Sometimes circumstances dictate that friends turn foes and vice-versa, so if National Socialist Council of Nagaland faction head honcho SS Khaplang has now been reduced to the fall guy, this is not without reason. Blame it on the first BJP-led coalition government at the Centre, headed by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, for waiving the ban on the Khaplang faction in April 2001 and signing a ceasefire accord with him, ostensibly by giving him the assurance that he would be invited for formal talks. This more than implied that New Delhi had accepted Khaplang’s avowed rigid stand that he would talk only if sovereignty featured on the agenda.
Again, this came against the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) faction&’s firm stand on not recognising the existence of "adversaries and discredited organisations like Khaplang&’s set-up and Adino Phizo&’s Naga National Council that had first fired the Nagas’ imagination for freedom and independence when her father, the late Angami Zapuo Phizo, was the council&’s president. The NSCN -IM had already prevented options to the contrary by telling the Centre that “if you will talk to us, then you have to honour it. Apart from that, if you take the initiative to talk with others, we will not be a party to that”.
The truce with the NSCN(K) came nearly three and a half years after the NSCN-IM signed its own in July 1997 with the United Front government led by Prime Minister IK Gujral. Therefore, if the NSCN-IM claimed it ignored the NSCN(K)&’s existence, how come it signed “a truce” with the so-called “non-existence” rival during every Christmas season?
The NNC split in 1980 over the interpretation of the 1975 Shillong Peace Accord signed with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by a section of moderate Naga leaders who accepted the Constitution. This forced Swu, Muivah and Khaplang to part company with the NNC and form their own NSCN in 1980. Another division in 1988 saw Khaplang forming his own group. It all started with Swu sending a letter through an emissary to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1988. By mistake, however, the letter was delivered to then Nagaland chief minister Hokishe Sema who subsequently arrived in Calcutta and told an impromptu press gathering at Nagaland House that the two leaders (Swu and Muivah) had conveyed their “willingness” for talks with the Centre. When Khaplang came to know of this, he feared that, being a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, he would be left in the lurch once his close comrades came to terms with New Delhi. This resulted in Khaplang breaking away and forming his own group.
Ironically enough, despite being the products of the same organisation — the NNC, which expounded the same cause — the three groups have never made any serious attempt to resolve their differences. What was going on basically was the tussle for supremacy. Among the stalwarts, chairman Swu is a Sema and belongs to Nagaland, Muivah is a Tangkhul from Manipur&’s Ukhrul district and Khaplang is a Myanmarese Naga. However much the public and the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (set up in 2008) tried to influence the warring groups to forget the past and forgive for the sake of peace in Nagaland, nothing worked. For any sort of a reconciliation, the NSCN-IM has set terms that Khaplang must first publicly apologise for “erroneously killing comrades-in- arms”, mostly Tangkhuls belonging to Muivah&’s clan, at the time of the bloody 1988 split. And it also wants the NNC to renounce the Shillong Accord.
When Swu and Muivah came to India in 2004 for the second time, they espoused unity and reconciliation and this was seen as a change in their earlier claim that “reconciliation should not be forced, it must come naturally”. Muivah is also on record as having said that “if there is repentance in the name of Lord Jesus, the NSCN-IM will forget. Any further delay will harm the Naga cause but will suit the Centre just nicely. It could turn round and tell the Nagas that a final political settlement must precede unity among all Naga groups”.
The Vajpayee government is largely responsible for causing bad blood between the Nagas and the Meiteis (Manipuris). The first thing he should have done after assuming office was to make known the terms and conditions of the 25 July 1997 ceasefire accord Gujral had brokered and announced in Parliament. Although welcome, it was also aimed at enhancing the United Front government&’s prestige in the North-east. That it was full of loopholes did not matter much and Gujral suppressed facts about its terms and jurisdiction.
The statement from Bangkok by Swu (as published in a Kohima weekly) said, “I hereby announce this day, 25 July 1997, to every citizen of Nagaland, wherever they be, that a ceasefire agreement has been entered into between the government of India and the NSCN to bring about a lasting solution to the long-drawn-out Indo-Naga issue.”
But within days of the truce coming into force, the NSCN-IM leadership claimed it was not just for Nagaland but also covered the contiguous Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur — and the Meiteis in Imphal valley felt outraged. (Vajpayee refused to confirm or deny Swu and Muivah&’s repeated assertions that the former, during a brief meeting in Paris in 1998, had agreed to extend the ceasefire to other Naga-inhabited areas of the three adjacent states. Or else why should then chief interlocutor Swaraj Kaushal, appointed by Vajpayee, have quit within a few months, alleging that the Prime Minister had reneged on the issue?
The truth emerged in June 2001 when the Centre signed the “Bangkok Agreement” with the NSCN -IM leaders covering Manipur&’s four hill districts. The Meiteis rose in revolt and 18 protesters were killed in police firing, the Manipur assembly building was set on fire and government property worth crores of rupees was destroyed. The Vajpayee government had to backtrack, and all this happened when Manipur was under a short spell of President&’s Rule.
Even now the ceasefire jurisdiction is a bone of contention between the NSCN-IM leadership and the Manipur government. The UPA government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did nothing. On the contrary, during its 10-year regime, the ceasefire was never observed in true spirit and there were several cases of violation by both sides. Besides, it provided the licence to all and sundry to indulge in rampant extortion, of which there is still no end. Perhaps there is the need for a fresh truce with jurisdiction properly delineated and cadres stopped from collecting “taxes”.
Having signed a bilateral ceasefire with the Myanmarese government in 2012 — that allowed autonomy to three districts in Sagaing region — Khaplang now seems quite satisfied operating from nearer home turf, which he had always been doing, unlike the NSCN-IM leadership that functioned mostly from either Amsterdam or Bangkok before they were invited for talks and are now based in their headquarters at Niuland near Dimapur. Since 2012, the Centre had been seeking Khaplang&’s assurance before renewing the annual truce that he would not create trouble.
In March this year, Khaplang unilaterally abrogated the truce, 33 days before it was due for renewal. He realised the Centre&’s game plan and his parting shot was, “The 14-year time was only a psychological ploy to undermine the democratic and patriotic spirit of the Nagas.”
Even after suffering two splits in his organisaton over the past five years, Khaplang has not lost the charisma to attract smaller groups as partners. He recently formed the United Liberation Front of Western, South East Asia with six Manipur rebel groups, Ulfa (Independent) headed by self-styled commander-in-chief Paresh Barua and also a Bodo organisation. He claims influence among Nagas in Arunachal Pradesh&’s Tirap and Changlang districts, in Nagaland&’s Ao and Konyak areas as well as among Chakhesangs, Angamis, Yumchungers, Sangtams and Kheanmungans. In Manipur, too, he has influence. At one time he even headed the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front comprising the Ulfa and Manipur’s oldest outfit, the United National Liberation Front, whose leader, RK Sanayaima, is now in Guwahati jail undergoing trial.
So there can be no two opinions about “lasting” peace in the region hinging on Khaplang&’s cooperation or participation in the talks. Being perennially at odds with India, he is sure to harm the cause of the Look East Policy (now Act East Policy) because the routes to Southeast Asian countries pass through the areas he dominates.
There is nothing new in India and Myanmar&’s understanding to tackle insurgency along the border. In the past, Myanmarese troops would periodically conduct operations against Indian insurgents and if, despite this, the rebels continued to dig in, it was just that Yangon&’s writ did not run in the areas. Besides, there is the understanding between the two countries to allow their citizens free movement to a certain limit.