An English burglar starves for Nagaland: Ian MacKinnon reports on one man's fight for an Indian hill tribe

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The Independent Online
A MAN'S palm descends slowly over a steaming mug of Bovril to prevent the escape of a tantalising aroma. David Ward is on the eighth day of a hunger strike.

In the kitchen of his brother Michael's neat terraced house at Chatham, Kent, Michael, a composer of musicals, lays the temptation before him. Michael is concerned at his brother's almost painful thinness, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, but he doesn't push the point.

David Ward, 31, is clear in his mind, his goals certain. Why is he staging this little-noticed fast, eased only by coffee, sweetened with four spoons of sugar, and tumblers of single-malt Scotch?

By his own account, he was 'mad, bad and sad' when he met Stephen Hillman, 25, in the cells of Lincoln Prison. There, they heard about the oppressed people of Nagaland, a remote north-east Indian state closed to outsiders for nearly 40 years.

An estimated 130,000 people out of a population of 1.2 million allegedly have been killed by the Indian Army since Nagaland's guerrilla army began its fight for independence. Many more, according to Amnesty International, have been tortured and raped.

To alert the world to the atrocities, Mr Ward and Mr Hillman entered Nagaland illegally after their release to make a television documentary and set up a human rights monitoring project. Three months later they were captured at an army road block and their driver shot dead.

Both were subjected to weeks of torture and mock executions. A year of imprisonment without charge ended only when John Major intervened during a visit to Delhi in February; they returned to Britain last week.

Nine other Nagas arrested with them are still held. Mr Ward, from Kettering, is fasting to secure their release.

How did two criminals end up fighting for the rights of an obscure hill tribe? Both came from middle-class backgrounds. Mr Ward, the son of a white tea planter, spent his first eight years in Assam, the state neighbouring Nagaland. But a life cushioned by servants ended abruptly when he and his brother were sent to a Benedictine boarding school in North Berwick, Scotland.

He became a youth worker on a housing estate in south London. 'I became involved in the criminal fraternity. I was rebelling against everything,' he said.

This rebellion took the form of commuting to rural areas to plunder country houses. He moved on to robbing homes when the owners were in. For his troubles, he got five years and another three for attempting to escape by hijacking a prison van. He was sent to Parkhurst and spent three years in solitary confinement.

A report of the death of an 18- year-old Naga woman, who committed suicide after being raped and tortured by soldiers, rekindled boyhood memories. Mr Ward began devouring information on Nagaland and inspiring other inmates with his dedication.

Naga-Vigil, a human rights campaign group, was formed in 1989 while Mr Ward was in Gartree prison. Mr Hillman met Mr Ward when they were on the same high-security landing at Lincoln, both so-called 'E-men' because of their escape attempts.

Mr Hillman, previously a mortgage broker, had turned to brawling after separating from his wife. One fight too many earned him two years for grievous bodily harm. While in prison, he became divorced and lost his home. The Naga cause provided a beacon. 'David is a very inspiring figure,' said Mr Hillman, from Scunthorpe. 'He is so sure of his direction that you can't help but question your own views.'

His decision to go to Nagaland was tied up with a desire for adventure, but it became something more when he lived among the people. The ambush which led to their capture fully tested that commitment. After helping Mr Ward to escape, Mr Hillman and the others were tied up, and beaten unconscious many times. 'We were lined up in front of a firing squad. Three times the hammers fell on empty barrels.'

At the army barracks they were stripped, their arms handcuffed behind their backs, and ropes tied around their necks and ankles. 'My testicles were wrenched,' he said. 'I couldn't urinate.'

Mr Ward escaped, but was recaptured and underwent the same ordeal. 'They were like a pack of frenzied jackals.'

Both were held in a jail in Uttar Pradesh. 'The blacksmith put heavy rings on each ankle, and steel rods came up to join at a ring just below your bollocks so that you could only hobble.'

They staged seven hunger strikes to win the rights to send and receive mail and get extra food. Even then their ration was only a cup of milk, an egg, bread and some sugar per day.

Their release and deportation came just as a one-year deadline, by which under Indian law they would have had to appear in court, was nearing.

Neither has any regrets. 'We have instilled a lot of hope in the Naga people,' said Mr Ward. Mr Hillman put it more modestly: 'I feel very hypocritical. People are making me out to be an angel and I'm not. But we have made a difference because the world now knows about Nagaland.'

(Photograph and map omitted)