KHONOMA (NAGALAND): Atei Keyho adjusts a flag of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) on the roof of a mini bus. Three other vehicles, two SUVs in the front and a Maruti van at the rear, also bear the red and white flag of the NDPP.
Perched above the bus stop is an imposing Baptist church, whose bell chimes as NDPP activists prepare to transport supporters for an election rally.
Welcome to Khonoma, a village of less than 4,000 near Kohima that was the home of Angami Zapu Phizo, independent India’s first armed rebel and whose movement survives to this day, albeit led by some groups which are ideologically antagonistic to the one he founded.
Phizo’s village that was the epicentre of the armed struggle and spawned many a legendary fighter of the ‘Naga army’, has come a long way since then. There may not be many outward signs of the ongoing election, bar a festoon of the National People’s Party at a house not far away from the church, but the mood is clearly there.
Kevisekho Kruse, the NDPP candidate from the Western Angami seat under which Khonoma falls, is a resident of the village. The NDPP, formed by former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, is contesting the election in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Just yards away from the bus stop in Khonoma is a small fort that overlooks vast terraced paddy fields. A septuagenarian sits alone, eating bread dipped in evening tea under a cloudy sky. “You mean A Z Phizo’s house?” he asked in Nagamese, a pidgin that is used in Assam and Nagaland.
“It is below the bus stop. But nobody lives there any longer, they are all in Kohima,” he said, perhaps unaware that none from Phizo’s family is there too.
At a tea shop nearby that also sells beef pickle, conversation quickly turns political. “The BJP will win 6-7 seats and the NDPP about 23,” said a middle-aged man who didn’t identify himself. He skirted questions about the rise of the saffron party, whose opponents have dubbed it “anti-Christian”.
“Election and solution are two separate issues,” said Victor Ziehetse, referring to the call made by all political parties on January 29 to boycott the elections until a solution to the Naga political question is found. The call has since been withdrawn and over 190 candidates belonging to several parties are in the race for the 60 seats in the Assembly.
Western Angami seat is witnessing a fierce triangular contest. Kruse is pitted against Kenizakho Nakhro of the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) and Asu Keyho of the NPP.
“Change is coming and a lot of development will take place in the next five years,” Kruse told a gathering in Sechu Zubza village on Tuesday night. “I want to serve the people of my constituency and all the Nagas.”
Although the BJP has not fielded a candidate in the Western Angami seat, it was the butt of attack by the NPF. Shurhozelie Liezietsu, the party’s president and former Chief Minister, ridiculed the saffron party. “The NDPP is married to the BJP and soon they will conceive and give birth to BJP children in Nagaland,” he said.
But some of Phizo’s relatives are not enthused by the elections. “This is a big joke,” said Niketu Iralu, Phizo’s nephew and a peace activist who is well respected statewide. Iralu’s parents gifted their land in Khonoma where the church stands today.
“The BJP and the RSS are out to nullify the Nagas,” he said. Asked why some sections were supporting the saffron party in a Christian-dominated state, he said: “Well if you can’t fight them, join them.”
Isak Chishi Swu, the NSCN-IM’s late chairman, and Iralu had been childhood friends. After the ceasefire was signed between the Centre and the NSCN-IM in 1997 and the first talks started in Bangkok, Iralu also went as an invitee.
Educated in Madras Christian College, Iralu’s mother was Phizo’s sister. Fondly remembering his uncle, he recalled that Phizo was “totally committed to his idea, was very disciplined and strict”. When Phizo used to go from village to village to spread the message of the armed struggle, villagers used to be in awe of him, Iralu recalled.
“My sister used to take food to the jungles to feed Phizo as the Army had overrun our village,” he said at his sun-lit house in Sechu Zubza village where he leads a quiet life with his wife from Juhu, Mumbai.