SS Khaplang was born on the Burmese side of the border of the strategic Pangsau Pass, in what is today, Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh. Fifty years ago, a young Khaplang launched what he called the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council (ENRC). The idea was to seek independence from India and Burma and carve out a separate Naga homeland.
A few years later, in 1966, this young man played host to a charismatic figure from Manipur, TH Muivah and General Thinoselie, of the Naga Army, from Nagaland state. Muivah and Thinosilie had undertaken an epic long march, where they took a group of 100 young men through leech infested thick forests and rugged hill terrain, over streams and through heavy rain, sharing the little food they had before they were welcomed by Khaplang. The latter then used the good offices of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to send them to China.
The kia is one of the many large ethnic militant groups which had been fighting the Burmese government from the time of the country’s independence. The kia sympathised with the Nagas and also appreciated the customs and funds that they brought.
Using Khaplang’s links, Muivah and Thinoselie travelled to Yunnan Province in South West China where they established contact with the Peoples Liberation Army and local political leaders. Realising the significance of the Naga visitors, China, which had inflicted a heavy defeat on India in the 1962 border war, sent them to Beijing where they met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai.
Thus, a huge step was taken in the internationalisation of the Naga issue and the young Naga leader who set up the enrc had played a key role in it. China’s close relationship with Nagas was to last a decade and fell apart when Delhi and Beijing resumed Ambassador level relations in 1976. However, by then, large numbers of Naga fighters had been trained both in Yunnan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). For the route to Yunnan, the KIA and Khaplang proved to be crucial.
Throughout his life, Khaplang, a member of the Hemi Naga tribe, largely located in Myanmar, rarely visited India or interacted with Indian leaders, military or political. His talks with Naga civil society leaders too have been limited. He organised camps for the Naga group known as the Federal Government of Nagaland, with its political arm being the Naga National Council (NNC) under Angami Zapu Phizo.
However, relentless pressure on Naga villagers and the armed fighters forced its leadership (without Phizo, who was in exile in London) to accept a ceasefire and peace accord in 1975 at Shillong. Muivah and Khaplang were outraged by the acceptance of the Indian Constitution by the Federalists. Along with Isak Swu, then Foreign Secretary (minister) of the ‘Federal Government’, they sent messages to Phizo imploring him to denounce the Shillong Accord. His silence – there are those who believe he never got their messages – provoked the three leaders to denounce the NNC and Phizo, and proclaim a new organisation to fight for the basic rights of the Nagas.
Thus was born the Naga Socialist Council of Nagalim or Nagaland (NSCN), which grew in stature and firepower over the years, attacking and diminishing its foes in the NNC, manipulating and intimidating people and gathering funds through extortion or ‘taxes’, developing a vast network of informers and money gatherers, making connections within the state government and among the local politicians.
However, the comradeship between Khaplang, Muivah and Swu was not to last long. In 1988, Khaplang dispatched a crack team of Naga fighters to attack Muivah’s camp and wipe them out. Khaplang had heard rumours that the Muivah group was planning to establish contact with India. Over 100 members of Muivah’s Tangkhul tribe died in the sudden assault, while Muivah himself barely escaped with a small team of close aides and made his way to Assam where the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) took him in. That was when Khaplang put ulfa on notice stating that their ‘boys’ were in his camp and if they wanted them safe, Muivah had to be sent away. Muivah left and the loss of his young followers made him an inveterate enemy of his one-time colleague.
Muivah and Swu then founded the NSCN(I-M) and the group affiliated to Khaplang came to be known as NSCN (K). Today, there are at least two factions that have broken away from Khaplang in recent years. All these groups are significantly Indian Nagas.