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BANGKOK AND BACK

Bangkok appears to have emerged as an inspiring location for Indian politicians and bureaucrats. Not only are ceasefires made and unmade here, its residents are now being lured under tourist packages to witness and experience the theatre of insurgency in the Northeast, especially Nagaland.

The credit for this goes to Vatsu Meru, Nagaland’s tourism minister, who was delegated by the Centre to visit Bangkok earlier this month to meet National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) leaders. On his return, Meru circulated an official statement, titled, schoolboy fashion, “My visit to Bangkok”. Instead of the expected report on the rendezvous with the NSCN leadership, Meru wrote that the purpose of his visit was to explore possibilities to attract foreign tourists. The turbulent ground situation, he explained, was the “attraction”, for “elsewhere in the world one cannot find such an interesting problem.”

Nagaland, like the other states in the Northeast, does have its share of tourist potential, much of it untapped. There is the picturesque Dzukou valley, home to the state’s exotic, endangered bird, Blythe’s Tragopan. One must only overlook the little skirmishes between the Angamis and Manipuris, with both states staking claim to this biodiversity hotspot. For proper wildlife, there is the Intangi sanctuary and the orchid park, while tourists looking for a slice of history can head for the Kohima war cemetery.

Permit raj

In his statement, Meru mentioned that there has been a rise in visits of foreign tourists in the recent past as Bangkok is “close to Northeastern India.” But sources in the tourism industry say visitors are loathe to travel there due to the abnormal law and order situation and procedural red tape, like the inner line permit for Indian tourists and the restricted area permit for foreigners. While RAP is issued to groups of four, the unnecessary delays in procuring the permits can effectively kill the thrill of travelling.

Right after being allocated the tourism portfolio, Meru had harped on capacity-building, urging village communities to take charge of existing infrastructure in the hospitality sector. The state has successfully organized its third annual extravaganza, the Hornbill Festival last December, besides showcasing its traditional customs, fine arts, cuisine and fashion at functions held in the metros.

Though these “windows to Nagaland” are often graced by filmstars and celebrities, tourist inflow has been nominal. While politicians resort to blaming RAP, to the point of alleging that this is a “discriminatory” hurdle, these permits not only help generate revenue, but are imperative for India’s security. Sporadic talk of “networking” the Northeast for tourism has failed to make headway simply because the sister states ceaselessly squabble over boundary demarcation.

Another cemetery'

Last week, Manipur tourism minister, Chungkhokai Doungel, exhorted his northeastern counterparts to petition the Centre to lift the permits. Given the tug-of-war over the Dzukou basin, besides the NSCN (I-M)’s campaign to integrate Naga-inhabited areas, one can well envisage the plight of this beautiful destination in future. Another war cemetery in the making, perhaps, in Meru’s list of fascinating tourist destinations'

One thing is certain: Optimism was there aplenty in the deliberations at Bangkok this month, whether in the parleys with the Naga leaders, or Meru’s overtures to the tour operators and agents. The only way out of the five-decade-long Naga imbroglio appears to be deliberations — in Bangkok or Amsterdam, Tokyo or Paris, with New Delhi thrown in for good measure. Conditions were set and concessions prayed for. Enough to keep both sides going till the next round.

The July meetings probably earned more mileage for frequent fliers than truce-seekers, but one cannot complain that they lacked in ideas. Credit must be given to Meru for offering an entirely new dimension to efforts to popularize the return flight from Bangkok.

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