Atim had not thought of herself as a Naga. She knew she was a Tangkhul and she also knew that her people were fighting for freedom. While she was studying in Holy Spirit School in Longpi, near Kalhang, her mother’s village, the girls exchanged stories about the heroic tales of the Alungpashi or the people who live underground, sometimes known as Ishipashi or ‘our people’. Atim had assumed ‘our people’ meant Tangkhuls, rather than the Nagas as a whole.
There was a senior student called Rachael. She would tell the younger girls about the valour of the underground. She said there was one man called Yarchung who was identified by the Indian army by the mole on his cheek. But when they caught him, he jumped down the hills from a moving jeep and escaped. Rachael said that three Tangkhul freedom fighters could kill a hundred Indian soldiers. Her audience listened in awed silence.
The girls would practise Kung Fu moves that they had seen in the movies and were absolutely enthralled by a Tangkhul movie called Ramchoramrin. It had scenes of real ambushes carried out by the underground.
Except for one incident, Atim had not personally encountered the Indian army. That had happened when she was with her mother’s elder sister in the paddy field in Kalhang. When the other women started running away because the army was coming, her aunt was not scared. She stood in the field and the soldiers called out to them. The aunt told Atim to ask for roti and the little girl called out, ‘roti dedo’. A soldier gave her two rotis which she ate hungrily.
Atim had childhood memories of hearing shots at night in Ukhrul when the Indian army exchanged fire with the Naga militants, and on one occasion two people had hidden in their house for several days. One of them was injured. That was the day when they heard that one of the underground had worn a Haora Tangkhul shawl and calmly walked to the army post and shot some officers. Another time, when there was curfew in Ukhrul town and one of her mother’s friends needed to go somewhere urgently, she had put ash in her hair and pretended to be a madwoman.
Later, when she was older and living in the Greenland locality of Ukhrul town, she used to see a very well-dressed young man. It was whispered that he was in the movement and had a reputation for his acts of daring. He even tried to get Atim and her friends to join the organization, but they were not willing to leave their families. Later, they heard he was killed. Atim had also heard of a legendary Naga freedom fighter called Livingstone who, it was said, could turn into a fly and enter the Indian army camps. Atim’s father used to tell her about how he had secretly met Muivah himself at Shirui village.
Sometimes, when Atim was angry with her parents, she would threaten that if they did not listen to her she would join the underground. At the same time, she knew that the life of a freedom fighter was not easy. She had also discovered that there were divisions among the underground. Her mother had told her a story that made Atim’s spine tingle with fear.
Atim’s mother’s friend, Thing Thing, was in the NSCN and living in a camp deep in the forests on the India-Myanmar border. Once, when the women had gone into the forest to collect banana leaves to use as plates, they heard their camp being attacked by the Khaplang faction. All the men, mostly Tangkhuls, were killed. The women ran deeper into the forest. They had no food to eat. One of the women, Ngalangam from Khangkhui village, did not have boots and her feet had started to fester so she could no longer run; she told the others to leave her. They put her under a tree and managed to reach a village to fetch help. When the villagers reached the spot where she had been left, they could not find her body and they assumed that wild animals must have attacked and killed her.
Atim had seen with her own eyes how the Indian armed forces treated the underground. One day, sometime around 1996, when she was a student in Savio School in Ukhrul, she had gone to the bazaar with a cousin to buy henna. Suddenly, the Assam Rifles swooped down and shot several times in the air. And then she saw him, a maikhumbi, a dreaded informer. His face was entirely covered and he was wearing gloves. He pointed to someone, and the entire bazaar froze with fear.
Atim heard the Assam Rifles call out for Star. She knew he was her cousin Yerimayo’s mother’s tenant. She saw a woman crying, and later saw a sack in which they had put a man. They were beating him. She turned and ran all the way home.
Atim had grown up with tales of the bravery and valour of the Naga nationalists and as a child she had an admiration for these brave men and women. But then in 2005, a year after she left school and few months before she came to Delhi, an incident happened that made her angry with the NSCN.
Every year her family, like everyone else, willingly paid the house tax collected by the Naga national workers. But that year her family was going through an exceptionally bad time and when the ‘boys’ came to collect the Rs 300 as house tax they just did not have the money. However, the young men would not listen or heed their pleas, and insisted that it was their duty to support the movement. When her parents did not pay, they took away her father at gunpoint.
Atim’s mother had rushed to her village, Kalhang, which is thirty-nine kilometres from Ukhrul, and somehow raised the money and managed to free her husband. When her father returned from captivity, Atim had clung to him and asked how he had been treated. Ramyo said he was not treated badly. The Naga army boys had spent their time praying and singing. But Atim found it hard to forgive them for this act of humiliation. Atim remembered these stories when she heard the animated political talk between Mayori and her friends, and many questions came to her mind, but she did not dare ask them. She pushed them away and focused on trying to get a job.
Excerpted from ‘The Exodus is Not Over’ written by Nandita Haksar, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.
‘These [migrant] men and women are, like the Naga warriors before them, above all survivors. And this book is an ode to them.’
Economic deprivation, insurgencies and deadly ethnic clashes have driven thousands of impoverished men and women from the Northeastern region of India to seek a better life in the towns and cities of mainland India and further abroad. Some find themselves working amidst the unimaginable opulence of five-star hotels, casinos and cruises. However, for many, their jobs in Delhi, Bengaluru, Goa and other metropoles make them targets of racism, sexual harassment and class exploitation.
In response, communities of migrants discover ways of reproducing their cultures in alien soil, to act as oases in a hostile environment. And in doing so, they build bridges between communities—Nagas, Kukis, Meitei—which have been at war with each other back in the Northeast.
The Exodus Is Not Over features first-generation migrant workers from Northeast India, especially Manipur—a young schoolgirl who comes to Delhi and works long hours in a series of restaurants; her brother, whose ambitions to be a professional singer remain unfulfilled while he tries to earn his livelihood; an ambitious waiter now proudly in charge of his own restaurant in Goa, and many more. They tell their own stories of resilience in the face of exploitation and discrimination for the first time in such intimate and harrowing detail.
Nandita Haksar’s detailed understanding of the histories of the Northeast and deep respect for the people she writes about lends these narratives an added depth. Written with passion and a committed engagement, The Exodus Is Not Over provides a revealing and necessary look at the lived experiences of migrant workers today. A significant addition to migrant studies, it is a pioneering effort to document the conditions of migrant workers both in their homelands and during their quest to find work elsewhere. It is equally a story about a changing India, where globalization and development have led to a rapidly increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
About the Author:
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer. Her engagement with the people of Northeast India began while studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 1970s. She has represented the victims of army atrocities in the Supreme Court and the High Court and campaigned nationally and internationally against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In her capacity as a human rights lawyer, Haksar has helped to organize migrant workers to fight for their rights and voice their grievances. She has written innumerable articles in national dailies and journals and is the author of several books, including Nagaland File: A Question of Human Rights (co-edited with Luingam Luithui) (1984); Who Are the Nagas (2011); ABC of Naga Culture and Civilization: A Resource Book (2011); The Judgement That Never Came: Army Rule in Northeast India (co-authored with Sebastian Hongray) (2011); Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India (2013) and The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day (2015). Haksar lives in Goa, Delhi and sometimes Ukhrul, with her husband, Sebastian Hongray.