The hardline leader of the biggest Naga insurgent group has been succeeded by his deputy Khango Konyak, an Indian Naga unlike Khaplang, who was Myanmarese. Will this unsettle the umbrella body of militant outfits fighting the Indian forces in the Northeast?
The death of S S Khaplang, the grand patriarch of Naga insurgency, has put a question mark on the course of armed struggles in the Northeast. Khaplang, a Hemi (tribe) Naga of Myanmar who founded the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN-K and was its chief, died of old-age ailments on Saturday at the age of 77. He had led a violent movement for over five decades to achieve the sovereignty of the Nagas — a goal which the Nagas had set even before India attained independence.
Fondly called Baba by his armed colleagues, Khaplang was instrumental in bringing some insurgent groups of the Northeast under the banner of United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia
(UNLFW) in 2015. In the aftermath of his death, the immediate challenge for his successor Khango Konyak, who is an Indian Naga, will be to maintain the unity of the outfits which include United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) besides NSCN-K.
ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah, who was the virtual second-in-command in UNLFW when Khaplang was alive, has emerged as a frontrunner for the post of chairman of the umbrella organisation. But considering that it was Khaplang who had provided shelter to the myriad outfits in Myanmar, NSCN-K and its sympathisers are unlikely to give way. They will want a Naga to head UNLFW. There is a perception that possible differences on the leadership issue could breach the ties of the outfits.
“The immediate consequence of Khaplang’s death is the introduction of a new uncertainty into the complex of Indian rebel groups operating out of Myanmar. Khaplang was the unquestioned leader and a man who had influence over Naga areas in Myanmar. Conflicting interests among different actors, earlier in control due to the sheer presence of Khaplang, may now come to the fore. The focus now will be on Paresh Baruah who has influence in the neighbouring countries and is powerful,” says Nishit Dholabhai, a writer, who has been closely following insurgency in the Northeast for years.
He says Baruah who is already suspected to be calling the shots in UNLFW on many decisions, may now emerge even more powerful. Over the next six months, it will be interesting to watch how the Government of India deals with the emerging situation in Myanmar and the Northeast, he sums up. A Naga insurgent leader, who has been associated with the movement for over three decades, says the first but biggest challenge for the new NSCN-K chief will be to understand the mindset of the groups.
“Since they (insurgent outfits) have been working together for many years, it will be difficult for Khango Konyak to decide anything. He will surely face a problem because he has to first understand their mindset,” the rebel leader said on the strict condition of anonymity.
He also says that unless the NSCN-K realises the ground realities, it will continue to create a situation believing that sovereignty is achievable.
“The question is how we make them understand the ground realities. It is up to them to understand. Most groups believe that negotiations are the only way out. They have realised that dialogue alone can help resolve the problem. But NSCN-K believes only in sovereignty. I am sure they will continue to create a situation here and there. When the leadership changes, there is a change of policy. Khango is from India and so, I feel that if the leaders of groups and organisations, besides government, go and meet him, something good may happen... “Naga society has to put in its best effort. The NSCN-K has to be convinced that its aspirations about achieving sovereignty will not materialise,” the insurgent leader adds.
Union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, too feels that the NSCN-K leadership will face a lot of difficulties following Khaplang’s demise. Stating that it is a Myanmar-based “illegal” organisation, he said the Centre would appeal to the “Indian” NSCN-K rebels to surrender and get rehabilitated. Rijiju refused to talk about the Myanmar side of the NSCN-K rebels. The Nagas have a sizeable population in Myanmar.
The Centre had in 1975 signed the historic Shillong Accord with a section of the rebels of Naga National Council (NNC). However, the pact miffed another section of the insurgents, which included Khaplang, Thuingaleng Muivah and the late Isak Chishi Swu. They parted ways and formed the NSCN in 1980. Eight years later, the NSCN suffered a split with Khaplang leading one faction which later came to be known as NSCN-K. Swu and Muivah led the other faction called NSCN-IM. Swu died in a New Delhi hospital last year.
The NSCN-K entered into a ceasefire with the Centre in 2001 until abrogating it unilaterally in 2015. That year, the outfit had killed 18 Army personnel in an ambush in Manipur. A series of subsequent attacks on security forces made the government to ban the outfit.
Khango Konyak, trusted lieutenant and a hardliner
Long suffering from old-age ailment NSCN (K) hardline leader S S Khaplang made the line of succession clear by appointing Khango Konyak as the vice-president of the faction. Now that the
patriarch has passed, the leadership has gone to his trusted lieutenant, who hails from the Konyak Naga tribe from Mon district, a bastion of the Khaplang group.
As with the other leaders of the NSCN (K) faction, Indian forces do not have much information on the second-line leaders of the hardline faction. Khango Konyak is known to have looked after the
administration of the outfit while the military affairs were handled by Niki Sumi.
Khango Konyak is said to have joined the Naga army in 1963 and was sent to Pakistan and China on various missions. He held various command positions in the army and served as the home minister of the rebel government.
Like Khaplang, Konyak is known to be a hardliner on the ceasefire process with the government of India. Apart from leading the NSCN, Khango Konyak also has the task of coordinating with the umbrella organisation of militant groups, United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW). The organisation is now likely to be led by Paresh Baruah, in place of the departed Khaplang.
Militant outfits active in the Northeast
United Liberation Front of Asom
Established in 1979, the United Liberation Front of Asom seeks through armed struggle, a sovereign state of Assam. The outfit, headed by Paresh Baruah, reportedly has several camps in Bangladesh where its cadre are trained. The Indian Army began its military ops against the outfit in 1990. According to unconfirmed reports, nearly 18,000 people have died in clashes between the ultras and Indian security forces over the past 20 years. The group believes that after Independence, power changed hands from one group of colonists (the British) to another (the supposed Hindi group). The outfit targets Hindi-speakers settled in Assam from other parts of the country, with its main ‘target’ group being Bhojpuri speakers from Bihar. The outfit killed over 100 Bihari people in 2000.
National Democratic Front of Bodoland
With the demand for an autonomous region for Bodos, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland is another key separatist group in Assam. It was established in 1989 as the Bodo Security Force.
The Bodos are ethnically a plains tribe. It is headed by Songbijit, a Karbi, known for his violent ways.
Kamtapur Liberation Organisation
This Assam outfit seeks a separate Kamtapur state comprising six districts in West Bengal and four contiguous districts in Assam. Initially, the group sought to address problems of the Koch
Rajbongshi people including unemployment, land alienation, perceived neglect of Kamtapuri language, identity, and economic deprivation
Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front
This outfit is active in the Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts of Assam and was established in 2004 to fight for the rights of Karbi tribes. It is closely associated with ULFA.
National Liberation Council of Taniland
Demanding a Tani Land for Tani tribes in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the National Liberation Council of Taniland operates on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. The tribes include Missing in Assam and Adi, Nyishi, Galo, Bangni, Apa, Tagin, Hill Miri in Arunachal Pradesh in India, as well as Luoba in China who live along the frontier.
National Socialist Council of Nagaland-IM
The NSCN-IM is the most powerful insurgent group of the Northeast. It has been in peace mode since 1997 following a ceasefire agreement with the Centre. One of its most contentious demands is the creation of a unified Naga homeland “Greater Nagaland” by slicing off Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh
National Socialist Council of Nagaland-KK
The NSCN-KK is a group of former NSCN-K and NSCN-IM insurgents, founded about a decade ago. Currently, it is headed by Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zhimomi, who were big guns in NSCN-K. The outfit, which is mostly active in eastern Nagaland, has been in a virtual ceasefire with the government without signing any agreement.
National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Reformation)
Formed in 2015, the NSCN (Reformation) is a breakaway faction of NSCN-K. It is led by Y Wangtin Konyak and P Tikhak, who were “kilonsers” (ministers) in NSCN-K. The duo formed the outfit in the aftermath of their expulsion from NSCN-K by Khaplang. The group has been in a virtual ceasefire with the government ever since its formation
United National Liberation Front
Many ethnic groups in Manipur resented its incorporation in the Indian Union in 1949. Several insurgent groups were born over the years in Manipur seeking an independent state. The United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was founded in Manipur in 1964. Later, between 1977 and 1980, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), were established. As insurgency continued, the Central government imposed the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the region, giving sweeping powers to the Armed forces to search and detain those suspected of
militancy. The Act is still in force in the State. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is also active in the region. The Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions of the NSCN clashed here frequently.
Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy
The Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D) was formed in 1986. It is primarily active in Mizoram. The group seeks an independent Hmar State (Hmar ram) comprising the Hmar-inhabited areas of Mizoram, Manipur and Assam.
Garo National Liberation Army
Meghalaya’s most active militant group Garo National Liberation Army was formed in 2009. It aims to create a separate Garoland in the Western region of Meghalaya. The group operates from the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and Garo-inhabited areas of Goalpara/Kamrup (R) district in Assam. It was founded by cop-turned-rebel Pakchara R Sangma alias Champion R Sangma.
National Liberation Front
The National Liberation Front of Tripura, established in 1989, demands the protection of tribal rights in the State, known for its frequent ethnic tension between Bangladeshi immigrants and native tribals. The objective of the All Tripura Tiger Force, another group in the State, is expulsion of all Bengali-speaking immigrants who came to Tripura after 1956. It also seeks restoration of land to tribals under ‘Tripura Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act’, 1960