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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

Review: Kuknalim; Naga Armed Resistance by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray

Unlike standard insurgency fare, this book lays bare the idiosyncrasies, tragedies and mundane relationships of those who drive the Naga national movement

books Updated: Sep 20, 2019 20:14 IST
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Hindustan Times
The Women Arms wing of the separatist group the National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) marches during the 35th Naga Republic Day celebrations at the council headquarters in Hebron, 35 kms away from Dimapur, Nagaland.
The Women Arms wing of the separatist group the National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) marches during the 35th Naga Republic Day celebrations at the council headquarters in Hebron, 35 kms away from Dimapur, Nagaland.(Corbis via Getty Images)
Pp454, Rs 599; Speaking Tiger Books
Pp454, Rs 599; Speaking Tiger Books

The interminable wait for closure on the Naga political question continues. The outcome of the talks, held in secret between the Indian government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction) (NSCN-IM), will have ramifications not just for the Nagas but for the entire Northeast. The term, Kuknalim is a Naga nationalist slogan meaning, “Victory to our people and land” and Kuknalim: Naga Armed Resistance by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian Hongray offers an intimate look at the personalities whose actions might yet reshape the region.

The book is a compilation of the testimonies of top leaders and soldiers including Isak Chishi Swu (he died in 2016) and Thuingaleng Muivah, the chairman and general secretary of the NSCN-IM respectively, army chief VS Atem, and of pastors, women leaders, tribe leaders and spiritual guides of the NSCN-IM. The interviews were conducted around 1998-99 just as the talks between the NSCN-IM and the Indian government were getting under way. The participants recall their childhood, their motivations for joining the underground movement, and experiences of living in the jungle. By laying bare the personal idiosyncrasies, anecdotes, tragedies and mundane human relations, the book gives us an intimate peep into the personalities of those who drive the Naga national movement.

Muivah is the Naga outfit’s hard-driving negotiator, ideologue, and supreme leader and his testimony is the most interesting. His name, “Thuingaleng” means “raising up, equal to the highest.” Very fond of his mother, he credits her with inculcating the qualities of toughness, cunning, realism and ethnic pride that have have made him an effective leader. He said: “I am not sure which year my mother died, it was either 1980 or 1981. But I could not meet her or visit her grave. I was deep in the jungles. When my mother was dying, she told the family that she would wait for me in Paradise. She told the family to tell me not to return halfway. That would be a disgrace to the family: ‘I want to be a proud mother.’”

In the book, Muivah acknowledges the IM’s hand in the killing of Yangmaso Shaiza, the former chief minister of Manipur, his brother Lungshim Shaiza as well as several attempts made on the life of Rishang Keishing, another former chief minister. All of them are from his own tribe, Tangkhul.

The marches to China for training and procuring arms are also discussed in detail. The blind walks through the jungles to avoid detection, starvation, ambush and drowning while crossing rivers make for a wrenching read. The participants speak highly of the Chinese and refute allegations that Chinese communism would not accept Naga Christianity. All of this is interesting but the lack of chronology and annotation can make the reader feel lost.

The testimonies also bring out the disagreements the NSCN-IM leadership had with AZ Phizo and SS Khaplang. Phizo was criticised mainly for not denouncing the Shillong Accord, which some Naga leaders (including Phizo’s own brother) had signed with the Indian Government in 1975. The NSCN was formed in 1980 by those who opposed the Shillong Accord. SS Khaplang, who split from the Isak-Muivah group to form his own NSCN (Khaplang) group in 1988, was accused of everything from indiscipline and immoral behaviour to conspiring to eliminate the entire IM-group leadership.

For the record, Khaplang, who died in 2017, told the journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya in 2011 that the split was triggered by Muivah’s plan for talks with the Indian Government in violation of the organization’s goal of independence and his summoning of an emergency meeting in 1988 without informing Khaplang, who was the vice president. As for Phizo, his biographer, Pieter Steyn recorded that he “received the news of the signing of the Shillong accord in silence.” Phizo invoked God’s will and rebuked Isak and Muivah for forgetting that “God is their rock and their redeemer.”

Nandita Haksar
Nandita Haksar ( Courtesy Speaking Tiger )

Elsewhere, the testimony of VS Atem, the NSCN-IM’s army chief from 1989 till 1999 gives us a glimpse of where the roots of the group’s particular antagonism to the Kuki people might lie. “My earliest memories are of stories told by my parents about the Kukis. If I ever cried, my grandfather or grandmother would tell me to keep quiet so the Kukis don’t hear me. I used to think even if it is a sin and wrong in the eyes of God, I want to be the one to deal with the Kukis,” he recalled unapologetically. Suddenly, one is reminded of the thousands killed in the conflict between the Nagas and Kukis in the early 1990s.

Sebastian M Hongray
Sebastian M Hongray ( Courtesy Speaking Tiger )

One puzzling thing was the frequent invocation of the spirit or “vision” by all interviewed. The NSCN-IM have their own “oracle”, who they claim can predict and foresee things through visions and dreams. The visions helped them escape ambushes. Both Isak Swu and Muivah claimed that they got married as per instructions received from the spirit.

The authors provide a helpful overview of Naga origin and history, the geographical spread, and political struggles. They briefly introduce the characters at the beginning of each chapter, and conclude by highlighting the challenges ahead.

Read more: Review: Walking the Roadless Road by Easterine Kire

This book is unlike standard insurgency fare. It is a chronicle of wrenching memories told in light prose. Memories are fickle and can hardly count as factual history. Yet, they are precious. Memories have a disarming feel to them. The therapeutic storytelling style mirrors Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu’s A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home. If propagandist insurgency literature aims to harden minds, works of this nature soften them. This may be just what the doctor ordered for the Northeast.

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte teaches political science at Churachandpur College, Lamka, Manipur

First Published: Sep 20, 2019 20:14 IST

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