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.
What she wants to talk about is the death of two of the girls who had become her friends during the journey. She lost a friend first near the Chindwin river in Myanmar as they marched towards the China camp. Avuli and her comrade were holding hands to support each other as they made their way through dense foliage and treacherous terrain. They were ambushed by Burmese soldiers who were so close that they could touch them. “I saw my friend fall to the ground as a bayonet pierced her head.” The group scattered and each one ran for cover. “I had to run. I could not even turn to see if she was dead or just injured. I had to leave her.” Avuli’s impassive face undergoes a change. Her unlined forehead suddenly becomes creased with wrinkles. It is easy to realise that she is reliving the painful moment when she had to abandon her friend and was unable to go to her aid. It was only after five days that they regrouped.
There could be no turning back to look for her friend. Avuli did not know how to bear her loss and reconcile with the guilt of deserting her friend. She decided to do what she was good at and something that would bring about a closure. “I wove a shawl in her memory and left it there,” she says wistfully. Tears threaten her eyes. I know she has vowed not to cry. The silence that follows speaks volumes of her struggle to stick to her pledge. I try to help.
I reach out to hold her hand to comfort her. Avuli makes a move that takes me completely by surprise. She takes off her black and red shawl and drapes it across my shoulder. The gesture is so sentimental and in total contrast to the emotionless persona she has projected to me so far. A shawl is full of significance for Nagas. Woven only by women, it reveals the hierarchy of the wearer in society, her status and the tribe she comes from. By giving me her shawl, what was Avuli, a person of few words, trying to tell me? Was she expressing thanks for my understanding her pain or was she accepting me as a friend? Whatever it may be, from that moment it was Avuli revealed. All the violence she has lived though has not been able to harden her soft core.
Now her conversation began to be interspersed with her feelings about the facts she was relating. “Just see the irony of it all. I lost another friend just when we had almost reached our final destination. She was washed away by the fast currents of the Chindwin river just when we crossed it and entered China. She was so close to her destination and yet could not make it. This made me believe that God let me survive because he had a purpose for me. That is why He put me in this situation.”
It was with a renewed sense of purpose that she started her military training on arrival at the Chinese training camp. “We reached the Kutungn training centre in China on 14 August 1975. I think it was in Kunming province. Our journey on foot from the Naga Hills to China via Kachin in Myanmar had taken eight months but our enthusiasm had not waned even though we had seen death at close quarters and faced disease, thirst and hunger. I just wanted to learn how to use the gun and achieve my goal.” Avuli and the other three women trained with the men to use M-29 guns, light machine guns, semi-automatic rifles, make bombs and the Improvised Explosive Device, which the NNC was later known to often use as roadside bombs when it ambushed Indian troops.
The evening entertainment at the camp was to tune in to All India Radio to keep abreast with happenings in India. It was one such evening, barely three months since their arrival in China, when they heard the news that is a watershed in the history of the Naga insurgency movement. It personally affected Avuli, now a trained member in the army wing of the NNC, and her comrades. On 11 November 1975, a section of NNC leaders had signed the Shillong Accord, under which the NNC and NFG agreed to give up arms. It stunned the NNC group training in China. Avuli and her group led by Thuingaleng Muivah, along with seniors Isak and SS Khaplang who were at that time with them, condemned the Accord, called it a betrayal and refused to accept it.
Unknown to Avuli, the leaders were planning how to keep the NNC afloat to fight for secession from India. “In February 1976 we returned to Eastern Nagaland (Myanmar) to the NNC General Headquarters (GHQ) in Chon village. We carried arms and ammunition we had bought in China.” Avuli was appointed section commander of the Women’s Wing of the NNC. There were about twenty-five women who were trained to climb trees and scale mountains. Special medical training was given to the women. “Women were kept as the second line of defence in bunkers while the men were in the forefront during encounters and ambushes. The role of women was clearly defined. We would give them first aid when they were injured.” However, the arms training imparted was the same for men and women cadres. In 1978 there were 100 female staffers in GHQ.
She had spent barely six months in the GHQ when there was a need to get another consignment of arms from China. Avuli was the first amongst the three women to volunteer to go. “Along with some men we left Phulong Tong camp on 12 September 1976 for the Kutungn training camp in China.” The return journey become tougher because of the load of arms and ammunition she had to carry in a rucksack on her back. The risky and arduous treks to ferry arms do not seem to have bothered her. For Avuli it was a must-do to achieve their goal. Besides these were shorter trips compared to the first one to China. “I was also well trained by now.” Avuli brushes away talk of the difficulties saying “nothing mattered except the fact that I was working to achieve my goal.”
On her return Avuli was promoted to the rank of sergeant. She saw plenty of action while serving in the military wing. While the women were not sent into operations or to lay an ambush, they joined the patrol groups guarding the camps. “But I dreamt of going for an ambush.” Only once did she get a chance to be part of an ambush squad and that too only as a substitute. Avuli was ambushed by soldiers eight times. Five times it was in Nagaland itself, twice in Myanmar near the Chindwin river, once on the banks of the Irrawaddy river and once at Tangkho village in Myanmar. “It was in March 1977 that the Burmese Lenung tribesmen attacked the Naga camp in Tangkho. The ambush began at 4 am and lasted till noon.” Once again Avuli escaped death when a two-inch mortar fell near her, rendering her deaf in the left ear for two months. After all these years she still hears a ringing in her ear.
This is an edited extract from Rashmi Saksena’s book, She Goes to War, published by Speaking Tiger.
Rashmi Saksena is a senior journalist. She has worked with the Hindustan Times, the Sunday Mail, The Telegraph and The Mail. She is currently the consulting editor of The Hitavada.