East Himalaya

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Indo-Burma/Myanmar relations

It is any day; the new Government will take over the reins, a change which Myanmar will be witnessing after 25 years. It is time when the enlightened Buddhist Monks will have to help the Government in building a just and empowered society, not divided by class, creed and religion. The military, which will continue to look after Home, Defence and Borders will need to show more efficiency and dedication in their work to serve the cause of making the democracy of Myanmar meaningful.
Many of us may not realize that Myanmar tops the list in WGI (World Giving Index) among the 145 nations based on the criteria of the percentage of people donating for charity, volunteering their time and those helping strangers. Hence, we must understand, it is not about how resource rich you are, it is all about how much you are deep rooted in your tradition through compassion.
 Siliguri. 12th of November, 2015: Today, the day after Diwali, when we should have cleaned our souls and through the festival of light have enlightened the world, it is also time to look to our neighbours. Only a month before was Durga Puja or Dusshera, a major festival where people celebrate to victory of good over the evil. This year I decided to be in Myanmar the Durga Pujas. Only the Myanmar Indians and Gorkhas were involved in Durga Puja, the rest of Myanmar was busy discussing the legendary November 8th elections and now results of the National Elections at Myanmar has been declared, which is the second major step towards expectations for an almost complete democracy. It is the entire world looking forward to the political developments in this Land of Gold. With India and her ACT East Policy, how much are we concerned with the developments in Myanmar? The Bihar Election results have been declared quite some days ago and we are still discussing the engagement of our western neighbour, Pakistan in it, in all media, local, regional, National or Chai (Tea). How much are we concerned about the long Indo-Nepal border along Bihar and the latest happenings there?
We share more than 1600kms with Myanmar. Along with East Himalaya, Indo-Burma is another Biodiversity Hotspot, the least explored among the 08 Biodiversity Hotspots of the World. The forests on both sides of the border are also the hotspots for anti-National groups for both countries, India and Myanmar, whose presence have caused irreparable damage to wildlife and nature resources in the region. While trying to create a proposal of Mishmi Community Conservation Reserve and Tangsa Community Conservation Reserve in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh, I have experienced that the natural resource of the Indian side, which continues to the Myanmar side are probably the last frontiers of primary habitat in the world. Someone needs to address this common issue and why not “ACT East”.
It was during the Dihing-Patkai Festival several years ago, the first engagement with the Stilwell Road started, after which there was no looking back. The Ledo Road through Jairampur and Nampong, leads to Pangsau Pass and further to ‘Lake of No Return’ (Nawng Yang) via Pangsaung village in Myanmar. Maturing from the Dihing-Patkai Festival, I became an active part in organizing the Pangsau Pass Winter Festival on behalf of Help Tourism. The initial years it was more of pushing cars on the red muddy roads, but now it is black topped National Highway. This is a historical and mythological route which was used for ages by many Tai communities who reached through this route to settle and make what is India’s Northeast today. Not long back, during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar during World War II, thousands and millions of Indians, Anglo-Indians, Indo-Burmese and Europeans in then Burma, now Myanmar, escaped to India through this route. Several of their family members and friends died in the journey. The sacrifice of lives by Indians, Chinese, Africans, Elephants, Horses/Mules while building this road can only be remembered when we chance upon a cemetery ground lost in the forests in this route. The dream of Northeast India to drive this road from Dibrugarh-Ledo to Kunming via Myitkyina continues.
During my recent trip to Myitkyina from Mandalay, I was quite astonished to see the elaborate Hindu Temple beside the Ayeyarawady (Irrawaddy) river. I doubt, I have seen such a temple in India. It was Durga Puja time and the whole community of Indian origin seemed to be there, celebrating the festival. The Gorkha people of Nepali origin also seemed to participate in large numbers. From several online sites, I got an idea that there are more than 9,00,000 Myanmarese Indians and 5,00,000 Myanmarese Gorkhas. Most of them are decedents of people who served British India in Myanmar or who fought for India’s Independence as INA (Indian National Army). The people of Indian origin in Myanmar owe their roots to almost all states of India and for people from India’s Northeast, it is almost a cross-border continuity. It is time when all of us in India and Nepal must try and look into Myanmar and connect to the people, who are part of the family.
Buddhism has tied us together for more than 2500 years: Myanmar, Nepal and India. Every step that you take in Myanmar has some or the other relation to Buddha. Kings, traders and people in general has nurtured this relation for thousands of years, which cannot be wiped off all of a sudden. Even till recently, Dr.Shayama Prashad Mookherjee, during his tenure in the first Independent India Government and as the President of the Mahabodhi Society kept close relations with Myanmar.
INA’s Burma Campaign, the development of the armed revolution for an Independent India saw the tri-colour flag of Independent India in Moirang, Manipur as early as in 1944 under the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. A leader, who was often referred to as ‘the light of Asia’, was a close part of Burma, now Myanmar. Along with the Burmese National Army, he has worked on many frontiers against the British and Allied Army. The INA (Indian National Army) battalions which fought with their headquarters in what is now Yangon, and battles like the “longest opposed river crossing of World War II as described by Field Marshall Slim” near Bagan and the hill retreat of Netaji at May Myo, now Pyin Oo Lwin, the Bungalow of the Bombay-Burma Teak (Timber?) Company are still to be recognized through a Indo-Myanmar relation.
In this century of Asia, it is India’s Northeast which will lead the way, Myanmar will be our next home and India will be the second home for the people of Myanmar. It has been a continuous endeavour for our organization, Indo-Myanmar Fraternal Alliance, based at Imphal in Manipur to run missionary road trips from Manipur to different places of Myanmar to confirm better understanding between the people of Myanmar and India.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Aye mere watan ke logo... The Heritage of Nationalism

Thi khun se lath path kaaya, phir bhee banduk uthaake
 Das das ko ek ne maara, phir gir gaye hosh ganvaake
 Jab ant samay aaya toh - 2, kah gaye ke abb marate hain
 Khush rahana desh ke pyaaro - 2, (abb ham toh safar karate hain) - 2
 Kya log the woh diwaane, kya log the woh abhimaani
 Jo shahid huye hain unaki, jara yaad karo kurbaani
 Tum bhul naa jaao unako, iss liye kahee yeh kahaani
 Jo shahid huye hain unaki, jara yaad karo kurbaani
How many of us have tried to read about the making of India, the root of the thought process of one nation, which came through the Indian Freedom Movement. The words like Anushilan Samiti, Jugantar, Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, Kotwal Dasta, Halagali, India House, Gadar Party and Berlin Committee hardly rings any bells in my ears. On this 100th year of MARTYRDOM of Baghajatin, I feel guilty of not being a part of the same. The best part is that the 4th MCCS Gitanjali Mango Festival, which was held at Siliguri a few months back, was dedicated to this sacrifice of the legendary Jatindranath Mukherjee, popularly Baghajatin, for his sacrifice for Indian Freedom, where he said “Aamra Morbo, Jagat jagbey” translated means “as we die, the world will realize”, realize the importance of freedom of India from the then British rule. On the 9th of September, 1915, he and his 04 companions were encountered at Chashakhand in Balasore District of Odisa. Baghajatin could not survive the fatal injuries which he received while fighting with the large contingent of Government forces and died on 10th of September, 1915 at Balasore Hospital.
We all know the famous Siliguri Town Station incident of 1908, when he handled 03 British soldiers along with an officer for mishandling a poor old Indian lady, bare handed, he knocked them down. This station is a part of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the only World Heritage Site of the Sikkim and North Bengal. Many enlightened people still take pride in taking selfies here. Most of such enlightened citizens feel that this old station should be restored as a World Heritage Site dedicated to Baghajatin.
 We all are busy, we all have the freedom of work, speech and action under a free nation’s constitution. Many a times we forget to remember our great freedom fighters, who thought about one nation, one India or Bharat.
Aye mere vatan ke logon, jara aankh me bhar lo paani
Jo shahid huye hain unaki, jara yaad karo kurbaani

This action of starting the 100 Years of Baghajatin's Martyrdom from the Mango Festival at Siliguri was initiated by Institute of Social & Cultural Studies, who brought the soil (mati) from the places, where Baghajatin fought to death at Chasakhand, Odisa in India and his place of birth Kaya Gram, Kustia in present Bangladesh.
The inauguration was attended by several personalities from India and Bangladesh and a committee for North Bengal was formed, keeping in view Baghajatin's connection with Darjeeling and Siliguri.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Explore Sikkim: Namthang Villages & Namchi Connections

I often do not understand that when I fall in love with a place, she has something to do with the sun. Last time the place was Namthang in East Sikkim. Nam means sun and thang means place or habitat. This is a new road which ascends from Melli Bazaar, immediately after the check-post and goes towards Namchi, Namthang is between, almost 45 minutes either ways. As per the Sikkimese tradition, the boy and the girl in love runs away from the house has to return to Namthang, where the parents of both sides will be called and the marriage will be fixed, and hence considered to be one of the most auspicious places to start life.

It is not alone about Namthang, but the cluster of villages, which are surrounded by forests, view-points, lakes and organic agricultural fields. The top of Namthang is a high forest overlooking the snow-capped peaks of the Mt.Khangchendzonga range. Many years ago, when people could hardly access this area, a monk from Bhutan (Druk Yul) came and meditated here. Learning about his powers, people slowly started visiting him, but only the blessed could do so. Finally when he left, it is believed that he hid all the treasures in the two small lakes at the top, which he left to two large King Cobras to guard them. Hence, the name Nagi Pokhari, pokhari meaning lake. Realising the importance of the area, since last year the local tourism committee started with the “Nagi Pokhari Tourism & Organic Festival”. This year again the Festival is starting on 31st of December, 2015 and will be there for 03 days.
The other places of interest would be the Holy cave of the Lepchas, Palitam. The local agriculture office offers interesting hands-on training in organic farming from 03 days to 02 weeks duration. The bamboo craft and candle making groups from the area has created sensation in Sikkim with their skills. For Birdwatchers, this is paradise, especially from the river beds of Rangit to the top of Nagi, which is 6000 feet plus, the Kitam Bird Sanctuary is a part. A very rare, but interesting trek routes exists between Namthang to Tendong Hill. Magajung, the place known for the historic war is a natural hub. The Ghanti Dara, the Samten Choeling Lepcha monastery, the tiny hamlet of Phongla and above all the culture of the people can be explored at Namthang. The Tamang Dance from Maniram has earned a name for themselves, nationally. The best part of the Namthang experience is that the only kinds of accommodation are Homestays with the local people.
Namchi is a deep rooted part of my journey, as my first exploration of Sikkim in Help Tourism, started with Nature Study and Adventure Camps for school children, where there were 02 National camps held at Namchi and 02 at Karfecter, near Namchi. The only accommodation at Namchi then was the Youth Hostel with a soccer ground beside it. A beautiful trek route, nature trail and rock-climbing site was found for the campers. The then tiny Bazaar or market place was on the other side and there was hardly of any need. Today it almost seems to be of the size of the Jorethang Bazaar or market and the places of interest developed around are some of the replicas of the most important Shiva temples of India, known as Char Dhaam (the four Holy Shrines of Lord Shiva).
Guru Rimpoche, popularly known as Guru Padmasambhava, the great soul who sowed the seed of Buddhism in the high Himalayan and Tibetan plateau region has been put as a high statue (118 feet tall) in the sky as Samdruptse. Not very far away, about 03 kms from the junction of Damthang is the Indian Himalayan Centre for Adventure and Ecotourism (IHCAE) of Chemchey. Within half an hour drive from Chemchey is Ravangla, which now houses the world famous Tathagath Sthal or Buddha Park. The best part about Namchi is that she has evolved as one of largest Convention centres in East Himalaya, with some of the finest accommodating hotels, natural eco-resorts along with authentic Homestays. The journey can continue to the only tea estate of Sikkim, Temi or to Ralong and Borong. But I still need to explore the route from South to North Sikkim...

Sunday, March 8, 2015


A poster from Snehargo and copyright with Association for Conservation & Tourism (ACT)
Tshering Dukpa was the last dak runner between the Buxa Duar Post Office and Buxa Road Station, next to today’s 28th Mile village. The railway connectivity, which started as the Bengal Dooars Railway under British India, continued in this area till about 1981-82 as part of Northeast Frontier Railway. Also Indian Postal service network then, one of the largest and most far reaching to the remotest areas of the country had reached Buxa Duar and it was Tshering Dukpa’s duty to take the Dak (mail) between the last Railway Station to the mountains of Sinchula Range. There was a time when the Post offices were the only connectivity to the world outside through telegrams, letters, banking, telephone and free advice (from Postmasters, most of the time who were the only educated person of the area where they were posted), but almost all of these services are endangered or extinct today.
After the Duars War between the British East India Company and the mighty Bhutan (Dukpa) King, the British in their imperialistic and trading interest took over the 18 Duars, the then rich revenue source for trade between the Rice Route terminal in the Chittagong area and the Silk Route terminal in Bumthang area. These were the land routes which started from the last navigable points of the Mountain Rivers, which went and met the Brahmaputra. The Dukpa community then would have dominated the ruins of forts now found in Chilapata and Chiknajhar in North of West Bengal and Bodoland in Assam. The ruins of the fort of Buxa now, were no exception then. The architecture, food, dress and archery of the villages in the area, are still proofs of the Dukpa connect.
Coming to the Post Office of Buxa Duar, this was the Commandant quarter, which was part of the Division office in 1879, on the cantonment road. This was post the 1865 Duar War and Sinchula Treaty. The Dukpa villages stayed on in the British India territory. The area gradually flourished, mainly in the foothills and places like Kalchini, Hamilton, Samuktala, Kumargram etc came into prominence and till late they were known for Tularam Yadav, the transporter, Damchee Lama, the Director of Hillman Trading Company and Chiranjee Lal Chamaria, the planter and many such great personalities of Central Dooars. Tea Gardens developed in the area, the ones owned by Britishers were known as ‘Saheb Bagans’ and the ones by Indians as ‘Babu Bagans’.

It is because of the Tea Gardens, Hasimara was the main Air Terminal, which is presently a Defence Air Terminal under Indian Air Force. I often heard about the legendary Bhatpara Central Hospital, where the Dakota Medical Cargos landed at Achapara to renew medicine stock for the planters and administrators. Even a generation ago, the legend about the medical retail shop at Banarhat, established by Sailesh Chandra Chowdhury, Mukherjee & Chowdhury Brothers, was known to have medicines, which was even not available in Kolkata. Jainti, Raidak, Rajabhatkhawa, Bhutan Ghat, Raimatang and Buxa Forests were well known hunting grounds. The planters, administrators and several business men were given permit to hunt even till the late 1960s.

Alipurduar, very recently from being a sub-divisional town has transformed to be the District Headquarters named after this town. This was cut out of Jalpaiguri and most of central Dooars is now under Alipurduar District. Post Independence, the evolution was on a completely new track. Buxa Fort gradually lost its importance with time, the fort converted as jail for Indian Freedom Fighters, became the Tibetan Refugee Camp between 1959 to 1969. After, the Dolamite and Lime mining of the Buxa Hills, headquartered at Jainti was stopped to create the Buxa Tiger Reserve, intellectuals from Alipurduar to Kolkata kept visiting Buxa Fort or Buxa Duar, mainly because of Hari Shankar Thapa, a man who stayed at the fort and kept alive the light of Indian Nationalism and Indian Freedom Movement.

His nephew, Tara Shankar Thapa, started with the first Homestay of Dooars at Rajabhatkhawa, known as Gracilips. He and his wife still continue to run this homestay without compromising on the authenticity. Even Hari Shankar Thapa’s son has converted the house into a homestay. An interaction with him will remind the older generation who knew the enthusiastic Naya Bayun or popularly Joe. The major stake today for the people in the western part of Buxa Tiger Reserve is Tourism, all developed in a very local style, because of the lack of other respectable livelihood or even patronization from the Tiger Reserve administration.
The Buxa Tiger Reserve administration is mostly against any improvement in the lives of the villagers living in the area, even the Dukpa villages, which have been there for time unknown. I remember a Field Director, who on a Sunday Church day chopped down the orange trees of the orange orchards of the particular Hill village, which was the only livelihood of the people. This livelihood was so ancient; that the foothill area, where the oranges were brought in the season, came to be known as Santrabari (Santra in English translates as Orange). The impact was so extreme that a rich patch of canopy forest which connected Buxa with Chilapata through Poro was lost overnight.

This kind of high handedness still continues. We have seen how Field Directors, who had counted 25 plus tigers at the Reserve has become an expert on Big Cats, internationally. Many of the experts today say that there were never so many numbers since the Tiger Reserve was formed. The villagers challenge that there is not a single Tiger, or else there would be cattle lifting. Millions of dollars have come to the administration to ensure micro developments for the communities living in the Tiger Reserve. Since, 2010, a notice has been given by the Tiger Reserve administration to most of the villagers in Western side of Buxa Tiger Reserve to vacate their villages against Rs.10 lakh per family. The plan also includes uprooting the Dukpa and other hill communities from the Hills and settling them in the plains besides the roads has been provided as a solution by the Forest Minister and the Wildlife Board, as announced in the media recently.
If you have read this article and feel that you should step out from the comforts of your four walls and live for weeks with the BTR villagers, to understand them and stand beside them, the time to now. The same request is to the members of the Wildlife Board too.
My connect with Buxa and Central Dooars is not very old and authentic like many others who have been born and brought up in the area. My intimacy started in the late 1980s as a Research Assistant for Tiger Reserves, followed by the first Guide Training Program at Jainti (probably the first ecotourism guides in West Bengal), then Rural Tourism motivation programs for villages and finally, the most intimate is through the CDEF (Central Duars Eco-Fest), which is more recent.