The way to Hebron is through Beverly Hills.

Were you to travel south from Dimapur towards Kohima, the turn comes at the 5th Mile, a mile after Diphupar Gate. The way to Camp Hebron, NSCN-IM’s [the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah] main ‘ceasefire’ base, general headquarter for its civilian administration and military, or Oking, is through a district of plush farmhouses redolent of similar places in and around New Delhi. To local wags ‒ and in Nagaland, most residents I come by appear to have a sense of humour born of living in a whirl of conflict, corruption and politics ‒ the area is known as Beverly Hills. It’s a code for where the fat cats, both established and arriviste, take up residence. Often, their second. Sometimes, third, even fourth.

Around the tenth century AD, as I learnt from an Archaeological Survey of India brochure, this area along the Dhansiri River that marks the eastern boundary of present-day Dimapur was settled by the Kachari tribe. According to the Archaeological Survey, the name Dimapur is derived from ‘di’, ‘ma’ and ‘pur’, together adding up to mean ‘the great town on the bank of the river’.

It still is for some, I see as I pass several grand estates of Beverly Hills, enclosed by walls and imposing gates. I pass Rio Villa, named after Nagaland’s chief minister. His family owns major real estate holdings in a handsome radius around Dimapur, including two major ‘resorts’; I have visited both. One even has a public-funded waterway, part of an irrigation project, running through it, and a motor launch to take visitors sightseeing. If nothing else, it exemplifies creative use of money.

The landscape is less typically Nagaland and more typically Assam, as it were, with fields of paddy and small forested patches, houses of mud and thatch. These plains, with occasional bands of badlands carved by long-dissipated rivers and rivulets, were scythed out of the state of Assam and awarded to Nagaland when it was given the status of a state of India in 1963. And the long-dormant Dimasa people of the area had yet another set of overlords after the British and the Assamese.

The journey is along winding roads, moving steadily deeper to the southwest, abutting both the homeland of the Zeliangrong tribe in Nagaland and Karbi Anglong district of Assam. After fifteen minutes, the complete absence of police becomes evident; and even paramilitary and army personnel and vehicles. No patrols, no convoys. By tacit understanding, this is NSCN-IM territory, and ‘sanitized’ by its forces, as more than one insider has told me.

Every now and then an off-roader goes past me in either direction, many of these being Maruti Gypsys and Mahindra SUVs popular in these parts, mainly the Bolero and Scorpio models. Most vehicles are without number plates. Security, secrecy, chutzpah ‒ whatever.

The clusters of hamlets thin and, eventually, there are none.

After an hour, I come upon Camp Hebron. There is a security post by a large Naga-style gate with a barrier across it. A Naga Army cadre, in camouflage combat gear and carrying an AK-47 rifle, welcomes me with a smile, and checks my ID. My host, Captain Akhan, the adjutant of the camp, is reached on a mobile phone to verify our appointment. It is early afternoon.

The camp is set on a series of knolls, and we follow this topography as we drive without Naga Army escort. We pass a series of neat huts along narrow but well-tarred roads, with neat signs pointing the way to the administration office, offices of various kilonser, or ministers, and similar signs that mark a well-laid-out camp. A sign guides me to the GHQ ‒ general headquarters ‒ of NSCN-IM. It’s an acronym I find easier to use than the organization’s formal name, NSCN/GPRN. It helps me avoid confusing them with their rivals, the Khaplang and Unification factions, which have for the moment coalesced into NSCN (Unification), and use as their acronym, GPRN/NSCN. The different word orders legitimize claims by both factions of the Naga armies run by these organizations; the apex Nationalist Socialist Councils of Nagalim run by both; and the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim (the root of the acronym, GPRN), also claimed by both.

On such confounding subtleties are battles fought for Nagalim.

From even this gentle height it is easy to see that the site is well chosen. Ravines and defiles mark the extremities of the camp, which is mostly on a rise, unlike the relative flatlands at the ceremonial gate. On three sides are dense forests, but the areas nearest to the camp are cleaned of foliage, forming a figurative moat that offers both visibility and denies concealment to intruders.

Lookouts can scan the surrounding countryside for several miles.

Over and above this line-of-sight, this Naga Army prides itself on its networking.

‘How good is your intel for movements of the army and security forces, and major tip-offs?’ I had asked a top NSCN-IM officer.

He had replied, deadpan: ‘About half an hour ahead of the (Indian) army.’

Indian Army and police officials freely admit to the networking and intelligence-gathering prowess of their on-ceasefire foes, who use far lower-tech methods than the ‘jungle drums’ available to India’s security forces, intelligence services and police ‒ for instance, their ability to listen in on conversations. The Naga armies have their own, ear-to-the-ground methods. The reason is quite simple, really: the Naga armies have held out this long, during war with India and the relative absence of it, because they have the home advantage.

Two young, sharp-eyed and stern-faced IM cadres, one of them a girl, stop me at another checkpoint. There are no smiles here for me, just a businesslike inspection of intent, and meticulous, slow scanning of ID. Nearby, more cadres, young women and men, bristling with automatic weaponry, sit watchfully.

As ever, reality sinks in only after seeing it. This is a state of ceasefire, not surrender. And it is vastly different in tone and content than, say, the terms of agreement that kept Nepal’s Maoist rebels in designated ‘Peace Camps’ after a deal was signed between them and the caretaker government of the day in 2006. In Shaktikhor Camp near the Chitwan area in southern Nepal, for instance, only those guarding the perimeter or senior officers’ areas carried weapons openly. When I visited that camp in July 2009, the remainder of the weaponry (only what was not in placed in secret caches, as I was told repeatedly by insiders) was stored in temperature-controlled containers. These were supervised by personnel of the United Nations Mission in Nepal, created especially for monitoring the camps and the peace agreement, and agreed to by all parties ‒ Maoist rebels, and an alliance of seven political parties ranged against the king of Nepal.

There is no international observer for the peace process in Nagaland or the Naga regions. At any rate, thus far India hasn’t permitted any overseas organization to peer into what it considers its internal affairs. It cannot, however, prevent Baptist church organizations from the US, the UK-based Quakers, and Dutch non-government organization KREDDHA, an acronym which translates as International Peace Council for States, Peoples and Minorities. The inroads these organizations, especially the religious, have made into Naga society, politics and psyche run deep, and, from the buzz I have picked up from the Indian side and from books of history, are willing to play both ‘plotboiler’ and peacemaker.

Some pieces of paper signed in 1997 marked the absence of war between the Government of India and NSCN-IM only within the state of Nagaland, but did not bring with it the trappings of peace.

Ceasefire or not, NSCN-IM continues to function as a regular force, running drills, organizing patrols, recruiting more to its ranks to a level that would be of concern to India. Besides, while NSCN-IM is admittedly under ceasefire with the Government of India, technically it remains an enemy.

GHQ is about a kilometre in from the gates of Hebron. It is an organized sprawl of office huts, barracks, mess area and parade ground. The training area for recruits and regulars is further to the south, beyond a couple of low hills, but I’ve been told I won’t make it there yet. In fact, for a ‘non-Naga’, especially one such as myself with no kind of dealing ‒ political or administrative ‒ with NSCNIM, to make it even this far is an exception.

I get down from the car in an open area near the adjutant’s office. Captain Akhan is there in welcome, with an orderly on either side. He is a compact wiry man in olive-green combat tunic with the Star of Bethlehem sewed on to a collar, and a dull-metal pistol holstered at his waist. His handshake, typical of an army man’s, is firm, brief. He dismisses the orderlies who react to his command by snapping together their heels and throwing smart salutes. The captain then ruffles the heads of two lean German Shepherds that have meanwhile loped up to him, wolf-like, from behind a barracks. They don’t bark as they fix me with unblinking eyes, but they haven’t yet been taught to not wag their tails in front of visitors.

‘What are they called?’ I ask, impressed at this display ‒ as I guess I am supposed to be.

‘King and Queen. They listen only to me,’ Captain Akhan says, in fluent English. ‘Sit,’ he snaps at the two, and they immediately follow the order. ‘They don’t eat till I say so. They will attack if I say so.’


‘Please come in,’ he invites me into his office smilingly.

It’s painted green, and Spartan. Captain Akhan sits behind an unassuming plywood-topped table of steel, painted green, on which he casually places the 9mm pistol. I take a chair from the three ranged in front. To my right is a closed cupboard. Behind him, to my left, is a framed message in homely needlework: ‘Joy is Love, When it is Shared.’ On another part of the wall is a poster of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That shares space with a photograph of V.S. Atem, a legend in the Naga armies; he was longvibu, or chief of army, from June 1969 to July 1999 in various incarnations of rebel groups. He held the rank of lieutenant general, and is credited with whipping the undivided Naga Army as well as its incarnation as NSCN-IM into one of the best-trained rebel forces in Asia.

To my left there are five clocks. In ‘Nagalim’, where we are, a clock shows it to be 1520 hours. In Washington DC it is 0744; Tokyo: 1848; London: 1042. These are the three capitals of residence, transit, and leverage. And in Bangkok, for long a place of refuge and transit for generations of Naga rebel leaders, it is 1647 hours. Some of the times are a bit off, but the need for such diverse timekeeping is by itself an indication of the organization’s world view.

The pride of place on the wall behind the captain, unsurprisingly, belongs to the flag of Nagalim, a light-blue background with three ribbons of red, yellow and green curving from about mid-section to the left and arcing to the right. The white six-pointed star, the same as on Captain Akhan’s tunic, is at the top left corner of the flag. At least the design appears to be common to all factions of Naga rebels.

Captain Akhan turns out to be forty, but this is an army, he explains, that ranks its officers on the length as well as merit of service. Having joined at thirty, he isn’t doing too badly as captain, and adjutant of Camp Hebron. He stays in camp, occasionally visiting his family resident in Dimapur. We trade banter about the perennial issue of balancing work and home; but he gets a distant look once in a while, a man who clearly misses being with his family and his two daughters that he tells me so much about.

His mobile phone wakes. The ring tone would seem a little out of place in any army camp except that of the Baptist-driven Nagas.

‘The love of God is the greatest love of all…' I hear, before he brusquely taps a key to take the call and carries on for several minutes. Mostly, he listens attentively, and sometimes interjects or queries in Nagamese.

My eyes are drawn to a stack of brown paper envelopes on his desk, the mark of office stationery ‒ in particular government stationery. They are neatly addressed both in type and immaculate handwriting. They are too far for me to see names and addresses clearly. There’s also a stack of writing paper nearby, and files, the same as any government office. I’m reminded again about what several insiders and security experts have told me, that NSCN-IM has honed to perfection a legacy of the old days: records. Paperwork of the organization is legendary. It knows who is tasked with what, and which organization or person is to ‘donate’ how much to its coffers. There are stories of cadres being in the jungle for several years, and then returning to a major administrative camp or, say, a camp like Hebron, and finding his service record updated.

There’s more, and not all of it to do with paperwork. In most parts of Nagaland, and in many of the Naga-majority areas of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, NSCN-IM has the clout to decide who wins and loses in a particular constituency in an election ‒ in a village or municipality, to the state assembly, or to Parliament. It has a stake in bureaucratic appointments. Its support for a chief minister can, in these fragile political times, maintain or break a coalition.

An emergency has arisen, the captain tells me after ending his conversation. I won’t be able to stay in camp as long as we had planned, but first, there’s lunch. I don’t complain; I have a soft spot for Naga food.

On our way to the mess hut, I see more than a dozen young cadres on a time-off, horsing around as youngsters will. Some of them seem as young as fifteen or sixteen. They briefly stop when they see Captain Akhan. He shouts out something in the Tangkhul dialect that makes them smile, but they wait for us to be out of sight before bursting into laughter.

We are the only ones in the mess hut. Here they eat twice a day, early morning after drill, and late afternoon, before sunset; the sun sets ‘early’ in these parts.

Lunch ‒ dinner for the camp ‒ is superb. Sticky rice, fried pork tossed with ginger leaf, tear-inducing chilli and fish chutney, some light daal ‒ Nagas of all cuts have over the years developed a soft spot for the very Indian daal ‒ boiled cabbage and, for me, the pièce de résistance that would have pride of place at any table in southeast Asia: small freshwater crabs basted in sesame oil, and tossed with red chilli and basil. We eat in the Naga fashion, with our hands.

‘You folks should open a restaurant at Hebron gate,’ I say between mouthfuls.

‘Why?’ Captain Akhan stops, hand paused over his dented aluminium plate; mine is of melamine. Evidently, such crockery is either kept for visitors or the captain is putting on a show of a happy camper.

‘It could be good PR.’ I smile. ‘People say they are afraid of the Naga army, and with some of the recent incidents in these parts, maybe some public interaction would do your organization some good.’ I couch it as a joke, but the captain accepts the point with a smile.

Later, over a cup of green tea, we talk about his organization and what it could do. But the captain is cagey. I am to meet a superior officer later in the day, and he would rather the ‘brass’ answers my questions for the record.

This is an excerpt from Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land  (4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India). 

 Sudeep Chakravarti is an award-winning author, commentator on matters of conflict, conflict resolution, and business and human rights, and a columnist. His books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India (2014) and Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (2009). His Twitter handle iss @chakraview.