A frontline tribal separatist group in Nagaland on Thursday offered to hold formal peace talks with the central government, eight years after entering into a ceasefire with New Delhi.
"We are now ready for holding unconditional talks with the Indian government. All we want is a formal invitation from the government," Khughalo Mulatonu, senior leader of the S S Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) said.
Mulatonu is in New Delhi to establish contacts with union home ministry to get the peace process rolling.
The Indian government is already holding talks with the rival NSCN faction headed by guerrilla leaders Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM) but formal negotiations with the NSCN-K are yet to begin even though the latter entered into a ceasefire in 2001.
"We refused to hold talks and wanted the government of India and the NSCN-IM to first complete their negotiation process. But in the past two years there has been no talks going on between the two sides and hence decided to engage ourselves in a dialogue with the government," said Mulatonu, who is the special envoy of Myanmar-based guerrilla leader Khaplang.
The rival NSCN factions are fighting a bitter turf war for territorial supremacy in Nagaland since they split in 1988. The internecine war has claimed more than 500 lives in the past five years.
"The two NSCN-IM leaders are now the stooge of the Indian government and they cannot fulfill the aspirations of the Nagas and it is only the NSCN-K that can solve the problems of the people of Nagaland," Mulatonu said.
The NSCN-IM, one of the oldest and most powerful of about 30 rebel groups in India's northeast, was earlier fighting for an independent homeland for the Nagas, but has scaled it down to a 'Greater Nagaland', to be formed by slicing off parts of adjoining states that have Naga tribal populations.
The governments of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have rejected the demand for unification of Naga-dominated areas.
New Delhi too has earlier rejected demands for unification of all Naga inhabited areas.
"Talks about sovereignty and other demands can be discussed in the negotiating table, but we don't want to put any preconditions as we don't want such issues to be a stumbling block in getting the peace talks started," Mulatonu said.
A peace deal between the two NSCN groups and the Indian government could end one of South Asia's longest running insurgencies that have claimed an estimated 25,000 lives since the country attained independence in 1947.
"If the government of India is sincere in taking forward the peace process, then probably other militants in the region would be encouraged to join the path of peace," the rebel leader said.
There are at least six influential rebel groups in the northeast, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which is linked to NSCN-K. "The ball is in New Delhi's court. We have come with an open mind," Mulatonu said.