The Saga of Isak Chishi Swu Who Left Behind an Unfulfilled Dream

A soft-spoken and good human being that he was, Isak Chishi Swu, the co-founder and Chairman of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), passed away at the Fortis Hospital in Delhi on 28th June after prolonged illness. Swu, a god-fearing and humble man, lived for the cause of the Naga people till his last breath. The passing away of Isak Chishi Swu is a major setback for the organization.

Isak Chishi Swu was respected more as an ideologue and theoretician. He was a man who immensely believed in the power of God and the magical strength of ‘Nagaland for Christ’. So much was his love for Gospel teachings that it is not wrong to recall him as a rebel who believed in the magical power of “Nagaland for Christ.” He avoided violence and was tireless and persistent in planting the seed of hope for the Nagas’ future. He provided the outfit with psychological and spiritual strength, which the Naga rebel will miss. Isak Swu was among the only Naga insurgent leaders who insisted that the leadership get a ceasefire and then approach the Indian government for peace talks, an effort that finally led to the signing of the framework of the Naga Peace Accord on Aug 3, 2015.

8_the-saga-of-isak-chishi-swuspecial-feature1__At his insistence, NSCN (I-M) extended up a ceasefire of 18 years with the government of India to a formal framework peace agreement. Due to his illness, Swu could not attend the inking of the historic Naga Peace Accord on August 3, 2015 with the Government of India at the official residence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Although Swu was unable to attend the signing of the ‘framework Agreement’, it had his approval, he was optimistic that the agreement would bring about a final and lasting solution to the long-standing Naga political issue. Soon after the accord was sealed, Modi said, “Just as his (Swu’s) contribution to this agreement has been huge, his guidance will remain crucial in the times ahead.” Having spent almost all his life fighting tirelessly for his people, he would have had the desire to witness the historic moment, but he didn’t want anything to come in the way of a speedy resolution to the Nagas’ movement for self determination. He was of the opinion that if there was a need for peace in Nagaland, then that would have been possible only through bringing all the factions on board. It is perhaps the figure of insurgent leaders like Isak Swu which allowed the door to remain open for other rebel factions to join the Naga Peace Accord negotiations. Swu had always stressed the need for Naga unity or reconciliation, his only dream was to peacefully resolve the Naga issue with the government, something he didn’t see in his lifetime. His death came at a time when the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government are still negotiating for the final conclusion of the Naga Peace Accord. He wished till the last moment that the NSCN (IM)’s journey towards a possible meeting point of peaceful co-existence would end in an agreement of shared sovereignty with the Government of India. The Nagas have lost one of the most influential and courageous leaders. But he would remain to be a source of inspiration for thousands of Naga youths.

Isak Swu’s legendary role in the Naga revolution seemed pre-decided since birth because he was born on a historic year for the Nagas. It was the year the Naga Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission by introducing the Nagas’ aspirations for independence. Born to Ino Kushe Chishi Swu and Inoli Shokhali Chishi Swu on November 11, 1929 at Chishilimi village of Zunheboto district in Nagaland, Isak was a member of the influential Sema tribe of the state. His father was the first Christian convert and Evangelist in Sumi Community.

Isak Chishi Swu started his early education at Kohima Mission School but was forced to go back home as Kohima became battlefields of the Allied forces and the Japanese Imperial forces in the Second World War. He continued his studies up to standard six at Atukuzu school and thereafter did his High School at Kohima and graduated with Honours in Political Science from St. Anthony’s College, Shillong, Meghalaya.

During his high school days, Swu was so much influenced by the activity of Angami Zapu Phizo, founder of Naga Youth Movement and Women Federation that he became a member in 1951 and got actively involved in the conduct of Naga Plebiscite.

After his graduation in 1958, he intended to go to the United States to study theology but on seeing the bloodshed committed by Indian army on Nagas, he altered his plan and went to Pochury, a small town in the Naga Hills, where he met Sukhato Swu, the then president of the Naga underground federal government who invited him to join the national service.

Isak Swu joined the Angami Zapu Phizo-led Naga National Council (NNC) when it transformed from a political to a militant organisation seeking secession of Naga-inhabited areas from India, the only armed group fighting for the Naga cause. After enrolling in December 1958, within a year he went on to become the foreign secretary of the group, a post in which he served for seven years i.e 1st March 1959-1966. He was then appointed and served as Chaplee Kilonser NNC 1966-1977 and then was later elevated to Vice President NNC, 1976-1980.

8_the-saga-of-isak-chishi-swuspecial-feature1___After the first Indo-Naga ceasefire of September 6, 1964, Swu participated in several rounds of peace talks held at Prime Minister’s level in New Delhi, but with no breakthrough. As the peace talks failed, Swu was sent to China as President’s special envoy for diplomatic mission in 1968 to seek Beijing’s support for the Naga cause. He led a group of Nagas through the thick wet jungles that separate Burma from India on foot. In his autobiography he wrote, “We marched from Nagalim to China on foot via Kachin land. It was a challenging and a tiring command. We had to go without food for nearly a month as we were chased everywhere by the Burmese Army. Many Kachin soldiers laid down their lives for us while escorting our party. We will never forget those KIA who had sacrificed their lives for the Nagas.”

Swu reached China and joined Mr Th.Muivah and party who were already there. The Chinese authorities welcomed them. They met Mr Chou En Lai, the then Premier of China who assured them that, “When the right time comes we will be the first country to recognize your state, because you (Nagas) have every right to be free,” wrote Isak Chishi Swu in his autobiography. The Chinese authority further made all necessary arrangements for Isak to meet A Z Phizo, the President of Naga National Council (NNC) in Paris where he had a serious discussion for six days.

In the year 1975, Swu was again sent to China accompanied by thirteen Naga Ladies Army personnel. Despite many obstacles and challenges from the Burmese Army, they managed to reach China. The Chinese government welcomed them and took arms training from the People’s Liberation Army. Armed and trained by the Chinese, the Naga army got organized to undertake the power of the Indian army and thus began the Indo-Naga conflict. Being a deeply committed Christian and so much was his love for Gospel teaching, Isak was able to convince the Chinese to build a church for the Naga insurgents. He wrote, “Surprisingly, Mao Tse Tung had even allotted us a plot of land for construction of a Church.” But the plan was dropped because his stay in China was cut short as he was forced to return to his homeland for the reason that, a section of NNC leaders signed the controversial Shillong Accord with the Government of India that bound the signatories and their followers to the laws and the Constitution of India.

Swu and his colleagues condemned the Shillong Accord and waited for Angami Zapu Phizo, who was in exile in London, to denounce the Shillong Accord. When Phizo failed to respond, they mobilised their forces and came together Swu, Muivah and Khaplang to attack the NNC, denouncing its leaders and their supporters as opportunists and traitors of the Naga cause for independence.

He wrote in his autobiography, “Soon after we reached Nagalim, we convened a National Assembly and held on 16th August 1976, at Suphao in Khiumingam region. The assembly condemned the Shillong Accord as a sell out and the Ministry of Zashie Hurray. The Assembly re-affirmed the leadership of A Z Phizo and elected me Vice President and General Secretary Th. Muivah. A new ministry headed by me was formed to re-organise the crumpled government and for combating the confronting situations at the government level. However, the signatories of the Shillong Accord sent their agents to undo the historical steps taken. Ultimately, the pre-Shillong Accord elements at the instance of the signatories staged a military coup where all the top leaders including Muivah and myself were arrested and kept in military custody. During our eighteen months long detention in the military custody, they tried to eliminate us. Later we learned that our graves were dug three times in different places.”

Thus on approaching their core demand of a sovereign Naga homeland, Swu along with Muivah and SS Khaplang, broke away from the NNC and by 31st January 1980 they formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). By Nagaland they meant all the Naga inhabited areas in India and in Burma. In India, the Naga inhabited areas included the entire state of Nagaland, four districts of Manipur, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It won’t be wrong to say that during the early 1950s, when the Naga insurgency saw its inception, it was the contribution of Isak Swu, Muivah and S.S. Khaplang among several other leaders of NNC who accelerated the movement in the state. Phizo, the father of the Naga revolution was more into getting the Naga cause international attention after failing to convince the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

But differences cropped up within the NSCN, that eight years later following a discord, split into two factions. In 1988, Khaplang broke away from the NSCN with a massacre of cadres loyal to Isak and Muivah.and formed the Khaplang faction (NSCN-K) while Swu and Muivah stayed together to form the Isak-Muivah group (NSCN-IM).

With the changing circumstances, Isak Chishi Swu and Th. Muival changed their political and military strategy. A number of diplomatic missions were organised to mobilise international opinion by going Europe, USA and Asian countries and met different dignitaries. Swu’s ability to convince people made NSCN-IM membership of Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO) on January 23, 1993. This in turn had helped them to make regular forays into international forums. It made them able to make breakthrough where he and Th. Muivah could participate in the UN conference of the Working Group on Draft Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples at Geneva on July 19-30, 1993. In the conference, Swu had the opportunity to deliver a speech. He wrote, “In the following year on July 25-29, 1994 we again attended the UN conference on Indigenous People at Geneva, and used the platform to criticise the occupational forces of India and Burma for unleashing violence in Nagalim. We were also given the opportunity to highlight the plight of human rights situation in Nagalim to the UN Commission on Human Rights through the Society for Threatened Peoples.”

Thirty three years later, the Indian government under the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao established contacts with the NSCN-IM leadership and the Second Indo-Naga ceasefire was set in motion in June 12, 1995 where Narasimha Rao met Isak Swu and Th. Muivah in Paris. Thereafter they continued to meet the Indian delegates in New York, Zurich and Geneva and eventually it was under his chairmanship that NSCN (I-M), signed a truce agreement on August 1, 1997. Since then, after the ceasefire, NSCN (I-M) successfully held political negotiations with the Government of India’s interlocutors Swaraj Kausak, K Padmanabhaiah, RS Pandey and RV Ravi. They held talks within and outside the country. Ravi is the current interlocutor between the Government of India and NSCN (I-M). The Government of India and the NSCN-IM have held about 80 rounds of peace talks, leading to the signing of a Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015.

Swu represented the sober, humane and clean face of the Nagas as well as of the NSCN (I-M). He was a god-fearing person. During his days with NNC, Swu married Khulu and is survived by five sons and a daughter. Swu, who like A Z Phizo continued to dominate Naga politics one way or the other, perhaps never aspired to be known as a militant leader. Though he fought for the Naga cause for decades, Isak Swu was completely against the split in the Naga groups over ideologies, which according to him was the reason behind the delay in the solution to the Naga conflict. The truth is that Swu was the real and powerful unifying factor and actually an inspiration for many to join the Naga movement. He, along with Thuingaleng Muivah, took to peaceful means of resolving the Naga sovereignty movement. The death of Swu certainly has created an empty space in Naga politics because it had come at a time when the NSCN-IM and the Indian government are still negotiating for a final conclusion of the Naga Peace Accord. Now the big question is who will succeed Isak Chishi Swu?

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