He was both a rebel with a cause as well as a man of peace. He had spent his entire life in the quest for a separate Naga homeland. But 87-year-old Isak Chishi Swu, the calm and God-fearing chairman of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), who passed away on June 28 after a prolonged illness, died without seeing his outfit reach a peace deal with the Indian government. The Naga deal will be clinched sooner than later, but will it be the way Swu might have imagined or hoped for? His death has triggered a lot of speculation on its impact on the two-decade-long Naga peace process. Both New Delhi and the NSCN-IM have treaded the path of peace long enough to turn back, and, therefore, the peace process will move forward. But Swu’s absence will certainly be felt if there are hiccups over contentious issues in the last leg of negotiations. Swu’s long-time colleague, Thuingaleng Muivah, NSCN-IM general secretary, as well as the Centre, have said the peace process will reach its logical conclusion. It would be interesting to take a look at Swu’s life: born in 1929 in the remote village of Chishilimi, in Nagaland’s Zunheboto district, Swu graduated in political science from Shillong’s prestigious
St. Anthony’s College. By then, Angami Zapu Phizo had already formed and assumed leadership of the Naga National Council (NNC), taking the Naga homeland movement to great heights. His core point was that Nagas were destined to live in a free homeland since they had never been a part of India. Fresh from college, Swu joined the NNC in December 1958. Taken in by his soft demeanour and persuasive skills, Phizo made him his outfit’s “foreign secretary” in 1959, a post he held till 1966. In the next 10 years, he served the NNC as a minister before becoming vice-president in 1976. In between, in 1968, Phizo sent Swu as his special envoy to China to seek Beijing’s support for the Naga cause. In his autobiography, Swu said he marched to China via Myanmar’s Kachin region and arrived in Beijing after being hounded by Burmese troops along the way. Swu confirmed that he met the Chinese PM, who apparently assured him that China would support them “when the right time comes”.
Bent on pushing their core demand of a sovereign Naga homeland, Swu and two close associates — Thuingaleng Muivah and S.S. Khaplang — broke away from the NNC and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland on January 31, 1980. Swu’s ability to convince people and strike a consensus got the NSCN-IM membership of UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation) on January 23, 1993. The NSCN-IM vested on Swu, along with Muivah, the responsibility of internationalising the Naga homeland movement. This took Swu across Europe, the United States, Africa and Asia. By mid-1990s, New Delhi had established contacts with the NSCN-IM leadership and Swu, along with Muivah, talked to Indian government representatives in Zurich, Paris, Amsterdam, Chiang Mai, Bangkok and other places. Eventually, on August 1, 1997, the two sides signed a truce agreement.
Since then, the Government of India and the NSCN-IM have held about 80 rounds of peace talks, leading to the signing of a Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015. Swu signed this agreement from his hospital bed, a moment videographed by Indian government officials as well as the NSCN-IM. This agreement, the contents of which are still a closely-guarded secret, will be the basis for a final settlement of the Naga problem. One has to wait for that, but right now can NSCN-IM resolve the question on who would succeed Swu as its chairman? The group appears to have been preparing for this as it appointed ageing Khole Konyak as its vice-chairman despite that he was until recently part of a rival faction. It will be almost binding on the NSCN-IM to appoint a Naga from Nagaland to the post of chairman or one of the two top posts (in case Muivah becomes chairman) as Muivah, NSCN-IM general secretary, hails from Manipur. Swu’s death has added to the government’s challenge as while the next rung of NSCN-IM leaders may not be hardliners, they are certainly not as “soft” as their patriarch was.