Conducting interviews with armed rebel leaders, going undercover as a heroin smuggler, controlling his bowels on a bumpy 4-hour drive without medication – That’s all part and parcel for Avalok Langer, who’s only real fear would seem to be riding pillion on a bike, and who can blame him? The last time he did that in the Northeast, the bike fell and he busted his leg!
Avalok Langer is a conflict journalist, which means he consciously deep dives into the belly of the beast – be it war zones, riots or areas wracked by kidnapping and extortion.
Strangely enough, Avalok works in my office, and finding out about the kinds of things he’s seen and experienced was truly a revelation. His stomping grounds are the Northeast of India, where he spent considerable time studying the plethora of underground movements who have been fighting for sovereignty. His need to work in this unusual field stemmed mostly from being forced to break it off with his Naga lover, as her family would not accept an outsider. From his time there, he’s developed keen insight into the complex and unique nature of the struggles in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
In the course of his work, he came across some of the most ruthless and polarising figures in the underground movements of the Northeast.
One of the most harrowing accounts would have to be his meeting with Julius from the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), a militant organisation in Meghalaya. Julius speaks with passion and dedication about their cause, and also has a great smile. However, things take a turn for the ominous when he recounts how the HNLC would do ‘social favours’ by shooting rapists non fatally, or piercing a lock through their earlobes and throwing away the key.
The story of Julius with the great smile ends with the revelation that he had raped a minor. The nonchalance of this sudden statement gives it all the more gravitas.
Keep in mind, the entire time Avalok was doing this, he also had to deal with the ‘outsider’ tag, as well as an evident language barrier.
However, gaining relevant insight into the workings of a movement are worth it, especially from the likes of B.K. Hrangkhawl, former militant leader of tripura National Volunteers (TNV). His reason for fighting was to bring back tribal land which was forcibly taken after massive Bengali migration into Tripura.
B.K. was arrested and severely tortured in prison – his cell was a toilet, he was pissed and shat on and not allowed to bathe.
But he had achieved his ends – to get national focus on the issues he brought up. He gave up violence as he believed armed struggle works against the people over time. The reason for fighting was to get the government’s attention, and once that was done, there was no longer a need for violence.
As Avalok says –
“What is the point of creating more militant groups if the very people you fight for suffer…”
Work like this isn’t just physically trying, it’s also mentally intimidating. Case in point, his interview with a convicted terrorist.
The time he interviewed terrorist Ranjan Daimary, jailed leader of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), he had to keep in mind the fact that they had picked 22 Hindi speaking people at random and shot them point blank as revenge for the death of one of their own. And yet here he was, in the same town, speaking to the person in charge of the atrocity.
In another instance straight out of an adventure flick, he was crossing over the border from Moreh, Manipur to Myanmar to meet the underground who are trained there. Instead, the guide who took him there used him as an excuse to get into Myanmar to smuggle diamonds!
In fact, Avalok’s entire Northeast saga is filled with not just experience, but also with poignant lessons in the functioning of the human psyche, of politics, and of the lifespan of movements.
In an unnamed village in Manipur, he had to pretend to be attending a wedding in order to get a first-hand look at the acres of drug fields harvesting weed and opium, and speak to the people in charge.
The Naga areas in Manipur, Eastern Nagaland and Arunachal are hubs for top quality opium. It is big business with profits for the underground, local cartels, cultivators, excise department, police and even the Indian army.
However, on meeting Samson, he found him to be more like the village greybeard than a drug lord. Samson informed him that they sell what they do because there is no infrastructure to farm anything else, and government apathy can only be tolerated for so long.
In Manipur, a kilo of high quality marijuana goes for Rs. 250, by the time it reaches Nagaland it could be Rs. 1000 a kilo, and in Delhi, it would be Rs. 100 for 20 gms.
Going undercover is always risky business, which is why his interaction with a top-level female heroin smuggler was so intense.
Pretending to be businessmen, Avalok and a local associate offered to help transport heroin from Manipur to Nagaland, and were informed that the drug is bought at Rs. 14 lakh a kilo, and sold at Rs. 16 lakh a kilo. Information received, they hastily made their exit by proffering an excuse, before their cover was blown and something untoward happened.
In the murky and multi-faceted world of the underground, one false move can have devastating consequences. Sitting through the initial tension of meeting rebel leaders in dimly lit rooms, not knowing the next move, constantly steeling your nerves, it can all be a little overwhelming. However, the work is necessary, as it affords an understanding of why political leaders and governments keep the insider vs. outsider rhetoric alive – it helps to control and rule over people if you divide them.
Now, Avalok’s written a tell-all book aptly titled, In Pursuit of Conflict. India as a whole has spent decades being consciously ignorant of the Northeast for reasons unknown, and Avalok’s book is a much needed look into the workings of the drug trade, the political strife and complex history of the Seven Sisters. It’s a dangerous job, but someone’s gotta do it.