Interview by Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt on Padmanabhaiah

31st July 2002 rediffmail.com news 

For exactly three years, K Padmanabhaiah, 62, has been negotiating on the central government’s behalf to bring about a lasting political solution to the Naga issue, the oldest insurgency in the Indian Union’s post-Independence history.

His persistence has resulted in getting a written assurance by National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isac-Muivah) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah to travel to India for talks with the Union government.

The political dialogue between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M), which began in February 1997, has been conducted mostly in Bangkok and Amsterdam so far.

Observers believe Muivah’s arrival in New Delhi will help strengthen India’s security in the Northeast. However, the Manipur government has put a spanner in the works by refusing to withdraw cases against Muivah before his return. The Nagaland government has already withdrawn arrest warrants against Muivah and NSCN chief Isak Chishi Swu.

In an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi, Padmanabhaiah, former Union home secretary, discussed the negotiations.

After being appointed interlocutor, how did your talks progress?

On July 28, 1999, I was appointed as an interlocutor to hold talks with the Nagas. A ceasefire was agreed upon by Naga insurgents since August 1997. In May 1998, the first negotiator Swaraj Kaushal was appointed. He continued till July 1999. There were many roadblocks in the peace process.

There have been a number of people who are not reconciled to the idea that the Government of India is talking to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-IM. There are factional groups in Nagaland. The NSCN was split into two in the 1980s. One is known as NSCN-IM which is led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. The other is led by S S Khaplang known as NSCN-K. I will not say the Khaplang group is opposing [the talks with the NSCN (I-M)] but they are not quite happy. The state government also has some reservations but publicly they have supported us.

And before us nobody had spoken to Mr Muivah. You know he is cast in the mould of a Marxist revolutionary. [Smiles] So we had our problems. In the process of the talks itself, a few developments affected the peace talk. There was an issue — of the area of operation of the ceasefire. It took a long time to sort it out.

In fact, a ceasefire is a military concept. It implies that you bring peace at a particular time of war. It has no political or territorial connotations at all.

So while talking to Naga insurgents we decided to bring peace in those areas where the Nagas operate. But unfortunately there was a major misunderstanding once the area of ceasefire was extended. Some people interpreted it wrongly and said it would have territorial implications.

That happened because the Manipuris are aware of the demands of the Naga insurgents.

They thought Nagas might lay a claim to the territories of neighbouring states. As you know well there was an outburst in Manipur. So ultimately we had to delink both these issues — ceasefire and territorial issues. Both are separate issues and we had not discussed the territorial issue at that time. The decision on the territorial issue, if taken, will be taken at the very highest possible level in the government, including Parliament.

Once the talks almost got derailed.

Mr Muivah was unfortunately detained by the Thai authorities for having used a passport which was not valid. He was in detention for almost a year so talks could not be held. After the violence in Manipur, it took a hell of a lot of time to convince and restrain the Nagas not to precipitate any reactions to what happened in Manipur.

Then we started to restore the faith of Nagas in peace which was disturbed by the anti-Naga reaction in Manipur. I must tell you we have just completed five years of the ceasefire. It is a big achievement, it is really a long period.

What is the reaction from civil society?

Peace has its own dividends. In Nagaland and in surrounding areas, violence has come down substantially. People have developed a vested interest in peace. Now children are safely going to school and returning. Mothers are feeling good and wives have much less fear of ambush. The Naga people have taken out peace rallies. There is an overwhelming groundswell of support for peace.

Even though there were many road blocks neither the Government of India nor the NSCN-IM could stall the talks. One had to continue. All these leaders were [hiding] in the jungles before. Nagas did respect them, but also feared them. But when these leaders came out, people became vocal. When extortion had gone up, people could question them openly.

Nagas are very brave people, fiercely independent, freedom loving, and very democratic in their approach. And people questioned the insurgents: Why are you continuing the violence? Why do you have internal feuds between the two groups? People questioned separatists leaders that unless there is unity, how can peace talks go on? People pressurised both groups. Naga civil society took the initiative. They have been trying to reconcile the two groups.

Today the position is that the entire Naga society — the underground, overground, political parties, civil society, non-government agencies, and the church — all of them unanimously feel the ceasefire should continue and peace talks should go on. They think this is the most opportune time to bargain with the government.

What do they want?

The Naga struggle is one of the oldest, even prior to 1947 they were agitating. Their point of view is: look, we are not asking for secession or separation but we have been independent all through the passage of history. This is their claim.

There are many agreements of the past. Just before independence, in June 1947, an agreement was signed called Sir Akbar Hydari agreement. Hydari was the governor of Assam at that time. It was signed between him and the Naga civil society. The Naga Nationalist Council was the most dominant group.

The 1956 agreement resulted in the merger of the Naga hills district of Assam and Naga tribal areas of Northeast frontier division. And a separate autonomous unit was created called Naga Hill Tuensang area. Again, there were negotiations and in 1960, there was an agreement signed which is known as the 16-point agreement as a result of which the state of Nagaland was formed in 1963.

After the general reorganisation of states of India, Nagaland was the first state that was created. That it was the first one speaks of its important. But the problem was not solved. In 1975 another agreement called the Shillong Accord was reached, but obviously it has not resulted in peace.

But what do they want? What are their precise demands?

I am coming to that. It is necessary to understand the background. Before the 1997 ceasefire was announced, two prime ministers of India negotiated for it. Mr [P V] Narasimha Rao and Mr [H D] Deve Gowda had met these people abroad and told hem to agree to a ceasefire before the peace talks could start. During Prime Minister I K Gujral’s tenure, a ceasefire agreement was signed and still continues.

As I said, the initial demand was: ‘We are different people.’ Their argument, let me repeat, their argument is: ‘The British were colonial rulers and had occupied many places in Africa and Asia. Similarly they occupied Ceylon, Burma and Nagaland. When they gave freedom to India, Burma and Ceylon they should have given freedom to Nagaland. We are pleading for it. They didn’t give us the freedom but that’s a different matter. India should treat us as an independent nation.’ This was their argument.

But technically and legally it is not correct. For the simple reason that Nagaland formed a part of the British Indian Empire. And when the British left whatever was British Indian territory became ipso facto Indian. Though legally and technically their arguments were not correct but the struggle continued.

The earlier agreements failed because of the rigid views taken by the Nagas that they are a sovereign nation and nothing less. After the formation of Nagaland, seven rounds of talks were held in New Delhi with Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1967. Ultimately they broke down because they wanted ‘nothing but sovereignty.’ India maintained they were a part and parcel of the Indian Union.

The very fact that they have agreed to talk to India shows their rigidity, to some extent, has gone. And the way they are conducting the talks I see there is more flexibility on their side. They are not sticking to their original stand of sovereignty. I personally think Nagas are looking for a solution within the Indian Union ultimately, and that itself is a major step forward.

You mean we can say they are looking for a solution within the Constitution of India?

No. Please do not use words which I haven’t. I said they are looking for a solution within the Indian Union. Their argument is that the Constitution has been amended in the past, it can be amended again. Basically, they are looking for something where they can rule their area according to their own genius, according to their own customs, and traditions without much interference from the Government of India.

I think this is what they are looking ahead for. These are matters which are yet to be looked into in great detail.

We started our journey where almost everything looked impossible. We are still in the beginning stages. I don’t want to elaborate more on the bargaining point. I would only like to stress again that there is flexibility on their side and there is flexibility on the side of the Government of India.

Why were the talks held outside India?

At the time when the ceasefire agreement was worked out Naga leaders had put three conditions. First, that talks should be held at the highest level. They should be unconditional and held outside India. Nagas have a base in Bangkok, the Philippines, and Amsterdam. Amsterdam was our choice also.

I have met them 13 times so far. We have held day and night talks — without a break. Sometimes we have sat for three days at a time. I remember a meeting which could not be completed in two days and nights. We were booked to return on the third day. When I was leaving for the airport and was getting into a taxi, we signed an agreement. If it would have been a delay of another two minutes, I would have missed my flight.

How have they now agreed to come to India?

The Government of India, especially Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, strongly felt the talks should be held in India and not abroad even though it was originally agreed upon. I spoke to the Naga leadership. I told them — look, it is the Indian political system which you have to address within the establishment. Outside the establishment, the Opposition parties, Indian intelligentsia, and Indian media play a very dominant role in such an issue. Not only that, the Naga people and people in the neighbouring states should understand what’s happening. Let us conduct these meetings in India.

So they have agreed in writing that they will come to India provided the procedural formality is sorted out. The Government of India is in the process of sorting it out.

When is Mr Muivah most likely to come?

It depends on this. The NSCN-IM operates not only in Nagaland but also in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. They have a few cases against these leaders. The NSCN-IM is declared an unlawful outfit, so the views of the neighbouring states have to be known and they have to be taken into confidence. There has to be a process of dialogue between the states and Delhi. It takes time.

Will the ban on NSCN-IM be removed soon?

Let me make this very clear. The Government of India and the country as a whole should decide two things. Would you like to hold talks within or outside India? If it is India then you must make it possible for them to come to India. If they have a fear of being arrested why should they come? Once that is sorted out, the rest of things will follow.

Will the ban be lifted or not?

I have told you the answer. If the ban is there anybody can move a court of law. By and large since the last five years peace has been established. Robberies on highways and extortion from Government of India departments have come down. Extortions are still on but there is a positive decline.

Should you not rethink of lifting the ban? It is a global package. When you want them to come down to India you must take few steps which go along with it, not opposing it.

Nagas are a very distinct community. A negotiator of this issue, which would affect the destiny of such a community, should have a special sensitivity. Being an urbane South Indian do you have the sensitivity to understand them fully?

Let me tell you, Nagas are highly educated. They speak very good English, are very skillful debaters. Each Naga has a personal dignity and they like to hear you and like to be heard. I was home secretary for three years so I know Nagas and the issue. But I would like to tell you another thing. Nagas always tell me they had no contact with India in the past and the only Indians they knew were Assamese because Naga areas were part of Assam. So whatever they interpreted was based on their relations with Assam. They had no access to India. Their psyche is based on interactions with Assamese. Assam is equal to India, they thought.

Later on, in 1967, for the first time Naga leaders came to other parts of India and began to understand the whole of India. The biggest peace mission to the Northeast was led by Jayaprakash Narayan. It had great impact on them. The also respected the Assamese leader Gopinath Bordoloi. Now they have a different view of India. They look at us as democrats and rational people.

Where do these talks take place in Amsterdam?

Both sides stay in hotels. We hire a conference room for talks. My team comprises K P Singh, director of the Intelligence Bureau and one more officer from the home ministry. Earlier, then IB director Shyamal Dutta accompanied me. Their team consists of Mr Swu, president of the NSCN-IM, and general secretary Mr Muivah and two, three others.

They are extremely well-prepared. Sometimes our talks are very frustrating and sometimes friendly. There were many occasions when we felt that talks would break down. We wanted to tell each other: “Okay, you go your way, we go our way.”

What kind of a leader is Mr Muivah?

He is a very fine man. He understands issues very well. One of my colleagues said he could make an excellent professor of political science at Harvard University. He has tremendous political sense. They are always dressed in Western clothes. They are always formal in the meetings and wear long suits and ties and all that. And they expect that you too are formally dressed, not in bush shirts.

What is their fundamental problem?

Basically, they want their uniqueness to be recognised by the Indian government. And why not? All Indian communities are unique. We can’t apply the same yardstick to everybody. Even Manipuris are unique in their own way. I am very sensitive to even Manipuris. Nagas have been saying that Naga-habited areas should be merged into one administrative unit. And their other argument is that they are fighting for this since 1946.

Manipurs Maitis are claiming that Naga areas are part of Manipur since hundreds of years. How can you ignore that fact? There are no easy solutions to this issue. I always tell Naga friends that look here, no one is living in isolation and you have to live with your neighbours and they have to live with you. The Government of India talks with you is a part of the solution. There should be people to people dialogues. The Nagas cause may be wonderful but one could make it so much more difficult to arrive at a solution unless you have people to people understanding. Naga civil society has taken an initiative in this.

What will be your advice to Arun Jaitley who has been appointed as an interlocutor in Jammu and Kashmir?

Both are different issues. Jammu and Kashmir has an external angle. The Naga movement is not as much supported by outsiders. I think in peace talks mutual respect is very important. You must give them due importance. We should have an open mind. The methodology of negotiations will depend on the issue and the people we are dealing with. Nagas historically are non-violent people. Naga leader A N Phizo even met Mahatma Gandhi.

But in 1953 [then] prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Kohima. At that time Naga leaders wanted to meet Nehru but his officials denied them access. Nehru and U Nu, the president of Burma, were to address a joint meeting at the football ground. When the leaders arrived the Nagas turned their backs and left the ground. They said: ‘When we have time to listen to you, you should also have the time to listen to us.’

In later months many arrests took place. Then the Nagas took on an armed struggle and dispersed into the jungles. They have a cadre of 5,000 strong people and their arms are comparable to Kashmiri militants.

Mr Muivah too many times turns away from his chair and says: “We are not talking any more.” But then we patch up and talk.

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