Bangkok, Sept. 28: The Naga issue, which has eluded solution for more than five decades, may finally be edging towards resolution. The largest underground Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) has said it was convinced that the Government of India was determined to find a solution and respecting this, the Nagas would also reciprocate by understanding the Indian position “in the best possible way”.
“There is no doubt that the Indo-Naga talks are moving on the right track. But to say that the problem could be solved within a few months would be unrealistic,” Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of NSCN (I-M) said. Refusing to set a deadline for the settlement, he said: “The sooner this happens, the better. But I think it would be premature to talk of a time-frame from our side.”
The Naga underground and New Delhi had entered into a ceasefire agreement five years ago. The arrangement has held remarkably well despite several leadership changes at New Delhi and other hiccups, including the trouble in Manipur last year over the extension of the ceasefire to the Naga-inhabited districts of the state.
The latest round of peace talks in Thailand has come barely a few days after the Sri Lanka-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) talks there mediated by Norway. LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham had given an entirely new complexion to the dialogue by openly stating that the LTTE was striving for “autonomy and self-governance” rather than “separation”, which would be the last resort. He had asserted that “homeland and self-governance” for the Tamils did not mean separation but substantial autonomy or self-governance in the areas historically inhabited by the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Asked whether there were any lessons to be learnt for the Naga peace talks from the formulations being used in the Sri Lanka-LTTE talks, Muivah said: “The two issues are different in nature. They (the Sri Lankan Tamils) have their own history and we have our own. Our history is very clear — we were never a part of India. Our uniqueness is quite clear. So any arrangement reached by Sri Lanka with the LTTE may not have any impact on the course of the Indo-Naga talks.”
But what if the Sri Lanka -LTTE talks succeed' Would not the Sri Lankan Tamil model of devolution of powers become an example for others such as the Nagas or even the Kashmiris to learn from' “If the LTTE thinks that their purpose is served in a particular way and they are satisfied with it, we have nothing to say. But that cannot be a model for us as our problem is very different,” the Naga leader insisted.
All the same, Muivah seemed very positive about the way the peace process with New Delhi was progressing. He said: “I can assure you that any stalemate or deadlock that we may come across will not be from our side.”
This is an unusually strong commitment from a man known for straight talking. It comes in the wake of what could have been a major setback to the peace process. The NSCN (I-M) had accused the Indian side of floating a document purporting to be the outline of a settlement with them and talking to the press about the alleged changes in their negotiating posture. Both were considered grave breaches of faith by the Nagas as these moves could have jeopardised not only the peace talks but also the legitimacy of the leaders involved in the negotiations. Both sides, however, were able to tide over these controversies when they met in Bangkok on September 21 and 23.
“Anything that could have created confusion or led to problems had be thrashed out. And this time we did largely that. A lot of issues were clarified. And we are happy to join the Indian negotiators in exploring ways to resolve the bigger issues,” Muivah said.
When asked to be more specific about the progress in the negotiations, the Naga leader replied, “Sometimes this is not very easy for one to say…. The Joint Communiqué that was issued on July 11 in Amsterdam is a big step forward. I would in fact say that it represented a broad-based agreement because in it the Government of India recognised the unique history and situation of the Nagas. When we say unique history, its significance has to be noted because the Nagas were earlier not a part of India.”
Muivah said the recognition of this fact, even if it had taken more than five decades for India to do so, was a major step forward “and the Indian leadership deserves high praise for recognising that”.
The July 11 Joint Communiqué, which was reaffirmed in Bangkok this time, had also said that the Indian Prime Minister had invited the NSCN (I-M) leaders to New Delhi to continue the peace talks. Asked about progress in that direction, Muivah replied, “We are honoured by the invitation because we see it as a good gesture. But unfortunately the world is complicated and there are obstacles that need to be removed (before the visit).”
The removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act from all the Naga areas, including those in some parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and the lifting of the ban on the NSCN (I-M) would, according to Muivah, facilitate the visit. He said his understanding was that New Delhi was addressing these issues. As of now it seems that there would be another round of talks in a third country before the NSCN (I-M) leaders come to Delhi for a short visit.
(To be continued)