Opinion | Will new appointments in Naga rebel group help revive peace talks?

The new chairman, Qhehezu Tuccu and vice-chairman, Tongmeth Wangnao Konyak, won’t be calling the shots

The largest Naga rebel group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M) on 11 February appointed a new chairman and vice-chairman. It may seem significant in the context of the Naga peace talks that—to go by numerous media accounts barring this column—have been on the verge of conclusion since the group signed a Framework Agreement for Peace with the government of India in August 2015.

Surely, if I-M are filling the top slots a deal must be imminent? Not necessarily.

The new chairman, Qhehezu Tuccu and vice-chairman, Tongmeth Wangnao Konyak, won’t be calling the shots. The real power in I-M lies with the M in the equation, general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah. He sealed both appointments, and was present at Camp Hebron, headquarters of I-M and its administration, southwest of Dimapur, for the swearing-in. Muivah and his coterie will call the shots, as they have for the past several years since his colleague Isak Chishi Swu (the I in the equation, and chairman) withdrew to lead a life of prayer and gesture.

The last of Swu’s gestures was urging the signing of the agreement. The ailing Swu died in June 2016. Khole Konyak was appointed vice-chairman in May 2016, just weeks before Swu’s passing. Konyak died of a stroke last December.

That Tuccu is like Swu of the Sema or Sümi tribe, and Tongmeth Wangnao, like Khole of the Konyak tribe, is more form than function. But form is as crucial as function in Naga society.

Tuccu, popularly known as ‘Q Tuccu’ is not a towering personality like Swu, who was respected across the four factions of NSCN, and Naga homelands. But Tuccu is a homegrown I-M man. He is also from the commercially lucrative Dimapur region—a melting pot of Naga society that was carved away from Assam for giving Nagaland access to the plains and a train station, and is now home to most Naga tribes—but the gesture will resonate in the Sema homelands of Zunheboto, northeast of Kohima. It will also signal to Semas in other factions that they continue to be welcome in a group that has large numbers, cadres and leaders (including Muivah and chief of I-M’s army, Anthony Shimray) from the Tangkhul tribe, who call Ukhrul in northern Manipur home.

Tongmeth Wangnao broke away from NSCN’s Khaplang or K faction to join I-M several years ago. In that sense, he is more I-M than Khole, who broke away from K in 2011 to join NSCN (Unification), and then broke away from that faction after five years to join I-M in 2016. If appointing Khole vice-chairman was a signal from I-M to undermine both the Khaplang and Unification factions, then Tongmeth Wangnao’s appointment underscores that gesture: the numerically-heavy Konyaks continue to be welcome too.

In the tortuously complicated and opportunistic world of Naga rebel politics, this is a big deal.

S.S. Khaplang died in 2017.His Myanmar-based group, which resumed hostilities against India in early 2015, is now in a shambles. A coup last year pushed a sizeable body of Konyak leaders and cadres of the K faction, including its ousted post-Khaplang chief, Khango Konyak, into India—and into peace negotiations with the government of India.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the K faction, now run by Khaplang’s nephew Yung Aung, who took control in August 2018, was over-run earlier this month by Myanmar’s army, including its headquarters in Taga. K cadres and leaders are likely to be relocated in “designated camps", like the current practice for all Naga rebel groups in India—which are all in talks with government. Cadres and leaders of the “anti-talks" factions of the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, and several Manipuri rebel groups, who all found sanctuary in K camps, are on the run.

While this can be termed as a victory for India’s security establishment, it also helps I-M. It’s now unquestionably the most influential Naga rebel group. The new appointments increase its heft in general. In particular, it increases I-M’s leverage within the peace process.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns at livemint.com/rootcause