naga question

Isak Chisi Swu (1929-2016): The Bible scholar who backed a violent struggle for a Naga homeland

In the confusing debate about which Naga tribes are authentic, Swu brought legitimacy to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

For many people who follow affairs in the North East only loosely, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) was an armed outfit led by a person named Isak Muivah. As it turns out, that name actually contained the identities to two people: Chairman Isak Chisi Swu and the General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah. The confusion about the group that has been fighting for a separate territory for members of the various Naga tribes was not merely semantic. Command actually lay solely with Muivah and he was the face of the deadly group that has been responsible for serial massacres, literally waging a war against the Indian state, intimidating civilians, imposing taxes, smuggling narcotics and arms and setting up smaller armed groups across the region.

On Tuesday, Chairman Isak Swu died in a Delhi hospital at the age of 87 after a prolonged illness. While Muivah was the real power behind the group, Swu was an uncharismatic guerrilla, the silent partner that provided the group some legitimacy of claiming to be a Naga outfit fighting for a cause that actually predates Indian Independence. When Swu took ill last year, the Indian government hurriedly declared an agreement to a protracted negotiation that has been going on for decades. In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that after half a century of bloodshed and some 80 rounds of talks, the Naga issue has been settled.

But when people later enquired about the terms of the so-called framework agreement that had purportedly been reached, the government’s response was that they offered nothing but dignity, respect and honour and apparently that is all the Nagas wanted (despite several thousand lives having been lost in the process).The government argued the Naga groups – which are spread across several Indian states and also Myanmar – had not discussed geographical integration in previous negotiations. Therefore the government explained integration could also be cultural and that Nagas did not need to break away from other states territorially.

This was a sure recipe for confusion. The government has yet to spell out the fine print of the agreement.

Deep roots

The roots of the insurgency are deep. In 1946, the Naga National Council urged the British not to hand their territory over to India. Since then, it has been a long and bloody resistance to break free from India. But along the way, the Naga movement was split, subverted and corrupted.

The course of this armed rebellion that had terrorised the people and the state has been deeply shaped by tribal loyalties. The early leaders like Angami Zapu Phizo were Angamis. The Aos and Angamis form the power centre of the Nagas and the Aos were not averse in talking to India. But the other tribes were divided.

Muivah took over the reins in 1988, after the National Socialist Council of Nagaland spilt into factions named IM and K (led by SS Khaplang). But he is a Thangkul and his tribe geographically (and historically) falls within Manipur. In one indication of how the struggle for the integration of Naga-inhabited areas or the demand for Greater Nagaland or Nagalim remains violently contested and imagined, the Thangkuls are called “kaccha Nagas” and the major tribes do not see them as true representative of the Nagas of Nagaland.

That is why Muivah always had Swu next to him, a Sema Naga who allowed him to claim the authentic voice of the Nagas. Swu, however, is said to have spent most of his life in his Bible studies, leaving Muivah to call the shots.

With Swu gone and an agreement that has no clarity whatsoever, the road ahead could spell trouble. The NSCN(K) broke away from talks with the government last year and has been since striking hard at Indian security forces. It is now likely to try to swiftly move in and gain ground in the bitter turf war. Khaplang is a Hemi Naga from Myanamar and a contested claimant to the Naga war of resistance.

A real Naga

Swu was always a shadow and not exactly a leader from whom the Nagas would expect anything. But he was still “one of our own”, they would say, unlike Muivah. So he will be forgotten easily. The ageing Muivah does not have many options before him to replace his comrade. If he chooses a Thangkul, the group will be out of the great game. Many other Naga leaders are too old to take over.

Perhaps this something the Indian government interlocutor RN Ravi (who signed the framework agreement) and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had anticipated. They made the NSCN(IM) the representative group, keeping in mind its armed strength and capabilities but also tribal dynamics. The NSCN(K) operates primarily from Myanmar and the Indian government is trying to carry out strikes there.

The Naga people are tired of talks, of the illegal taxation imposed by the armed groups, of guns and blood and of the past. But they will fiercely demand that the government come clean and be sincere and honest in whatever has been agreed upon. They deserve some peace.

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