The North-eastern part of India is composed of Seven Sisters and a Brother – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim, the last considered as the brother. I don’t really know how this epithet came to be but it is interesting just as it is enigmatic. It tells me how little is known of this part of India. Tourism is not in great numbers to these regions but I am going there as part of my overall plan.
So I am in Kolkata to organize necessary permits to visit these states. Permits for foreigners are more complicated and the process takes longer. Thankfully for domestic tourists things are a little easier. But how easy? I am yet to find out. Permits can be obtained from Guwahati and other places but I think I’ll try to sort this out in Kolkata before I move on further north.
The permit is properly called Inner Line Permit (ILP). Barring some restricted areas, Sikkim doesn’t require a permit. Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura don’t need one either. Other states require permits.
Conveniently it’s a Monday when I arrive in Kolkata. I have the whole week to organize these things. From the airport I head straight to the office of Government of Arunachal Pradesh. It is in CE block of Salt Lake City. It is surprisingly easy to get to this place.
I get a form and fill it up. Tourists cannot wander off as they wish. They have to select from 11 designated routes but the form lists only 3 routes. Anyway that’s good enough for me. I select two routes, one to Tawang and the other covering Ziro and Along.
A crowd is waiting outside a closed door. It appears there is only one woman officer inside issuing permits. The process is manual and slow. I end up waiting an hour and a half in a loose queue. You will understand what a loose queue means. People keep shuffling back and forth, trying to sidestep or squeeze through.
‘Have you brought ID proof for your kids?’ soemone asks in the queue. It is not a question directed to me.
‘Yes. School ID card. I have taken a copy and it is attested,’ comes the reply.
‘How about the Fees Book?’ probes the cautious man.
The conversation continues with different opinions. It is quite clear that things are not efficient here. There is no transparency of the process. There is no information on their websites. I have simply brought my passport, copies of the same and photographs.
Finally my turn comes. I see the officer. She looks through my form. She proceeds to fill up the details in another form. I wait.
‘Your photocopy is not attested?’ she tells.
‘I have signed on it.’
‘Self-attested? No. That is not enough. It has to be attested by a gazetted officer.’
After a thoughtful pause she asks if I have the passport with me. The day is saved. She accepts the application with one photograph per route and one extra for their files. I have to pay Rs. 15 per route. Permit is issued for a maximum of 14 days.
Usually the process takes 3 days to a week. The officer is willing to make an exception in my case. I don’t live here. I am waiting in Kolkata just for this permit. She asks me to come back in 2 days.
I come back on Wednesday. The same queue. The same conversations pickled with uncertainty. The same long wait.
I get the permit. The dates are marked for each route. I have to stick to these dates and this trip is not to be as flexible as my earlier ones. The permit lists a list of things to be noted by any tourist. One line marked in bold letters interests me,
Holder of this ILP is not authorized to take photographs of film at any place in Arunachal Pradesh.
I arrive at Nagaland House on Shakespeare Sarani just after noon. I register in a book with the security guard and climb up to the first floor. On the landing is a beautiful painting of a Naga tribal woman decked in fine jewellery. The women working in the office, though from Nagaland, are more plainly dressed.
There is no queue here. I literally walk in and take a seat at the officer’s desk. I have handed a form to fill up. The form asks for the district I wish to visit. I consult the officer. I simply list all the places I want to visit.
‘You have said ten days but permit can be issued for only 7 days maximumm’ she tells me.
I need only 7 days but I need some overlap in case I get delayed in Arunachal Pradesh. I make the correction in the form.
‘You can extend it later when you are there,’ she adds.
She does not ask for any identity proof. No photographs are required. I am asked to return the next day. The costs is Rs 1 for the form and Rs 10 for the process. It does look like Nagaland is not as popular as Arunachal Pradesh for Indian tourists.
I return the next day and collect the permit.
‘It says here Kohima but I want to visit other places,’ I tell the officer.
‘You can change it in Kohima.’
‘Yes but I will be arriving by road via Mokokchung. Could you include that as well?’ I request.
He makes the addition and it is done.
From Nagaland House it is a short walk to 4 Shakespeare Sarani. The building carries the country’s tourism slogan, “Incredible India!”
I enquire at the counter. They don’t offer any permits to Manipur but the woman gives me the address and directions for Manipur Bhavan as well as Mizoram House. I also collect from here a map of the North East and a map of Kolkata. I am pleased with her service. Such service is quite rare in India.
I walk to Manipur Bhavan which is behind the German Max-Muller Bhavan. Locals will direct you to this place by Ballygunge Circular Road.
It is a nice building with marble stairs. First floor seems to be empty. I walk up to the second level and meet the Assistant Resident Commissioner.
‘You are a foreigner?’ she asks.
‘No. I am from Bangalore.’
‘Indians don’t need permit for Manipur.’
This comes as a surprise to me. It turns out that if you arrive into the state by air, you don’t need a permit. If you arrive by land, the shortest route is via Nagaland. So you require a permit to Nagaland to visit Manipur. I believe you can still visit Manipur via Assam.
‘I can give you a letter that may help you at checkpoints,’ she tells me helpfully. ‘But my typist is on leave. You can come back tomorrow.’
‘I can wait a while.’
‘I have other work for him today. It’s best you come back tomorrow.’
I have a longer chat with her about Manipur. At the moment there is a curfew in town. There is problem at the border with Nagaland. A Naga extremist has been denied entry into Manipur to visit some Naga border tribes within Manipur. This has caused agitation in the region.
I come back the next day but all is not well.
‘Oh! My typist has gone out again,’ she tells me. ‘Can you come back on Friday?’
‘I may be leaving Kolkata tomorrow. It would be good if I can get this done today.’
She summons another guy to do the typing. I go with him to the ground floor. He brings out an old Godrey typewriter, two sheets of paper and a carbon paper. It has been a while since I saw a real carbon copy. He is not a regular typist. With spelling mistakes and slow typing, the letter is done. The officer signs.
I thank her for her help. As I leave she is conversing with a colleague. Their language I gather is Manipuri. It has more in common with Thai and Burmese than with Bengali, not in terms of words but in the sounds.
I have lunch next door at the Max-Muller Bhavan.
Roads in Kolkata have been systematically renamed from their old anglicized names to names considered more Indian, at least not English. I am in search of Old Ballygunge Road where Mizoram House is located but it appears that the new name is Ashutosh Chowdhary Road.
I arrive early afternoon. The security guard stops me.
‘Application is only in the mornings. You can collect the form and come back tomorrow,’ he tells all-knowingly.
I walk in anyway. He doesn’t stop me. Like in Manipur Bhavan, this office doesn’t see much activity. I enter the office, meet a clerk and I am handed a form to fill. Two other clerks are playing computer games.
The clerk doesn’t check any identity card. The form does not even ask for an itinerary. Two photographs have to be submitted and the process costs Rs. 120.
The Resident Commissioner is supposed to sign on the form his approval. I am told to take the form to his office next door, something that should be done by the clerk. The service in this regard is appalling. Nonetheless, the application is approved and stamped.
I am given the permit immediately. This is the only office I don’t have to visit twice. It says on the permit that I have register my arrival into the state within 7 days.
Now that all the permits are in hand my prayer is that I can stick to the dates and I don’t lose the permits.