Rishang Keishing, the veteran Tangkhul Naga political leader from Manipur, four-term chief minister and India’s oldest Parliamentarian, died at the age of 97 on August 22 in the state capital of Imphal.

His long and illustrious political career, spanning more than half a century, has been the subject of celebration as well as condemnation, often simultaneously.

Even after his demise, controversy refused to part with grand old man of Manipur politics as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction, or NSCN (IM), reportedly denied permission for him to be buried in his native village of Ukhrul – a charge that the organisation that is campaigning for a separate homeland for the Nagas has denied. The leader’s last rites were conducted in Imphal on August 24.

Charting an alternative path

The NSCN(IM)’s ties with Keishang have been fraught, ostensibly over his lack of support to the Naga cause. But a closer look at his politics points to a more complex position.

The foundations of Naga Nationalism were laid during the first world war. About 2000 Nagas served in the labour corps of the British military in France, where a sense of Naga unity and camraderie was first fostered. Upon their return, with British support, the Naga Club was formed in 1918. This sowed the seeds of the nationalist movement which were strengthened in the second world war, when Nagas were again serving together for the British forces. In 1946, the Naga Club was replaced by the Naga Nationalist Council under Angami Zapu Phizo, the “father of the Nagas”, who was hailed as the pioneer of the secessionist movement. Having experienced a changing world at close quarters, Phizo and other Naga leaders carried the dream of an independent Naga nation. In those turbulent years, they saw opportunity.

Rishang Keishing had experienced a world in flux too. As a student, he saw the fratricide, genocide and riots tearing apart the city of Calcutta on the eve of India’s independence in 1947. And he saw the figure of Gandhi, standing tall amidst the chaos, trying to bring back sanity into the madness.

Once back in Manipur, Keishing was to become extremely critical about violence and would make education the harbinger of change by accessing all resources and opportunities to be offered by a newly independent India. He would attempt to chalk out a path of non-violence to meet the grievances of the people of the Tangkhul villages, which had been ravaged by the Battle of Imphal during the Second World War.

Over the years, Keishing would find himself on the “wrong side” of the Naga history, against the tide of a sweeping consolidation for a Naga nationalism that would seek to severe all political ties with India.

The dream of integration

In an atmosphere of turmoil, when the Naga insurgency was beginning to peak, Keishing was elected to the first Lok Sabha in 1952 as a candidate of the Socialist Party. It was the beginning of a long journey from which he would retire many decades later, as the oldest serving Parliament in the 15th Lok Sabha of India in 2014.

If there is one word that would define the many decades of his eventful political life, it would be integration. In a landscape defined through a politics of contention, where people, society and institutions are interlocked in the backdrop of historical change, political motives are fluid. “Integration” for Reishing remained a core but complex agenda, which came to mean more than one thing over time and was often seen as contradictory by his detractors.

For instance, in August 1972, he pioneered an agreement between then United Naga Integration Council (which later gave way to form the NSCN) and the Congress. This agreement recognised the vision of a Greater Nagalim, a region that would integrate Nagaland and the Naga-populated districts of Manipur under one administration. Keishing was also compelled to resign as chief minister 1980s after the governor of Manipur alleged that Keishing and some of his ministers were providing support to NSCN (IM) guereillas. Later, in 2005, it was reported that Keishing, then a Rajya Sabha member, was the first to sign the Naga integration memorandum with the Prime Minister for strengthening the ongoing peace negotiation between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM.

Actions like these may have seen him being sympathetic to the Naga cause, but even as he supported the movement to some degree, Keishing charted a radically different path from many of his tribal counterparts by vowing his life-long allegiance to the Indian Constitution.

As chief minister of Manipur, took the significant step of declaring some of the tribal festival as state holidays as a way to integrate Manipur, and bridge the divide between the hills and the valleys that has been bleeding the state for decades. The tribal people of the hills have felt that they have been deprived and discriminated against even as the benefits of development only reach the dominant Metei community in the plains. Another reason of the divide is that the demand for a Greater Nagalim, which would eat into Manipur’s territory. This had led to many conflicts and clashes between the Meteis and Nagas.

For taking steps towards the integration of Manipur, Keishing was often condemned for being “pro-Meitei” at the cost of his own people. He was accused of hiding in the Imphal valley and ridiculed as the “Judas amongst the Nagas.” Assassination attempts were made on his life too, allegedly at the behest of the NSCN (IM).

But he survived them all and continued to do well in electoral politics. His politics, in fact, raised several important questions: Can one not continue to be a Naga nationalist despite being in the Indian Parliamentary system? Can one represent a political institution while also be aware of (and in agreement with) its critiques?

Keishing was marked out both as a stooge of the state as well as an astute statesmen. But even the ballot and bullet have often co-existed in societies where money, muscle and mandate exists in a complex matrix of relations. And so, perhaps a degree of ambivalence inevitable in the contentious socio-political climate of Manipur.

A legacy unresolved?

Keishing’s story is significant in telling us the power of symbolism, both in its success and failures. His success in electoral politics has often been considered an indication of the status and strength of the tribes in Manipur. At the same time, Keishing’s example is also cited as one of political appropriation and tokenism, where, despite representation in state institutions, minority communities continue to be deprived.

Keishing had the potential to become the solid bridge connecting the valley and the hills in Manipur. The reason for his limited success holds the key to a lot of political complexities brewing in the state over the years.

But his legacy will remain as a powerful critique to the idea of the armed liberation of the oppressed nationalities. After all, notwithstanding the political ambivalence, the stand taken by him was an original one: a path of political participation and non-violence, not secession and violence. Time will judge which path was right.