The contested legacy of IsakSwu

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By PradipPhanjoubam

(The following is an Op-Ed article which appeared in The Hindu on June 30. This is a more elaborate version of an editorial the author wrote for the Imphal Free Press)

The death of IsakChishiSwu, the Chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and President of the organisation’s Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN), opens a new chapter and new uncertainties for the former underground organisation now engaged in peace negotiations with the Government of India since 1997. The immediate question is, would Swu’s departure impact the negotiation process adversely? For very different reasons, the answer would be both a no and a yes.

The much loved and respected Sumi (Sema) Naga who passed away at a Delhi hospital on June 28, at the age of 87, had been ailing for a long time. Recall that it was to honour the veteran’s wish to see the Naga struggle bear fruit before he left this world, at a time he was thought to be on his deathbed nearly a year ago, that a “Peace Accord”, later explained to be only a “Framework Agreement”, was hurriedly signed with much fanfare on August 3, 2015, between the NSCN(IM)’s other towering leader, General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, and Government of India representatives in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi.

Elusive Framework Agreement

It is a cruel irony that this Framework Agreement still has not materialised into anything tangible, making Swu’s wish fulfillment only partial, if not illusory, when he finally breathed his last. At the time of his death, he 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 foreign secretary. He is a co-founder, together with Mr.Muivah and S.S. Khaplang, of the undivided NSCN in 1980 when they rejected the Shillong Accord of 1975 by which the NNC agreed to lay down arms to begin a process of negotiation for 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 Mr.Muivah and the other by Mr.Khaplang, the NSCN(K).

As to why Swu’s departure would not derail the negotiation process, it is quite obvious. Swu has not been, in the real sense of the term, a part of the negotiations. This has a lot to do with his failing health, but also because it is an acknowledged fact that the real political and strategic brain of the NSCN(IM) leadership is Mr.Muivah, and Swu was a benign moral guide and figurehead.

As early as 1985, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who slipped into Myanmar from Nagaland’s Mon district for an 18-month trek through the country’s vast rebel territories, noticed this when he met the two leaders at their base camp at Kesan Chanlam village inside Myanmar territory. In his unusual and fascinating 1990 travelogue Land of Jade, he said his impression was that Swu, religious to the core, was more interested in spreading the word of god and proselytising the backward Myanmar Nagas. Mr.Muivah, he surmised quite rightly, was the political brain and de facto supremo of the organisation. Mr.Lintner stayed in the Chanlam camp for over a month waiting for his Kachin Independent Army, escorts to take him to other rebel territories in Myanmar, and his portrayal of life in this camp is quite intimate and insightful.

The journalist also noticed a rift was becoming visible between the more advanced and educated Nagas from the Indian side of the border and those from the Myanmar side, who at the time were little touched by the outside world. The 1988 explosion of open hostility between the two sides, when the battle-hardened but unlettered Myanmar Naga, Mr.Khaplang, and his followers attacked and ousted Mr.Muivah and his followers from his territory, Mr.Lintner said was a foregone conclusion, not only because of the widening differences in perceptions between the two sides but also on account of a resource crunch after a change in Chinese policy of providing aid and sanctuary to Naga rebels after Mao Zedong’s death.

Who next?

In the 1960s, especially in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India and the brief Indo-China border war of 1962, China had welcomed the Nagas and other Northeast rebels with open arms, and Mr.Muivah had led the first batches of Naga fighters to Yunnan in 1966-1967. Swu too was in China with the second batch of Naga rebels. Though Swu was only a figurehead, his departure will still matter profoundly in another way. It could hinge on who replaces Swu as NSCN(IM) Chairman and GPRN President. The automatic choice by protocol would be Vice President KholeKonyak, a long-time associate of Mr.Khaplang, who in 2011 split with his friend to form the NSCN (Unification) with another rebel leader, KitoviZhimomi, and then in March last year ditched this faction too and joined the NSCN(IM). His former factions alleged that these moves were engineered by intelligence agencies. Indeed, quite visibly, Indian intelligence has been separating rebel factions of Myanmar Nagas from those of Indian ones, understandably in the hope of reaching an agreement with the latter only, and also because NSCN(IM) wanted all other factions out of any peace deal. Last year, the NSCN(K) ultimately abrogated the ceasefire it held with the Government of India since 2001, and as a parting shot, staged the deadly June 4 ambush in Manipur’s Chandel district, killing 18 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment.

Mr.Khole, who also joined the Naga movement for sovereignty in the 1950s, is of Swu’s generation, and is unlikely to make any significant difference to the ongoing negotiations either. The question also remains as to how much authority he will command over other Nagas from Nagaland. Swu is from the Sumi tribe, which has a sizeable presence in the NSCN(IM), giving the group an anchor in Nagaland. Moreover, he was known for his integrity and commanded respect. Would Sumi involvement in the NSCN(IM) decline after Swu is a question which would worry Mr.Muivah. Again, it is unlikely Mr.Khole will have an unchallenged hold over his own tribe, the Konyaks, much less the other Naga tribes from Nagaland. This is significant, for with Swu gone, the NSCN(IM) may disastrously find its base in Nagaland shrink even further. Already Nagas from Manipur, in particular the Tangkhuls, dominate every level of the organisation’s hierarchy, and this has been a cause for much disenchantment among Nagas from Nagaland.

All these have the potential of putting more crippling hurdles before the Framework Agreement negotiations, an enterprise which is beset with many seemingly insurmountable problems as it is.

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