In a meeting last month, the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang), a Naga nationalists group, “unanimously impeached” its chairman, Khango Konyak, for violating “party discipline”. The meeting took place at the group’s headquarters in Myanmar. Konyak is now expected to cross the Indian border into Nagaland.
This split in the ranks could have a direct bearing on the peace talks held between the government of India and seven Naga militant groups. These include the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) – the largest of all Naga nationalist outfits; the NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), the Naga Nationalist Council, the Federal Government of Nagaland, NSCN (Reformation), National Peoples Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord) and Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland (Non-Accord).
Naga nationalism, which spawned one of the oldest armed movements in India, revolves around the demand for Nagalim, or an ethnic homeland. Under Naga demands, this would be sovereign territory that includes Nagaland and “all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas” of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh as well as Myanmar, across the border.
The government signed a framework agreement with NSCN (I-M) in 2015 and drew other groups into talks last year. But one of the most commonly expressed misgivings in Nagaland is the absence of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) from the talks. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that a pact with Naga militant groups that did not include the Khaplang faction would mean an incomplete peace, and would be shortlived. After NSCN (K) walked out of a ceasefire with the Indian government in April 2015, it has stayed away from talks and launched a series of attacks on Indian armed forces.
Talking to India?
The NSCN (K) was founded in 1988 by SS Khaplang, a Naga of Myanmarese origin, after he walked out of the NSCN (I-M). Khaplang died in 2017. Yung Aung – who is his nephew and a Myanmarese Naga like his uncle – is said to become chairman of the group.
Khango Konyak traces his roots to Eastern Nagaland’s Konyak tribe.
Several other senior NSCN (K) leaders with their origins in the Indian side of the border have reportedly been ejected along with Konyak. They are now expected to follow Konyak into Nagaland.
With their exit, the NSCN (K) will be controlled by the Nagas of Myanmar. Hostilities between the group and the Myanmar Army tapered off after the NSCN (K) signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with that country’s government in 2012. The truce also provided for the opening of a liaison office to facilitate further talks, the holding of sustained negotiations and freedom of movement for unarmed NSCN (K) cadre within Myanmar.
Meanwhile, according to reports, the Centre made overtures to the outfit to get it to return to talks and Indian security agencies liaised with Indian Naga leaders of NSCN (K). Though it has not been stated in explicit terms, this could mean a division of the outfit along lines of nationality.
Will Konyak and his loyalists, largely based in Eastern Nagaland, now engage with the Indian government?
Civil society groups pitch in
Civil society organisations based in Eastern Nagaland – the site of several violent clashes in recent years between NSCN (K) and Indian security forces – seem to be working towards it. The Konyak Union has already reached out to him, said the union’s president, Manlip Konyak. “There will be a positive impact if he joins the talks with the Indian government,” he said. “So, we are trying to convince him.” Manlip Konyak added that Khango Konyak was currently considering his options. “He is not committing for anything at the moment,” he said.
P Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of several tribal groups in Nagaland, said if Khango Konyak were to join the peace process, it would be “the best” development. “The peace process will definitely become more inclusive,” he said.
‘The onus is on him’
There is furious speculation about Khango Konyak’s future course of action. Several reports quoting unidentified people have suggested that he may join the NSCN (I-M). However, civil society representatives in contact with the leader say that he is yet to take a decision on whether he will join any of the India-based Naga groups or float a new faction of the NSCN (K) with his Eastern Nagaland support base. “He may or may not join the NSCN (I-M), it is not final yet,” said a leader of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, the apex body of the Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Phom tribes based in Eastern Nagaland.
Manlip Konyak also insisted that Khango Konyak’s future plan of action was yet to be finalised. “Whether he joins [NSCN] I-M or any of the other Naga political groups, he has not disclosed yet,” he said.
A member of the Naga National Political Groups – the term for the coalition of the six groups, other than NSCN (I-M), in talks with the Centre – said they would welcome Khango Konyak if he were to make an overture. “There is no question of denying him,” said the leader who did not want to be named. “We would love to have everyone on board.”
Theja Therieh of the Nagaland Tribes Council, another conglomerate with representatives from several Naga tribes, said the talks would receive a fillip if Khango Konyak were to join, in “whatever capacity”, as “civil bodies from Eastern Nagaland will also come out in a big way to help him”. “The onus is on him,” Therie said. “Whether he joins any of the existing groups or forms his separate entity, it is up to him.”
A note of caution
But as S Khowisang, an advisor to the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation pointed out, the path from Myanmar’s jungles to the negotiating table in Delhi is riddled with obstacles, the toughest of which may come from the Indian government. “Until and unless India assures him that he will not be arrested, nothing will happen,” he said.
Ozukum concurred: “Central government should also initiate, and say that they will not arrest him.”
Analysts and stakeholders also cautioned against too much optimism about Khango Konyak joining talks. “Although he has supporters in Eastern Nagaland, we are not sure he has the capabilities to organise the cadres into a group,” said Therieh, suggesting that he may not be able to bring too many people along with him even if he were to join the talks. “He seems to be relying too much on the civil society groups.”
Witobou Newmai, a veteran journalist from the state, had similar reservations. “If there is really going to be a split, we don’t yet know how many people are going to be behind Khango,” he said. “Besides, when UG [underground] groups split, more violence inevitably follows, so from that point of view it is not encouraging.”
Journalist Oken Jeet Sandham, author of Narendra Modi and Naga Peace Accord, tended to agree. “Khango has a support base in Eastern Nagaland,” he said. “But the NSCN (K) has a lot of sympathisers in Eastern Nagaland, I am not sure they differentiate between Nagas of Myanmar and India.”
Still, Sandham conceded that this was an opening that the Indian government could use to bring Khango Konyak to the negotiation table. “But is the government of India really willing to resolve the Naga issue?” he asked.