After his BA, he was preparing to go to the United States to study theology. Instead, he went to Pochury, a small town in the Naga Hills, where he met Sukhato Swu, then “president” of the Naga underground “federal government” who asked him to join the “national service”.
That was in 1958. Fifty-eight years later, Isak Chisi Swu passed away while still in “national service”, hoping till the last moment that the NSCN (IM)’s journey “towards a possible meeting point of peaceful coexistence” would end in an agreement of “shared sovereignty” with the Government of India.
Born on November 11, 1929 — the year the Naga Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission laying down the Nagas’ aspirations for independence — Swu’s childhood was spent amid one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of World War II. As a high school student, Swu was so influenced by A Z Phizo that he got actively involved in the plebiscite of 1951. Within a year of joining the Naga National Council (NNC), he was appointed its “foreign secretary”, a post in which he served for seven years.
“After the first Indo-Naga ceasefire of September 6, 1964, I participated in several rounds of talks held at Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s level. Thirty-three years later, when the second Indo-Naga ceasefire was set in motion on June 12, 1995, then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao met general secretary Th Muivah and me in Paris,” recalled Swu in a six-page “autobiography” that the NSCN (IM) brought out in 2008 to mark his half century in the Naga movement.
As one of Phizo’s most trusted aides, Swu was sent to China twice to seek support for the Naga movement. He met Premier Chou En Lai on the first of those trips. The group marched from the Naga Hills to China through Kachin in Myanmar. “It was challenging and tiring… We had to go without food for nearly a month as we were chased by the Burmese Army… We reached China to join Th Muivah and his party which was already there. The Chinese authorities warmly welcomed us. I was honoured to talk with Chou En Lai… on the situation in Nagalim. He assured us that when the right time comes, China would be the first country to recognize our state,” Swu wrote in the autobiography.
The Chinese flew him to Paris — where he met Phizo for 6 days — and flew him back to China. He returned to the Naga Hills as he had gone — on foot.
Swu’s second trip to China, in 1975, was cut short as he, by then vice-president of the underground government, was forced to return because a group of NNC leaders signed a peace accord with the government in Shillong. Swu and Muivah, then general secretary of the NNC, vehemently opposed the Shillong Accord of 1975, for which they were “arrested” by the pro-accord faction and detained for 18 months. “Later we learnt that our graves were dug three times in different places, but we somehow survived,” he wrote.
The factional war in the NNC led to the birth of the NSCN (IM) in 1980. Swu was the obvious choice for “President” of the “Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim” (GPRN) and Chairman of the NSCN, two posts he held till the end. Swu survived a second attempt on his life when S S Khaplang’s faction executed over 100 men and split the NSCN in April 1988.
Swu, along with his most trusted comrade Muivah, was instrumental in drawing international support for the Naga movement, leading delegations to Europe, the US and several Asian countries. In January 1993, the NSCN was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO), which helped it make regular forays into various international fora. In 1993 and 1994, he spoke at conferences of the UN Working Group on Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva.
Swu and Muivah met Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in Paris in June 1995 and PM H D Deve Gowda in Zurich in February 1997, leading to the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India on July 25, 1997. They met PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee thrice — in Paris (September 1998), Osaka (December 2000), and New Delhi (January 2003), which led to a series of talks culminating in the historic ‘framework agreement’ of August 3, 2015.
Within weeks, he said, “It is time to correct the political mistakes and come together to chart our common future based on the uniqueness of our history. The past is past. There is also danger of self defeat if the Naga people’s aspiration is interpreted in terms of past agreements, like the 16-point Agreement and the 1975 Shillong Accord, which betrayed our cause.”
Veteran Naga peace activist Niketu Iralu, who went to college with Swu, said the leader had “gone away at a time when his voice could have been important”. He was “out of communication with people for a long time due to ill health”, Iralu said, “but despite that his presence meant something different”.
While NSCN (IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, Swu was from the Sumi tribe of Nagaland. His father was the first Christian convert and evangelist in the Sumi community, a fact that gave Swu and NSCN (IM) acceptance in Nagaland despite Muivah and a major chunk of top leaders being from the Tangkhul community of Manipur. “That equation will be certainly disturbed in his absence,” Iralu said.
Nagaland University professor Rosemary Dzuvichu, who is also advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, said, “Swu’s death is a great loss to the Naga people. He passionately believed in the freedom of his people and had deep faith in God. His demise at this critical juncture of our political history brings immense sadness not only to the organisation that he led, but to all who work for peace in our land.”