First person: When Naga leader Isak Chishi Swu cooked me some soup

The man who crossed over to China and took up arms against India before agreeing to the peace process was a kind and gentle person.

The immediate reaction of the Naga public and the Indian media to the death of Isak Chishi Swu, the 87-year-old Chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) was that it could have an adverse effect on the peace process.

But I was surprised at the depth of my own feeling of personal loss. It was like losing a father – a father who looks after you and protects you even when you are grown up and have a family of your own. The presence of the father is a source of constant comfort and reassurance and as long as Swu was alive, even when he was in the hospital lying in a precarious condition, there was a feeling that we were somehow safe and things would somehow work out.

It was with this feeling of personal loss that I accepted the invitation to speak at the Condolence meeting held at the Nagaland House in New Delhi the day after Isak Swu died.

The I of the I-M

The most powerful and moving testimony was from Thuingaleng Muivah, the General Secretary of the NSCN-IM - the M in the IM – and considered the prime minister of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim. He reminded those present that he and Isak Swu had been in the movement since the 1950s when they joined the Naga National Council under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo.

Swu was appointed the foreign secretary by the Naga Federal Government – he participated in the peace process in 1964 in that capacity. The peace talks failed and it was then that the two leaders made contact with China. Swu had led batches of Nagas through the thick wet jungles that separate Burma from India – an area called by the Naga insurgents as Eastern Nagaland.

In an interview some years ago with Swu’s wife, I heard the account of how they walked though the jungles, crossing streams and being pursued by both the Indian and Burmese armies. At the end of the day, they would find their clothes full of leaches and spend an hour killing them and getting ready for the next day’s march, often without food.

On one occasion, they came across a wild boar – he came sniffing around but went away. I asked why the boar had not attacked them and Swu replied with a twinkle in his eyes: “We smelt of the jungle.”

Swu was welcomed by the Chinese and took arms training from the People’s Liberation Army but he did not give up his deeply held Christian faith and persuaded the Chinese to build a church for the Naga insurgents.

Armed and trained by the Chinese, the Naga army took on the might of the Indian army and thus began the Indo-Naga conflict. The Indians thought they would be able to suppress the Naga movement with military might. Naga villages were burnt down, men tortured and women raped. The intolerable conditions led to a section of the Naga National Council signing a peace accord during the emergency in 1975.

Swu and Muivah condemned the Shillong Accord and by 1980 they decided to split from the Naga National Council and form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. By Nagaland they meant all the Naga inhabited areas in India and in Burma. In India, the Naga inhabited areas included the entire state of Nagaland, four districts of Manipur, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1982, the NSCN had their first major ambush in Namthilok in Ukhrul district of Manipur when they blew up a convoy of the Indian army in which many soldiers lost their lives.

From then to 1995, the two leaders had to face many challenges – from the Indian army, Indian intelligence agencies and within their own organisation. It was remarkable that the two, Swu and Muivah stuck together and faced each challenge without compromising their values or objective of having an independent, sovereign Nagalim.

Then in 1995, the Indian government under PV Narasimha Rao sent feelers to the NSCN leaders and finally Rao met the two leaders in Paris where he said India was prepared to see the problem as a political problem and was ready for peace talks. It was the political maturity of the two Naga leaders that they accepted the invitation and by 1997 the talks began in right earnest.

Muivah retraced much of this history and paid tribute to his comrade of more than five decades. He said Swu, older by several years, had always understood him and they had never had any occasion to differ politically.

‘Calm and patient’

Several men from the Indian intelligence community were present to offer their condolences. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval offered a wreath, while former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Interlocutor in the Indo-Naga talks, RN Ravi, praised Swu for his statesmanship and patience and said he hoped the peace process would soon conclude with an Accord. Swaraj Kaushal, advocate, who was involved in the peace process in the early stages, said that when he was first asked to negotiate he had found Muivah much more inclined to get angry and they had so many fights that they became friends. But it was the calm and patient Swu who helped establish trust. He said a solution could not just emerge from a microwave but it was also not something that we could put in the deep freeze and forget about.

Messages of condolence have been pouring in from political leaders such as Sonia Gandhi to the chief minister of Nagaland and bureaucrats involved in the peace talks, such as RS Pande and K Padmnabhaiah.

Bharat Bhushan, the journalist who had interviewed the two Naga leaders at the time of the ceasefire in 1997, recalled that Swu said that the peace process was not only about politics but had a higher spiritual significance. Swu told Bhushan that he believed that Indians were not born to kill Nagas. They would have to be friends and he deeply believed in the peace process.

Every single speaker remembered Swu as a kind, gentle person, a “perfect gentleman” was how MP Neiphiu Rio described him. N Ravi said he felt he was in the presence of a deeply spiritual being when he talked to the Chairman of NSCN.

Uncle Isak

Swu’s eldest son spoke on behalf of the family. He said since both his parents had been fighting in the jungles, all the four children were brought up in Eastern Nagaland – that is, Burma. The only time they had all come together was in 2000 when the entire family met and lived together.

I remember Swu had told me in an interview that he got news of the birth of his son while he was imprisoned by a rival Naga faction with a death sentence hanging over his head. He had got a secret message coded in Biblical language from his wife. But he had not told me that he never met his children till they were grown up. He would never speak of his personal problems or pain.

I met Swu on many occasions to interview him. But it was only later that I got to know him more – and he became Uncle Isak. That was the time when the Indian intelligence agencies played their dirty tricks and arrested Muivah when he was coming for the talks. It was said the arrest was a result of the rivalry between the different agencies. I had gone to Bangkok in my capacity as a lawyer to represent Muivah.

My dearest memory is when my husband Sebastian [Hongray] and I shared a meal with Uncle Isak and Uncle Muivah in a Bangkok mall. They took us to their favourite restaurant where they served the Mongolian Pot – wide variety of fish and meat with vegetables being brought raw so that we could choose what we wanted and put it in the boiling soup in front of us. The problem was that the morsels had to be deftly picked up with chopsticks and I did not know how to use the chopsticks. To save me embarrassment, Uncle Isak picked up pieces of meat and fish and cooked and served the dish to me. It was rather like a mother hen feeding her chick! The thing is I did not feel at all awkward.

In 2011, Sebastian and I set off to travel all over the North East and we had gone to tell Uncle Isak and Uncle Muivah about our intentions. Uncle Isak immediately said he would say a prayer for us. I remember telling Sebastian that despite being such a vehemently agnostic person, I felt his prayers had kept kept us safe throughout the 15,000 kms drive.

On one occasion Uncle Isak’s guard said that he had escorted him to church while they were in Thailand. He was horrified to see that he had signed the register with his large, generous handwriting – his full name and his designation as Chairman of the NSCN. We had smiled at Uncle’s naivety. But looking back it was a reflection of a man who was always himself – true to his political and religious beliefs. It was just a simple reflection of his enormous integrity. It is his moral and spiritual authority which the NSCN or the Naga national movement will find hard to replace.

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