Rebel Muivah’s ill health and the Naga peace process
A great part of peace talks is, for all practical purposes, about insuring rebel leadership
Thuingaleng Muivah isn’t well. He is aged, infirm and was hospitalized earlier this week. He has remained the chief negotiator for talks with the Indian government since 1997, when NSCN (I-M), or National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), of which he is the general secretary, signed a ceasefire.
He has also been the face, alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s interlocutor for negotiations with I-M, R.N. Ravi, since the signing of the so-called framework for peace in August 2015. Modi moved on from that photo-op and left the grind of negotiations to Ravi and his over-arching chief, Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser.
And if Muivah, 84, weren’t to outlast the process of ever-changing scripts in which “soon” is a much-abused word for conclusion, it could heighten the winner-takes-all scramble the process already is.
Besides I-M, the peace process includes, in parallel, six other rebel groups. There’s another, NSCN’s Khaplang faction, which witnessed a major schism when its chief Khango Konyak was ousted in a thus-far bloodless coup in August. Konyak, a Naga born to an eponymous tribe in northern Nagaland, ran up against a group of Myanmar-born Nagas. The faction remained headquartered in northern Myanmar under S.S. Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. Khaplang died in 2017, two years after he broke a ceasefire with India.
Alongside the issue of whether Konyak and his loyalists will now emerge as a separate faction suing for peace with the government of India, or whether they will ally with I-M for greater mutual heft in negotiations, there is the matter of I-M itself. If you like, post-Muivah I-M.
It’s by far the biggest Naga rebel group, equal or more in numbers, weaponry, reach and financial clout than all other factions and groups combined. Isak Chishi Swu, the I in I-M, who even Indian Army and intelligence officials maintain was the more idealistic one in the leadership, had for some years kept to spiritual pursuit, his chairmanship of I-M that of a respected figurehead. Muivah is the group’s power centre. It became further cemented with Swu’s passing in 2016.
But Muivah’s own health has remained a concern for some years, through ceasefire and potential peace. To be sure it’s an active ceasefire. Under its terms I-M, like other factions, recruits, trains and arms its cadres. Under terms of realpolitik, it’s permitted by the government to effect a parallel administration, play fast-and-loose with governance and elections. It raises money from donations and extortion from individuals and businesses in the name of “national” cause.
India’s government agencies have for long tracked rebel pipelines in weapons and narcotics—both important sources of revenue. They also track investments rebel leaders make in India, South-East Asia and elsewhere.
It’s a mini-empire.
Indeed, a great part of peace talks is, for all practical purposes—beyond talk of honour, flag and identity—about insuring rebel leadership. About indemnities, letting it be. And, of course, about personal security: after letting go of weapons, rebel leadership needs to ensure they remain untouched by any public ire they may have earned by recent decades of imposing will through weapons.
The second layer in I-M includes the widely respected former army chief V.S. Atem, like Muivah a Tangkhul Naga from northern Manipur. His successor and fellow-Tangkhul, Phungthing Shimrang, was sidelined last year, but from all accounts remains ambitious. The current chief of I-M’s army, Anthony Shimray, also Tangkhul, and a former weapons-sourcing specialist who was released from Delhi’s Tihar jail after six years in 2016 in the interest of peace talks, is a risen star.
Muivah’s nephew Grinder, once jailed and subsequently released, ran a flourishing business from the National Capital Region—no questions asked. He remained a key liaison between rebels and the government until his death in 2016. He was seen by many as Muivah’s heir-apparent.
That contentious label then fell to another nephew, Apam, who is said to hold the golden keys, even if he’s not accepted as Muivah’s heir. The chief’s ill-health will heighten this implosive churn and, therefore, affect the peace matrix.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.
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