March 2013
#Borders , 1967 Views
The Stilwell Road

Author: Gayathri Sreedharan
Photographs: Gayathri Sreedharan

The stilwell road connects India’s northeast with Burma. Today, it’s fallen into disuse, but for one village in Arunachal Pradesh, business with Burma is essential.

Three times a month, 40-year-old Shobhita Kolita leaves her home in Tinsukia, Assam, and travels more than 100 kilometres across bumpy, hilly terrain through what has been called, since World War II, Hell Pass, a three-kilometre dirt track that links the remote town of Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh, India, with Pangsau village, in the northern Burmese Kachin State.

For Kolita, Hell Pass—officially Pangsau Pass— is hardly malevolent. Crossing this international border on foot with nearly 10 kg of merchandise filling her bhikhu (not to be mistaken with the Buddhist bhikshu), a conical cane basket worn on the back and supported by an attached woven headstrap, is a source of income. She’s on her way to the ‘international market’ held in Pangsau on the 10th, 20th and 30th of every month.

Most of Kolita’s journey from Tinsukia to Nampong and Pangsau involves a bone-rattling bus-ride along the 60-odd-kilometre stretch of National Highway 153, which is part of the Ledo Road (renamed Stilwell Road during World War II). Though the highway barely deserves to be called a road at certain points, it is the closest thing to a trade artery in the area. The Stilwell Road begins at Ledo, Assam, passes through Jairampur—the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border check post—and after meandering through forests of dark green bamboo and fields of golden elephant grass, reaches Nampong.

On the Indian side of the border, the Tangsa tribe still lives in machangs, traditional platform houses on stilts that keep them safe from the monsoon floods, and subsist on food they grow themselves. They rely on Marwari, Bengali and Assamese traders for stuff not locally available— batteries, mobile phones, and salt carted from Guwahati, Kolkata and even Delhi.

For the Tangsas who live on the other side of the border, where Stilwell is rechristened ‘Burma Road’, traders like Kolita are the sole source of these goods. “The road is so bad,” says Kolita. “It’s really difficult. Some [of us local] traders go all the way to Tinsukia because it’s cheaper. We buy at wholesale prices there.” Even so, she says, the cost of transporting goods over difficult terrain makes it hard to turn much of a profit, and far as she’s concerned, the blame falls squarely on Stilwell’s shoulders – the road, not the man. But when I ask the obvious question, she says, smiling bashfully, “I’m not sure who it is they named the road after.” she says, a bashful smile on her face.

The eponym refers to an American WWII general, Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, who oversaw the road’s construction by 15,000 Allied soldiers and 35,000 Chinese, Burmese, and Indian labourers, from December 1942 to October 1944. The purpose of the exercise was to carve a path through Burma to bail out the Chinese resistance of the Japanese, led by general Chiang Kai-shek.

The last leg of India’s National Highway 153 comprises only a fraction of the Stilwell Road. The Allied passage runs a total of 1,736 kilometres, crossing the entire length of northern Burma and terminating in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, southwest China. For all the effort it took to build the Stilwell Road, once construction was completed—many soldiers succumbing to malaria and dysentery along the way—only two shipments of supplies were sent to China before the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945.

Bottom-heavy like a mother hen, her brown, freckled face offset by a pearly-white smile, Kolita reaches the first checkpoint of Hell Pass. She sets down her load, produces a permit issued by the sub-divisional officer in Nampong, and shows it to the guard on duty from the Assam Rifles, the paramilitary brigade responsible for guarding the border. She repeats this process at two more checkpoints – including one manned by the Burmese Army) – before finally lugging her goods into Pangsau village.

Once there, she and several other traders from the Indian side, many of them shopowners from Nampong, lay out lengths of tarpaulin on one flank of Pangsau’s only road. Kolita unloads glucose biscuits, packets of instant noodles, rubber flip-flops, baby clothes, yarn, toys, tobacco, apples when they’re in season, and, most importantly, salt.

Throughout the day, Kolita conducts brisk business, conversing in Ahomiya, Hindi and two dialects of Tangsa (or, in Burma, Tangshang), languages that pay no heed to the fact that, in demarcating Arunachal’s boundaries in 1972, the Indian government had inadvertently split the ethnic group between two countries. Immediately after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, with both paranoia and militancy in India and Burma galvanised, the Indian Army reportedly closed Pangsau Pass to civilian traffic until a geopolitical thaw in the 1990s – but the proscription applied only loosely to the Tangsas on either side; it didn’t take long to realise that Nampong and Pangsau were too interdependent to enforce the need for passports or visas to cross.

A map at the Assam-Arunachal Border Crossing at Jairampur, which details the road upto Nampong and Pangsau.

What brings Kalita to haul her merchandise over almost 150 km has to do with the rates that Pangsau’s residents are willing to pay, especially for salt. In Nampong, salt goes for about Rs 20 a kg. In Pangsau, prices hover around Rs 100/kg. Kolita gets rubber flip flops for Rs 100 in Nampong and sells them for Rs 250 in Pangsau. A Rs-20 packet of instant noodles fetches Rs 60 in Burma.

Kolita and other traders at the Pangsau bazaar told me only this kind of price-gouging that covers their conveyance—and inconvenience—to get to Pangsau from Upper Assam. But, the Stilwell Road’s perpetual state of muddy disrepair, what makes trade on a larger scale than hers untenable, has its advantages. The region’s isolation makes it a seller’s market, and today in Pangsau, the overpriced items are flying off the tarpaulins.

One man who knows what it was like before the region’s tribes were bifurcated into two national sides is a portly, moustachioed, 80-year-old Tangsa tribesman named Maitu Mossang, known affectionately as Maitu mama, or Uncle Maitu. He’s old enough to remember Allied fighter aircraft screaming across the skies, debris from their crashes dotting the hill tops, and the thousands of men toiling away on the Stilwell Road.

“Long after the Japanese surrendered and WWII ended, foreigners continued to visit the region,” says Maitu. “All these tall men, with faces like red tomatoes,” he laughs. “Until the 1960s, foreigners used to come regularly by [Stilwell] road. We used to show them around. After 1972, the government stopped foreigners from moving beyond Jairampur.”

In his modern brick house, set in concrete, Maitu mama talks of how, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, he would travel freely between Nampong and Tavi, his village in Kachin State. “I had relatives all around Nampong and Tavi,” he says, as the Hindi-language channel Sadhna TV buzzes away in the background, “two different grandfathers to visit, one in each town. I would stay here for a month, sometimes for ten days, before returning again [to Tavi]”.

Age having caught up with him, he admits he now only makes the trip to Pangsau if his services as an interpreter between Tangsa and Asomiya and/or Hindi are solicited by the local administration, i.e. the Extra Additional Commissioner or the Sub Divisional Officer for Nampong.

Any Tangsa who wants to make a trip across the border to meet family and friends is obliged to step through the market-days doorway. If you’re going to have rice beer with a friend or tea with your aunt, you can take the risk, or not. But what when it comes to love?

Like in the rest of India, strong tribal affiliations persist in Arunachal Pradesh, despite their approximate population of only 6,000 on the Indian side of the border. The Tangsas can be fiercely endogamous and it’s a rare occurrence to find a Tangsa married to someone from another tribe. Pangsau’s women often widen the field for men from Nampong.

At the Nampong market, new brides from the Burmese side can be found haggling with shopkeepers, articulating hesitantly in Hindi and Asomiya, shouting out numbers, which are mutually intelligible, or enumerating with their fingers as they attempt to pin down a final price. They practice constantly, learning to interact with the members of other sub-tribes and outsiders. It’s easy to spot these brides in and around Nampong, but it isn’t easy to get the locals to talk about them. There is no Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office in Arunachal Pradesh, and the Sub Divisional Office in Nampong and the Additional Commissioner’s office in Jairampur are not empowered to deal with cross-border marriages, technically making these brides illegal immigrants.

“Going through official channels can be problematic and time-consuming,” says Maitu mama. “Sometimes we try to bring girls by the jungle.” He says there are tracks connecting villages on either side of the border, and if someone is willing to risk ducking across, shared language and ethnicity mean that the Tangsas can blend in and be mobile beyond the 16-km visitor-restriction zone on both sides. Otherwise, he says, “we try pleading with the [Assam Rifles] officers to let them come in.”

A visitor from Pangsau Village waits with her bhiku at the bazaar in Nampong.

The Stilwell Road may have originally been cut through the jungle in service of helping China, but today, many in the know say Arunachal Pradesh’s continuing isolation is in the service of an opposite strategy – to keep China out. And fence in and fence out insurgents. Following the Sino-Indian war in 1962, the Central government, supported in its stance by the Indian Army, continued to adhere to this policy of leaving Arunachal Pradesh and its roads undeveloped.

Nidhi Srivastava, Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) of Jairampur, explains that, for the Indian government, the Northeast has always stopped at Assam: “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had this fear, if we construct roads here, the Chinese might come in.”

In her comfortable home, in a peaceful if desolate part of Jairampur, Srivastava says that this policy continued until 2007, when, suddenly, “a lot of money [was] pumped in” by the Central government. There are signs that more money could come Arunachal’s way. In his budget speech for 2013-14, Finance Minister P Chidambaram outlined government plans to solicit millions of dollars from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, “to build roads in the Northeastern states and connect them to Myanmar”.

The section of Stilwell Road that runs past Srivastava’s office had been freshly tarred when I visited her in February 2013, allowing for a smooth ride through the town. The road’s durability, however, depends entirely on the monsoon, which usually starts in March, lasts for six months, and can be torrential, washing away chunks of tar in a single downpour. This makes it all the more impressive to think it took only three years to complete the original Stilwell Road, considering the unfriendly topography, temperamental climate and the lack of heavy machinery.

In her first few months as Jairampur’s ADC, Srivastava says she discovered “many agricultural innovations being carried out here—they now grow oranges, green tea and rubber. But where will they take these goods?”

There’s a long to-do list: finding markets, transporting produce out of the state to larger markets before it rots, legally settling immigrants or recognising cross-border marriages – but “administrative officers don’t want to stay in such places [like Nampong],” says Srivastava, “and because of this [the people] don’t have a grievance redressal mechanism”. Having a functional local government works for people at a basic level, but “right now, they just ask that their roads be made quickly.”

The National Highways Authority of India has been charged with the task of transforming India’s bit of the Stilwell Road into a four-lane motorway that can be relied on for increasing trade and transportation. They have in turn contracted a private construction company to build the road (the Burmese Army doesn’t want the representatives of the Border Roads Organisation or the NHAI involved in the construction of the road; only civilians). A small group of migrants from Assam, UP, Bihar and Jharkhand have been brought in to work on the refurbishment and expansion. But it won’t happen quickly. The reconstruction of the section that falls within Arunachal alone could take several months at best.

“How long should it take to make a road, how many people does it take [to make it]?” asks Kolita, visibly frustrated as she wraps up what’s left of her merchandise at the end of market day in Pangsau.“They keep repairing it, it keeps breaking.”

India’s cross border trade with Burma yields millions of rupees every year. It’s impossible to get an estimate for trade along the Stilwell road, but if the development of the Stilwell Road has anything to do with the Burmese government beginning to emerge from its own decades of isolation, Hell Pass might finally be able to generate some real money for Arunachal Pradesh.

Kolita may not yet see the irony of it, but the smooth ride she and others dream of could put an end to the Nampong shopkeepers’ monopoly in Pangsau. A four-lane highway on the other hand, with a formal border crossing to boot, could make the Tangsas’ life a little sweeter.