Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland, is back with a bang on the negotiating table.

Isak Chishi Swu, chairman of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest and most powerful faction of Naga rebels, died on 28 June in a New Delhi hospital, aged 87, after a lifetime of battle to secure a future for the Naga people. At his premonitory insistence, last August NSCN (I-M) scaled up a ceasefire of 18 years with the government of India to a formal framework peace agreement.

Swu’s passing is a seismic event in several ways.

As his body lay in state at New Delhi’s Nagaland House on 29 June, attended by his family, comrades, senior politicians, media and, notably, India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval and R.N. Ravi, interlocutor for talks with NSCN (I-M), the loudest statement was the flag draping Swu’s coffin. Common to Naga rebel factions, it is of a light-blue background with three ribbons of red, yellow and green curving from about mid-section to the left and arcing to the right. A white six-pointed star of Bethlehem is at the top left corner of the flag that highlights one rebel slogan: “Nagaland for Christ".

In a mourning period that is to last till 4 July—two days after Swu is expected to be interred in his home village of Chishilimi in Nagaland’s Zunheboto district, homeland of his tribe, the Sema—all such flags will fly at half-mast “throughout Nagalim", according to an NSCN (I-M) communiqué. This idealistic geography includes, besides Naga homelands in Myanmar, all of Nagaland, Naga homelands in much of Manipur, and slices of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. All such regions in India have witnessed a spontaneous outpouring of grief at Swu’s passing.

In a speech in Senapati town of Manipur on 29 June, Shürhozelie Liezietsu, president of Naga People’s Front, a canny political party, spoke bluntly of Naga integration. This conflates with an item of negotiation between the government and I-M. It strengthens the stand of the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur, to administratively delink from Manipur—for long seen by Nagas in Manipur as being favourable to majority Meitei interest. This sentiment will spike in the run-up to elections to Manipur’s assembly in early 2017.

The second gesture of importance was articulated by Swu’s family at the Delhi memorial service. Even as the Yaruiwo, or chairman, was publicly mourned by his long-time comrade Thuingaleng Muivah—the M in I-M, for many years the real power centre of this faction—one of Swu’s sons announced that now that they had lost their father, they would look to Muivah, the Ato-kilonser, literally prime minister, as a father figure and source of guidance.

This cannot be underscored enough. Muivah, who is Tangkhul, numerically the largest Naga tribe, and with its homeland in Ukhrul district of Manipur, is seen as an outsider by many in Nagaland. The root remains Nagaland’s statehood in 1963, which birthed a set of leaders with affiliation to tribe and state within the political construct of Nagaland, while other Naga peoples were left to their own devices in Manipur, Arunachal and Assam. This construct extends to the current ceasefire with I-M, limited to the boundaries of Nagaland (though out of goodwill for that ceasefire an uneasy peace is maintained also in other Naga homelands in India).

This dynamic is also seen as spurring UNC’s stand of administrative separation, considered by many in Manipur as a ploy to carve out post-conflict territory for I-M’s leadership and cadres, overwhelmingly Tangkhul. Swu provided legitimacy, however slim, for Muivah and many of his Tangkhul colleagues—like I-M’s army chief, Phungting Shimrang—in Nagaland. Now Swu’s son has extended that legitimacy at this crucial juncture. But Muivah is 82, and the futures are confounding, variable.

All Naga groups—even the NSCN faction led by S.S. Khaplang, who broke away in 1988 with a massacre of cadres loyal to Isak and Muivah, and broke away from a ceasefire with India in March 2015—have condoled Swu’s death. All reiterated Naga nationalism and a future of unity and peace for Nagas. The legislators of Nagaland have twice offered to resign en masse to pave the way for peace, to equitably absorb I-M’s leadership and that of other factions into the political mainstream, of Nagaland as much as India.

Heads up: next week, more on how these explosive equations and contradictions—among Naga rebels, the Naga people and the Indian government’s playbook—could pan out.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that affect businesses in India and South Asia, runs on Fridays.

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