Friday, November 30, 2007

Now in Kaziranga National Park

Got to Kaziranga National Park yesterday night after 5 hours delay due to general strike by tribal people.  Woke up at 4:30am today and have since gone on two safaris.  Saw rhino, elephants, wild buffalo, deers of different kinds, monkeys, all sorts of birds and eagles, and paws of tigers.  Took alot of wonderfil photos.
Assam people are very friendly and nice.  I had many long conversations with the people here.  I went to the tourism office and ended up with long tea sessions with the director and the senior staff.  I went to a book shop and ended up with S$150 worth of books and very interesting long chats with the shop owner, who is so passionate about book business and told me all about her life and family history.
Unlike other parts of India, I had not encountered any harrassment by touts and conmen.  Things are also alot cheaper than other parts of India.  Assam people also have some Thai heritage as well, as a Thai prince came here 800 years ago and founded the first Assam kingdom.  Many tribes around here also look Chinese, and so people here thought I am Assamese too, although most non-tribal Assamese look Indian to me. 
Tomorrow, I will go to Nagaland state where the Hornbill Festival is held.  All the Naga tribes will gather in their half-naked loincloth costumes and dance and celebrate their heritage.  The Naga people look Chiense-Mongoloid and are Christians.  Their great grandfathers and ancestors were headhunters before converting to Christianity.  The Nagas and many tribal peoples in the Northeast of India don't really consider themselves as "real Indians", which accounts for the political problems in the region.  They are also better educated, as Christian missionaries that converted them set up many English medium schools in these remote mountains.   
I have already met my Naga tour guide.  Young, handsome, dresses well and speaks good English.  Could have passed off as a Singaporean if walking around Orchard Road.
OK, more after I reach Khoima, capital of Nagaland on the border with Myanmar.
Wee Cheng

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Trouble in Assam - Getting stuck

Trouble in Assam - Getting stuck
Supposed to set off for Kirziranga National Park and Nagaland on an expensive tour but still stuck at hotel. The tribals have called for general strike and no transport can move through their territory at all.  Vehicles that move are attacked and burned.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Crisis in Assam: Wee Cheng reporting the frontline from the yoni of Goddess Shakti

Crisis in Assam: Wee Cheng reporting the frontline from the yoni of Goddess Shakti



Now in Guwahati, largest city of Assam, Northeast India. Just visited the Kamakhya Temple, most sacred Hindu temple in this part of India. Legend has it that the yoni, or female sex organ of the goddess Shakti, who is the first wife of the god Shiva, fell here when her corpse disintegrated after her death.  Soldiers guarded this place, as they are seen in many places in Assam.


The state of Assam is now under high political tension. 



Firstly, over the weekend, there have been ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) separatist attacks in Upper Assam, with the aim of making Assam an independent country outside India.  Yesterday.  The ULFA is the strongest of the fifty to hundred guerilla groups in the northeast of India, and have been creating political instability in this state rich in oil and tea (yes, the famous Assam Tea).


The press also reported that rebels from the Black Widow faction of the Dima Halim Daoga (DHD) killed 8 saw mill workers in a remote district.  The DHD is a group that wants to separate North Cachar Hills from Assam to create a Dimaraji/Dimaland for the Dimasa Kachari tribe. The DHD has been holding peace talks with the Government but the Black Widow faction was against the talks.


If the above were not already bad, what dominated headlines, however, was the bloody riots and brutal suppression of demonstrations involving the Adivasi (indigenous tribal people) originally from Central India for Scheduled Tribes (ST) status, which would entitle them to various job and educational quotas. These Adivasis are descendants of indentured workers brought to Assam by British colonials to work on the tea plantations, and now also known as the "Tea Garden Tribes".  Under India's complicated affirmative action laws, these Adivasis enjoy ST status in their ancestral lands in Central India but not in Assam where they claim they have been discriminated by the native Assamese. 



The Adivasis (and their many factitious rival political organizations) continued to demonstrate in Guwahati, the state's largest city on Monday where they were attacked by Assamese civilians while police watched on. An Adivasi girl was attacked and stripped naked before being rescued, the whole episode was broadcast on national TV, which sparked off more demonstrations and riots today, as well as nationwide condemnations. Local TV report the events non-stop.  The Adivasis organizations declared that they would hold general strikes and block national highways, thus paralyzing the tea districts of Upper Assam.   The situation is not helped by the fact that the federal home affairs minister said in Parliament that "The settlers in the tea estates have tended to lose their tribal characteristics in the new surroundings," and hence the federal government would not support any reclassification of their racial status.



Hmm… would this affect my journey to the Kaziranga National Park (which lies on the edge of the tea districts) tomorrow?  Or world supply of Assam tea?


I flew here on Tuesday from Delhi.  Few tourists come to the Northeast of India.  I am one of the three on this flight.  As I walked on the streets of Guwahati, I was not harassed by touts at all – something very rare in Indian cities, especially Delhi and cities in Rajasthan.  In fact, I even felt a little left out!  I have to shout, squeeze and fight my way to buy things or to enquire for information; whereas elsewhere in India, I was mobbed by touts and conmen anxious to feed me with wrong information and overpriced deals.  Here, few people make money from tourists and so nobody gives a damn about me.



One other reason is that, there are many tribes in the Northeast who do look like me.  Though most Assamese look Indo-Aryan like rest of India, there are also who look Mongoloid or Sino-Tibetan.  Before the British colonials took over Assam in the 19th century, the region had been ruled by the Ahom, a Shan-Tai people from eastern Myanmar who spoke a language close to Thai.  The Ahom converted to Hinduism and intermarried with the local Indo-Aryan and Dravidian tribes. 


Furthermore, there are many other Mongoloid looking tribes in the hilly areas of Assam as well as the six states neighbouring Assam.  There are probably a hundred ethnic groups in the Northeast.  Historically, powers that conquered the lowlands, including the British, were not bothered about exerting their powers over the tribal areas in the hills.  Upon the independence of India, however, these areas were incorporated into the new union which immediately sprung these tribes into rebellion. 


As they are more or less peripheral to India, the insurgencies, damaging they might had been to local development, had never bothered "metro" India much.  In fact, the chances of any of these tribal rebellions succeeding are low.  The rebel groups are small and factitious, and they often split into even smaller rival groups and fight against one another.  Often, they have confusing agenda, some wanting to leave India and others to set up new states or autonomous regions within India so that they would not cohabit in the same state as a rival tribe.


Apart from the ULFA and Dimara insurgencies I mentioned above, the state of Assam alone is also fighting four guerrilla groups of the Bodo tribe who want their own state, such as the All Bodo Students Union, Bodo Volunteer Force, Bodo Liberation Tigers and National Democratic Front of Bodoland; plus other groups with diverse tribal causes such as the Karbi National Volunteer, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, Rabha National Security Force, Tiva National Revolution Force who want to set up independent countries for the Karbi, Kamtapur, Rabha and Tiva tribes respectively; and other groups such as Bengali Tiger Force, Muslim United Liberation Front and Islamic Liberation Tiger Force, whose aims are too obscure for me to find out!


Political troubles and natural disasters seemed to affect places that I visit.  Bangladesh had since suffered from a massive cyclone disaster in which thousands died.  Nepal's political crisis is continuing.  Terrorists had bombed cities in Uttar Pradesh (UP) (with many deaths) after my visi to Agra, located in UP. 



Even in Rajasthan, Taslima, a controversial Bangladeshi writer was rushed to safety in Jaipur from Kolkata where riots broke out – Muslims there were protesting against her stay in West Bengal, where she had taken refuge after being forced to leave Bangladesh for allegedly writing things deemed by some as disrespectful to Islam.  On my last day in Rajasthan, just before heading for Delhi, I was woken up by an earthquake (Richter scale 4.5) with epic-centre in neighbouring Haryana state.  I wondered if that was just my imagination and whether I should run out of the hotel room.  Didn't think about it until I read about the "Delhi earthquake" in the papers on Tuesday.


On 1 December, I will head to Nagaland to attend the annual Hornbill Festival and then to Kolkata in West Bengal.  Today's papers reported that an ex-Chief Minister of Nagaland had just survived the sixth attempt on his live and he complained that the federal government had not provided as many bodyguards as he deserved because he was a tribal, not from metro India.  In addition, Nagaland might face a new political crisis as a coalition partner in the local government has resigned.  West Bengal (WB) remains tense as the long-ruling Communist government under Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (nicknamed "Buddha") has come under attack for the brutal attack on protestors in the town of Nandigram. 



Basically, the WB government wants to turn 27,000 acres of land near Nandgram area into a special economic zone to construct plants for the Salim Group of Indonesia.  Compensation was deemed inadequate by the local residents of several villages to be flattened for the project.  WB's police killed 14 demonstrators in March 2007 after which cadres and representatives of the Communist Party were chased out by angry villagers.  On 11 November 2007, Communist Party cadres stormed the villages around Nandigram killing possibly dozens and raping many women.  They declared the villages "liberated" and then held victory parades in Kolkata.  This was condemned by the political spectrum across India and by ordinary citizens in WB.  Kolkata has since been rocked by demonstrations and riots, the latest of which prompted the deployment of Indian federal troops in downtown Kolkata. 


So, life has never been more exciting, though not helped by fact that phones from elsewhere do not roam at all in the Northeast.  I'm going to suffer from mobile withdrawal syndromes.


Anyway, do stay tuned on to Wee Cheng's live report from exciting and Incredible India!






Wee Cheng

News Reports - Political Crisis in Northeast India

Monday, November 26, 2007

North India: Journey Through the Cow Belt


North India: Journey Through the Cow Belt

Dear All,

Since 10 November, I have been in Northern India, the Hindi heartland of India, often known as the Cow Belt, for the very reverence for the sacred cow in Hinduism which meant that one finds the cow everywhere, even in city centres and otherwise chic areas. Up till last night, I had actually written a few pages of a travel account and observations but unfortunately, the file had corrupted and I could only circulate this short note at present. In any case, please visit for the many photos of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan taken over the last few weeks.

In Delhi and Agra, I visited the many monuments built during the Moghul period, including the Taj Mahal, now among the New Wonders of the World. The Moghul Empire was the last of the pan-Indian empires before British colonials came. The Moghul emperors had Mongol (hence the name) and Central Asian roots, were Muslims but had mostly Hindu mothers, and were renowned for their (mostly) tolerant religious outlook which led to the renaissance of a hybrid Hindu-Islamic civilization.


I passed through the new satellite city of Gurgaon located just across the border in Haryana state. Multinationals and Indian corporates had long given up on reforming the bureaucracy to revive the messiness of India's metropolis. Instead of rebuilding new infrastructure in old cities, new cities have been built on farmland, some of which were built in recently declared Special Economic Zones, in an effort to circumvent complicated and employer-unfriendly laws. Factories, logistic centres, glass towers and gigantic shopping malls have risen from nowhere in places like Gurgaon and Noida. We wanted to visit these places and their malls, to see what New India is like. Unfortunately, our selfish, calculative drivers (which was another whole new story by itself) were reluctant to bring us there, perhaps due to their inability to collect commissions and kickbacks if we shop and eat there, due to the transparency and openness of such malls. But transparency and fairness is what New India lacks and needs.

Sharing the roads with cows, goats, camels and suicidal drivers, I then spent just under 2 weeks in the state of Rajasthan, on the western border with Pakistan. Rajasthan, literally "Land of Kings", is inhabited by the Rajputs (literally "sons of kings"), a people with a proud military history and a staunch warrior code not significantly different from the code of chivalry found among feudal knights of European Middle Ages.



Over the last thousand years, Rajput prince-warriors, more accurately and perhaps contemporarily described as "military entrepreneurs", launch raids and expeditions from their desert homeland to various parts of India, where they founded countless city states. They were seldom united and often fought among themselves and with others. Whenever they encountered formidable enemies whom they thought defeat was certain, they would perform the jauhar, or ritual mass suicide. Women and children immolated themselves while men wore saffron robes and rode out to meet the enemies.


With the enforced peace that prevailed during the era of the British Indian Empire (also known as the "Raj") - yes, after the British defeated a few Rajput kingdoms convincingly and persuaded the rest that acceptance of British supremacy was the way to go – the Rajput Maharajas built magnificent and opulent palaces that reflected mixed influences from their ancient Hindu heritage, Islamic-Moghul former overlords and the exuberant new European taste brought to India by the British or brought home by Maharajas themselves after their grand European tours.

In Rajasthan, I visited the cities of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner, which were all capitals of once-powerful warrior states. The old royal families, who merged their kingdom with India in 1947 (when India became independent), had converted their grand palaces and monumental desert fortresses into museums and luxury hotels, which together with Taj Mahal, are today gems of the Indian tourism industry. These families, who previously had the power of life and death over millions of people, have transformed themselves into wealthy hoteliers and guardians of an ancient heritage. The palace museums that they run, are certainly a lot better maintained and visitor-friendly than those monuments owned by the Indian Government's Archeological Survey of India, which are dilapidated and bare.



I went to the small desert oasis city of Pushkar and its sacred lake, during the world-renowned Camel Fair. A few hundred thousand Hindu pilgrims descended in Pushkar to pray and bath in its holy waters, and camel and cattle traders from all over India gathered here to trade and have fun. It was spectacular and certainly a feast for the eyes.






I also visited the beautiful Jain temples of Ranakpur and learned more about this small religious sect which had only 4 million adherents and yet controlled a much greater proportion of private wealth in India. In the village of Khuri near Jaisalmer, I rode camels to the sand dunes to watch sunset. I saw army trucks and tanks on maneuver in this remote desert region, less than 50km from the border with politically unstable Pakistan.





From Bikaner, I visited the Shekhawati region, famous for its wall murals and huge mansions; and Karni Mata Temple of Deshnok, better known as the "Rat Temple", where crowds worshipped the thousands of rats running around the temple. While I hopped around barefoot (compulsory to remove all footwear here) and rather nervously to avoid physical contact with any of these sacred creatures, many worshippers prostrated in front of the rat holes and chanted loudly for their prayers to be granted.


Tomorrow, I will fly to Guwahati and visit the states of Assam and Nagaland in North East India. These two states, together with Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura, are known as the Seven Sisters. Almost cut off from the heartland of India except for a small corridor just north of Bangladesh, these states have cultures which are quite distinctive. Many of the indigenous tribes who live here actually look more Southeast Asian or Sino-Tibetan than Indo-Aryan which is typical of the Indian heartland. Not surprisingly, many people here also do not consider themselves Indian, and since 1947, parts of the region have been in a state of constant rebellion.

In Assam, I will visit the Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one-horn rhinoceros, and then spend five days in Nagaland during the Hornbill Festival, when the many Naga tribes gather to sing, dance and celebrate their heritage. Formerly a headhunting people wearing grass skirts, the Nagas converted to Christianity 50 years ago, although the last headhunting incident reportedly took place in the 1960s.

Today, local press reported guerrilla attacks in parts of rural Assam and Maoist and Islamic riots had broken out in nearby Kolkata during the week. It does seem that places get exciting whenever I visit them.

That's all from me. I will write more when I have the time. In the meantime, feel free to drop me your messages.


Wee Cheng

New Delhi