Room for Peace

Instead of harassing the civil society, government should co-opt them

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (August 2011)

Last year, the Maoists kidnapped five Chhattisgarh police personnel and issued a list of demands for their release. Like all hostage situations, this was basically a call for negotiations. As one Maoist observer says, “If they don’t kill the kidnapped person immediately, then normally they don’t kill him at all. It is a sign that they do not intend to kill, but to start talks to get some of their people released.” The state government, however, could not find anybody who could start the talks on its behalf. In desperation, it turned to local journalists with contacts in Bastar. Finally, some agreed to take the risk.

Since there is no established mechanism of engaging the Maoists, a few Bastar-based reporters wandered into the forest infested by the ultras in the hope that someone may spot them and report their presence to possible interlocutors. Clearly, the initiative here rested with the Maoists. A senior colleague of one of the reporters who eventually made the contact says, “The moment somebody enters the forest, the Maoists come to know. They watch the intruder for some time, often even a day, before deciding whether it is safe to make contact with him or not. Once they decide that it is safe to engage with the intruder, they send somebody to escort him inside.”

After a day of wandering, the reporter was deemed safe and escorted to where the local Maoist leadership was. Finally, negotiations started. Once the deal was struck, it was agreed that the Maoists would escort the kidnapped policemen along with the reporter till the road head from where they would find their way back. However, even as the reporter was conveying these messages to his office, his calls were intercepted and a posse of police intelligence hid itself close to the road head to tail the Maoists. Apparently, they were not discreet enough and the Maoists discovered them. Fresh threats were issued, including to the reporter, who they suspected had brought the police with him. Mortally scared reporter, who had gone beyond the call of duty, called his office one last time to relate what had transpired.

“I was livid,” recalls the senior journalist. “Despite frequent harassment by the state government, we had decided to help in securing the release of the policemen and here the police was trying to be clever by half. I called the director general police and told him that if his men did not withdraw this would be the last time anyone from the civil society would volunteer help. It turned out that he was not in the picture. The intelligence team was deployed by the local police. Finally, they were told to withdraw.” The reporter and the traumatised policemen eventually returned unharmed. But this was one of the rare instances when a reporter volunteered to take the risk. How many reporters would do this, especially in today’s Chhattisgarh is questionable. If the DGP hadn’t intervened, the local police would have harassed the reporter subsequently for alleged ties with the Maoists. “This is one of the risks we live with everyday,” says the journalist. “We are tailed, our telephones are tapped and our reports are vetted to check for possible Left-wing slant.”

One would have thought that learning from this experience, the state government would have realised the importance of the civil society and the middle ground that they inhabit. But not Chhattisgarh government, which views voices of dissent with as much contempt as it views the Maoist ultras and those who provide the fertile ground for them to thrive and operate. Says the journalist, “The state government has crushed all democratic institutions in the state. Their place has been taken by the police who now are the face of the government everywhere.”

Journalists are not the only people who speak about being silenced by the government. Talking to a cross-section of the people in Raipur, one gets the impression of being in some kind of a police state, where the government and the police wants to control everything to the extent of telling the people what they should think. And lest one had any doubts on that score, they are removed the moment you step outside the Raipur airport and hit the road to the city. A small board on the side of the road says, ‘District police welcomes you in Chhattisgarh.’

The ludicrousness of the welcome sign aside, the government of Chhattisgarh has evolved a uni-dimensional strategy of taking on the Maoist challenge in the state, the focal point of which is to portray the Maoists as the absolute enemy of the state. They are enemies because they challenge the democratic institutions of the country; they are enemies because they are raising arms against the government and instigating poor people to do the same; they are enemies because they plunder national wealth for their vested interests; and they are enemies because they exploit the poor and the hapless to further their own interests. While these are valid grounds for the State to take on the Maoists (even though at least three of could be applied to the Indian politicians as well), they are not enough; at least, not enough for the government to convince the people why they must abhor the Maoists. So, the reason for that is: Maoists are immoral and they encourage sexual permissiveness among those they dominate.

Taking the ‘immoral’ line, Dr Trivedi says, “Young people join the Maoist ranks primarily out of coercion or sometimes because of the romance of the gun. But after a while they get disillusioned and want to leave. To ensure that these young men do not leave, Maoists have got women in their ranks. All sorts of things happen there inside the forest.” No matter how preposterous the propaganda is, there are always gullible people who succumb to it. And these people add to the constituency for ruthless government action.

Once this constituency swell, the space for those who question the ruthless methods or advocate a different approach reduces. With this as the state policy, anyone who is suspected of confabulating with the enemy is also deemed as one. The socio-economic context of the growth of Maoist influence in India and Chhattisgarh has completely been negated. It is almost like the Maoist ultras live and thrive in complete vacuum. As a result of this obsession with the security approach, the right of the people to question the government and its policies is virtually suspended.

Perhaps, the attitude of the Chhattisgarh government stems from the RSS-BJP school of thought that holds land/territory as sacrosanct and hence must be preserved at all cost. The worship of the country as a diety, ‘Bharat Mata’, is an extension of this belief. Hence, people within the territory do not matter as long as the sanctity of the territory is maintained, even if it is at the cost of the people. This philosophy justifies the scorched earth approach to combat Naxalism and erodes the grounds for peace talks. This narrow view of security has no time for human dignity and values.

When the FORCE team was in Raipur, the media was rife with the issue of a 16-year-old girl being raped and killed by the Chhattisgarh police in Korba district. Initially, the girl was dismissed as a Maoist but subsequently it turned out that she was a simple villager with no association with the Maoists. Once this was established, the police ordered an enquiry in the incident. However, had she been a Maoist, rape and murder would have been acceptable. One journalist who was admonished by the police for pushing the issue told FORCE, “I had goose-bumps when a superintendent of police told me that why were we making a big deal about this one incident. It happens every day in Bastar.” By police own admission, this was not a solitary incident.

Given the polarity in this war between the state and the Maoists, the civil society becomes very important. It plays the role of not only the leveller but also the collective conscience. Instead of targeting it as an opponent, if the state government cultivates it with imagination, it can probably open another and a more sensible, front against the Naxals. As one television journalist says, “It is very clear that this is going to be a long struggle. Meeting violence with violence is not the answer. For the sake of peace, we have to create space for talks.”

The only serious effort that the government made for talks was way back in May 2004, when chief minister, Andhra Pradesh, YSR Reddy invited Maoists to the table. Late K.G. Kannabiran, senior advocate and the president of PUCL, Andhra, brokered the talks. As a pre-condition both sides agreed to cessation of hostilities. But the talks collapsed after the first round. While the Maoists came with completely over-the-top demands, which clearly no government could accept, the government offered nothing. The talks collapsed after the first round and the Maoists called off the peace process in January 2005. Since then, no serious effort has been made to initiate talks with the Maoists. Last year, Swami Agnivesh tried to start a peace process with the concurrence of home minister P. Chidambaram. But that process also collapsed in the heap of allegations and counter-allegations even before Swami Agnivesh could make contact with any Maoist leadership. Once again, government’s lack of seriousness about talks was exposed.

Given that despite prolonged violence in various parts of the Northeast, the government and the insurgents (Ulfa, NSCN) finally sat down on the peace table after several false starts, why should this option be foreclosed in the case of the Maoists? Even in Kashmir, the government of India maintains that it is open to talk with anybody, even those who talk of secession, to find an acceptable solution. And in all these conflict zones, from Assam and Nagaland to Kashmir, the harbingers of the peace talks have always been the so-called civil society which is so abhorrent to the government of Chhattisgarh. No process succeeds in the first attempt. But does it mean that one discredit the process itself and those who advocate it.


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