October 13, 2011

Negotiating with the Maoists: Lessons from the Andhra experience

P. V. Ramana

October 13, 2011

The West Bengal government is reportedly considering holding negotiations with Naxalites of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or Maoists, in short. Mahasweta Devi, social activist and well-known writer, has lent her voice of support for the move, according to a media report of October 9, 2011.

If and when the talks are held, it shall be for the second time in the history of the country that a democratically elected government sat at the negotiating table with an outfit that is avowedly committed to capturing/seizing state power through the barrel of the gun by waging a 'protracted people's war' (PPW). Earlier, in October 2004, the Andhra Pradesh government had conducted the first-ever 'direct' talks with the state-level leadership of the Maoists.

In the run-up to the direct talks with the Maoists, the government has appointed interlocutors, who have met with the rebel leadership. The Maoists have set the condition that all security operations against them must be halted in order to pave the way for cessation of hostilities between the two sides and to create a 'congenial atmosphere' for holding talks. During the talks with the government the Maoists are also likely to press for the development of the Jangalmahal region in a manner that they would dictate, and discuss ways to overcoming the hurdles for reconciliation. As yet, the government has not conveyed its response and it is too early to predict either way about the peace process and possible direct talks between the two sides, though some progress has been made in this regard.

The West Bengal could draw some useful lessons, and benefit, from Andhra Pradesh's experience during a similar process. At a press conference on October 14, 2004, a few hours ahead of the commencement of the actual 'talks', the then secretary of the Andhra Pradesh State Committee of the CPI (Maoist), Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna, who led the Maoist delegation had categorically stated, "…the party would continue the 'protracted people's war' and the talks process would help in taking the movement forward". So, for the Maoists, the talks were and are a 'tactic' and 'war by other means'.

At the same time, the Maoists also hoisted red flags in lands—private, forest and Endowments Department—signalling that they stood occupied for redistribution among the landless and hence their rightful owners could not till them. There were several reports of the CPI-Maoist occupying land in various parts of the state. An October 25, 2004 media report said that in the third week of that month alone the CPI-Maoist occupied 1,142 acres of land in Kurnool and Prakasam districts; earlier, they had occupied and redistributed 400 acres in Kurnool, 2,005 acres in Guntur, 10,000 acres in Karimnagar and 3,800 acres in Warangal. The list runs long. During the peace talks with the government, 'Ramakrishna' stated that the Maoists had, until then, 'liberated' 120,000 acres of land from different land owners. Further, "[t[he Maoists openly propagated their ideology in villages and towns and had even organised a huge public meeting in Hyderabad. For them it was a propaganda exercise", a four-time MLA told this researcher in an interview.

Most importantly, the Maoists insisted on their 'right to bear arms' and openly and brazenly moved around with arms in the villages, in contravention to an earlier understanding with the government. The entire peace process became hostage to this issue and began to flounder, before eventually being unilaterally trashed by the Maoists on January 16, 2005. A few days after the peace process was initiated on May 14, 2004, the then Home Minister of Andhra Pradesh, K. Jana Reddy, said on the floor of the State Legislative Assembly that 'the government expected the armed extremist groups to refrain from intimidation, extortion or other forms of violence'. However, the government's expectations were thoroughly belied. Moreover, they also used the peace process to regroup, recruit, and indulge in extortion at will.

The Andhra government preferred to look the other way. It also lacked adequate clarity and did not think-through before commencing the peace process. It was totally taken by surprise when the Maoists announced, a few hours before the talks were to commence, the formation of the CPI (Maoist) following the merger of the People's War, or PWG as it was popularly known, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India.

The West Bengal government could draw a few lessons from Andhra Pradesh's experience. One, the peace process and negotiations should be held for a limited duration according to a pre-determined time schedule, and not for a prolonged period. Two, the modalities of the talks should be thoroughly discussed. Three, there should be absolute clarity on the dos and don'ts that are binding on both the sides. Four, talks should be conducted away from the public glare until they reach a critical concluding phase. And five, the rule of law should always be upheld.

At the same time, the government should be clear in its mind that the Maoists shall not relent on their 'right to bear arms'. They are not yet prepared to join the national mainstream even if all their demands are met. They shall make every possible use of the peace process to strengthen themselves. Therefore, the West Bengal government should not give any false hope to the people. As much as the Maoists would use the opportunity to their advantage, the government should also take advantage of the peace process to defeat the Maoists' designs through both overt and covert means.

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