By Wasbir Hussain
Fresh feuding has broken out among Naga rebels twenty-three years after a bloody internecine struggle left scores dead and an insurgency divided. Another split is now threatening to impact on the protracted Naga peace process.
On June 7, 2011, a meeting of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) ‘expelled’ its ‘chairman’, S.S. Khaplang, on charges of behaving in a ‘unilateral and dictatorial manner.’ This essentially means that the NSCN-K has split with those who have expelled Khaplang choosing ‘General’ Khole Konyak, until now the group’s ‘commander-in-chief’, as their new chairman. The outfit will drop Khaplang from its name, and is shortly expected to announce a new name. Khaplang is expected to continue to head a faction under the original name, NSCN-K, as he still has a considerable following and can command his cadres from his base in Myanmar.
An internal power struggle has troubled the NSCN-K for some time now, and Khaplang’s ouster is a culmination of growing difficulties within the group. On March 17, 2011, Chipu Menon aka ‘Brigadier’ Khungwang, head of the NSCN-K’s operations in Arunachal Pradesh, was killed near Mon in Nagaland after allegedly being ‘summoned’ by some senior leaders of the outfit for ‘urgent discussions’. Media reports indicate that some NSCN-K leaders had claimed Menon was awarded ‘capital punishment’ for allegedly killing five senior citizen from Bordoria and Kaimai villages under the Tirap District on the pretext that they were working for the rival Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM) in 1999. Menon was also accused by some of his colleagues of setting up a new rebel group, the Arunachal Naga Liberation Force, in Tirap and Changlang in 2010, and extorting money from local businessmen in the name of this new outfit. Menon’s killing demonstrated that the power struggle within the NSCN-K had become acute.
The NSCN now has four factions — the Isak-Muivah faction, the NSCN-K splinter headed by Khole Konyak, the NSCN-K headed by Khaplang, and NSCN-Unification. The NSCN came into being in 1980, after a split from the Naga National Council (NNC). Led by Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and S. S. Khaplang, the NSCN parted ways because it opposed the NNC’s signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975 and its acceptance of the Indian Constitution. In 1988, the NSCN itself split over purported ‘ideological differences’ in a violent parting of ways. Early that year, Muivah apparently received news that the Indian Government was ready for talks within the framework of the country’s Constitution. Although the offer was rejected, there were widespread rumours that Swu and Muivah had ‘sold out’ and planned to oust Khaplang, seize arms from the Konyak cadres and surrender in India. Amidst a ‘National Assembly’ session of the group that was called to resolve the controversy these reports had generated, Khaplang’s fighters, backed by a section of Burmese troops, attacked Muivah’s group in a pre-emptive strike at dawn on April 30, 1988. Some 140 of Muivah’s cadres, primarily Tangkhuls, were killed. This incident resulted in the split of the NSCN, as Isak (Swu) and Muivah formed the NSCN-IM, while Khaplang gave his own name to his faction, the NSCN-K.
In 1997, the NSCN-IM and the Government of India signed a ceasefire agreement and entered into a peace process to resolve what the outfit calls the ‘Indo-Naga conflict.’ Today, fourteen years later, and more than seventy rounds of talks across the world between the NSCN-IM and the Government of India, a ‘solution’ remains elusive. The NSCN-K followed suit, entering into a truce with New Delhi on April 30, 2001, but has not begun formal talks yet.
Another split, though bloodless, came about on November 23, 2007. Several NSCN-IM cadres, led by its one-time ‘home minister’ Azheto Chopey, broke away from the group and formed the NSCN-Unification. On January 21, 2008, the NSCN-IM ‘dismissed’ 27 of its cadres, who had defected along with Chopey from ‘national service’ with effect from January 22, 2008, for ‘deliberately defying’ a directive of the ‘yaruiwo’ (prime minister) Isak Chishi Swu, to return from the “reactionary camp” and report to the Council Headquarters. Since January 2008, the NSCN-U has been involved in bitter clashes with the NSCN-IM, culminating in the death of 14 of its cadres near Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub, on May 16, 2008. Since 2009, however, the NSCN-U has been maintaining a low profile.
Questions have always been asked as to which of the principal NSCN factions (NSCN-IM or NSCN-K) was the ‘true representative’ of the Naga people; or whether New Delhi or the Nagas themselves believed there could be lasting peace with a possible accord being reached with either one of the Naga rebel factions. That the answer was always in the negative is indicated by continuing efforts by Naga civil society groups, particularly Church leaders and the Naga Hoho (the apex tribal council), in trying to unite the two rebel factions. The logic for this, as yet unsuccessful, unity effort is simple — only an accord by the Government of India jointly with the two NSCN factions has the potential of bringing lasting peace. It is impossible to see New Delhi signing two separate deals with two Naga rebel factions fighting over more or less the same issues. With the split in the NSCN-K, the job of Naga civil society and the Government would appear to have been made somewhat more difficult.
There is, however, another side to the story. Reports trickling out of the anti-Khaplang camp suggest that Khaplang was first impeached by the outfit’s ‘Tatar Hoho’ or ‘parliament’ and then expelled, not just for behaving in an ‘autocratic’ manner, but for obstructing the process of unification among the Naga insurgent factions. The accusations against him included the charge that he had unilaterally ‘dismissed’ ‘General’ Khole Konyak, the outfit’s ‘commander-in-chief’, who was also the undeclared vice-chairman of the group, and appointed a new vice-chairman; that he had ordered his leaders not to attend the Naga reconciliation meeting organized by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation on September 18, 2010; and that he has been in exile for too long, operating from his base in Myanmar, and had consequently lost sight of things on the ground.
If charges of Khaplang actually ordering his men to keep away from the Naga reconciliation efforts are true, there is a possibility that his ouster could actually hasten the process of unification of the NSCN-IM and the faction headed by Khole Konyak. There is possible speculation, moreover, that Khaplang’s ouster may have come about because the Hemi Naga from Western Myanmar was not fitting into New Delhi’s scheme of things with regard to a peace deal; and that Khole Konyak and others have inched closer to sorting out differences with the Government. Khaplang, in this scenario, would appear as a spoiler, because his affiliations are with Nagas from Myanmar, allowing him to strike a far more belligerent posture.
Khaplang’s ouster is certainly going to disrupt, or at least weaken, the Myanmar connection of several frontline rebel groups from the Northeast, such as the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Manipur’s United National Liberation Front (UNLF), which have found safe haven in that country under the wings of the NSCN-K. These rebel formations, operating out of Myanmar, were also provided logistic support by NSCN-K cadres in Nagaland, parts of Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh –states that either share direct borders with Myanmar or that are close to these borders (Assam). This certainly gave Government agencies reason to undermine Khaplang.
These are, of course, just teasers; the reality may be nothing more than the usual power struggle within insurgent formations.
Khaplang’s ouster in a bloodless coup became possible because he has been away from the Naga heartland (Nagaland) for far too long, and had lost touch with the Naga people, mainly in Nagaland and Manipur. Under the new circumstances, the two factions – Khaplang and Khole Konyak – may both weaken substantially; or Khaplang may be progressively sidelined, leaving behind a stronger Khole Konyak formation. In either case, New Delhi may find itself in a better position to dictate terms to the rebels. If, on the other hand, the NSCN-IM and Konyak factions move towards unity in the days ahead, New Delhi would have to listen to a broader Naga voice.
On June 10, 2011, Khaplang had retaliated with the counter-expulsion of several breakaway leaders, including ‘general secretary’ Kitovi Zhimomi (one of those who is in charge of the Konyak faction after Khaplang’s expulsion) and erstwhile ‘home minister’ Azheto Chophy, besides six other functionaries. Khaplang’s silence on ‘General’ Khole Konyak, the new ‘chairman’ named by the group, is, however, significant. Khaplang has sought to add a new dimension to murky NSCN politics by saying that members whom he has now expelled are actually members of NSCN-Unification, and not his group, the NSCN-K. Khaplang has also formally declared that his group would not be part of the Naga reconciliation process.
The realities of Naga insurgent politics remain complicated, and the road to Naga peace is full of traps and pitfalls. A single, united, Naga voice is still nowhere to be heard.
Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati; Member, National Security Advisory Board