By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS
Dimapur (Nagaland) : Central government negotiators are beginning fresh peace talks in Tuesday with a tribal separatist group from the northeastern state of Nagaland to save a 10-year ceasefire from breaking down.
An Indian home ministry official said central minister Oscar Fernandes and New Delhi's chief peace negotiator K. Padmanabhaiah would be holding talks with top leaders of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) in Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland.
The NSCN-IM, led by guerrilla leaders Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, had entered into a ceasefire with New Delhi in August 1997. The current truce expires Tuesday.
The two sides have since held at least 50 rounds of peace talks aimed at ending one of South Asia's longest running insurgencies that claimed an estimated 25,000 lives since India attained independence in 1947.
"This is going to be a very crucial round of talks and we don't know for sure if the ceasefire would be extended or not," V. Horam, senior NSCN-IM leader, told IANS.
The NSCN-IM had threatened to pull out of the ceasefire if government negotiators failed to come up with a solution.
"There is no point in an annual ritual of just extending the ceasefire if the government of India does not have a plan for evolving a mutually acceptable solution. The people of Nagaland are getting restive with a decade gone without any tangible results," Horam said.
The NSCN-IM is one of the oldest and most powerful of about 30 rebel groups in India's northeast and wants to create a Greater Nagaland by slicing off parts of neighbouring states that have Naga tribal populations.
The three regional governments of Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh have already rejected the NSCN-IM's demand for unification of Naga-dominated areas. New Delhi, too, has rejected demands for unification of all Naga-inhabited areas.
"This would be a very crucial round of talks and could determine which way the peace process moves from here on," another rebel leader said, requesting not to be named.
NSCN leader Muivah had recently said New Delhi's delay in finding a solution was 'taxing their patience' and this could be the 'last ceasefire' unless there was a settlement.
"We are keeping our fingers crossed and would not like to hazard a guess about India's response," Horam said.
Community leaders and tribal chiefs are worried that Nagaland might again witness a cycle of violence if the NSCN-IM decides to pull out of the peace talks.
"It would be a nail in the coffin if the peace talks break down at this stage. Each and every Naga was hoping for a permanent solution and an end to bloodshed and killings," said T. Ao, a church leader.