Sovereignty on mind, Nagas optimistic about talks

New Delhi, Feb 28 (Calcutta Tube) Leaders of a frontline Naga separatist group Sunday said they were optimistic about the renewed peace talks with the government to begin Tuesday but would not compromise on their demand for an independent state in northeastern India.

‘We are hopeful, very optimistic…but no compromise on our right to sovereignty. We have not given up and will never give up the demand for our independence,’ Naga separatist leader V.S. Atem told IANS.

Atem is convener of the steering committee of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). The rebel group’s chairman Isak Chisi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah arrived here Saturday night from self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. They have been invited by the government for peace talks.

The rebel leaders are set to talk Tuesday with the government’s new pointsman R.S. Pandey, a former petroleum secretary, before a likely meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

The NSCN-IM is fighting for the expansion of the mountainous Nagaland state into a ‘Greater Nagaland’ and carve out an independent state with a promise to maintain federal relations with India.

‘Sovereignty is our right, an inalienable right. History, geography and culture of the Nagas justify it,’ said Atem, who was on his way to Delhi to join the NSCN-IM delegation for talks.

Echoing him, Muivah said the group won’t budge from its demand of ‘freedom’. ‘We won’t give up our right to freedom. Sorry, we cannot withdraw that,’ he said, addressing Naga students in the capital.

‘We have been told that the government of India has arranged some counter-proposals from their side. I don’t know how far that is practicable or acceptable to us,’ he said.

A government official, pleading anonymity as he is not authorised to speak, told IANS that the government was ‘serious to end the deadlock over talks and will give a momentum to the peace process’.

‘The government may announce an economic autonomy for Nagas,’ the official said.

Atem reacted sharply: ‘We have not been fighting for any economic autonomy. Our stand is well known.’

He said the government of India was to blame for the deadlocked talks. ‘It has been long since we have been talking to the government of India. In over 10 years, they could not solve the problem. Ask them. They are responsible for that.’

The NSCN-IM’s demand for a ‘Greater Nagaland’ would unite over 1.2 million Nagas in northeast India. But the demand has been strongly opposed by the neighbouring states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

The last round of peace talks between the government and the separatist group was held in March 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland. It ended in a stalemate. The NSCN-IM had entered into a ceasefire accord with the Indian government in August 1997. They have held 67 rounds of talks with the government so far.

K. Padmanabhaiah, a former home secretary, had served as interlocutor for talks with NSCN-IM for a decade. He was first appointed as interlocutor for the Naga talks in July 1999 for one year but kept getting extensions.

Last year, the government chose not to extend his term and instead decided it would hold direct negotiations with the rebels to find a lasting solution to the vexed issue. However, to give a push to the stalled talks, the government Feb 12 appointed Pandey as the new interlocutor.

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