In 1968, the Naga National Council made a secret pact with the Chinese to liberate Nagaland. Captain Sangupo Chase of the NNC reveals the stunning details of the plot to Avalok Langer
SANGUPO CHASE is lost in thought. The past has haunted him for over four decades now. When he talks about it, his voice takes on a mellifluous quality, tempered with regret, a brooding-over of what might have been.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, Captain Chase sat chewing on salt-sprinkled tree roots somewhere in the Burmese jungle. Tired faces herded around a fire listening to music flowing out of Manila Radio, ‘Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day’. Tears flowed down Chase’s cheeks as he thought of home and what the next day would bring.
“Hunted by the Burmese army and ambushed by the Indian military, we pushed forward on empty stomachs. It had been 10 days since we had eaten, but we had to remain a step head,” says Chase. “We had to fight. We had to stay alive. Sovereignty lay just beyond the next peak.”
The old warhorse is talking about events that transpired in 1968, when a group of Naga soldiers, trained and equipped by the Chinese authorities, were camped on the Indo-Myanmar border, in anticipation of liberation and sovereignty. On 14 August 1947, the Naga National Council (NNC) had declared independence. But when talks with New Delhi failed, they took up arms in the 1960s. In 1967, Lt Gen Keyho led the first batch of the Naga Army to China for military training. Armed with AK-47s and trained in guerrilla warfare, Keyho and his 100-odd soldiers defeated the Indian forces at Jotsoma, proof that with China’s support, the Nagas might have defeated the mighty Indian forces. In 1968, as Keyho found his way to East Pakistan, a second batch of 500 Nagas, led by General Mo and Thuingaleng Muivah, found their way to the Yunnan Province.
“We received a warm welcome. The Chinese knew about our struggle and accepted the historical rights of the Nagas. Since they had witnessed our military capability in Jotsoma (according to Keyho, less than 100 Nagas defeated close to 1,000 Indian soldiers), they focussed more on political training. They believed that though we were fierce warriors, military ability had to be supplemented by political guile if sovereignty was to be realised,” says Chase.
In the heart of the Yunnan Province, through translators, the Chinese began decoding the politics of liberation. While communist ideology formed a part of their teaching, the focus was on the steps and difficulties faced while liberating one’s homeland.
Chase removes his glasses and cleans them. As he wipes them with a cloth, every sinew in his forearm is flexed. Even though he is well into his 80s, years in the jungle and in jail have kept the former adjutant extremely fit. “They told us of the difficulties we would face in our political movement,” reminisces Chase. “Though we had been trained to combat the military might of India, we would never be able to counter India’s financial might. They warned us of India’s tactics, of how she would try to play one against the other and break us from within.” The Nagas were told that their toughest test would be in the political arena.
“During the military camp, our Chinese trainers very clearly explained that China has a population of 750 million and that all 750 million Chinese were behind us. Their support raised our spirits and gave us hope,” says the former captain.
Removed from the training camps in Yunnan, the top leadership — General Mo, Muivah and foreign minister Isaac Swu — were taken to Beijing for secret discussions. Though unaware of what transpired in the top-level meeting, as Mo’s personal aide, Chase was privy to some information.
“The Chinese instructors and commanders explained to us that for China to assist the Nagas militarily and politically on an international platform, we would have to establish a liberated zone,” he explains. “Based on what transpired in the high-level meetings, we were to establish a base area, free of enemy control and completely under the Nagas. From there we were to declare Nagaland a sovereign state. The Chinese would then offer us the same status and support they provided to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War by air dropping arms and ammunition, provide us with political support in the international forum and officially recognise Nagaland as a nation.”
With Mo’s death, this secret -alliance forged between the NNC and the Chinese was to forever remain a secret. A political deal so closely guarded, that even Lt General Keyho, who was in East Pakistan at that time, was unaware of it.
With the alliance in place, the Nagas set their plan in motion. They targeted the three outposts on the Burmese side of the Indo-Myanmar border between Hkhamti and Lahe. “The outposts were lightly armed, they had 30-40 men and we knew we could take them out. The Chinese received intelligence reports that Indira Gandhi had met with the Burmese leader Ne Win and asked for Burma’s support to quash the Naga Army. The Chinese told us, ‘Your journey to China may have been tough, but your journey home will be tougher. You will be hunted by five brigades of the Burmese army and wall after wall of Indian security forces’.”
BREAKING DOWN walls of the Burmese army, fending off ambushes, the Naga soldiers’ journey to eastern Nagaland was filled with difficulties. “Due to mounting pressure, we were unable to move towards Hkhamti and Lahe and had to change our plan. The Chinese had taught us, when the enemy attack, you retreat. When the enemy makes camp you attack. So we split into two groups. Swu led 40-50 soldiers in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base in Kachin. General Mo led the remaining 450 soldiers to Nagaland. The plan was to get reinforcements and then capture the outposts,” chronicles Chase.
‘Would China have done what they did to Tibet or left us free? Either way, it’d have changed the course of the Naga movement’
They continued to play cat-and-mouse with the Indian forces. Recalls Chase: “We escaped them narrowly, often by only a few minutes. I remember we would find cigarette butts left behind by the Indian soldiers. I then began to believe that God had a plan for us, he was leading us to our destiny. We had survived the military might of two nations and our Sema brothers (a tribe that had joined the NNC) led us to their camp. When we finally reached the camp, they asked us to rest and said that it was their duty to protect us. Following military protocol we placed our arms in the quarter guard.”
Little did Chase, Mo and Muivah know that the Semas led by Zuheto had made a deal with the Indian government and formed the Revolutionary Government of Nagaland. After 10 days on 17 March 1969, the camp was surrounded by soldiers of the Indian Army and they were all arrested. “We were faced with a choice; fight and die there or live to fight another day. Five helicopters airlifted us and took us to jail. We were so close to achieving sovereignty,” says Chase regretfully.
Was that the turning point? Chase chooses to be philosophical about it. “The Chinese followed a simple policy: ‘We will support those who go against our enemies and oppose those who support them’. In 1962, Indo-China relations were at a nadir so they were willing to support us. If we had been able to create a liberated zone, it would have changed the whole history of Nagaland. When I think about it, I wonder, what if we had succeeded? Would China have done to us what they did to Tibet or left us free? I guess we will never know, but either way, it would have changed the course of the Naga movement forever.”
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.