The death of Isak Chishi Swu, the Chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, NSCN(IM) and President of the underground Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland, GPRN, without question would mean a new chapter and with it new uncertainties for the former underground organisation now engaged in a peace negotiation with the Government of India since 1987. The 87 year old Sumi Naga who passed away at the Fortis Hospital at Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, today (June 28) has been ailing for long time. It may be recalled that it was to honour his wish to see the Naga struggle bear fruit before he left this world, on another occasion he was thought to be on his death bed last year, that a “Peace Accord”, later explained to be only a “Framework Agreement”, was hurriedly signed with much fanfare on August 3 between the NSCN(IM)’s other towering leader, general secretary, Th. Muivah and the Government of India representatives in the presence of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, home minister Rajnath Singh, at the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi. It is a cruel irony that the agreement still fails to materialise into anything tangible, and Swu’s wish fulfilment was only partial, if not illusory, when he finally departed from this world. Swu was one of the few veterans left of the generation that began the Naga struggle under the banner of the Naga National Council, NNC, and the charismatic leadership of A.Z. Phizo in the 1950s, and held many important posts with the NNC, including its foreign secretary. He is a co-founder, together with Th. Muvah and S.S. Khaplang, of the undivided NSCN in 1980 rejecting the Shillong Accord of 1975 by which the NNC laid down arms to begin a process of peaceful reconciliation. He was again a co-founder of the NSCN(IM) when the NSCN split into two factions in 1988, one led by him and Muivah and the other by S.S. Khaplang which came to be known as the NSCN(K).
Would Swu’s departure make any difference to the Naga peace negotiation? The answer is both a “no” and a “yes”. No, because Swu has in the real sense of the term not been part of the negotiations, partly because of his failing health, but also because it is an acknowledged truth that the real political and strategic brain of the NSCN(IM) leadership is its General Secretary, Th. Muivah. As early as 1985, a Swiss journalist, Bertil Lintner, who slipped into Myanmar from Nagaland’s Mon district, for an 18 months trek through the country’s vast rebel territories, noticed this when he met the two leaders in their base camp at Kesan Chanlam eastern Naga village inside Myanmar territory. Swu was always the figure head of the organisation, according to Lintner’s accounts in his 1990 book “Land of Jade” and was more involved in proselytising the backward Myanmar Nagas. Muivah, he surmised quire rightly, was the political brain and de facto leader of the organisation. The journalist also noticed the rift that was becoming visible between the more advanced and educated Nagas from the Indian side of the border and the backward Nagas on the Myanmar side. The 1988 explosion of open hostility between the two sides, when the battle hardened but unlettered Khaplang and his followers attacked and ousted Muivah and his followers, Lintner said was also coming for a long time, not only because of the widening differences between the two sides but also on account of a resource crunch, after a change in Chinese policy of providing sanctuary and help to Nagas rebels after Mao Zedong’s death. In the 1960s, especially in the aftermath of the 1962 Indo-China border war, China had welcomed the Nagas and other Northeast rebels with an open arms and Muivah had led the first batches of Naga fighters to Yunnan in 1966 and 1967.
Though Swu was only a figurehead and his departure would matter little in material terms, there are other weighty issues the NSCN(IM) would have to deal with it. The first of these is, who would replace Swu as president. The automatic choice by protocol would be vice president Khole Konyak, a long-time associate of Khaplang, who in 2011 split with his friend to form the NSCN (Unification) with another leader Ketovi Zhimoni, and then earlier this year ditched this faction too and joined the NSCN(IM) in March, moves that his former factions alleged were engineered by the Indian intelligence. Khole who also joined the Naga movement for sovereignty in the 1950s is of Swu’s generation, and is unlikely to make any difference to the on-going negotiations, but the question remains as to how much he will command authority over other Nagas from Nagaland. Swu is from the Sumi tribe and this tribe has a sizeable presence in the NSCN(IM), moreover, he commanded respect for his integrity. It is unlikely Khole will have the same hold over his tribe the Konyaks, much less the other Nagas from Nagaland. This is significant, for with Swu gone, the NSCN(IM), already dominated at every level of the hierarchy by Nagas from Manipur, and in particular the Tangkhuls, a fact which is already disenchanting Nagas from Nagaland, may disastrously find its base in Nagaland shrink even further. This could put more hurdles, if not doom further progress of the Framework Agreement negotiations.