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S.S. Khaplang – The Enigma of the ‘Fighter-Uncle-Warlord’

The recent passing of the Naga rebel and the patron of insurgency in the Northeast has cast a shadow over what the future holds for the Naga movement.

NSCN(K) chairman S.S. Khaplang, seen here at a camp in Myanmar in 2011. Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

At the end of his life, S.S. Khaplang, a leader of the Nagas in Myanmar and founder of the armed anti-India group known as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), remained an enigma. Few Indians had met him, least of all the media. One enterprising journalist from Assam who had spent time in his headquarters a few years prior, recalled a couple of days ago that the high-sounding unit was just a cluster of huts.

Khaplang’s organisation was banned and branded a terrorist group by the government of India after he broke the ceasefire accord and launched a devastating ambush in which 18 soldiers were killed in 2015. Till the end of his days, he carried a bounty on his head, yet remained out of reach of the Indian security agencies.

Known as ‘Baba’, as a patron of terrorism and insurgency in the Northeast, as a warlord, as uncle – by the former chief minister of Nagaland, T.R. Zeliang – and as a patriarch, there is no denying the challenges that have sprung up with his passing nor the possibilities.

For one, Khaplang was one of the trinity of the Naga movement against India, which emerged from the shadows of their charismatic leader A.Z. Phizo in 1980, to command and direct the fight against New Delhi.

The other two are much better known names – Th. Muivah, who is the sole survivor of that original group, and Isak Chishi Swu, who passed away almost exactly a year ago, in June 2016. Muivah is general secretary of NSCN (IM faction), founded in 1980 in Myanmar by him, Khaplang and Swu after they denounced and rejected the 1975 Shillong accord.

Isak Chishi Swu. Credit: PTI

That agreement had been signed when representatives of the then federal government of Nagaland and its political wing, the Naga National Council, accepted “without condition, the constitution of India”. Yet the accord went on to say that the underground representatives would have a ‘reasonable’ time to prepare for “a final settlement”. The first clause was denounced by the trinity as a surrender and led to the start of a fratricidal conflict within the Naga movement, which has not ceased, although it has abated.

In 1997, the NSCN-IM agreed to come to negotiations after a few mediators laid the ground for the discussions. A ceasefire was signed with Muivah and Swu, which has endured for 20 years, as have the negotiations, although they don’t appear close to a settlement despite a framework that was signed in August 2015, as Swu lay critically ill in a Delhi hospital.

But Khaplang, who had broken with the duo in 1988, accusing them of bad faith and sent his best commandos to eliminate them, remained on the fringe. The Centre engaged with his group and entered into a ceasefire. There were no negotiations apart from conversations at meetings of the ceasefire monitoring unit. The NSCN-IM was politically stronger and it kept the process of negotiations to itself, threatening to walk out of talks if its rival was brought into the process. After a decade, Khaplang got fed up, abrogated the ceasefire, launched a series of attacks and set up with another wanted rebel, Paresh Baruah of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), a loosely structured, high-sounding alliance of armed factions called the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.


Also read: S.S. Khaplang, Naga Rebel Who Became One of the Indian Army’s Deadliest Foes


While there may be concerns about valourising a figure who fought against the idea of India, it cannot but be seen in the light of the fact that this was a man who represented a generation that did just that. Some of that generation came out of the forests to engage in peace talks and the road to settlement, others continue to believe that the ‘promised land’ could be won only through the barrel of a gun.

What Khaplang and others from the older generation missed was that a new, younger generation in Nagaland and the region had grown with other priorities and vested interests in peace. Their concerns, as those of the young everywhere, were about livelihoods and fulfilling aspirations, living in peace and catching up with their peers in other parts of India and the world.

They are interested in the Naga struggle but it is not the robust, passionate effort that consumed the lives and spirits of an older generation. They live in the region at a time when, barring some incidents, it has perhaps known peace or a major reduction of armed conflict for the first time in the past seven decades (although one could exempt Manipur, which is still deeply troubled). One is not talking about the communal or ethnic violence but of armed groups fighting the state since many of the former are either in a peace process, ceasefire mode or in detention. There are others which remain outside this loop and which remain predatory and extractive.

Challenges ahead

Khaplang’s death has also provided challenges and possibilities. First is whether the Naga groups, which are so deeply divided, can unite under a common leadership – and whether that leader is Muivah, the surviving member of the trinity. Clearly, there cannot be negotiations with leaders of a group that is of Burmese origin.

Interestingly, while Khaplang’s relations with India splintered, in his last years, ties with Naypyidaw improved to the point that he was given a semi-autonomous patch of territory in the Taga region, near the India-Myanmar border.

Thuingaleng Muivah. Credit: PTI

As of now, the ceasefire arrangement with the current government in Myanmar remains informal although there are two Naga MPs in the national parliament. Khaplang’s own health was a matter of concern for Myanmar army authorities who provided him travel and access to military facilities in Yangon.

The Naga issue remains low priority for our neighbouring country, preoccupied as it is with the Rohingya conflict and the sharp confrontation with the Wa and the Kachins, which have ten times the number of troops and many times the firepower of the Nagas.

Muivah’s own dismissive remarks of his late rival, saying that the latter was “forgiven” for his attacks, cannot be seen as holding the olive branch out to Khaplang’s successor. It is these deeply bitter personal relations that have shaped significant parts of the Naga narrative and continued to cast a shadow over the future.

In addition, the Centre and the NSCN-IM continue to face flak for not revealing details of the framework agreement signed at the official residence of the prime minister on August 3, 2015. As the weeks and months go by and the second anniversary approaches, as do the Naga state elections, the public pressure seeking disclosure is bound to grow. There is deep and growing anxiety among Nagas about what this secret ‘historic’ accord holds. “There is a strong anti-IM sentiment in the state,” said a senior editor in Nagaland.

Eulogising Khaplang

Things have not been made easier by the vitriolic attack by some in the metro media on a well-meaning but inappropriate statement by Nagaland chief minister Shourhozelie Liezietsu, who praised Khaplang in a condolence message. The chief minister said that “Khaplang had, a few months back, conveyed his willingness to have dialogue with the government of India, provided ‘issues of substance’ were discussed. However, before things could be taken forward to its logical conclusion, it is calamitous that the Naga leader could not live long enough to see the proverbial Promised Land.” He added, that the need was “for all different Naga political groups to come together to air our views and aspirations to the government of India in one voice is absolutely imperative.”

His predecessor Zeliang called Khaplang “uncle” but then the trinity were popularly called uncles out of respect by many Nagas, as well as followers and cadres who in turn were known as national workers and have been for decades.

The distance of mainland India, especially uninformed media in terms of understanding the many weaves of the complex Naga issue, has become visible in their reporting. What many gloss over is that it is the job of governments to reach out to anti-state groups to reduce conflict and bloodshed. This is what governments across the world do to defang the armed power of such groups, whether it the US and the Taliban, India and Tamil groups in Sri Lanka or Kashmiri militants and Punjab’s armed outfits. Channels and anchors should not show their lack of knowledge on their channels by demonstrations of jingoism and ultra-patriotism.

Khaplang’s connections with India were tenuous: apart from early years of schooling, he did not spend any significant length of time even with his Naga brethren on the Indian side. He was a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. Yet, like many who are physically distant from the arena of immediate conflict, he gained a larger-than-life image for his determination to continue the “Naga struggle” against New Delhi. Much of his travel was within Myanmar and he began mobilising the Nagas in his country in the 1950s.

It was Khaplang who opened up the door to China through his connections in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), who had already been immersed for decades in the fight against Yangon. The KIA helped the first group of Nagas to get to Yunnan in 1966 under Muivah and ‘General’ Thinosilie.

But his suspicions of Muivah and Swu in 1988 hardened and led to a surprise attack on the latter, in which some of their best fighters from the Tangkhul tribe were killed, and the two barely escaped. That bitterness remained unburied and unhealed till Khaplang’s last days.

Although the leadership of the NSCN-K is said to in the hands of vice-chairman Khango Konyak, there are reports that Khaplang’s younger military aides may make a bid for the post. A clearer picture may take time to emerge but his death casts a cloud over the future of the self-designated United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia and the Songbijit group of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

Indeed, with two of the trinity gone, the remaining patriarch, Muivah, at 83, carries an incredible and growing difficult burden, like Atlas, to deliver on the many promises that have made over the decades – to each other, to the Nagas and to the Indian government.

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Although much of what could happen in the Naga situation remains in the realm of presumption and speculation, a stunning new case has come up in Kerala, which could mirror many aspects connecting corruption, extortion, armed groups, violence, government, politicians and officials in Nagaland. It involves a man from Kerala who started his professional life as a constable in Nagaland, retired as an additional superintendent of police and now presides over a Rs 1,000-crore business that has fallen under the scanner of police and income tax authorities in Kerala.

News reports speak of how “the Income Tax department (intelligence and criminal investigation) in Kochi has unearthed unaccounted money worth Rs 400 crore from a firm owned by M. K. R. Pillai, a former additional superintendent of police of Nagaland police”.

“Simultaneous raids were conducted in Kerala, Karnataka, Nagaland and Delhi after doubts emerged that Pillai’s Sreevalsam Group, worth Rs 1,000 crore, was involved in suspicious financial dealings,” said one report.

This is clearly a matter for the National Investigation Agency, whose first case was the nexus of corruption and armed groups in the North Cachar Hills District Council. In that case, a special court awarded prison terms to 15 people, including life terms to the former chairman and commander-in-chief of a disbanded Assam-based terror outfit. The cases related to the siphoning of government funds amounting to nearly Rs 1,000 crore for subversive activities. As a result of the excellent investigation, the former head of the autonomous council there was also given a life term. The chairman of the group had been arrested from Bangalore, where he lived a lavish lifestyle, using money drawn from extortion and ransom.

Sanjoy Hazarika is the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Views expressed are personal.

  • ashok759

    Whether it is Kashmir or the north east, a lot of the money sent by the Centre for governance and development seems to end up with the wrong people.