This book is arguably the most engaging autobiography of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, popularly known as NSCN(IM), told jointly by its top leaders, with the two authors Nandita Haksar and Sabastian M. Hongray as interlocutors. The picture that emerges of the 70 plus year old Naga struggle from these testimonies is however not without limitations, for the voices of those who differed with the NSCN(IM) are completely missing. Serious charges against those who decided to make peace with India and signed the 1960 16-point agreement which created Nagaland state in 1963, and then the Shillong Accord of 1975 are allowed to go unchallenged. When it came to vilification of NSCN(IM)’s bitter rival NSCN(K), the faction led by S.S. Khaplang, a Burmese Naga, including the charge of rape, this missing dialectic becomes somewhat deafening.
These limitations notwithstanding, the book will remain important for those looking to understand the Naga struggle. The readers are treated to an intimate view of the shared emotions and commitments that drove and sustained the movement. Profiled in the process are the extraordinary perseverance, endurance and leadership of theses personalities. From several of these testimonies, Muivah comes across as a stellar leader, intelligent, courageous and committed. Isak too is revered by his subordinates, but he is more a man of religion. A second-generation Christian and grandson of a Sema village shaman, he came to be the spiritual anchor for the organisation. He was also committed to converting the backward and animist Nagas tribes on the Burmese side of the border. Indeed, when there were charges that NSCN is communist thereby posing problems for them in deeply Christian Nagaland, Isak’s proselytising mission became an alibi that this was untrue. In Isak’s words: “We had converted more than 40,000 people. They went back and told the church leaders that NSCN is doing more than them. So, how can the NSCN be communist?”
By inference, this civilising mission also provides an explanation for the violent NSCN split in 1988, when Khaplang and his Burmese Nagas followers launched a murderous assault on Muivah’s camp. In candid admissions, many expressed shock at the primitiveness of the headhunting tribes on the Burmese side. When served food in one such village, one of them talks of the disgust she felt: “Oh! How can we eat this!… It looked like food for a dog.” Another was also bewildered: “Then we went to a Leinong Naga village. I was shocked to see that the people were all naked.” There are also several confessions of punitive executions of these villagers, often for headhunting practices in which NSCN cadres became victims. At Tauggyi, for instance, one of the testimonies reads: “Finally one man confessed and he was allowed to go but the other six were shot dead.” Another case was similar: “But when we joined Uncle Muivah after he came back from China, we went to the village to take action against them. We wanted to find out what happened but the Angh had told everyone to remain silent so no one said anything. Then the Angh of seven clans was killed by us.” It is not difficult to imagine how the residue from all these would have accumulated amongst these tribes to ultimately rally behind their leader Khaplang to hit back.
There are a few glimpses on Khaplang’s personality other than the vilifications. Nuri (Saw Sa), who was president of the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council, ENRC, before Khaplang decided to merge it with the NSCN in 1980, as well as Shanglow Konyak, in their testimonies indicate they tried to persuade Khaplang they should instead fight for a Naga state in Burma, but Khaplang remained wedded not only to the idea of a liberated Naga homeland but even formed the Indo Burma Revolutionary Force, IBRF, in partnership with other Northeast rebel groups to try liberate the entire region from India and Burma.
What is also apparent from these accounts is a shift in priorities of the Naga struggle after Muivah came of be at the helm. First generation leaders of the movement, starting from A.Z. Phizo, chose the path of direct confrontation. Muivah gave more importance to internationalising the Naga cause to pressure India to concede. Muivah saw China as the most convenient platform for this. He even wanted Phizo who was in London then to shift base to China, but on this, the two leaders differed. A significant section of almost all the testimonies hence are accounts of several trips of NSCN contingents to China for training and weapons, and the hardships faced on the way.
There is another very unsettling thing about these testimonies – that of admission of political assassinations, bank robberies and ambushes. Muivah says for instance: “That is why we unfortunately had to deal with Yangmaso Shaiza and his brother Lungshim Shaiza; Rishang escaped several times as did Stanhope…”. Similarly, V.S. Wungmatem, once NSCN(IM) military chief and now senior leader, admits to eliminating even his uncle Khashim Vashum because he is a cheat and cousin Stanhope Muivah and several others. Wungmatem, also gives a graphic account of the sensational Namthilok ambush in 1982 on 21 Sikh Light Infantry killing all 21 soldiers in a four-vehicle convoy, which shattered the perceived peace bought by the Shillong Accord. His military prowess is evident, but also his ruthlessness, for he seems to be saying he eliminated surrendered soldiers: “I told them raise your hands but they were just saying ‘Ram, Ram.’ I told my boys to give me covering fire and I jumped down and got a light machine gun and fired ten-fifteen rounds.” He was arrested the next year but says: “I was finally released without any trial because they could not prove any case.” The authors have now made him confess, so would this have any legal consequence or would there be legal immunity. Nandita Haksar is a well-known lawyer and probably considered this well before going to press.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author