In her recent book, She Goes to War, the senior journalist Rashmi Saksena tells the stories of 16 Indian women militants in the insurgencies in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. The women, Saksena notes in her introduction, have much in common—the role that the prevailing conflict in their native places played in shaping their lives, and a drive to “take ownership of their unorthodox decisions and carry them through without a thought for the consequences.”
In 1980, three militant leaders, Isak Chisi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and SS Khaplang, formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, an organisation that led an armed struggle to establish a sovereign Naga state. The NSCN was formed in opposition to the Shillong Accord, a 1975 agreement between the Naga National Council, or NNC—an organisation of Naga people that had led a secessionist movement since the 1940s—and the government of India. In 1988, the NSCN split into two factions, one led by Isac and Muivah, and the other by Khaplang. In the following extract from the book, Saksena writes about the life of the Naga militant Avuli Chishi Swu, who was among the first militants to go to China in 1974 to procure arms and for training, and is now among the top leaders of the NSCN (IM). While discussing a second trip that she made to China after an arduous and traumatic first journey, Avuli said, “Nothing mattered except the fact that I was working to achieve my goal.”
For Avuli the biggest test of her determination and resolve to fight the Indian Army soldiers for the Naga cause was her eight-month trek to China in the December of 1974. “On 6 December 1974, I exchanged my lotosu and chakutha qhumu (traditional handwoven cloth tied at the waist as a straight ankle-length skirt and shawl worn by the Sumi women) for jungle fatigues.” Avuli became a member of the historic second batch of the NNC led by a Phizo confidant to go to China for arms training and join the first batch, which had been taken there by Thuingaleng Muivah, another close aide of Phizo. [Angami Zapu Phizo was a Naga nationalist leader of the NNC who, on the eve of Independenec, resolved to establish a sovereign Naga state, and formed the underground Naga Federal Government in 1952.] “We were twenty women in a group of 375 men led by Isak Chishi Swu, who later became head of the NSCN (IM) faction along with Muivah. Only twelve of us reached China. Of them four were women. All others perished during the journey.” Isak’s wife along with eight other women had gone earlier to the China camp in the first NNC batch.
The worst part of the journey, recalls Avuli, was when she had her monthly period. None of the women had come prepared for the journey that took several months. “We trudged with blood on our legs and stained uniforms. I salute my men comrades who ignored the telltale patches, pretending they had not seen the bloodstains to save us embarrassment.”Avuli was not going to give in to feeling helpless in this situation. She found a way to mitigate the mortification and discomfort. “As soon as I saw a waterfall I would rush to stand under it or sit in the river so that the water could wash off the blood. I have no regrets that I had to undergo this ignominy. Nothing mattered to me. All I wanted was to reach China.”
The Naga rebels were the first to go to China looking for aid. They were sent by Phizo to China via Myanmar to seek support, military training and arms. But it was a gruelling journey on foot. They did not have any arms to fight the Indian and Burmese armies that were hunting them. Sometimes they were attacked by the non-Naga tribesmen of Myanmar. Avuli recalls the experience as one that taught her to live without food and water for long stretches. More important for her were lessons learnt on how to come to terms with death and loss of loved ones. “We had to take a circuitous route to avoid the Indian Army as well as the Burmese army. Once I had to go without food for twenty-five days. Water was also scarce unless we found a flowing stream which would give us clean water.” But she does not make much of it, mentioning it only in passing.