Though India’s Northeast may culturally be several worlds away from Kashmir, there are commonalities in the geopolitical environment of both.
With our prime-time breaking news and panel discussion addicts channel hopping for some time now between raucous, full-volume, politico-theological debates on Jammu and Kashmir, gau rakshaks and the Ram Mandir, news of the demise at Takka, in Myanmar’s Kachin region, of Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, the chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) — more familiar by its acronym NSCN (K) — passed almost unnoticed. Reminiscences of S.S. Khaplang must always remind the Indian government, that itself has recently changed its own political management, of the underlying fragility that is intrinsic to the region. But some in India perhaps did remember the turbulent era when demands for “independence” surfaced in the country’s little-known Northeast, in the ultra-sensitive region of the “seven sisters”, otherwise largely “terra incognita” to the rest of the country, a situation which continues to a large extent even today. There are other more bitter memories too on both sides — hopefully fading with time — of the long jungle wars which followed, stumbling from ceasefire to ceasefire, which were ultimately ended by the 1975 Shillong Accord, under which India made peace with its own people, between the Government of India, on the one hand, and the Naga federal government, the overarching militant Naga underground entity.
One of the major achievements that ultimately flowed from this accord was the establishment of the state of Nagaland within the Indian Union. The accord also split the Naga community, of whom some were elderly, war-weary and looking for peace, while there were others, younger and strongly militant, who went on to reject the Government of India’s peace overtures and were determined to continue waging a war for independence. India too made its own blunders in the process, many self-created and avoidable, some due to arrogance and ignorance of the norms and attitudes of a frontier people, who appeared to be outside the so-called national mainstream. It can also not be ignored that some among the latter had been deliberately set on a collision course by the proponents and followers of erstwhile colonial cultures and traditions and instigated to adopt a collision course with an established government which had assumed power through an electoral process that was surprisingly democratic, given the temper of the times. It was a classic situation of post-colonial readjustments which many newly independent countries had faced, and now it was India’s turn to do so — one of the lingering birth pains of a sovereign republic that had come into being on August 15, 1947, a bare three decades earlier. India was determined to establish itself as a secular, democratic country, which of necessity had to be unitary if it had to survive. There was little room to compromise on this basic issue. Through it all, and as always, the thankless burden of the state was carried by that patient, long-suffering beast of burden, the Indian Army.
In Nagaland too, several tribal personalities emerged. Among them were S.S. Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar (and thus technically a foreigner), while among the others were Isak Chisi Swu, and Thuingaleng Muivah — both Tangkhul Nagas from Manipur. All three broke away from the original Naga National Council, the official signatories to the Shillong Accord on behalf of the Naga people, and created the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN. In 1988, the NSCN split further into a Tangkhul-dominated NSCN (I-M) faction headed by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, and the NSCN (K) faction headed by S.S. Khaplang. S.S. Khaplang was also the elected chairman of the United Front of Western South-East Asia (UFWSEA), which had brought all the anti-Indian rebel parties of the Northeast under a common umbrella and platform and coordinates their activities. Its operational counterpart in Kashmir would be the United Jihad Council (UJC) based in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and headed by Syed Salahuddin, leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen. The UJC has 13 affiliates and claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pathankot airbase. Both umbrella organisations also operate extensive narcotics and gun-running syndicates to create funds for operations against India in their respective zones.
Isak Chisi Swu passed away almost exactly a year ago, on June 28, 2016. Thus, with the demise of S.S. Kaplang, only Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed Muivah remains of the old-guard Nagas who had repudiated the Shillong Accord. But the road beyond the Shillong Accord remains difficult. The ashes of the hard-negotiated peace are still not fully quenched and tend to flare up from time to time as terrorist incidents — notably the ambush in June 2015 in Manipur on the administrative echelon of 6 Dogra as the unit was moving out of the region to a peace tenure, on its way out on relief after its operational tenure in the region. This was a signal reminder that situational temperatures in the Northeast, specially in Nagaland, Manipur, and occasionally Arunachal Pradesh, are always high. Meanwhile, it will also be prudent to note that though India’s Northeast may culturally be several worlds away from Kashmir, there are commonalities in the geopolitical environment of both. It will be unrealistic not to acknowledge and accept that separatism is a common factor, which still persists as a discernable undercurrent in both J&K and Northeast. As internal stresses continue to fracture the NSCN further along traditional internal fault lines endemic to traditional Naga society, whether by happenstance or design, perhaps the ghost of Chanakya, the great counsellor to Chandragupta Maurya 2,000 years ago, might nod in grim approval as he watches over the ramparts that “Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed” still remain fully relevant.