The appointment of Khango Konyak as the new NSCN(K) chairman, following the death of the hardline outfit’s founder Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang on Friday, is expected to throw open several possibilities for the Centre’s Naga peace talks.
New Delhi’s talks with Khaplang, a Myanmarese national, had always remained a non-starter because he had reportedly refused to accept an Indian passport unlike what Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu (of the rival NSCN-IM faction) had done to return to India.
While Khaplang was a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, Konyak is from Nagaland. This will provide a much-needed opportunity to New Delhi to reach out to Konyak in order to get the NSCN(K) back into ceasefire mode. While the NSCN(K) had signed a ceasefire with the Centre in September 2001, Khaplang abrogated it in April 2015 after he reportedly discovered that New Delhi had not sent out any invitations for talks to the outfit while it was already talking to his rival NSCN(IM).
Konyak, a year senior to Muivah in the Naga separatist movement, held the rank of Lieutenant General in the Naga Army, the NSCN(K)’s armed wing, and was appointed the outfit’s vice-chairman in May 2011. Known to be Khaplang’s most trusted man, Konyak had undergone guerrilla warfare training in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and China in the early 1960s. Apart from mostly serving in the Naga Army, he has also headed the ‘Konyak Region’ and the ‘Tuensang-Mon Region’ – the NSCN(K)’s administrative territories inside Nagaland – and is thus believed to have strong influence in the eastern part of the state.
On Saturday, Nagaland Chief Minister Shourhozelie Liezietsu, who heads the government of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland in partnership with the BJP, and his predecessor TR Zeliang mentioned the efforts they had made to get Khaplang to agree to a ceasefire.
Shourhozelie also said Khaplang was willing to talk peace with New Delhi “provided issues of substance were discussed”.
Though Konyak’s nationality will be to New Delhi’s advantage, leaders within the NSCN(K) who represent various Naga communities of Myanmar are unlikely to give in easily, fearing they could be left out of negotiations.
In Nagaland, civil society groups and NGOs that had sent delegations to Myanmar to convince Khaplang to agree to a ceasefire and talk to New Delhi, have for now decided to wait and watch. “Though Chief Minister Shourhozelie has given enough indications that he would renew efforts to reach out to the new NSCN(K) leadership, it will be wiser to wait and find out what Konyak has in mind,” said a senior civil society leader in Nagaland who did not want to be named.
Intelligence agencies, however, fear a fresh round of violence in the next few weeks. “Konyak is not a leader in the league of Khaplang or Muivah. Moreover, he has to extract the confidence of NSCN(K) leaders and cadres of other rebel groups,” said a senior intelligence officer in the region.
On Saturday, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju said Khaplang’s death had dealt a “big blow” to the NSCN(K) and other insurgent groups of the region. “Khaplang was the heart and soul of the NSCN(K) as well as other insurgent groups of the region. The NSCN(K) will be in disarray after his death. Moreover, some insurgent groups used Khaplang’s influence to take shelter in Myanmar. So his death is a setback for them too,” Rijiju said.