Citizenship in Assam (and a sudden change of plan)

I caught my short, afternoon flight back to Guwahati to be met by my previous guide, Gopal (Baby Imram) with some good news and some bad news. The good news was that, if I was prepared to set off immediately for a four hour drive, I could be accommodated at the luxurious River View Game Lodge in Kaziranga National Park. The bad news was that I would be imprisoned there for 20 hours since an all out strike from 5am to 5pm had been called for the following day, nothing would be open and state-wide political unrest would make any traffic on the roads a potential target for mob violence.

“Yes please”: get me out of the populous capital of Assam with all due haste and so we set off straight away, without so much as a bathroom break or a cup of tea. It seemed as if thousands of other people must have had the same idea because the traffic was terrible. Gopal, who had been redirected on the way to the airport to take me on this trip without even stopping to collect a toothbrush, attempted to explain. In 2016 the ruling BGP had passed legislation to re-locate all the Hindus currently living in Bangladesh and Pakistan to India with the intention of settling most of them in Assam. Despite the fact that this is a predominantly Hindu state, there has been a great deal of conflict in the past between the native Assamese and successive waves of Bengali refugees who have migrated out of Bangladesh via Calcutta. How much hostility they now encounter appears to depend on how many generations this journey has taken and how much paperwork they have to prove it.

If this latest mass re-settlement were to be achieved, millions of Bengali people would be imposed upon an often recalcitrant population and thereby reverse the voting preferences of the state in one single exercise. When you are in power in the world’s largest democracy you may be tempted to undertake the world’s largest exercise in gerrymandering. There have been so many outbreaks of sectarian violence in India since the Partition that many of us find it difficult to remember which was which but the massacre at Nellie in 1982 claimed as many as ten thousand lives and no-one has ever been held to account. I doubt that a one day strike, however many people turn out for it, will be the end of the matter.

In other news: the world’s largest human statue (a decidedly unattractive 182 meter figure of Vallabhbhai Patel) has just been completed at Narmada on the west coast of India and 10% of the lions of Girnar have died of a mysterious illness in the last couple of weeks. Perhaps somebody should tell the ever-more-ostentatious people of Gujarat to re-examine their priorities. After all, the Asiatic lion is the symbol of India and, with its tiny wild population squeezed down to a single reserve in Gir, such losses could well be catastrophic. Whether this looming extinction is the fault of the locals or not, no inanimate colossus (however costly) is going to get them off the hook. Further afield we have October blizzards in the UK the like of which I have not experienced in my lifetime and a climate change denying kleptocracy still in power in the White House.

We finally arrived at the Game Lodge just after 10pm to find that I was the only guest. At least six members of staff were there to greet us and accompany me to my luxurious bamboo cabin on stilts; “with a view of the river from your balcony ma’am, just like William and Kate”. As well as keeping Grahame appraised of my progress, numerous phone calls back and forth had also established that I would not be hungry and would like only a light, vegetarian supper. This was duly produced in the “rustic yet elegant” dining room but somewhat marred by the over-attentive waiter watching every mouthful as I raised it to my lips and then hurrying over to refill my plate every few moments. It was extremely considerate of my travel organisers to put me up here but I can’t say that it was really my kind of place. At least Gopal was able to join me for dinner (grubby t-shirt and all) but we had, of course, first taken the trouble to establish that our very tired driver was comfortably accommodated in the staff quarters.

The following day (after madam had declined most of the items on the breakfast menu) I sat on the balcony overlooking one of the little tributaries of the Brahmaputra where it made a break in the jungle landscape and worked on my travel notes. Soon I had to exchange my planter-style cane recliner for a straight backed chair and was anxious to be away but, just in time, Gopal arrived to tell me that it would be alright to venture out and visit Imram’s family in the nearby village. There, I handed over my gifts and we had a simple lunch. The sisters were less shy without the men around and it became apparent that they had a great deal more understanding of English than they had let on last year. Thankfully this broke up the day for me and by 5pm it was safe to make the four hour road journey to Sibsagar where Grahame was waiting to meet me.

We had another day’s sightseeing in this ancient Ahom capital to catch up on what we’d missed last year but first I insisted on taking Grahame back to the Sivadol Mandir to get his Kalava (red wrist thread) changed because he’d been wearing the same one for eleven months. I replaced mine as well (ladies wear them on the opposite wrist) but as I did last year I will only keep it on until I am safely home. The triple-towered temple, built by one of the Ahom queens in the early eighteenth century to honour the gods Durga, Shiva and Vishnu, looked much less forbidding in the daylight and it was possible to see that the sinister, twisted leaves which we’d been able to make out emerging from the dark waters of the lake were in fact just plain old water hyacinths.

The attractive, seven storey red brick summer palace of Kareng Ghar at Simalugiri a few kilometres outside the city is of similar age but the following morning, on our way to Nagaland, we stopped of at the Charaidio maidams (burial pyramids) which date from the 13th century. This means that the Ahom Kingdom was a great deal more important and longer lived than I had previously understood. We heard a few stories about waves of Mogul conquerors such as Mir Jumla, a general in the armies of the infamous Aurangzeb, who not only failed to take the capital on multiple occasions but retired to die like so many of his soldiers of the effects of local diseases to which they had no resistance. Perhaps this helps to account for some of the cultural differences between this region and the rest of India but, whatever the case, it was now time for us to head off into a region with an even fiercer reputation for resistance.

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