One of the greatest shortcomings of the Naga armed ethnic conflict has been the recurring issue of factionalism. For more than once in its history, the Naga armed conflict has witnessed Naga rebel leaders fighting amongst themselves and as a consequence, splitting into rebel factions. Factionalism has resulted in both combatant and non-combatant deaths thereby taking a huge toll in Naga lives. On May 14 this year, the issue of factionalism again raised its ugly head when the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah [NSCN (IM)] refused to take part in the May 21 reconciliation meeting to be held at Chiang Mai in Thailand. The main bone of contention was the union government’s decision to engage the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khole and Kitovi) faction led by erstwhile ato Kilonser (Prime Minister) of the NSCN (Khaplang) faction, Kitovi Zhimoni and senior leader, Khole Konyak. In 2011, the NSCN (Khaplang) faction suffered from a major spilt when Khole Konyak and Kitovi fell out with S.S. Khaplang, the Chairman of the outfit and formed the new faction. Significantly, in the immediate aftermath of the split, the Khole-Kitovi faction tried to reconcile with the NSCN (IM) but differences between Muivah and Kitovi nipped that goal in the bud.
The present situation in the Naga inhabited areas of the Northeast is a mirror image of the past. In 1975, when the Naga National Council (NNC) signed onto the Shillong Peace Accord, Muivah, Swu and Khaplang, then members of the NNC disagreed with the accord and broke away to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. Differences then cropped up between Swu, Muivah and Khaplang in the 1980s with a violent altercation in the Patkai hills. This led to a split in 1988 in the NSCN with two new factions being formed: the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (Khaplang). In 2007, the NSCN (IM) witnessed a split when Azetho Chophy, a Sema leader of the outfit broke away and formed the NSCN (Unification). This group later formed a strategic linkage with the NSCN (Khaplang).
In today’s scenario, there are three major issues that are emerging in the Naga conflict.
First, the split in the NSCN (Khaplang) has created a major dent in the influence of the outfit. S.S. Khaplang is from Myanmar and hence depended on leaders like Khole and Khitovi for his support base in the Naga inhabited areas of India. With the split, the support base of the outfit in Naga inhabited areas of Nagaland has reduced significantly.
Second, for the first time ever in the Naga peace process, there is the possibility of the union government engaging another armed Naga actor besides the NSCN (IM) in peace talks.
Third, the NSCN (IM), which views itself as the main representative of the Naga people in peace talks, is being increasingly threatened in its home turf of influence by the NSCN (Khole and Kitovi) faction.
While NSCN (Khaplang) is a major threat to the NSCN (IM) as a rival armed actor, its influence in terms of popular legitimacy in Naga inhabited areas in India has been limited at best due to the fact that its Chairman Khaplang belongs to Myanmar. This dimension has been further vindicated by the fact that the Myanmar government has signed a cease-fire with the NSCN (Khaplang) on April 9 this year, The Khole-Kitovi faction is however, a real challenge to the NSCN (IM)’s sphere of influence given the fact that both leaders are from Nagaland. Hence, their demand to be included in a peace dialogue with the union government holds far more weight in Naga society than the NSCN (Khaplang) faction.
The negative consequence of the present unfolding scenario is that the Naga reconciliation process which started 10 years ago is in danger of being sabotaged by renewed factional fighting. The biggest achievement of the reconciliation process has been the ability of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) to weave together a complex intra-ethnic common platform for the establishment of peace in Nagaland. Through the years, the FNR has enlisted the support of the Naga Hoho (Naga Social Apex body), the Naga Students’ Federation, the Naga Mothers’ Association as well as the Joint Forum of Gaonburahs (Village Headmen) and Doiabashis (Village elders)— (JFGBDB). In fact, in July 2007, it was the JFGBDB that had requested a cease-fire between the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (Khaplang) as a pre-condition for the reconciliation process. This had succeeded in bringing down violence levels to a large extent. Bound by their interest in social legitimisation, both rebel outfits were forced to listen to the voice of the Naga people, if at all they claimed to be representatives of the people. This process now stands in danger of being unravelled due to the current factional impasse.
While there were signs of the Naga conflict being resolved earlier this year with the Chairman of the NSCN (IM), Isak Chisi Swu stating that a final settlement was not far off, the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) faction could derail that peace process. Given the politics of Naga representation, the NSCN (IM) will assert its own representative character to the Naga people. This could result in factional fighting for sure.
One of the most relevant lessons in dealing with non-state armed violence of this nature is that successful resolution mostly depends on the unity of the rebel leadership. This was witnessed by India with regard to the Mizo armed conflict. The leadership of Laldenga and his ability to carry the entire Mizo National Front (MNF) leadership with him played an instrumental role in the successful resolution of the Mizo conflict. The continued factional divisions in the Naga armed leadership are the greatest obstacles to the resolution of the Naga conflict.
While one can argue that Naga society itself is based on ethnic differences between the several Naga groups, the fact of the matter is that the same Naga society has been trying its utmost best to bring about reconciliation and curtail violence. The rebel leaders should therefore realize that common people are tired of inter-factional violence. Muivah and Swu needs to urgently talk to rival leaders like Khole and Kitovi through forums like the FNR if they are serious about peace and development in Naga inhabited areas. Furthermore, if the union government’s counter-insurgency policy is based on further divisions of the Naga armed groups as the best way to weaken the Naga armed movement and bring about resolution, it is a policy that is bound to fail. The Naga conflict itself has shown that divisions in the armed groups have led to a protracted conflict with no resolution in sight.
The best way forward in this situation is to talk to the Naga armed groups in a joint platform like the FNR. This will enable differences to be resolved in an open manner with the involvement of indigenous mediators like the Naga Hoho. Only a commitment to reconcile the armed groups and thereby bring about a peaceful resolution to this decades old conflict will work; anything other than that will fail.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author