K Padmanabhiah, the Indian face of the negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (I-M), has been told that his role as the prime minister's representative, a task and job he held for a decade, has ended. The home ministry will now handle the talks.
A key figure will be the new Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, a no-nonsense, energetic officer from the Kerala cadre who has worked on issues relating to the northeast for over 12 years.
Padmanabhiah, a former home secretary, travelled to many countries to conduct talks with Naga leaders Isak Chisi Swu, chairman of the I-M group, which has had a ceasefire with New Delhi since 1996, and its general secretary Th. Muivah. He was told that his role was not being renewed from Aug 31.
In a telephone interview, Padmanabhiah told IANS: "The interlocutor has done his job. I cannot go on permanently and have called it a day."
For 10 years, Padmanabhiah conducted or took part in not less than 50 rounds of discussions with the Naga group although for the past five years he had become increasingly sidelined with a Group of Ministers (GoM) led by Oscar Fernandes leading the process.
That GoM no longer is functional and it is the home ministry that will now call the shots, openly.
Although Padmanabhiah was known to have kept the discussions on track (venues included Chiang Mai in Thailand, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur), the talks appeared to be moving desultorily and headed nowhere with neither side energetically pursing proposals for a settlement.
On one side, the Nagas said they were studying the Indian and other constitutions (such as Nepal and Papua New Guinea) for the past couple of years to see what changes could be made.
On the other, the Indian government appeared to be disinterested in settling the issue because it was unwilling to stir a political hornets' nest with the Naga demand for a homeland to be carved out of three neighbouring states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
None of these states were willing to budge an inch on this claim although legally the central government can, under article three of the constitution, rewrite state boundaries without consulting the states.
The explosiveness of that issue was visible during the period of his tenure in 2001 after Padmanabhiah signed an extension of the ceasefire in Bangkok with the NSCN (I-M) group which said that the peace would be without boundaries, a term that led to riots in Manipur and the eventual rollback of the clause by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Pillai has long experience of the northeast having held the post of joint secretary in charge of that division in the ministry from 1996-2001. Unlike most New Delhi-based officials, he extensively travelled there, met ordinary people and interacted with local officials.
He is seen as the "humane" face of the home ministry although he is known to be extremely firm on issues of governance, corruption and inefficiency. During his term as commerce secretary, Pillai tried to develop programmes and policies in relation to the region which were in tune with its needs.
Top officials at the home ministry said that a major part of the new strategy would be an inclusive approach, seeking to reach out to all sides in interactions and discussions, involving civil society groups as well.
They said the central government would also focus on strong implementation of ceasefire rules and legal procedures as well as show no tolerance for extortion and other such activities.
Muivah, the principal negotiator for the NSCN (I-M), is now located in a large camp outside Dimapur, the gateway to Nagaland from the Assam plains. Swu is reportedly keeping indifferent health and is living in Bangkok.
It is widely known that the two major militant Naga groups, the I-M and its rival, the Khaplang faction, have had almost a free run in Nagaland and the Manipur hills for decades despite the ceasefire and "designated camps" where they are supposed to live.
These groups levy "taxes" on individuals, government officials, politicians and even school teachers; the public and New Delhi call this extortion.