The ‘I’ of the I-M: Nagaland’s Marathon Man, of Faith and Grit

Credit: PTI

Isak Chishi Swu.
1929-June 28, 2016 

Isak Chisi Swu, who died in New Delhi on Tuesday, June 28,  led the pro-independence Naga movement along with his close friend and political comrade, Thuingaleng Muivah, for nearly 50 years. And since 1988, when the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (now Nagalim) split in Burma, his initial was the ‘I’ of one of the groups, the I-M, with ‘M’ standing for Muivah.

This deeply committed Christian and his colleague, a brilliant Marxist and Naga nationalist, saw a future in a Naga nation carved out of India. They formed an unlikely but enduring and remarkably cohesive two-man unit known in recent decades as the ‘collective leadership’ of their NSCN.

After a bloody falling out in 1988 with S.S. Khaplang, the Burmese Naga leader, Swu and Muivah ensured that their small organisation grew in numbers, funds, weapons and political influence over the years both in Swu’s home turf of Nagaland state and in the Naga-dominated hills of Manipur, where Muivah’s home lay.

What is important to note here is that Swu was a Sema or Sumi, one of the dominant tribes of Nagaland, while Muivah is a Tangkhul from Manipur, where he and his group are feared and regarded with suspicion by other tribes, including Naga ones, and especially by the Meitei population of the Imphal valley, who are a majority in the state. Many Meiteis see in him a figure  who would divide their state in pursuit of the Nagalim or Naga Homeland that the NSCN has long pursued.

The I-M group is controlled politically as well as militarily by Muivah’s tribe but Swu’s stature as foreign secretary earlier in the undivided ‘Federal Government of Nagaland’, the governmental arm of the Naga National Council (NNC), and his post as chairman of the NSCN gave it much needed legitimacy in Nagaland.

However, in the past years, many discordant voices of criticism have arisen, with peace enabling people to speak out.  In addition, church-led forums have worked to develop reconciliation between the warring factions, but with limited results.

In addition, after a framework agreement was signed last August in New Delhi between the Centre and the NSCN (I-M) in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the entire Nagaland assembly converted itself into the ruling party with the Congress Party in the state walking into the Naga Peoples Front-led alliance. The MLAs said they were prepared to quit en masse to facilitate an agreement – but that remains in process, without a clear end in sight.

The NSCN finds itself criticised also by a vocal group which declared that the heavy taxation levied by the armed groups was unjustified and in many cases organised open shows of public protest and defiance against the groups, defying even a ban from the NSCN (I-M).

From Phizo to the NSCN

The NSCN’s journey to the top of the Naga political and armed ladder was marked by a ruthless dominance of other political and armed groups, including individuals who did not follow its dictates. The group that suffered the most initially during the NSCN’s rise was the Naga National Council which, under the Federal Government of Nagaland, had signed the 1975 Shillong Accord.

That accord, which was brokered by Governor L.P. Singh, himself a former home secretary, and the no-nonsense M.L. Campani, triggered a split in the Naga political forces which had sought to assert their independence from 1947 onward, breaking out in the mid-1950s in a full fledged insurgency.

Those divisions took five years to explode as Swu and his colleagues waited for the founder to the independence movement, Angami Zapu Phizo, by then well-settled in exile in London, to denounce the Shillong Accord. It was a time without mobile phones or internet. The group had to depend on land lines and messengers, occasional flights and journeys on foot through difficult terrain with hostile government forces lurking in Burma and across Nagaland, conflicts raging in Vietnam, Cambodia and other parts of South East Asia.

When Phizo failed to respond, they mobilised their forces and came together – Swu, Muivah and Khaplang – to attack the NNC, denouncing its leaders and their supporters as opportunists and traitors of the Naga cause for independence.

This was a position from which Swu, a lean, bespectacled man with a serious demeanour, did not resile till virtually the end. His opposition to and suspicion of the NNC remained implacable; he distrusted many of its followers, even though they were well regarded in Nagaland, especially by civil society. Yet, despite this, it was a courageous and historic decision on his part to exchange the weapons of war for peace negotiations and a future in the Indian Union and engage with New Delhi.

Swu was a deeply religious man who quoted the Bible often to underscore a point, often leading religious services at the chapels and meetings of the NSCN.

With Muivah always by his side, Swu ensured that the NSCN did not fall prey to the contradiction that has overwhelmed other militant groups in the North-eastwhere the armed wing controlled the political wing – as has happened in Assam with the United Liberation Front of Asom and in the fratricidal conflict among the Nagas where Khaplang in Myanmar is the political and army boss of his forces, the NSCN (K).  But steadily, the organisation grew in power and political clout, extending its reach into parts of Assam and two districts of Arunachal Pradesh, establishing collaborations with other armed anti-India groups, earning the grudging praise of Indian political, security and military leaders who dubbed it “the mother of insurgencies” in the North-east.

In conversations with journalists, political leaders, officials and others, it was often Swu who would begin the batting, as it were, with an overture and a historical perspective of the Naga position and its uniqueness.  It could go on, as I have found, for hours before Muivah, the more grassroots politician and astute negotiator, would either cut in or take over to get into the realpolitik of the process. The were in Bangkok before coming to India for talks. Here they were based between a safe house in Lutyens Delhi and the NSCN headquarters in Nagaland, some distance from Dimapur, the state’s commercial capital.

Accord and after

This is why it is critical to appreciate what Swu’s legacy will be – as one of the last Naga veterans, along with his comrade in arms, Muivah, of long marches to China and travels to Vietnam, Pakistan and elsewhere, he helped bring in the NSCN troops, cadres and ideologues to hammer out a peace dialogue with the Government of India.  The so-called ‘historic framework’ signed last August between the Government of India and the NSCN (I-M) asserted the group’s pre-eminent position among the divided Nagas (who have seen as many as five factions springing up from the I-M and the K these past years).

That it happened at all is also, to a large degree because of Swu: at that time, the NSCN chairman, battling for his life with failing kidneys in an ICU in Fortis Hospital, wanted to sign a document that assured the Nagas of their dignity and historic rights. My understanding was that he signed the document from his bed and then it was later taken for signature by Muivah and R.N. Ravi, the Government of India’s interlocutor for the peace talks. In a way, Swu, from his sick bed, pushed the process forward, although in the past 10 months, despite intense work and many meetings, the kind of progress that was broadcast at the time has not happened.

The peace process will not end with Swu. It will continue because Muivah and his close knit team are there. But Muivah too is ageing and I wonder what must be passing through his mind and spirit as he views the passing of a dear friend and fellow fighter.

Swu recognized in a speech several years ago to mark Naga national day (yes, they have a national day and an independence day, with troops marching past and flag hoisting speeches and anthems, all that too is there) – that no nation could truly be sovereign in today’s interdependent world. It was his way of preparing his followers and letting them know that the years of struggle and of negotiations could culminate in a political arrangement different to the NSCN’s avowed goal of sovereignty.

A just and equal agreement to end decades of conflict and meet their needs and aspirations is a legitimate right of the Naga people. But a question remains:  did Swu see the other issue at stake and which still roils the region, especially Manipur – that the Nagas would need to live with peace, dignity and equality with their neighbours?

And let’s remember one other thing: the collective leadership has outlasted at least six prime ministers – from P.V. Narasimha Rao to Manmohan Singh. Narendra Modi is the seventh PM they have dealt with.

As I have said elsewhere, the Naga leaders, whatever their shortcomings, were and are Marathon Men.

The talks and peace process should continue although Swu’s earthly journey has ended. Even without a settlement, Nagaland today has seen a peace, though fractured by intimidation and extortion by different groups, that would have been inconceivable two decades back.