Travel

How people of Arunachal Pradesh’s Vijaynagar have lived in lockdown for 60 years

Aerial view of Vijaynagar surrounded by dense jungle

Aerial view of Vijaynagar surrounded by dense jungle   | Photo Credit: Manoj Rawat

Surrounded by Myanmar on three sides Vijaynagar does not even have a road connecting it to the rest of the world

After half-an-hour of it-is-making-me-nervous flying, the Mi-17 slowly descends. Most of the flight has been over densely forested mountain ranges, interspersed with the continuous white curl of the Dihing River winding its way across the landscape like a giant snake. Our luggage is piled in the centre of the chopper; benches along both sides have passengers strapped to their seats. Most of them are soldiers from the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force, returning to their post.

Peering out of the window, the wind whipping my hair into a bird nest, I find specks of green turning into soldiers standing with their backs towards the helipad, the wind from the chopper’s blades making their trousers flap like fans unfurling from their socks. On a raised hillock sit crouched men, women and children — also with their backs to the helipad, shielding themselves from the wind blast.

A cluster of small huts stands bravely in the desolate landscape. Villagers crowd around the chopper, some waiting to be ferried back, others just curious to see who has come. I have been told to carry packets of salt as gifts for the old soldiers, but the obvious joy with which they accept it tells me how precious it is.

A quiet place

Surrounded by Myanmar on three sides, Vijaynagar is the remote end of Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh. An impregnable protected forest called the Namdapha National Park, inhabited by wild animals, surrounds it. The story goes that in the early 1960s, India received alarming reports of Chinese ingression into Arunachal. It was decided that soldiers from the Assam Rifles should be encouraged to settle down here to discourage foreign ingression. Two expeditions were taken. Soldiers from the second one, led by Major General AS Guraiya, Inspector-General, Assam Rifles, ferried material and constructed an airfield there at a height of nearly 5,000 feet.

Aboard the Mi-17 to Vijaynagar

Aboard the Mi-17 to Vijaynagar   | Photo Credit: Manoj Rawat

The airstrip was named Vijaynagar after Guraiya’s son, Vijay. Soon after, a Kalinga aircraft landed there, bringing 100 Assam Rifles soldiers who established a company post and started border-guarding duties. Slowly, old retired soldiers and families started joining them with the number rising to 240.

Smiling old Savitri Damai tells me that she was just 27 when her husband Rifleman Sanman Damai accepted the Government’s offer in 1971. The couple, along with their three children, got on the plane from Mohanbari airfield. It was the first time she was getting into a “hawai jahaj” and she was very scared, she says. She carried in her arms her youngest son who was just two months old and firmly held by the hand her six-year-old daughter. Her husband held their second son while also balancing a carton with holes cut into it that held the family’s most precious possession — a fat and confused hen, clucking in annoyance. When the aircraft landed in Vijaynagar, Savitri’s heart sank. The airfield was in the middle of a dense forest. But her husband and the other soldiers pulled out their khukris and set about clearing the forest to make huts. She soon discovered that while the land was fertile and could grow the best of tomatoes, lai patta (a kind of mustard), rice and corn, there was no one there to sell them salt, sugar, spices or oil. It was only when her husband went on leave that he would get these commodities, that she would carefully ration, trying her best to make them last as long as she could.

Echoes from a forgotten past

Savitri’s son Rifleman Sunil Damai was born in Vijaynagar in a home delivery assisted by older women. “There would hardly be any studies at our school, since teachers wouldn’t come to Vijaynagar. Mostly, we managed on our own and helped with farming. Sometimes we would light a lantern, but since kerosene was precious, my mother would cook on a log fire. We would eat in its light and go to sleep when it got dark. We would see the helicopter coming every week and that was entertainment,” says Sunil, adding, “I had never seen a car or cinema hall or even light bulbs till I walked 150 kilometres to Miao, to give my Class X exams. It was a seven-day walk. We returned with our backpacks stuffed with grocery.”

The airfield at Vijaynagar

The airfield at Vijaynagar   | Photo Credit: Shirish Tomar

I meet Naik Zachhinga Ralte, an 80-year-old retired soldier of 1 Assam Rifles, who was flown to Vijaynagar in March 1969. Old and bent, he is still remarkably fit. “I was posted in Aizawl, when at our daily roll call, an announcement was made that the Government was looking for volunteers to settle down in Vijaynagar. Those who volunteered would get all facilities and a piece of land. Six of us volunteered and a Dakota brought us here,” Ralte remembers.

I also meet Dr Gumlat Maio, 32, a Government doctor who was posted to Vijaynagar in June 2017. The place hadn’t had a doctor for 10 years. “I was shocked to see that the place had no roads or electricity, or medicines in the hospital,” he says.

Rifleman Jagan Singh Thapa also came to Vijaynagar in 1969. “I was 30 then,” he says, “Here, I met 18-year-old Lakshmi, whose father was a retired soldier. We married, have three sons, two of whom are serving in the Assam Rifles.”

There is a twinkle in his old faded eyes. I would have liked to talk to him more, but the chackk-chak-chak of the chopper tells me it is time to leave. A few shops have opened in Vijaynagar over the years, but the prices of goods are exorbitant since grocery has to be carried as head load from Miao. Salt sells at ₹150 a kilogram and sugar at ₹250 a kilogram.

Assam Rifles bandsman performing at Namdapha Eco Cultural Festival, Miao

Assam Rifles bandsman performing at Namdapha Eco Cultural Festival, Miao   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/Istock

Other than the weekly visits from the Mi-17s, aircraft no longer land in Vijaynagar. The airfield where Savitri and her family had landed broke down long back. For a short while, a mud track existed from Miao to Vijaynagar. However, soon the jungle swallowed that too.

In February 2013, the foundation of a 157-kilometre road, that was to connect Miao to Vijaynagar under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana, was laid. Just 15 kilometres of the road was constructed and then that too fell into disrepair.

Vijaynagar continues to be a land locked down in time forever.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 5:08:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/in-lockdown-land/article31215884.ece

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