I never met the underground leader Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang who led the separatist armed outfit National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khalpang) – he died in a hospital in Myanmar on Friday at the age of 77 – even though I had the opportunity to travel to his camp a couple of times. However, I have met his deputies at various supposed hideouts that I later realised were virtual safe houses maintained by the Indian state.

During the time I reported the conflict in Nagaland and the North East, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khalpang) was seen as an Indian ally while the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) was the prime target whilst on a ceasefire with the Indian government. Both were fighting for the creation of a sovereign Naga state comprising all the areas inhabited by Nagas in the North East and in Myanmar. Khaplang was on a ceasefire as well, though the guns never fell silent. The Isak-Muivah faction led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu was stronger, had a larger cadre base and turf within India while the Khaplang group controlled areas within Myanmar. By 2000, the fratricidal clashes had increased, giving birth to splinter groups and all of them carried out extortion (which they called taxation), indulged in gun running and narcotic trade with impunity. Nagaland was in a quagmire, left to its own fate straddled with conflicting agendas.

Naga resistance history

SS Khaplang, who belonged to the Hemi Naga tribe, was born and lived in Myanmar. In 1964 he created the Naga Defence Force that conceived a separate nation carved out of India and Myanmar. He soon joined hands with Angami Zapu Phizo’s Naga National Council, helping them travel to China for training. But Phizo’s signing of the Shillong Accord of 1975 (under which the Naga National Council accepted the Indian Constitution), seen by many as an act of betrayal, prompted Khaplang to join forces with Th Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu and rise in revolt against Phizo. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland was born. But in 1988, after a bloody war across the jungles of Myanmar between Muivah and Khaplang in which Muivah was almost killed and he lost a significant number of his fighting forces, the group split and the notorious factions Isak-Muivah and Khaplang were formed. Tribal rivalries (primarily between Konyaks and Thangkuls) triggered the split. Muivah is a Thangkul from Manipur. Ironically, it was a man from Myanmar and another from Manipur who led the half-a-century-old Naga resistance.

Based in Myanmar, Khaplang soon became the primary weapon supplier to dozens of armed groups in the North East. He also provided logistics and camps to several of these groups in Taka near the Chindwin river in the country’s Sagaing region. In India, he controlled locations in eastern Nagaland, Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh and Hemei and Pangmei settlements in Myanmar. The arms trade continues along the Sino-Myanmar border.

Over the years the Indian government negotiated with the stronger of the two factions, the Isak-Muivah, and finally in 2015 announced a peace agreement (the details of which are still not available) following some 80 rounds of talks. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) refused to join the peace deal and walked out of the ceasefire, a fallout that the Indian interlocutor may have found convenient. It only helped strategise the future course of action. Khaplang was ailing and his death now paves the way for possible resumption of the “peace process”, a term that the state applies to an arbitrary form of reconciliation hoping the pragmatists within the group will push for negotiation. Holding formal peace talks with a Myanmar citizen would anyway have been a problem.

Following Khaplang’s abrogation of the ceasefire in 2015, the group struck hard on Indian security forces. In 2016, it carried out a daring attack on an Army convoy in Manipur, killing 20 soldiers. India (reportedly) retaliated with a cross-border raid on Khaplang camps, though its veracity has never been established. Besides, the raid if at all did little to deter the outfit’s adventures. The group seemed to have joined hands with other groups to form a coalition to carry out strikes across the region. But the intensity and strength had clearly diminished.

Th Muivah (second from right) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval during the signing of the Naga peace accord in 2015.

What’s ahead

With the death of Khaplang, that of Isak Chisi Swu last year, and an ageing Muivah, the classical guerilla warfare may be a thing of the past. However, it is unlikely that the next generation of urban-guerilla leaders of these two outfits will give up criminal activities of extortion and abduction. It will be interesting to see how the existing leaders of other armed outfits such as Paresh Baruah of the United Liberation Front of Asom and Manipuri groups operating out of Myanmar now position themselves and influence the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)’s line of succession.

Though India wants a peaceful border to take forward its Act East policy – which aims to promote economic, cultural and strategic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific, thereby providing enhanced connectivity to its North-Eastern states – fighting Indian rebels has never been a priority for Myanmar’s military.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee is an Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University. He is the author most recently of Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters.