Born and brought up in Nagaland and someone who had baptism into journalism in Nagaland itself in early 1990s – when the writ of Isak Chishi Swu and his compatriot Thuingaleng Muivah as NSCN (IM) bosses writ large – I am not quite sure whether Swu rejoiced the tag of being called a guerrilla or an "underground" rebel leader.
Nevertheless, Swu, who like A Zapu Phizo will continue to dominate Naga politics one way or the other, perhaps never aspired to be known as a militant leader. So much was his love for Gospel teaching, that it is not wrong to recall him as a rebel – who believed in the magical power of ‘Nagaland for Christ’.
Isak Chishi Swu, chairman of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), breathed his last on June 28, 2016. It only shows rebel leaders and guerrilla fighters often directly and indirectly responsible for bloodshed and ambushes, bomb blasts and beheading of Indian army jawans in the name of “movements” too have to die.
This only proves that at some point even rebel leaders find their time is up. But Isak Swu would be best remembered as a rebel with a difference.
Old timers in Nagaland including among those in the army – who fought his men – would perhaps best remember Swu as a “rarest of his breed” for he held Bible close to his heart than the gun. Perhaps his colleague of many years Thingaleng Muivah had at times tried to remake the NSCN (IM) and even Swu a reflection of his own image — a tough fighter - but this is where Muivah and Swu had differed.
In the words of a former corps commander in Nagaland, while NSCN (IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah was the hardcore militant leader and a pragmatic guerrilla operative, Swu had been a man who immensely believed in the power of God and the magical strength of ‘Nagaland for Christ’ slogan coined after the duo had visited China.
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Left to him Swu would say, it is by the “guidance of Holy Spirit that have seen me through this far”, courtesy his Facebook posting, security apparatus in Nagaland and northeast knew that Muivah was the real "rebel leader". Even the Late Rajesh Pilot, as Internal Security Minister in P V Narasimha Rao government, had said that working out any peace initiative would have been easier with Swu than Muivah.
The death of Chairman of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM faction) Isak Chishi Swu certainly has created a void in Naga politics. But his absence would be felt more by his compatriot for many years Thuingaleng Muivah and to an extent by the peace negotiators on behalf of the government of India.
The truth of the matter is Isak Chishi Swu was the real and powerful unifying factor for his group and Tangkhul Nagas (who are essentially from Manipur) and other Naga tribesmen in the present state of Nagaland. Hailing from Sema (Sumi) tribe of remote Zunheboto district, Swu was actually an “inspiration” for many Sema Nagas and others to join the Naga movement.
The suave Muivah belongs to Ukhrul district of Manipur – the main hub Tangkhul Naga tribe in Manipur. Those in the know, therefore say, Isak's death that way could make government's negotiations with NSCN(IM) much tougher while Mauivah, according to intelligence sources, could find it difficult to carry "tribesmen" from mainland Nagaland.
Other Naga factions have tried to often dismiss NSCN(IM) as a group of Tangkhuls only with support from Semas.
"The clamour call of greater Nagalim – the unification of Naga contiguous areas - as cherished by Muivah in particular and NSCN(IM) in general sense may loss its sheen unlike 1980s and 1990s when Isak and Muivah ran the organisation with firm control over it," said a former Nagaland minister unwilling to be named.
This will only herald testing time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team on Naga peace front comprising Ajit Doval (National Security Adviser) and negotiator R N Ravi.
A cautious sense of optimism prevailed as it is in Nagaland and Manipur after August 3, 2015 Framework agreement signed. The people in general and rebel groups wanted to assess details of the pact over the fate of the broad 'framework agreement' signed between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM faction. With Swu gone, the burden to carry forward entire group and the talks now fall on Muivah, who is also on the wrong side of 80.
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If things do not move in right direction and importantly carefully - things can go out of hand and there can be bloodshed again.
There is already "absence of clarity" on the salient features agreed upon by Government of India and the "most potent NSCN (IM) faction". While Nagaland government headed by T R Zeliang is largely on board on the peace process; political leaders and the people of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and perhaps even Myanmar, maintain a wary approach as Nagas inhabit all these states (and Myanmar), and the establishment of 'Greater Nagaland' or the unification of Naga contiguous areas has been the principal demand of the NSCN (IM) for many years. State governments in Manipur and Assam will find things tricky to handle.
Isak's death would only rekindle all the doubts about the very demand of greater Nagaland because Muivah will need "extensive support" from other tribesmen in Nagaland.
The Naga unification or Nagalim that the NSCN (IM) used to champion has been hanging fire. If it is there, Manipur - especially the valley areas could burn again. And if the demand of greater Nagalim has been dropped, why has it been dropped?
Muivah will have to face a terse question: What has the NSCN (IM) achieved? And importantly what has those Nagas achieved (in Nagaland) after so much bloodshed and sacrifices?
Isak Chishi would have softened the mood. Now his absence means there would be a big challenge for the Modi government as also T R Zeliang regime in Kohima.
Chief Minister Zeliang does understand the complexity of the challenges ahead. Thus he has tried to make a sensible statement by stating that Isak’s death came at a crucial juncture when the Naga Political problem appeared to be on the verge of being solved once and for all. This was certainly lamentable.
“But since the Almighty has pre-determined period of time for all of us in this world, we have to be content with the divine plans. However, to ensure the memory, life and contributions of our legendary leader do not go in vain, we the living must endeavour to fulfil the precious dream he could not witness when alive: Let all sections of the Naga people come together, sink our differences and concertedly work to bring about an early solution to the Naga problem,” Zelaing said.
Tears have not stopped shedding in Naga hills. It can hardly afford another round of bloodshed.