By Sanjoy Hazarika in

When I was 18 and studying journalism in London, I received an invitation to dinner from Angami Zapu Phizo, the leader of Naga insurgency. As I stepped into his tiny study to shake his hand, the first impression was, “How small he is!” Yet, one could not but marvel at the passion, energy and commitment which fired this slight figure.

Through that long evening, we — the leader of the most powerful rebellion to trouble India then, and now, and the scion of a prominent Assamese political family — spoke of India and Indira Gandhi, of promises made and broken, of the taste of Assamese food. We chatted in English and even in Nagamese, a combination of Assamese and Naga dialects. He treated me not as a teenager but as an adult, with dignity and took my opinions seriously.

More than a quarter century later, it is difficult to remember his exact words as he said farewell but they were along these lines: “The Assamese are our brothers. India too will treat you as they have treated the Nagas. Only then will you understand our struggle and speak my language.”

I smiled at the time, in the confidence of youth, thinking how wrong he was. But Phizo was prophetic: he foresaw the birth of the United Liberation Force of Asom, the Bodo militant groups, the many fighting forces in Manipur and Tripura. These movements, though waning in part, continue to tie down large numbers of Indian security forces, including the army, paramilitary and police with ambushes and occasional strikes.

Yet, I doubt whether he believed that, in his lifetime, his own Naga movement would become as fractured and embittered as it has. These days, Naga guns and bullets are not trained on Indian troops but against fellow Nagas, on the basis of ethnic, ideological and personal loyalties. It is especially tragic among a deeply religious people who take the teachings of the Church very seriously.

It was a Phizo acolyte who tapped the China factor. The man chosen for the job was a young graduate named Thuengelang Muivah, then general secretary of the Naga National Council (NNC). Muivah and General Thinsolie Keyho, on their own version of the Long March, slogged through jungles and hills in Myanmar (then Burma) to Yunnan Province. They established contact with the Chinese leadership which promised them training, logistical support and arms. In addition, the Nagas established links with the Pakistanis which continue to this day.

Those were Phizo’s days of glory and power: this little man, who slipped out of India and turned up in London on a Peruvian passport, had let loose a prairie fire that engulfed the Naga hills and stunned Delhi, forcing it to launch a full-scale army operation, with the backing of military aircraft, against the rebels. He had opened a Burma front with S.S. Khaplang, a Konyak chief, heading the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council since the 1950s.

The Nagas suffered terribly at the hands of the security forces: entire villages were torched, their inhabitants forced to flee into the jungle for safety, men taken prisoner, women were raped and molested. The innocents wept and were traumatised. There were no human-rights groups those days, no National Human Rights Commission to run to, no public-interest petition which has become so chic these days. The story of those years of violence and brutality have not been fully told. Yet, it would be foolish not to acknowledge Phizo’s role in inflicting this disaster on his own people.

Phizo’s hold over his movement weakened after ethnic divisions began surfacing in the mid-’60s. These divisions have been the bane of the Nagas for long; until less than a century ago, tribes fiercely protected their own lands and aggressively led raids on others, to collect “heads” and exact tribute as well as take slaves.

Those divisions have grown since 1975 when a faction of the Naga movement signed a Peace Accord with the Government of India at Shillong. The signatories included Phizo’s brother, Keviyalley. Muivah denounced the accord but Phizo, while making known his disapproval of what had happened, never publicly attacked the peacemakers.

Muivah and Issak Chishi Swu later broke away from the NNC to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) which has also split — between the Muivah-Swu faction on one side and Khaplang on the other. Again the divide is on ethnic lines.

The violence continues in Nagaland though talks have opened between the Indian Government and Phizo’s successors in the movement. The China connection is closed, the Pakistani link is cracked but ties with other “liberation groups” in the North-east continue. Indeed the NSCN(I-M) is described as the “mother” of insurgencies in the North-east.

Phizo is remembered not simply because he maintained his prophetic separateness till his death in 1992. He had an appeal that transcended ethnic fissures and touched the hearts of all Nagas.