Somdal is a quiet, unassuming village in Manipur. Until you hear its history
Angana Chakrabarti and Yimkumla Longkumer
Nestled in the Western Range of the Tangkhul Naga-dominated Ukhrul district, the quiet and often empty village, from the outside, doesn’t bear many insignias rooting it to the Naga political movement.
Yet, Somdal has “contributed” many a leader to the long-drawn, armed political conflict. The most prominent among them is Thuingaleng Muivah, the current general secretary or Ato Kilonser of the largest Naga armed group — the Nationalist Social Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).
Muivah was born here in 1934 and while he hasn’t set foot in the village since 1963, he still has family here — like his 79-year-old younger brother Vareisui Muivah.
“Currently, the Naga nation is backward. But Nagas are very unique and different from India; our clothing is different, our foods are different, our behaviours are different and we worship differently,” Vareisui Muivah told ThePrint at Th Muivah’s childhood home in Somdal.
“He (Muivah) carefully and seriously thought to save the Naga Nation and because of this he went to join the movement,” the 79-year-old added.
Negotiations between the Modi Government and Naga groups have intensified over the past month, with the Thuingaleng Muivah-led NSCN (I-M) at the heart of it. The new round of talks are being held in New Delhi amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The NSCN (I-M) has been adamant on its demand for a separate flag and Constitution, which has emerged as a sticking point. But the NSCN (I-M) also faces a hurdle as the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) — a group of seven Naga insurgent outfits also holding talks with the Central Government — seems to be softening its stand and has called for a quicker resolution to the conflict.
Amid the developments, ThePrint travelled to Somdal to meet its residents and Muivah’s family to understand what they feel about the current leg of the more than two-decade long peace process, what it means to the Tangkhul community and the NSCN(I-M)’s role so far.
A history of Somdal’s Tangkhuls
Historically, the Nagas weren’t a composite people and consisted of different tribes and groups who began migrating from China thousands of years ago, eventually making their way into erstwhile India through waves of migrations. Different groups entered the region through varied routes. The Tangkhul Nagas are said to have migrated from China’s Xinjiang province through Myanmar along with five other tribes — Sangtams, Khiamniungans, Yimchungers, Changs and Aos — constituting one group at the time.
The Tangkhuls went on to settle in Ukhrul and Kamjong districts in Manipur and at Layshi township, Somra tract hills, Homalin township and Tamu Township in Myanmar.
“Somdal village might have been established around the 14th century. The people migrated from different directions. Some are from the south, some north and some west, they all settled down here,” Somdal’s Pastor Reverend Aping Khamrang said.
The Pastor had earlier pointed out that the Church is over 100 years old, and had been built a few years after the arrival of British Missionary William Pettigrew in Ukhrul. One of the earliest Tangkhuls to be proselytised by Pettigrew was RS Ruichumhao from Somdal. In 1918, Ruichumhao formed the Naga Club along with British officials, which became the basis of the Naga political movement.
“As I said, I was inspired by the life of Ruichamhao,” Th Muivah had said in his testimony to Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray for their book Kuknalim, Naga Armed Resistance: Testimonies of Leaders, Pastors, Healers and Soldiers.
How it all began
Th Muivah’s childhood house is a steep climb down from the main centre of Somdal. The left side of the pale pink wooden house opens up to a panoramic view of the village, the surrounding hills and the small valley below, wherein lie paddy fields.
Th Muivah was born in 1934 to parents who were farmers. “I call my brother ‘Ava Kharar’ which means eldest in the family and he is six years older than me. As a young child, he was very naughty and fierce as well but a very good person,” said 79-year-old Vareisui Muivah.
“When he was young, he liked flying kites. He would also gather all the kids, including us (three brothers), and taught us about what he saw in Imphal, like army training with wooden guns. This was in 1947.”
In Kuknalim, Naga Armed Resistance, Th Muivah recalled how his father would regularly take him to Imphal— a two-day journey by foot — to work in the paddy fields. It was in Imphal that he also came in contact with the Meiteis and “the Indians”.
“The Meities in those days knew how to struggle. The Meitei women were good in small businesses. They were not proud and many Tangkhuls loved them…Now it may be a little bit different,” Th Muivah had narrated.
He would go on to complete his bachelor’s degree from Shillong’s St Anthony College and his Master’s from Cotton College, Guwahati. It was during this time that Muivah became interested in Communism.
“According to what I heard, while he was studying in Guwahati and Shillong, he extensively read books on Communism,” Vareisui said. “I don’t know what he discovered from that but he said ‘when the Britishers were about to leave India, they granted independence to the Nagas on 14 August. So, because of that I will make Nagas get their freedom back. I am not happy that India is dominant and so I will make sure to gain our freedom back’. And so with this thought he went to join the Naga movement.”
It was at the behest of Rungsung Suisa or Uncle Suisa, as he was known, that Th Muivah decided to join the Naga National Council (NNC), said Vareisui. A key figure in the movement, Suisa too hailed from Somdal and served as a Congress MP from 1957 to 1962 and later as the assistant to the vice-president of the NNC, which had replaced the Naga Club.
Muivah’s parents had tried hard to dissuade him from joining the NNC. “(But) he said I will serve the Nation so don’t stop me from joining. He also said that he won’t be able to come back even when they died because he will be working for the Nation,” Vareisui said.
Muivah left Somdal in 1963 — never to return.
Of many splinter groups
For 17 long years, Muivah worked for the NNC. Then came the turning point in 1975 when the Shillong Accord was signed between the Government and supposed representatives of the Naga underground groups.
(To be contd)