WITH MAOIST leader Kishenji’s rather bold offer for ceasefire to the Union government, a new situation seems to be unfolding in the red corridor of heartland India. Seeking to place the ball in the Centre’s court, the 72-day offer clearly seems to trump Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s 72-hour offer. Moreover, it’s the nature of the offer — unconditional, as opposed to earlier Maoist proposals stipulating the release of their key leaders, restoration of land and forests to the tribals, scrapping of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with big investors etc, all major irritants for the government — which begs a serious consideration. Practically the only condition set by the Maoists this time is that the State should reciprocate. This is at a time when reports of the CRPF in Lalgarh killing Lalmohan Tudu of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) in front of his family members on February 22 are filtering in, over and above the initial propaganda about him being killed during an attack on a CRPF camp.
Chidambaram, instead of welcoming the offer to start a process of negotiation and addressing the substantive issues at hand, responded with a presumptuous and hypocritical statement calling upon the Maoists to abjure violence first. The Planning Commission’s Expert Group on Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas has argued that the government is engaging in peace talks with other rebel groups like the Nagas even though they have not abjured violence and in fact ‘taken advantage of the peaceful conditions to consolidate their parallel government’. So, they ask, ‘why a different approach for the Maoists?’
The government is more comfortable engaging with the Naga or Kashmiri militants in talks, than with Maoists
Chidambaram is clearly trying to make violence the key issue — that the real problem facing the country is violence by illegitimate actors like the Maoists and not the inequalities and injustices that are spiralling in the country. On the other hand, basking in the cover of being constitutional and democratically elected, even as it spearheads a system of a million injustices and the repressive Operation Green Hunt, the charge of being ‘violent’ somehow does not stick against the government. Instead, with terror attacks in Mumbai and Pune, the non-State violence as the main problem gets reinforced by the discourse of the ‘war on terror’ — that our country is under attack and hence no dissensions. NATO troops at Marjah, Afghanistan, are currently supposed to be flushing out the Taliban and then installing a civilian government — not too different from Chidambaram’s policy of flushing out Maoists to make way for a civilian administration.
This approach frames the Maoists in terms of a conflict model — that this is primarily a problem of violence, of illegitimate actors challenging the State and rule of law, and indeed the understanding that the Maoists are ‘the biggest internal security threat’. There is an underside to this seemingly straightforward picture. By simply raking up the violent nature of the Maoists again and again, the substantive issues at hand — corporate plunder, land grab, vigilante groups like Salwa Judum — are easily set aside or regarded as secondary.
Hence Kishenji’s dropping of the other conditions for ceasefire might add to this perception that violence is the real issue. In fact, several civil society groups and independent intellectuals who have always insisted on addressing the core problems facing tribals might even feel that this is a new situation where only violence and hostilities become the real problem. However, through this offer, the Maoists may actually be trying to reach out to civil society. They are probably appealing to the wider civil society — maybe to gain some credibility as a political force; or be recognised as not only interested in violence and a military solution. This must be seen as a positive development. The ‘abjure violence first’ line, however, is bent upon undoing this.
So what about the ‘skeptics’ who argue that the Maoists have come with this offer only because they are feeling the heat of Operation Green Hunt, or they are being strategic and trying to regroup — biding time, trying to trap the government? What is significant is that even though they may be feeling the heat, given the repression unleashed by the State, the Maoists are seeking a political process, involving sections of civil society, unlike the belligerent attitude of the State.
Indeed the government has made it impossible for anyone from outside to visit these ‘affected areas’ — human rights activists and independent observers have been harassed and chased away repeatedly. A cessation of hostilities is therefore what the State fears the most — for that will mean the possibility of a free exchange between the Maoists in the hinterland and urban civil society. The State clearly does not want that to happen — for that will turn the heat on it. This is the real trap it fears — getting politically cornered for its misdeeds. Hence, the need for this hysteria surrounding Maoist violence and human rights activists of supporting it.
There is nothing retrograde for the Maoists in seeking a political way out when cornered militarily — if this is what the ceasefire means. But the ‘abjure violence’ approach of the government seems to be aimed at precluding precisely such a possibility. Even the language used in the media — regroup, bidding for time, walking into a trap — all assume a situation of continuing war. In a way, the demand to ‘abjure violence’ is nothing less than the guilt of the State slipping out. Foregrounding violence in the context of a ceasefire allows the State to skirt the key issues and keep portraying the Maoists as liable to be physically eliminated, catching them off-guard.
This is the experience of the talks between the State and the Peoples War Group in Andhra Pradesh, where the ceasefire was used by the State to finish off the Maoists. Making the ‘violent’ tag stick on the Maoists meant that they could be delegitimised and made easy targets even after formal talks had started in October 2004 between the Maoists and the government, while the undercover attacks and elimination of Maoist leaders and sympathisers continued unabated. Leading civil liberties activist KG Kannabiran, who was one of the eight mediators then, told BBC that, “It was agreed that the police would not undertake combing operations against the Maoists. Why was there a need for the police to become so active, launching combing operations and killing the extremists in encounters?”
PERHAPS THIS is where return to a focus on the core issue of tribal displacement and habitat, cannot in the circumstances, be delinked from the fate of the Maoist movement. After all the Maoist movement is not only a current problem or a temporary happenstance specific to the present conjuncture. Since 1967, the Naxal movement and its present avatar, the Maoists, have stared in the face of the ruling order of the country. Indeed the Naxal slogan — Yeh azaadi jhooti hai (this independence is false) is a comment on the state of our nation. To relegate the Maoist issue to only one of violence, or for that matter that of Adivasis or land reforms or livelihood — is to deny and suppress its wider political provenance — something which might have implications on the very ‘idea of India’. This is perhaps why the government is more comfortable engaging with the Naga or Kashmiri militants in talks, than with the Maoists.
Those on the left and progressive liberals, ruing the erosion of ‘the idea of India’ and the decline of our political ideals, are so status-quoist in their upholding of the constitutional values of democracy, that they have conceded any possibility of rewriting history, or revising the basic structure of the Constitution, to the Hindu right. This seems true of the post-ideological, neoliberal age where the right-wing free marketeers are the radicals, calling for change, whereas the left are the conservatives, holding on to the myth of the founding moment and a dream of the long-dead founding fathers of the republic. The Naxal who refuses to ‘abjure violence’, in precisely being unconstitutional and undemocratic, in moving out of the shadow of our founding fathers, has come to stand for a left-wing agenda of change, taking the wind out of the Hindu right’s sails and realigning the terrain of thinking for the left as a whole. Whether the Maoists are adequate to this fertile moment is however not a settled question yet.
(Saroj Giri is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Delhi University)