By M. A. Athul*
On November 11, 2019, the Chawang-Kamson faction of the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF-Chawang- Kamson) claimed that its defection from the ZUF was to secure better future for Zeliangrong people living in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The group broke away from ZUF (on an unspecified date) and signed a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) with the Government of India (GoI) on October 26, 2019. Raitu Chawang is the ‘chairman’ and S. Kamson the ‘vice chairman’ of the splinter group. They were in the same position, respectively, in the United ZUF. The ‘parent’ ZUF is led by ‘chairman’ Pou Jenchui Kamei.
On the same day, i.e. October 26, 2019, ZUF-Chawang-Kamson also merged with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Unification (NSCN-U). NSCN-U is a part of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), an umbrella organisation of various Naga groups who are involved in peace talks with GoI.
The reports of the latest factional fissures had started emerging a bit earlier. On September 19, 2019, ZUF alleged that some of its members (led by S. Kamson) had defected from the group and the new group was engaging in smuggling of arms and ammunition. The then ‘parent’ ZUF ‘chairman’ Raitu Chawang stated, on September 20, 2019, that the group led by S. Kamson had given basic military training to a Kuki group (name not specified) led by Thongkhomang Hoakip, without the consent of ZUF. Raitu Chawang defected and joined Kamson later on an unspecified date.
On September 22, 2019, the ‘home secretary’ of the ‘parent’ ZUF, James Kamei, stated that the defected cadres, along with S. Kamson have been expelled from the group.
Meanwhile, the ‘parent’ ZUF, in a press statement on October 24, 2019, stated that the Zeliangrong people’s demand was to live together under a separate administrative unit either in the Indian Union or Nagalim. It also urged GoI to grant a separate State or Union Territory for the Zeliangrong people living as minorities in the States of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. Further, on October 31, 2019, it asserted, “We will never back down or surrender to any group and we will fight till the last drop of our blood for our people”.
On October 15, 2019, cadres of the two factions clashed at Jaolinpung and Soubunglong villages in Noney District of Manipur. One militant, identified as Abuan Puimei, was killed in the clash at Soubunglong; and two militants were wounded in the clash at Jaolinpung. All the casualties were from the ‘parent’ ZUF.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least another two factional clashes, resulting in three fatalities (all militants), had been reported since February 25, 2011, the day of formation of the ZUF (data till November 14, 2019). These incidents include:
May 3, 2018: Two ZUF militants were killed in an internecine clash in Dima Hasao District in Assam.
March 15, 2018: A ZUF militant, identified as ‘sergeant major’ Gonbi Gonmei, was killed in a factional clash at Dima Hasao District in Assam.
No further factional clashes have been reported, thus far (data till November 14, 2019).
Interestingly, there has been no reported incident of factional clashes in ZUF within the territory of Nagaland.
ZUF was formed on February 25, 2011, by breakaway elements of NSCN-Isak-Muivah (NSNC-IM) and NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K) with the declared objective of protecting the interests of the Zeliangrong tribe (a Naga sub-group). On February 25, 2017, ZUF had stated,
Our present struggle is not seeking secession from India but we are demanding a common homeland within the Union of India for the fragmented Zeliangrong territory which was divided by the British rulers and continues in independent India… The Zeliangrong United Front is ready for talks with the Government of India provided it recognizes the demand for bringing together the Zeliangrong community scattered across the North-eastern States under a single administrative unit.
The initial instance of factionalisation in ZUF, had come out in open in April 2017. The ‘Information and publicity secretary’ of the ZUF, Hemsin Kamson, in a press release on April 5 stated, that that ZUF ‘commander-in-chief’ Jenchui Kamei and ‘finance secretary’ Benjamin aka Gaichampou Pamei, were ‘expelled from ZUF for their ‘anti-party activities’.
However, the two opposing factions united later in 2018. On July 17, 2018, the ZUF released another press release stating that the opposing factions had come together as ‘one entity’. The press release read,
The historic reconciliation programme heeding to the call of the Zeliangrong people was held in the presence of Zeliangrong Social Organizations’ leaders, Elders, religious leaders and general public in which the leaders of the ZUF took the oath of reconciliation in the name of the Almighty God.
Besides factional clashes, ZUF has also been involved in clashes with the NSCN-IM. ZUF’s demand for separate statehood for the Zeliangrong puts the group in direct conflict with NSCN-IM, which envisions a ‘greater Nagalim’ which consists of all Naga dominated areas in neighbouring states. According to the SATP database, since February 25, 2011, these two groups have clashed with each other on at least 38 occasions resulting in 41 fatalities. Recently, in September 2019 (exact date not available), ZUF clashed with NSNC-IM at Jalukie village in Peren District of Nagaland, over the setting up of a camp near the village. An unspecified number of houses were burnt during the clash, though no casualty was reported.
The present factional realignments in ZUF will inevitably result in the weakening of the insurgent group and strengthen the ongoing Naga peace process. However, with a faction of ZUF still keeping away from the peace process, incidents of sporadic factional flare-ups remain possible. Although this wouldn’t have any significant effect on the Naga peace process, factional friction could become an irritant in an already complicated security scenario.
*M. A. Athul
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management