Nagas Apprehensive About Lasting Peace as They Bid Farewell to a Beloved Leader

At a memorial for Isak Chishi Swu, there was notable tension on the future of the Framework Accord and the peace process.

New Delhi: Wrapped in woolen Naga shawls and stoles, jackets and mufflers in spite of the burning heat, hundreds of people from the Naga community living in Delhi turned up at the Nagaland House on Wednesday evening to mourn their beloved leader – Isak Chishi Swu.

A day earlier, on June 28, 87-year-old Swu, chairman of the Naga separatist group the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) or the NSCN (I-M), passed away after a year of illness in the national capital, a city where most residents – including the media – have barely any idea about who he was or how much he mattered to the Naga people. Or that he raised a bloody secessionist war against the Indian state to set up the “Naga nation”.

Future of the Framework Accord

That general “Indian” ignorance couldn’t be found at the venue though, where a pall of gloom enveloped everyone present. Waiting for Swu’s mortal remains to arrive from the morgue of a private hospital to Nagaland House, where the association of the Naga community of Delhi NCR organised a condolence meeting in his memory, hushed conversations could be heard among those assembled. They were about what now worries most Nagas – what would be the future of “the accord” without Swu? Will the ‘M’ of the NSCN (I-M) – Thuingaleng Muivah – be able to take all the Naga tribes towards lasting peace together?

On August 3, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the Naga Accord between his government and the NSCN (I-M) as “historic” on Twitter, surprising the national media and opposition parties at the sudden development. However, it raised hope in most Nagas for peace in their state after over 50 years of unrest and many failed attempts at negotiations between the rebels and the Centre. However, nearly a year has passed since and the clauses of that accord, titled Framework Agreement, are still a secret.

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

Later, speaking at the condolence meeting, the Centre’s present interlocutor, senior home ministry bureaucrat R.N. Ravi said, “After we agreed on the terms of the agreement, Swu fell seriously ill. We waited for him to recover from it and he did, and he could sign the agreement last year.” Ravi repeatedly underlined that the terms of the agreement were approved by Swu, which hinted at the Centre’s apprehension now about its wider acceptability among all tribes in Nagaland in the absence of a mass leader like Swu.

The anxiety could be traced in Muivah’s speech too. The NSCN (I-M) general secretary was categorical, “I know, without him there will be problem.”

Though Muivah is also a well-respected Naga leader, he is not from Nagaland but from the neighbouring Manipur. Swu was a Sema Naga from Nagaland. Though yet another veteran Naga separatist leader Kholi Konyak – he was, till about three months ago, leading a rival faction NSCN (Unification) or GPRN – has been declared the chairman of the NSCN (I-M) after Swu’s demise, it is yet to be seen whether he and Muivah will be able to win the confidence of all the Naga tribes like Muivah and Swu together could. Back home, a hint of disagreement can already be seen, particularly from the Naga National Council (NNC), the mother organisation of NSCN. In 1975, Muivah, Swu and S.S. Khaplang disagreed with the Shillong Accord which the NNC signed with the Indian government. In 1980, the trio formed NSCN, which split into two in 1988 after a bloody fight between Swu-Muivah and Khaplang, a Naga from Myanmar bordering Nagaland which most Nagas refer to as eastern Nagaland. In July 1997, NSCN (I-M) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre, thereafter leading to over 80 rounds of talks.

Changing relations

After an hour’s delay, Swu’s coffin arrived at Nagaland House. A series of traditional Naga death cries went up in the air before it was led by youth dressed in different Naga tribal attires to the stage. They covered it with the “Naga national flag” – sky blue with a white star and lines of red, yellow and green forming an arch on it.

It was the same flag that once defined NSCN as an anti-India terrorist group, anti-India, secessionists who needed to be crushed militarily by the Centre. Yesterday, just a few metres from that flag, sat India’s top bureaucrat, national security advisor Ajit Doval, at the official building owned by the state. Doval put a wreath on the coffin covered with the flag, signifying how the Indian position on the Naga issue has changed over the decades.

NSCN (I-M) general secretary T. Muivah with NSA Ajit Doval, the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga Accord, R.N. Ravi, and former Nagaland chief minister Neiphu Rio at the condolence meeting for NSCN (I-M) chairman Isak Chichi Swu at Nagaland House, New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Baroah Pisharoty

From the right: NSCN (I-M) general secretary T. Muivah with NSA Ajit Doval, the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga Accord, R.N. Ravi, and former Nagaland chief minister Neiphu Rio at the condolence meeting for NSCN (I-M) chairman Isak Chichi Swu at Nagaland House, New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Baroah Pisharoty

One also couldn’t help but think, would it have been possible to remember a Kashmiri separatist leader in Delhi in the same fashion? What would those who took umbrage at the allegedly “anti-India” speech by “Kashmiri separatists” at Jawaharlal Nehru University some months ago have said to that?

Born in 1929 in Nagaland’s Zunheboto district, Swu was no doubt the greatest leader of the Nagas after Phizo. In fact, he and Muivah rose under Phizo, in NNC, developing a friendship that remained till he died. Muivah remembered, “We were together for 52 years facing fire. Never had we have any disagreement over anything. Never did we doubt each other’s intentions. I can’t help but get emotional.” Together they fled to China, led an underground life in Bangkok, in Manila, engaged in secret meetings with Indian prime ministers in Paris, Zurich and elsewhere, even took the Naga issue to the UN, much to India’s angst. The duo, over the years, dealt with many prime ministers. Modi is the seventh one.

They also dealt with quite a few government interlocutors to negotiate peace. While one of them, former union home secretary K. Padmanabhaiah, sent his condolences to Swu’s family, two others, R. N. Ravi and former Mizoram governor Swaraj Kaushal, were at the meeting. Kaushal recalled his interactions with them, “Those days, Indian position on the Naga issue was different. So, many times there were heated arguments. After we would shout at each other, there would be long spells of silence in the room. We later became friends.”

Noted lawyer Nandita Haksar, journalist Bharat Bhushan and Deepak Dewan too fondly remembered their memories of interacting with Swu in Bangkok.

The speech by Swu’s eldest son Ikato was moving. While his mother Khulu looked on, Ikato talked about seeing his father for the first time when he was 15, in Pokhara, Nepal. “After NSCN was declared a terrorist outfit, my parents went underground and all five brothers and sisters were sent to different households in eastern Nagaland. We grew up there, away from each other. In my entire life, we lived as a family only for four years, from 2000 to 2004 when my father called all the children to Manila. His year-long illness brought us together as siblings, as we grew up as strangers to each other,” he said.

In the long speech that Muivah gave, he touched upon “sovereignty”, a term that sunk many earlier peace negotiations because of their rigid stand to not compromise on it. Yesterday, Muivah said, “Sovereignty lies with the people of Nagaland,” perhaps to hint that the once-sacrosanct clause would be diluted in the Framework Agreement. However, he underlined, “One big change with the Indian government now is that it has recognised the Naga issue as a political issue and not a military issue. It has recognised that the Naga history is unique and it needs a unique solution.”

The question now is, whether it is unique enough to bring lasting peace in Nagaland.