June 21, 2021
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Talking To Maoists

After the brutal murder of Azad, is there any hope for well-meaning routine calls for “dialogue” and “peace talks”? What can the "civil society" do as a serious, real intervention?

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Talking To Maoists

It is reported that the decades-old talks with Naga insurgent groups has made some progress recently (See “Differences ‘narrowed’,” Times of India, July 19, 2011). One reason why talks have a chance in these cases is that separatism comes in layers and degrees: there are numerous real points between complete separation and total subjugation, at least in a progressive federal structure.

This condition does not apply to the Maoist upheaval primarily because the Maoist movement is not a separatist movement. Maoists demand seizure of state power by their party. By itself, the demand has neither moral nor political value unless it is linked to some salient cause, involving wide sections of the people, which cannot be addressed within the forums available in the state. There is no such cause. For example, the genuine cause of empowering and ensuring welfare for vast sections of people can be achieved, arguably, only by enabling people’s meaningful access to the existing forums of the state. And the only civilised method of ensuring such access is to expand the space of electoral democracy in terms of widespread mass movements on basic issues of life and livelihood. Since the Maoists reject each aspect of this option outright, there is nothing to talk about.

To emphasise, the character of the Maoists’ demands are such that there are no intermediate points for the government to agree with. For example, can the government agree to the full implementation of NREGA, PESA, FRA, RTE, minimum wages, etc. in the Dandakaranya area under Maoist supervision with the Maoists holding on to their arms and liberated zones? It is clear that this must be the Maoists’ minimum demand while it (already) far exceeds the maximum that any government can even contemplate. Generally, as one commentator has pointed out, we cannot expect a state to negotiate its own disappearance. This is the reason why, unlike the insurgencies in the North-East and Kashmir, there has never been any meaningful dialogue with the Maoists in the four decades of their operations. As things stand, therefore, the Adivasis have no respite from the war.

The Maoists may agree to “the proposal of talks to give some respite for the people at large who are living under constant state terror and immense suffering,” as the late Azad suggested. However, as he subsequently warned, Maoists want “to achieve whatever is possible for the betterment of people’s lives” without compromising on their “political programme of new democratic revolution and strategy of protracted people’s war.” Commenting on the proposal of talks with the Maoists, Nivedita Menon observes, “the very idea of talks is actually ruled out, but the Maoists may periodically agree to talks in order to gain time and space to regroup and prepare for the ‘next stage.’ On the other hand, what message does the Indian state send when it offers to talk to those brandishing guns, but not to those who do not?” (“Radical resistance and political violence today,” Economic and Political Weekly, December 12, Vol. 44, No. 50, 2009).

False moves

Such a “message” was in fact sent by the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in a statement of October 2009 (Times of India, 30 October, 2009). He asked the CPI (Maoists) to “abjure violence” and to come to talks. Specifically, Chidambaram did not require that the Maoists lay down arms; he just wanted cessation of hostilities for the time being for talks to take place. If this minimal condition were satisfied, Chidambaram was prepared to talk on all issues concerning Adivasi welfare and rights, industrial policy, models of development, and the like. As far as we can tell, the offer still stands on paper.

Assume that the offer explicitly includes a halt to the armed operations of the state in the concerned areas. Then Chidambaram’s conditions essentially match those of the Citizens Initiative for Peace and other civil society groups who have volunteered to negotiate between the government and the Maoists to bring both sides to the table—provided hostilities cease. Should we view this apparently friendly offer as Chidambaram’s attempt to walk that extra disarming mile to bring peace with dignity to the Adivasis?

The problem is that, in the same statement, Chidambaram regretted that previous attempts by various state governments to talk to the Maoists, after temporary halt to violence from both sides, had been unfailingly “futile.” Why then is the home minister offering to enter into another futile exercise? Or, is this just a ploy to buy some time to organise whatever it is that Chidambaram and his colleagues in the intelligence wings have in mind?

On the issue of talks, the duplicity of both the state and the Maoists—with the non-participating Adivasis caught in the middle—were starkly revealed as the Maoist spokesperson, Azad, entered the scene. Azad became a central figure in the projected negotiations for peace following the peace mission of May 6-8, 2010 undertaken by some eminent individuals such as Swami Agnivesh, Narayan Desai, and Prof. Yash Pal in Dantewada. Although the peace mission itself had to be abandoned after it was repeatedly attacked by local hoodlums with ill-concealed approval from the BJP-led government in Chhattisgarh, Mr. Chidambaram appeared to appreciate the effort. In his letter, Chidambaram encouraged Agnivesh to “reach out to CPI (Maoist) and persuade them to accept the Government’s offer for talks, the sole condition being that the CPI (Maoist) should abjure violence.” The “offer” included (a) cessation of “operations” against each other by both sides for 72 hours from a fixed agreed date, and (b) maintenance of the position of “no violence” until the talks concluded.

Azad also appreciated the efforts at peace when Agnivesh passed on Chidambaram’s letter to the Maoists, but rejected the 72 hour-clause proposed by Chidambaram as “a joke.” Instead, Azad asked for truce for a longer period of several months provided the government (a) lifted the ban on the party, (b) released its leaders, and (c) withdrew the paramilitary forces from the concerned areas. After talking things over with the home minister, Swami Agnivesh responded to Azad’s proposals and it was handed over to Azad.

What do we make of the proposals and counter-proposals? As an ordinary citizen without access to secret confabulations in the North Block in New Delhi and the Maoist headquarters in Abujmaad, I can only make some speculative (but hopefully reasonable) gestures. Consider first the surprisingly small window of 72-hours which Azad called a “joke.” From Chidambaram’s letter to Swami Agnivesh, it appears that Agnivesh himself made this offer to the Maoists, although Chidambaram had proposed this idea in his meeting with Agnivesh prior to the peace march (See Teesri Dunia, August 2010, p.21). It could be that Agnivesh conveyed this time-frame in good faith to the Maoists to begin the groundwork for talks; 72 hours looks like neither too short nor too long a duration for the warring sides to halt operations such that some signal of their peaceful intentions can be gauged by the concerned parties. It was perhaps hoped that the ceasefire would hold even after the first 72 hours.

Why then did Azad think of the suggestion as a joke? Recall that Chidambaram proposed mutual halt of operations from a fixed date. In his letter to Agnivesh of 11 May, he cited 1 June as an example; he said the date could be even earlier. In other words, he expected the truce to begin almost immediately and continue for at least 72 hours.

Two facts need consideration. First, Maoist forces are scattered secretly and disjointedly over thousands of kilometers of forests; so, it cannot be easy for these dozens of units of uneven size to move into safe and secured positions mostly by foot within a short time. Second, one of the safe methods of communication developed by the Maoists is to use foot-couriers who carry (carefully folded) handwritten messages called “biscuits.” The method is safe but obviously time-consuming. In order to inform all the units to stop offensive operations and move into secured defensive positions, Maoists need to activate and coordinate the entire network carefully. To attempt to do this within a couple of weeks might very well expose the network at crucial joints. Perhaps that is precisely what Chidambaram wants: to pry the Maoist network open in the name of peace! Further, an activation of the network in haste might leave some units uncovered such that there will be a chance of someone somewhere violating the truce and, thereby, giving Chidambaram the opportunity to abandon the peace process from a moral high-ground, and arrest the interlocutors. If I can see this, the Maoists obviously can.

Assuming that the preceding speculation explains why Azad thought of Chidambaram’s proposal as a joke, the Maoists’ own proposals are no less ridiculous. In its interview with Azad, The Hindu raised the basic problem with Maoist proposals as follows: “Is the Maoist party not putting the cart before the horse, making demands that the government may be unlikely to accept as a starting point, rather than positing the same as one of the end points of the proposed dialogue?” Swami Agnivesh made basically the same point succinctly when he wrote Azad, “the steps you suggest can all be discussed during the talks.” In the said interview, Azad responded by saying that (a) without lifting the ban, the party cannot engage in open mass work, and (b) unless some of the leaders are released from jail, there will be no one to represent the party because “we cannot bring any of our leaders overground for the purpose of talks.”

One can debate whether banning an organization, whatever be its programme, is ever an option in democracy. But the fact is that the government is currently not interested in the debate as the relevant acts have been passed by the parliament. If the ban is lifted without the Maoists rectifying anything that led to the ban in the first place, the government will be charged by the opposition and much of the civil society with violation of its own norms. As to the leaders in jail, they have been charged with grave violations of the law and most of these charges are non-bailable. So these prisoners can only be brought to the negotiating table after due sanction from the courts. How can the courts allow unbailable prisoners to be bonafide negotiators with the government without the Maoists giving something beforehand? Also, what is the guarantee that the decisions reached by a handful of imprisoned, and ageing leaders like Kobad Ghandy and Narayan Sanyal will in fact be respected by the party itself, especially when there is intense factionalism in the party on this issue? So, the only valid option for the Maoists is to engage some of their active laders in the talks with a mixture of risk and guarantee from the government, and hope for the best.

It follows that neither the government nor the Maoists are particularly interested in reaching a peaceful solution. Each wants to use the occasion of a few day’s of meaningless talks for propaganda mileage (“we tried our best”) and to secure whatever tactical advantage they can marshal before the violence begins afresh at a much higher scale. Notwithstanding his apparently aggrieved and earnest tone, Azad was not honest when he said that the “proposal of talks” was not “a ploy to buy time or regroup ourselves.”

In his reported conversation with Swami Agnivesh, Chidambaram was also making an essentially empty proposal that, once the talks begin, the government was prepared to place all the signed MOUs on the table and discuss all problems concerning Adivasis regarding water, land, and forests. Chidambaram knows very well that, if the Maoists refused to disarm during such talks, the question of lifting the ban and releasing their leaders does not arise, not to speak of negotiating with them on social policy like land reform, wages, right to habitat, MOUs with mining corporations, and the like. It goes without saying that the Maoists know that too. Chidambaram also knows that the Maoist won’t disarm at his calling. In any case, even these false starts collapsed as Azad was killed in cold-blood. We recall that Agnivesh did not concede any of Azad’s pre-conditions and insisted on the 72-hour window. Azad’s reported actions suggest that he was prepared to proceed nonetheless. Whatever be his motivation, it appears that Azad was sincerely engaged in giving the prospect of talks—and some duration of relief for the Adivasis—a chance. Did that bold decision lead to his killing?

Maoists won’t disarm

Azad’s murder is a clear signal that even limited talks with a short-term respite from violence for the Adivasis is no longer feasible. Thus, repeated appeals for talks from well-meaning individuals such as Binayak Sen, Ramchandra Guha, Nandini Sundar, and others, (“As much a lesson for the maoists as for the government,” Outlookindia.com, July 10, 2011) and organizations such as Citizen’s Initiative for Peace, are likely to fall on deaf ears of the parties that matter. As we saw, even if some token talks were to take place for a while, they cannot lead to any lasting peace for the Adivasis given the character of Maoist demand.

This observation is not in conflict with recent initiatives by the West Bengal government to engage in talks with the Maoists in the Jangalmahal area of the state. The Maoists may well agree to hold some talks there since they have only marginal presence in that area, especially after they lost much ground in recent months. They have nothing like guerrilla zones, not to speak of “liberated zones.” Most armed Maoists have been forced to retreat to dense forests in neighbouring states after determined attack by CPM cadres and paramilitary forces. Also, the recent elections were a setback to their efforts to control the population (see Nirmalangshu Mukherji, “The writing on the wall,” Outlookindia.com, May 16, 2011). Hence, Mamata Bannerjee’s initiatives will in fact enable them to re-enter the area. The situation in Dandakaranya is entirely different.

In the war, notwithstanding temporary initial advantages for the Maoists, ultimately the state has the advantage of arms and other means of warfare, including sections of law, in their possession. Given the opportunity, the state will not hesitate to use them against its own people even in a quasi-democratic condition such as ours. However, compared to dictatorial and directly fascist regimes, quasi-democratic regimes face the problem of somehow aligning the repression with propaganda with a human face to muster popular support. In the current case, the propaganda advantage of the state comes from the operations of the CPI (Maoists). Consider Maoist actions such as creation of “liberated zones” to block the functioning of the state in suitable areas, killing of police personnel, killing of “informers” and other “class enemies,” torching of trains, police stations and other public property, possession and use of vast quantities of sophisticated weapons, etc. Maoists and their urban supporters no doubt justify these operations in terms of unilateral declaration of “revolutionary violence and justice.” But the fact remains that these operations supply exactly the propaganda advantage needed by the state.

Thus, in theory at least, the Maoists can pull the rug from below Chidambaram’s tactics by unilaterally disarming themselves and joining the democratic struggles against the state. They do enjoy considerable support among some of the Adivasi populations and sections of urban intellectuals. It is important that their “enemies” such as the union home ministry, the Congress party, and the CPM continue not to attach the “terrorist” tag to them, although some Naxalites do! Even this minimal support may not last long if the armed operations continue in a protracted war. In contrast, given their militancy, self-sacrifice, and some acceptance among the poorest and the marginalised, they will be a major force in Indian politics if they give up arms and join the democratic struggle.

Both Swami Agnivesh and Medha Patkar made similar appeals to the Maoists in their speeches during the historic rally at Lalgarh on 9 August, 2010. More recently, the writer-activist Dilip Simeon made the same point eloquently:

Comrades, consider the impact if you were to give up the armed struggle and challenge the ruling class to adhere to the Constitution, reform the monstrous flaws in the criminal justice system, root out corruption in the police and judiciary ... A step such as this, accompanied by an unconditional declaration that you will lay down arms and cease the violence will electrify the situation. It will also place you in a central political position, for you will be challenging the entire Indian establishment. And the precious lives of thousands of ordinary people, including women, children and the elderly, quite apart from those of your committed cadres, shall be saved. There has been too much bloodshed. Violence is predictable. Do something different and unpredictable. It will bring a smile to millions of faces. (“Open letter to revolutionaries after Salwa Judum judgement,” 2011.)

This is a dream laced with much hope. Under the circumstances, the prospects of realizing it are not exactly promising. The Maoist party has not spent decades in forests, and lost thousands of leaders and cadres in the process, only to give up their basic goal because some well-meaning peace-loving friends so desire. Furthermore, the Maoist party never had it so big before in its long career in terms of national and international attention, area coverage, acquisition of arms and personnel, and intellectual support. For the more militant sections in the organisation, this would obviously be seen as a victory of the party-line. Most leaders thus are likely to opt for the continuation and expansion of the protracted war, even if it means increased repression of the Adivasis.

If the “civil society” is serious about real intervention in this otherwise hopeless situation, novel and bold ideas, supplemented by courageous plan of action, must emerge beyond routine calls for “dialogue” and “peace talks.”

Otherwise, neither Chidambaram nor Ganapathy is likely to be alarmed, or even interested.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji teaches in the Department of Philosophy, Delhi University

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