Meet Suyash Dixit, the man who would be king
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The king is a coder: a bit nerdy, a bit goofy, easily amused, and with the hint of a stutter when he gets excited—which is often—though it’s so minor he won’t need any help giving speeches.
The king, a large man with a head of curly hair and a warm, disarming laugh, is in his office, a terrace covered and converted into a workspace with prefab material. Discarded computer parts have been recycled as décor: a constellation of keyboards hang artistically from the ceiling, a motherboard is propped against a block of wood, a PlayStation steering wheel sits on a desk.
There is a ping-pong table on one side of the room, but from the state of the paddles and balls stacked next to it, it is evident no one has used them for a while. On the floor below the terrace there are a handful of people on computers, some on bean bags and others on massage chairs, in a small open-plan room painted in bright shades of green. It is a modest office, spread across two floors of a narrow three-story building in a quiet, residential neighbourhood in Indore. A young entrepreneur, the king is also the chief executive officer of his own company, an IT services firm called Softinator that employs 40 people, and which, according to him, had a revenue of approximately Rs15 crore last financial year.
Until last month, very few people knew the king outside his circle of friends, family, and colleagues. He was an ordinary young man, though perhaps neatly emblematic of a certain strand of aspirational, “new India” narrative: a boy from a tier-II town blazing his own way as a programmer, running a successful company at 24, travelling around the world attending developer conferences. His father has a crisp anecdote about him, a sort of legend-in-the-making statement: “Even before he had started school, at an age when most children grab a pencil, he grabbed a keyboard.”
And then, on 7 November, the king, whose name is Suyash Dixit, posted something on his Facebook page that brought near-instant internet stardom.
It read: “I, Suyash Dixit, first of my name and the protector of the realm, declare myself as the king of “Kingdom of Dixit”. I call myself King Suyash First from today. I declare this unclaimed land of Bir Tawil as my country from now to the eternity of time. I pledge to continue to work for the prosperity of my people of the country and this motherland.
I travelled 319km (to and fro) in far desert with no roads to claim this unclaimed land of Bir Tawil. This 800 sq. miles of land belongs to no country. It is the only place on earth where humans can live and survive but is not a part of any state/country. Following the early civilization ethics and rule, if you want to claim a land then you need to grow crops on it. I have added a seed and poured some water on it today. It is mine.” [Sic]
The text was accompanied by five images, all of the new king in his new, arid, kingdom, standing next to his self-designed flag, planting sunflower seeds, and smiling goofily.
At first, the declaration created barely a ripple. But within a couple of days, news media began to pick up the story, everyone from local websites to the international press. An American farmer from Virginia called Jeremiah Heaton, now entered the fray, claiming that Bir Tawil was his, and that he had laid stake to the land by planting a flag there a good three years before Dixit. Heaton said that Dixit was lying about reaching Bir Tawil—which is a zone of no-man’s-land near a troubled border of Egypt. This conflict brought a fresh round of media attention. Then a Russian ham radio operator joined the fight, saying Bir Tawil was his, and that both Dixit and Heaton had lied about reaching the area.
Dixit’s “kingdom” website was flooded with applications as soon as it went live. Then it crashed. Dixit tried desperately to keep it going, even offering the web host a payment of Rs20,000 per hour to manage the traffic coming in. It was not enough. He soon knew the reason why. On that day, 15 November, he was the most searched for person in India on Google.
“Even Sunny Leone was behind me,” Dixit said with a poker face.
A king sets forth
Bir Tawil is a mixed desert and scrubland zone of 2,060 sq. km that is a disputed border between Egypt and Sudan; it is commonly described as the only habitable area on earth that has not been claimed by any country. Here lies its allure. In this age of powerful nation-states, it is the closest thing to a new frontier.
Bir Tawil’s peculiar status is the result of a unsolved colonial-era border controversy. In 1899, after nearly two decades of battle, Britain and Egypt defeated the forces of the “Mahdi” of Sudan and together took over the administration of the territory. They drew the northern border with Egypt in a straight line along the 22nd parallel, cutting through the Nubian desert. Three years later, the British redrew a portion of that border to accommodate the demands of various tribes in the region: a part just south of the 22nd parallel—Bir Tawil—was now given over to Egypt and a much larger chunk north of the 22nd, the Hala’ib triangle, was to be Sudan’s.
When Sudan gained independence in 1956, Egypt and Sudan immediately bickered over this tweaked border. Both wanted the Hala’ib triangle, a prime piece of land measuring 20,580 sq. km, with a coastline along the Red Sea and the promise of mineral riches. Sudan asserted the validity of the border of 1902, which gave them the Hala’ib and Bir Tawil to Egypt. Egypt insisted that the original 1899 border was the true demarcation, which meant that the Hala’ib was theirs and Bir Tawil Sudan’s.
The simmering disagreement reached a head in the 1990s when an oil firm expressed interest in prospecting the Hala’ib. Egypt sent its troops to take control of the region. This is where the matter stands. Both countries claim the Hala’ib, and as a consequence neither claims Bir Tawil. As the British journalist Jack Shenker, who travelled to Bir Tawil in 2011 for an article for The Guardian, writes: “There is nothing else quite like it on the planet.”
When Dixit was 20, in his second year of college, he chanced upon an entry on Bir Tawil while surfing the net. “I was like wow, wow, wow, this place is so cool…it’s epic…” Dixit recalls in his exuberant fashion. “It’s just fascinating that there is a place on earth that’s independent of any other country.”
In October this year Dixit, who heads the central India chapter of the Google Developer Group, was invited to a GDG conference in Cairo. Dixit says he always takes a few days off to travel when he is invited to such conferences.
“I was researching where I could go after the conference, and I was looking at the map of Egypt when I suddenly recognized Bir Tawil,” he says. “It’s easy to recognize because it has a rhomboid shape. I was like, dude, this is the same place I read about years ago!”
Dixit decided that he must make an attempt to get to this chunk of no man’s land. He went to his computer engineer brother Suyog, five years his senior, and told him, “Don’t scold me, but I have a plan, so first listen to the whole thing and then react.”
Suyog heard him out and declared that his brother had gone mad. But then, a few minutes later, he told Dixit: “If there’s even a one percent chance that you can get there, we need to try.”
A little anarchy
“You need to do something crazy at least once in your life,” Dixit says. “Get your name in the Guinness book [of records], or become a celebrity, or do something like this, a little bit of anarchy.”
For the next few days the brothers lived a double life. Work occupied them during the day, but at night, without letting anyone else know of their plan, they researched a route to Bir Tawil. The first thing they did was to switch from Google Maps, which has a very basic layout for the region, to Bing Maps, rendered in far greater detail. They contacted online colleagues and friends in Egypt, asking indirect questions about routes and hiring cars without revealing their purpose.
Dixit was sure about one thing. If he made it to Bir Tawil he would claim it as his own. He needed to plant a flag. He designed one in red and gold—the colour of sand at dusk or dawn—and a medieval-looking coat of arms. Suyog was tasked with the printing. He called his younger brother from the shop to check if it was necessary to print both sides of the cloth, since it would cost more and take more time. They decided it was not important.
“To be frank, at this point of time my plan was purely to have an adventure and get to a place people don’t usually get to,” Dixit says. “It felt like it would be fun. But no matter how much of a fantasy it was, I had a feeling deep inside that something special will come out of this.”
That feeling was soon reinforced. Dixit delivered a lecture in Cairo on “conversational AI” (how bots can be made to handle the live chat support function on websites), and then flew from the capital to Aswan, where he spent a day sightseeing. He then took a flight to Abu Simbel, the southernmost town in Egypt, just 40km from the border with Sudan. The EgyptAir plane, with a seating capacity of just over 70 people, was empty save one passenger: Dixit.
“I was thinking, this is so bizarre! How can it be?” Dixit says. “When I entered the flight, everyone broke out into laughter—the pilot, me, the attendants. We could not stop laughing.”
The pilot told Dixit that flying a single passenger was a first for him, too. The attendants laughed through the pre-flight instructions, and then laid out all the different varieties of food on board for a kingly repast. “I ate non-stop through the hour-long flight,” Dixit says.
At Abu Simbel, Dixit visited the enormous temple of Rameses II, and then met his driver for next morning’s secretive quest. To avoid detection Dixit had booked the services of three different drivers, though only one knew the real nature of his trip. The first would take him from Abu Simbel to a nearby town, the next would drive him further south to a village, and the third driver and Dixit would attempt to off-road it to Bir Tawil. Dixit refuses to share details of the exact route he used since it involved illegally crossing borders in a disputed area.
Under a full moon
Dixit picked a full moon night for the expedition since it was likely to get dark by the time they made their way back from Bir Tawil. A car headlight—which can be seen from miles in all directions in this desert—would attract not just the Egyptian military but also bandits and terrorists. Dixit left behind his expensive laptop, a DSLR camera and lenses, and the rings he wears on his fingers, and instead stocked the car with torches, water, and food.
He left Abu Simbel at 4 in the morning. At this time border security does not permit cars to leave town limits, but he managed to slip past this first hurdle, convincing the police he was an amateur photographer who wanted a certain shot at dawn. Before leaving, he had made a final call, to his closest friend in Egypt, an interior design student in Cairo, confiding his plans and giving her a set of phone numbers to call in case she did not hear from him by 11pm that night.
“I have gone skydiving, scuba diving, travelled solo. But here I got my ass kicked. I was really scared,” Dixit says. “This was a border area, a terrorist area, where even the military and the police shoot first and ask questions later. It was like a Boolean variable [a computational and mathematical term describing a variable that can take only one of two values, typically 0 and 1]. Either you come back or you don’t.”
Dixit says he got the drivers to cooperate by paying them handsomely. By 11 in the morning he was past the final village on his route, and in his final car, beyond the reach of mobile phone towers, driving into the roadless wilderness of the Nubian desert. “We drove through dusty, barren lands. Desert everywhere you looked, a few small hills,” Dixit says, “and nothing at all for miles and miles.”
“My initial plan was to spend a couple of hours at Bir Tawil, but very soon into the drive we realized that it would take us much more time than we had planned. So I told my driver, just get me there, touch the area and we will start back.”
Meanwhile, back in Indore, Dixit’s brother was frozen with such tension that his wife noticed something was not right. Suyog had no option but to reveal what was happening almost 5000km away. They waited breathlessly for Dixit’s call.
At around 4pm local time, the map on Dixit’s phone informed him that he had crossed the Egyptian border and was in Bir Tawil.
Excited, but also worried about the time, Dixit quickly planted his flag, had the driver click photos, and planted sunflower seeds in the ground, feeling a bit like Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, a botanist trying to grow potatoes on Mars. The observation was not far off the mark—Bir Tawil looks a lot like the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum, which stood in as the red planet’s landscape in the movie.
Then Dixit applied his 15-minute rule: At each new place he travels to, there is a time when he sets aside his camera and his phone, and sits silently for 15 minutes. The sand and the red soil, the 42° heat, the stress of the journey, the adrenalin rush of reaching the end of his quest, all combined to give him a peculiar sense of peace.
When Dixit was finally back in cell phone range, well inside Egyptian borders, it was almost midnight. He rang his brother. He also spoke to his parents, who were bewildered at first. He wished his father happy birthday and told him that, as a gift, he was making him president of Bir Tawil, which, now that he had claimed it, was to be called the Kingdom of Dixit.
“My father was puzzled but happy that I declared him president,” Dixit says, “but my mother was not pleased. She scolded me over the phone for an hour I think.”
For fear of any action the Egyptian authorities might take, Dixit did not make his adventure public till he was on the plane for his flight back to India.
Who is king?
“Man, I felt famous! It was overnight,” Dixit says. “I could no longer accept friend requests on Facebook because I had reached my quota. My phone was ringing constantly. There were reporters at our house, god knows how they found it! My mailbox was full. My [social media] messenger crashed. It was very strange, a dream-like feeling. I loved it. I thought, it won’t last for more than a week, so let’s enjoy this! Epic!”
Then came Heaton, an organic farmer from a small town called Abingdon in Virginia, USA.
Heaton had travelled to Bir Tawil in 2014 with the express purpose of claiming it as his kingdom because he had made a promise to his young daughter that she will be a “real” princess one day. Heaton named Bir Tawil “The Kingdom of North Sudan”, and his adventure was reported across the world, with reactions ranging from reports that called the whole thing a fairy tale, to those that labelled it a deplorable act of racist neo-imperialism. Disney announced they would make a movie out of the story, but dropped the plan when a social media storm drove home the point that a movie about a white man claiming an African land so his daughter could be a princess, was going to be a hard sell.
Whatever the criticism, Heaton has absolutely no doubt the land is his. He announced on social media that Dixit had faked his journey. Dixit called Heaton. “I told him, ‘Look, this was my route, and you know this is the right one because this is how you went there as well’,” Dixit says. “He told me, ‘I have been at this for more than two years now, I have given up everything to make this a reality, so don’t suddenly come in and start spoiling things’.”
The two men reached an agreement—from now on, they would work together to formulate development plans for Bir Tawil.
Then Dmitry Zhikharev, a ham radio operator from Moscow, muscled into the fight. He called both men liars, saying that neither Dixit nor Heaton had proof they had reached Bir Tawil, whereas he has geo-tagged photos of himself from 2014, holding aloft a flag on a very tall, bent, pole at Bir Tawil, to back his claim. Heaton told Dixit to “dismiss the Russian”.
“Now you may ask, ‘Who then is king?’,” Dixit says. “It’s a race between Heaton and me. Whoever’s claim is recognized first is king. But what is more important is that we are both on the same page about developing Bir Tawil.”
What had been a personal adventure for Dixit was now suddenly a serious matter. Like Heaton and Zhikharev, Dixit has no doubt that his claim to Bir Tawil is rightful. “I am absolutely serious,” he says.
Dixit has put serious thought and time into understanding how land is claimed and a new nation formed. He’s come to a bleak conclusion: “There really are no rules! How a country is made or divided follows no set patterns,” he says. “It’s messy. Anybody can claim a country.”
Preposterous as it sounds, there is truth to the statement. Heaton, for instance, has brazened his way through accusations that his act echoes a deeply shameful history of colonial arrogance and imperialism. In an interview with the MEL magazine in May 2017, he said: “I don’t need permission from anyone to found my own country. People don’t really understand the concept of terra nullius: If a volcanic island were to pop up in the middle of international waters, you could occupy the island, and it’d be a self-sufficient community with its own government and legal structure. That’s what exists with Bir Tawil.
“I didn’t represent the USA…The land was unoccupied—and is still unoccupied—from any type of native population that exists there, so I’m not taking land from anyone. I haven’t exported resources. I haven’t subjugated anyone. Therefore I don’t fit the definition of colonialist in any way.”
Multiple e-mails to Heaton requesting an interview for this article elicited no response.
Heaton is either blind to—or chooses to ignore—the history of colonial imperialism. He invokes Terra Nullius, a legal phrase that translates to ‘No Man’s Land’, which was used by the European colonial powers to claim land, most devastatingly by the British in Australia in the 19th century, where they wiped out most of the island’s indigenous population, and by Belgium in the Congo, also in the 19th century—perhaps the most brutal example of colonial massacre in modern history. It was also invoked in the 16th and 17th centuries by European nations racing to establish colonies in the Americas.
Terra Nullius continues to be a legal term in international law, and continues to generate controversy. Japan and China’s bitter fight over a group of islands called Senkaku in the East China Sea is based on it. In 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled over a dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia on two other islands, Ligitan and Sipadan, which Malaysia claimed were Terra Nullius when they occupied it. The ICJ agreed.
As polar ice continues to melt, nations fighting for a piece of the Arctic pie are using almost exactly the same methods as Dixit, Heaton, and Zhikharev, which in turn are the same ones used by adventurers in the heady days of the first polar expeditions: get to the land first and plant a flag. In 2007, for example, the Russian Arktika expedition dropped a titanium tube containing the Russian flag near the North Pole as a part of their campaign to claim territory there.
The one thing that firmly goes against Dixit and Heaton’s efforts is that they are individuals—and not nation states—trying to claim land and proclaim sovereignty. Such a thing has never really succeeded. There is a weird tapestry of similar attempts in recent history, each claim darkly amusing.
Consider the Free Republic of Liberland, proclaimed on 13 April 2015 by a Czech libertarian politician called Vít Jedlička, a wooded, uninhabited 7 sq. km of land along a disputed border between Serbia and Croatia, which, like Bir Tawil, lies unclaimed by both countries. An article in the Chicago Journal of International Law examined the claim and declared it valid. Heaton’s Kingdom of North Sudan has recognized Liberland, hoping in turn to be recognized by them. Recognition also came from the Principality of Sealand, another chimerical kingdom with a fascinating history.
Sealand is a 120ft x 50ft rusty offshore platform soaring above the North Sea on a pair of hollow concrete pillars, roughly 12km off the coast of Suffolk, England. An anti-aircraft gun platform built during the Second World War that was then abandoned until the 1960s, it became a “pirate radio” haven. In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates, a pugnacious former British Army major who had served in the World War, forcibly ousted the unlicensed radio station then operating from the platform and established his own station there. Bates’ station never took off; instead, on 2 September that year, Bates declared the platform an independent country. What followed was one freakish adventure after another: an unsuccessful attempt by another pirate radio station to storm Sealand, the Royal Navy fired upon when they tried to board the platform, and a court case accusing the Bates family of possession of illegal weapons—thrown out by a British Court which ruled that the platform was not in British territorial waters. In 1974, the Bates family issued a constitution, flag, national anthem, currency, and passports for the Principality of Sealand.
Sealand than attempted to launch multiple businesses, including delusional plans of turning it into an offshore banking centre.
The most memorable effort was by two American “digital rebels”, who formed a company called HavenCo in 2000 that proposed to host a highly protected “data haven”, a no-questions-asked data location service that would operate outside the digital laws of other countries.
It got almost no business, partly because there are plenty of countries in the world that offer excellent data privacy, with far better infrastructure and a stable business environment; and partly because countries trying to rein in illegal digital activity can just arrest the people involved with it without having to touch the actual server holding the data (think Edward Snowden and Ross William Ulbricht, aka “Dread Pirate Roberts” who was arrested for running the dark net marketplace Silk Road).
Paddy Bates died in England at the age of 91, after appointing his son the “prince regent” of Sealand. The last news of note from Sealand was when English mountaineer Kenton Cool, one of the world’s leading Alpinists, placed a Sealand flag atop Mount Everest in 2013.
‘This land is my land’
These lessons from history have not made a dent to Heaton or Dixit’s plans. Since 2014, Heaton has led a stormy campaign, including a crowdfunding effort, to establish his claim to Bir Tawil, announcing grandiose projects for the area, and opening “embassies” for the Kingdom of North Sudan in the US, Copenhagen, Lithuania, and Prague. On the Kingdom of North Sudan’s website there are announcements that promise everything from turning Bir Tawil into the “world’s largest greenfield project… developing mechanical methods for terraforming the barren, dry desert into a high-yield, closed loop model for the future of food production..” that will lead to a “future free of hunger”; establishing a solar power farm that will shape the “next generation of energy conservation”; a financial model based on digital currency that will revolutionize economics; to building a server farm that will become “a lasting stronghold of free speech, information exchange and eCommerce”. You can even buy citizenship by donating on their website.
Heaton has said that he wants to be the “Elon Musk of agricultural development”, and has repeatedly asserted in interviews that he is sitting on $1.5 billion of investments waiting to be put to use. In the interview to Mel in 2017 he said, “The media has been sceptical of the possibility of this becoming a reality, but the progress that we’ve been making —our trade relationship talks between Egypt and Sudan are still ongoing—has really been striking.”
When things took a serious turn for Dixit, he sat down with his brother Suyog and their soft-spoken father Rajesh Kumar Dixit, who is head of the department for physics and computer science at the Government New Science College in Indore.
They found that to bring a new sovereign state into being under international law, following the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, the following provisos need to be met:
1. A defined territory (which they have)
2. A permanent population (which they don’t)
3. A government (which they are working to establish) and
4. A capacity to enter into relations with other states (which they are working on).
The convention also states that “the political existence of a state is independent of recognition by other states”, but there is also a more widely recognized, and conflicting, view that says that a state exists only when other states recognize it.
In view of this, Dixit shot off a letter to the UN asking for recognition for the Kingdom of Dixit. He received a reply with the Montevideo Convention spelled out for him.
“If any of the UN countries gives me even a small acknowledgement, I can go to countries like Zimbabwe and tell them, ‘Look, we can help you if you help us by giving us recognition’,” Dixit says. “And even if one country recognizes us, we are on our way.” He hasn’t approached the government of India, Dixit says, because he doesn’t think he will be taken seriously, at least not yet.
Meanwhile, a small group of friends and extended family are working with Dixit to draft a constitution and develop a concrete plan for forward action. Dixit says he is in the process of building a bigger team and that there will be major announcements made by the middle of the next year.
“There are two options, according to me,” Dixit’s father, Rajesh, says. “One, you make a cybercountry with no physical presence required. In that case, this will be the first place which will have rules and regulations purely adapted to cyber requirements. The other is that our great and beloved Prime Minister Modiji will come up with something that will guide us forward.”
Rajesh suggests that one promising prospect that may benefit the whole world is to turn Bir Tawil into a nuclear waste dumping site.
Dixit, who is a tech freak, is less keen to introduce radioactive waste to his kingdom and more interested in establishing an ambitious “server farm”, which, in an eerie repeat of Sealand’s plans, will become a “data haven” protected from prying governments.
But, apart from the myriad problems already laid out, another enormous obstacle looms for him: cooling the server farm.
A server farm, as the name suggests, is a collection of computer servers, usually consisting of thousands of computers acting as a data centre. They require an enormous amount of power to run and even more to keep them cool, which is why the capacity of a server farm is measured in performance per watt. It is also the reason why most large server farms are located in cold environments—Facebook’s server farm lies on the edge of the Arctic circle in Northern Sweden. Iceland, gifted with abundant geothermal electric supply and Arctic cold weather, is building one of the largest server farms in the world. A server farm located in the middle of nowhere, in a desert with 40°C average temperatures, in a kingdom that is not really a nation, and has no roads, no water, no electric supply and no actual government, is quite the pipe dream.
Dixit, Suyog, and a few friends in Egypt are looking to get people to settle in Bir Tawil, to accommodate the “permanent population” dictum of the Montevideo Convention.
“Friends have gone to nearby villages inside Egypt to ask them about problems they face so we can devise a plan on how to make their lives better if they shift,” Suyog says. “First thing of course is to get a good source of water, then electricity, and then road connectivity. Plus there are claimants— “Tawila” groups in Sudan who say that they were shifted out of the area by the British during the colonial rule, so we will give them back their land.”
The brothers feel that Egypt and Sudan will not object if they can bring investment into Bir Tawil and share the revenue with both countries. “Egypt does not care,” Dixit says. “No one gives a s**t about this area. It’s too far off the radar, too inhospitable.”
Dixit says that, so far, the price he has paid for being king has been minor—treating friends to meals at 5-star hotels, and a bit of a struggle to juggle his professional life and the demands of trying to create a new country. The major challenges lie ahead.
“It’s both crazy and interesting,” Dixit says, with a typically warm, friendly laugh. “And that’s the best part of it, that’s the thrill. It’s epic.”