More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 91

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Identification and documentation are vital when you’re travelling as a journalist. The more you have, the better – especially in war zones where paranoia tends to run riot.

It’s not clever to ‘sneak’ in posing as a tourist or aid worker, although I have done it, in impossible-to-get-to Aceh in the late 1990s.

You can’t work properly as a journalist that way and any cursory inspection of my own kit would have revealed all sorts of unlikely appendages: three or four cameras, tape recorder, notebooks, computer, satellite telephone, short wave radio, a scanner, portable antenna/washing line, and so on.

Once you’re rumbled as an impostor then, quite apart from a period as the enforced guest of the local security apparatus, you can kiss goodbye to all your hi-tech gear. And you won’t be getting a Loss Report signed by the local ‘nick’, so you can forget an insurance claim.

Just occasionally, you have no other choice but to ‘wing it’. I really wanted to go to India’s fractious north-east. When I said I wanted to go to Manipur – the name means ‘beautiful garden’ in Manipurean – the Indian High Commission in London warned me that a Restricted Area Permit would take at least five weeks. In the event, they held onto my passport for seven and then expressed surprise I hadn’t needed it back. I forebore from explaining I had another couple in my desk drawer which I had been using in the interim.

Would I like to collect my passport and take tea at the High Commission? Tea with the Minister Counsellor was just what you would expect from the representative of such an enormously courteous country as India. Perhaps I would prefer to visit the tea estates of southern of India as the guest of the Indian government? No, thank you very much, I want to visit the fascinating, albeit troubled, north east of the country. Jane’s Intelligence Review isn’t particularly interested in tea estates. My passport reappears between the teacups – a large blue stamp addended. ‘Access to Restricted Areas Forbidden’. All with a charming smile, of course.

When I asked at the Ministry of Information in Delhi, they quite simply said it was impossible to go there. “For your own safety, dear boy.” Nearer the action, in Calcutta, people suggested that the north east was full of head-hunting savages and murderous terrorists and that I would certainly be killed. However, in Calcutta I found that I could buy a ticket to Gawahati, the main city of Assam, without permit and that from there I could go on to the state of Meghalaya.

To get to the other states of the north east – Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – you must obtain the Restricted Area Permit, stamped on your passport. But with my airline ticket from Calcutta, I made my way to Gawahati.

At the airport, a large desk blocks the entry channel. ‘All foreigners to report here’ is emblazoned on the notice. Foreigners are not allowed to enter the north east by road or rail and all entrants are registered here. A further police registration is required. I didn’t get around to it immediately . . . it didn’t take Special Branch long to pick me up in the street the next morning – the only white face in the area.

But Manipur was my preferred destination: home to insurrection, drugs and arms smuggling. All the sort of things I was interested in but the Indian government was coy about.

After I arrived in Imphal, capital of Manipur, I cleared the airport at some speed. There was a tight security cordon and I was the only white person on the aircraft. Buying the ticket was not a problem in Gawahati – I was simply told I would not be allowed to stay when I landed. However, my New Delhi-issued government Press Pass sufficiently impressed the junior police officers on duty and after an entry was made in a vast, heavy ledger I was waved through.

I spent my first day doing the difficult bits of the story: driving up to the border, examining the smuggling routes and doing some discreet pictures of the military. When I got back to Imphal and checked into my hotel, two stern-faced denizens of the local CID were waiting for me. Apparently they were at every hotel in town. My appearance was required – immediately – at the office of the Chief Superintendent. I asked for permission to don a tie and recovered from my backpack a crumpled MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) tie with its universally recognised orange and gold stripes.

Downtown, things were a mite frosty. Shown into the Super’s office, past phalanxes of gun-toting guards of the Sikh Light Infantry, he didn’t even look up from his desk but carried on working for three or four minutes as if I simply didn’t exist. He, like the Sikh guards, is evidently not from these parts. His features indicate this.

“You are in extremely serious trouble,” he began as he looked up. The stern visage took in the gaudy stripes and his face wreathed in smiles. We talked about cricket for twenty minutes or so.

“Now dear boy, you must understand foreigners are excluded for entirely practical reasons. There is a real danger of kidnap around here” And, he added with a wry smile, “The price for you would be very high. However, as you are a good cricket man, let’s see. How long would you like to stay in Imphal?”

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