North East Imbroglio Fleeting Opportunity
Khaplang Uncle or Baba is now no more. Some of us had the privilege and opportunity to speak to him, as at one time, he was our ally and while engaging with him, it was difficult to hold back the proverbial Stockholm syndrome. The last one year, has seen demise of two doyens of Naga insurgency, Khaplang and Issac Chisi Swu, both of whom are now in the eternal world. This vacuum, combined with the frail health of 83-year-old Thuingleng Muivah sets the stage for advent of a new generation of rebel leaders who hold the key to the future of the Naga peace process, which has a decisive influence on the ’Act East’ policy.
Our traditions and respect for the aged have sprouted eulogies about Baba, a Hemi Naga and senior most of the, ‘Issac-Muivah-Khaplang’ (I-M-K) trio. Muivah has forgiven his old comrade turned enemy. Meanwhile, driven by vote bank politics, Shourhozelie Liezietsu, CM of Nagaland has even released an official obituary and come out with a belated revelation that Baba was ready for negotiations provided substantial issues were included in the agenda. It would only be right, if the CM now takes it forward with inheritors of the Khaplang legacy.
To put things in perspective, this foe turned friend, friend turned foe, almost got his own comrades, Issac and Muivah eliminated in 1988, when they escaped a deadly ambush, just in the nick of time. He was an intrepid fighter and ultimate survivor, who could remote control an insurgency despite his Heimi origins. Above all, he was nobody’s friend. He once again exhibited his viciousness and relevance with a deadly ambush on unsuspecting Dogras, who were purely on an administrative routine, in Chandel in Jun 2015, resulting in 18 of our brave hearts being martyred. His death opens new possibilities as control of NSCN-K, for the first time is with an indigenous Konyak, Khango Konyak. In an ethnic pot-pouri, how this gets balanced amongst Konyaks, Heimis, Semas and other Northern hill tribes will be interesting to watch.
Naga insurgency, was initiated mostly by Angamis and Semas, Phizo, Mowu Angami and Kaito Sema with NNC and NFG as the rallying force. The seeds of proxy war were sown as early as the 1950s with East Bengal as the spring board. Phizo was apprehended, while attempting to escape to East Pakistan in 1952. This was followed up by successful forays by Mowu and Kaito, resulting in Phizo finally making it in Dec 58. Later, Phizo was taken to Karachi in 1962 and given specialist training. Pak trained nearly 2500 Naga rebels in Chittagong Hills between 1962 and 1968. The mischief by ISI continued during the Khalida and Zia regimes even after liberation of Bangladesh with ISPR as their partner and relationships with new clients like ULFA and Meitei groups. Displaying remarkable maturity, Sheikh Hasina has put an end to this aberration, which had earned Bangladesh, notoriety as a sanctuary for all centrifugal forces of North East and Rohyingas of Myanmar.
Khaplang, Muivah and General Thinosilie established contacts with China, which has emerged as the Chief patron of insurgent groups in North East with almost all senior leaders making regular trips to China for training, money and arms. Second wave was piloted by the dreaded Issac trio, which broke away from NNC to set up NSCN in 1980, which later further split into IM and K in 1988, named after the initials of the leaders.
The current generation of ‘arm chair warriors’, locked up in analysing the ongoing proxy war in J&K, may consider sparing a thought for this not too distant history and dangers of the Dragon using it again as a leverage to vitiate the situation in the North East in the back drop of ongoing CPEC and Tawang controversies.
NSCN-IM signed a cease-fire agreement in 1999, but in effect, unfortunately partially legitimised the Naga quest for sovereignty as a ‘cease-fire’, which is an arrangement generally signed between two sovereign nations. The cease-fire (CF) with the smaller but equally deadly counterpart, NSCN-K, inked in 2001, has brought uneasy peace to Nagaland and North East as the Naga insurgency is literally the Gordian knot, which once resolved will have a Domino effect on smaller movements.
The abrogation of CF with K in 2016, resulted in Khaplang’s last fling at fiefdom building, manifesting in formation of United National Liberation Front West South East Asia (UNLF-WSEA). This is a conglomeration of marginal groups; NSCN-K, Paresh Barua faction of ULFA, Manipuri Meitei groups, with allegiance to another combination called as CORCOM. There is an urgent need to redouble our efforts along with Myanmar to regain control of the semi-autonomous region of Taga and adjoining liberated sanctuaries, which serve as training camps for UNLF-WSEA groups.
Naga society lead by Ho-Hos (tribal bodies) particularly Konyak Union and Church have a decisive opportunity, wherein, they could bring all marginal groups including NSCN-K together for reconciliation and talks. Muivah, as the only link to the old generation should consider seizing the moment to leave for himself a legacy of a problem solver, something that Issac missed out on.
The third and new generation of Naga leadership though dominated by Manipuri Tangkhuls- Atem, Hansie and Phungthing, just to name few needs to be persuaded to display pragmatism on contentious issues, which despite the sanctity of Naga Framework agreement of 2014, have been leaked out probably to satisfy their local constituency. These as understood from leaks are essentially unification of all Naga territories, shared sovereignty and joint defence.
This is the most opportune period to resolve these issues as the ruling party at the centre is also in the saddle in relevant states and a much needed thaw between Nagas and Meities seems to be on cards with lifting of the blockade and the recent visits of CMs of Nagaland to Manipur. Shared sovereignty within bounds of Article 371 applicable to tribal areas can be refined with additional autonomy. However, all such measures have to be carefully worded with constitutional safeguards and time stipulations. Joint defence again can be worked out with additional NAP(IRB) battalions and enhanced recruitment in Assam Rifles. Sub-optimal performance of two Naga BSF battalions comprising surrendered militants, hopefully will not be lost sight of by policy makers. Even Nagalim, a compulsion with IM due to its almost Orwelian over reliance on Tangkhuls can be resolved by setting up a quasi-legal tribal body having mandate on specified tribal related subjects and jurisdiction extending to Naga areas in adjoining states. It is conceded that solutions are not as simple as they are stated but with spirit of give and take there can be at least a more refined and transparent framework agreement.
Our quest to match Chinese OBOR can gain traction only through actualisation of ‘Act East policy’ with a focus on connectivity to South East Asia. They say, when you cross Brahmaputra, life is governed by ‘Lahe, Lahe’ (slow and slow) but even in North East, the new generation needs to shift gear and not deny themselves an opportunity that beckons. Naga society and elders like Muivah owe it to the younger generation a legacy of reconciliation. Meanwhile, we can once again get back to our favourite pass time of valley gazing but do occasionally spare a glance and thought for a brew that has been simmering for six decades.