The death of rebel Naga leader SS Khaplang earlier this month marked the end of an era and the recent announcement of his new successor could mark the beginning of a new era for not just the Naga separatist movement but also insurgency in the Northeast of the country too.
Shangnyu Shangwang Khaplang, often erroneously written as Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, was born in Myanmar near the international border and belongs to the Hemi Naga tribe.
Having broken away from Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, he formed his own faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in 1989 to continue the fight for Naga sovereignty but was often engaged in territorial battles with his former comrades who continue to exercise much authority in most parts of the state of Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. The NSCN-K mostly has a grip over Nagaland’s eastern districts of Mon and Tuensang and the three districts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh- Tirap, Changlang and Longding- all of which are close to its base in Myanmar.
Much has already been written about the man who led the rebel group as its chairman for decades. His funeral aside, memorial marches and services have been held in many places including Shangnyu village in Mon district where his family lineage can reportedly be traced back to the ahng (chief) of Shangnu.
His death on June 9 brought several mixed reactions from people across the board. Many in Nagaland called it an end of an era including the chief minister, Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who said that he was “grieved” to learn about Khaplang’s death and called it “tragic considering the fact that the protracted Naga political problem is on the verge of being resolved, and the need for all different Naga political groups to come together to air our views and aspirations to the Government of India in one voice is absolutely imperative”.
Liezietsu’s condolence however was met with criticism from some sections of Indian media which called his reaction “shocking”, failing to fully comprehend the complexity of the Naga movement and the mixed emotions that it evokes in people.
Multiple “taxation” by the many rebel groups is a constant point of contention among the people in Nagaland and has led to protests by civil society bodies.
Regardless of how people feel about the issue, Khaplang did command respect. As one Dimapur-based journalist said, Khaplang was “someone who steadfastly stood for the ‘national’ cause, unlike his counterparts, who are more or less in the system now”.
A day after his death, Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that after Khaplang’s death the “NSCN-K leadership will face a lot of difficulties”.
Rijiju had also made an appeal to the outfit’s Indian cadre to “return to the mainstream”.
While not much has been said officially by the Indian government since, the statement has significance considering the fact that Khaplang had pulled his faction out of the ceasefire agreement in March 2015.
While Khaplang intensified his assault on Indian security forces and formed the United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia (UNLFWESA), a conglomeration of various rebel groups from the region including the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), his former friends were busy engaging with the Indian government.
The Centre had been in talks with the Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) to find a solution to the decades-long issue and had signed a “framework agreement” in August 2015. While it was welcomed by many people, the details of the agreement are not yet in the public domain.
Veteran journalist and author, Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who had interviewed Khaplang at Taga in Myanmar in 2011 and has written extensively on the region’s insurgency, feels that the peace process is unlikely to be impacted by “Baba’s” death.
Bhattacharyya says that the peace process “has been dragging for a long time for different reasons, mainly the unwillingness of the Centre to resolve these issues soon because it is always focussed on short-term goals”.
The secrecy surrounding the framework agreement certainly does seem to give credence to such thought but many will be waiting to see what direction the outfit takes since the appointment of its new “chairman”.
Immediately following Khaplang’s death, two names came up as possible successor. Unconfirmed reports had said that Khumchok Pangmi was appointed caretaker chairman but all speculations were laid to rest yesterday when an official statement from the outfit confirmed that Khango Konyak was to take over the reins of the NSCN-k.
An official statement from the group said that Konyak, belonging to the eponymous tribe from Nagaland’s Mon district, was born on 17 July 1943 at Yangkhao village and was christened Bechung Khango who “at the age of 20 responded to the call of the nation and joined the Naga national struggle in the year 1963 and after successful completion of basic military training became enrolled in the ‘Naga Army’”.
Konyak is a hardened man who served as the vice-chairman of the NSCN-K since May 2011. He has been part of the movement for over five decades and was one of the early members who had made the arduous trek to China where the group received arms training during the 70s and 80s.
After his elevation to the top post, Konyak said that he will work “solely in the interest of the Naga people and to defend and uphold the sovereign rights, identity, dignity and honour of our people”.
It remains uncertain as to what path the outfit will take or indeed what future awaits the several insurgency movements in the region.
Bhattacharyya says that the challenges that the new leadership will have to work on are to “keep the flock together and continuing with the judicious balance that Khaplang had managed to carve out after years of bloody conflict”.
While the NSCN’s own leadership issue has been solved, the UNLFWESA is currently without a head as it was Khaplang who led the conglomerate.
Ultimately the separatist movements will have to be resolved through dialogue and so far the only outfit making any concrete progress on that front is the Muivah-led NSCN.
Following Swu’s death in June 2016, Muivah has kept a low profile. There are also no indications that he is looking to extend an olive branch to his former friends in the other NSCN factions.
The government too should be looking to chalk out a plan that works in the long term for the best interest of the largest number of people.
A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.