The government refused, and construction work has since stopped after he moved court in 2012. The village is now seeking Rs 67.76 lakh in compensation for the uprooted families, which includes costs of “land, houses and fruit-bearing trees.”
Govijang — which means ‘Bamboo Land’ in the Kuki language — hardly evokes an image of a tropical paradise. It’s a hardscrabble land without proper roads or electricity. It clings to the base of a denuded hill, and in windy weather, every house is cloaked in red dust. During monsoon, its only road turns into a muddy drain.
Not at Home Anywhere
Isolation from mainland India often makes these border communities invisible. Many of Govijang’s inhabitants fled Myanmar in 1967, following a military crackdown on minorities after anti-Chinese riots broke out in the country. Some were displaced during the Kuki-Naga clash of the 1990s. Kipgen, for instance, fled a Naga-majority area in Manipur’s Ukhrul district during this conflict and lived in many places before he arrived here in 2009, to take charge of chieftainship in accordance to Kuki custom of hereditary entitlements.
In 1967, Paojakap Kipgen, a farmer, came from a Myanmarese village called Valpabung, now renamed Sonnehch. Soldiers arrived in his village and told them to leave instantly. They had no time to collect their rice stock, pots and pans, he said.
Unlike the India-Pakistan border which was shaped by Partition and communal hatred, the demarcation of the eastern border experienced no raw emotions. People mingle freely with their brethren living across, helped by the poorly guarded 1,164-km-long border from Arunachal Pradesh to Mizoram. They also share a common history.
In 1917, Kuki chiefs fought the British in this region, both in the hills of Manipur and in Myamnar’s Chin Hills and Kabaw Valley. They revolted against recruitment of its people in labour corps during World War I. In a popular uprising known as the ‘Kuki Gaal’, or Kuki War, they organised reinforcement by passing on a secret message from village to village — a burning wood tied with a red hot pepper called malchapom.
The Kukis eventually lost the battle, but the blood ties remained strong. When no support system exists, relatives often extend help in troubled times. Because of Imphal’s uneasy relations with the hills, these areas remain neglected and forgotten. This month, as marching boots are heard around Govijang, years of smugness and indifference can hardly win friendship – or help.
A People Divided by Fences
On a still evening, villagers sit around a fire, chatting and sipping Burmese tea. They also smoke zadi, a cheap cigarillo flaked with tobacco and wood chips, rolled inside strips of old magazine paper. They decide: The fence is a good idea.
“It will stop drug addicts from stealing our wood,” Seikholun, who travels to Myanmar several times a year to visit his three sisters, says.
“I don’t want my cows to stray that side,” says Letthang Mate, another resident.
What still irks them though is that the government ignored to brief them about the problems of construction around their village, says Nemneichong, the chief’s wife. In fact, they found out about the 2009 boundary survey first from their relatives in Myanmar, where officials took care to inform the border villages.
“This is the difference between the governments of Myanmar and India,” she says.
(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s Northeast and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues)