Isak Chisi Swu, a veteran of many long marches to China with bands of Naga rebels, has died and left his comrade Thuingaleng Muivah in a bit of a legitimacy crisis.
Those of us who have seen the NSCN functioning closely know "Uncle Isak" was more into praying. He did offer his opinions on critical issues but all knew who called the shots: None other than Muivah.
But the NSCN is a divided house, much like the entire Naga separatist movement and the faction that Isak and Muivah led was called the I-M faction after their initials. This is easily the strongest NSCN faction and the government has been negotiating with it since 1997 for a final settlement of the Naga problem.
But this faction is largely made up, both its leadership and fighters, of Tangkhuls, who are Nagas living in eastern Manipur, mainly the Ukhrul district. Muivah is from Somdal village of this district and most of his comrades -- Rh. Raishing, Phungting and Angelus Shimray -- are from the Tangkhul tribe. Muivah's faction rivals like Khaplang, Khitovi Sema, Khole Konyak, Wangting Ao and P. Thikhak all allege that his is a Tangkhul outfit with little legitimacy in Nagaland.
Isak Swu, a Sema Naga and a Naga National Council (NNC) veteran, gave the NSCN (IM) that legitimacy in Nagaland. Now that fig leaf is gone.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, much is at stake. By signing the "framework agreement" with the NSCN (IM), the government, like others before it, has accepted the primacy of the IM faction in the Naga peace-making process. That causes much heartburn.
If the Modi government can now work out a final settlement on the basis of the "framework agreement", it will have to ensure that this is acceptable to all factions. That is when both Muivah and Modi will miss "Uncle Isak". He was the one leader in the IM faction who could open a dialogue with the other factions, specially using his contacts in the Naga Church.
Against this, Muivah is a leader of many marches to China and survivor of many battles but is also a deeply divisive figure in the Naga separatist movement -- not the least because he authored a party document where he chest-thumped the Tangkhuls as "revolutionary patriots" and the Angamis leading the NNC as "reactionary traitors". Many Nagas feel he has much too much Chinese communist influence in him.
Isak represented the softer side of the faction and was perhaps its only hope in effectvely selling an accord that might finally have been signed with the Centre.
The Modi administration is already on thin ice because the other factions are not formally in the peace process and the Khaplang faction has already stepped up violence to undermine it. The central government has to realise that signing an accord with a faction may be good for some quick publicity, but its test lies in marketing it to all factions. With Isak gone, that will not be easy.