Playing Hide & Seek With Peace

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Mamata Banerjee has offered talks to the Maoists and set up mediators. Tusha Mittal interviews a top Maoist leader to find out if peace is possible

Boots on the ground The new declaration has no mention of suspension of combat operations
Boots on the ground The new declaration has no mention of suspension of combat operations
Photos: Pintu Pradhan

IN AUGUST 2010, Mamata Banerjee’s rally in the heart of a Maoist stronghold in West Bengal created an uproar. As the Congress ally shared the dais in Lalgarh with ‘Maoist sympathisers’, there were cries of treason. Mamata’s detractors saw her as an opportunistic neta compromising with the enemy. For her supporters, she was a possible bridge to peace.

In power now, things are knottier. Since becoming CM, Mamata has appointed a group of interlocutors to initiate peace talks with “all armed groups in Junglemahal”. In a seven-point joint declaration, the government offered a rehabilitation package for those who surrender arms, and appealed to all to join the development process. However, the declaration makes no mention of the withdrawal of joint forces or the suspension of combat operations, both of which were pre-election rallying points for the Trinamool Congress.

Mamata also appointed a committee headed by former Chief Justice Malay Sengupta to review cases of “political prisoners”. Derived from the West Bengal Correctional Act, 1992, this phrase is significant to the peace process. It distinguishes a political offence from others and allows the offender the status of a political prisoner. “Any public agitation by a political party or a group for securing any political objective,” or for “furtherance of any political ideology” to obtain “common good, or remedy any injustice of political nature, shall be interpreted as a political movement,” says the Act.

Among the Maoists jailed in Bengal, at least eight, including former state secretaries Himadri Sen Roy and Sudip Chondgar alias Kanchan, have political prisoner status. More applications are in the process. So far, the government has been tight-lipped about their release. Last month, the review committee recommended the release of 78 prisoners. The government gave its nod for 52. In what was seen as a move to test the waters, the list included former Maoist state secretary Chandi Sarkar and member Pradip Chatterjee.

However, the Union home ministry has put a spanner in the works. In a letter to state Chief Secretary Samar Ghosh, the Union home secretary indicated the ministry’s disapproval of the decision to free the two Maoists, sources told TEHELKA. The letter advises releasing political prisoners at random. “There is political pressure from the Centre,” admits a TMC source.

There is also a view at the Centre that peace talks in West Bengal could allow the Maoists a safe haven to operate through the Red Corridor. The current status of the peace process remains unclear. Sources say the Maoists have asked for a copy of the declaration. The mediators have met with Patitapaban Haldar, the first state secretary of the Maoists, to deliver it. “The jailed leaders are positive about the possibility of talks,” a mediator told TEHELKA.

But the public response of the Maoists has been fractured so far; it has been hard to really gauge their official stand. Last month, TEHELKA sent 20 questions to CPI(Maoist) state secretary Asim Mondal alias Akash. This week, written responses to some questions were delivered through established channels. The answers reveal a party open to dialogue and more flexible on what was earlier a rigid pre-condition. Akash insists that further troop build-up and combing operations be stalled, but does not demand a complete withdrawal.

Q & A: Akash, CPI(Maoist) State Committee Secretary

‘Mamata must understand peace is not a commodity in the local market’

By Tusha Mittal

Mamata has appealed for peace in Junglemahal. She has appointed mediators to begin a dialogue process. What is your response to her offer for talks?
Mamata Banerjee has appealed for peace in Junglemahal but has not referred to our party. She has not directly offered to talk to us. This is the major problem in her peace process. Earlier, the CPM had also announced development policies from time to time and their leaders had visited Midnapore to renew the peace project.

But all of this broke down because their intentions were not genuine. The CPM used the development money to maintain their goons while accusing the Maoists of restricting development. We condemn any such allegation. The new government can talk to us directly about development, about where development projects should be undertaken. Mamata is sticking to the same point as the CPM, that the government will not spare anybody who hampers the development process. If there is any evidence that we are hampering development projects, Mamata should announce it publicly through the media. We will solve the problem in 15 days. The government is spreading confusion that we are not allowing roads to be built. We are not anti-development.

The actual question regarding Junglemahal is peace. How can peace be restored? Not a single Harmad camp has been stopped by the government. Tactically, the Harmads are not staying together. They are scattered in the villages but they are protected by the police.

We are committed to initiate circumstances needed to restore peace in Junglemahal. The government should also try to do the same. So far, the peace committee has not approached us with any formal invitation for talks. But we are in touch with them. We have never closed our door.

Mamata has asked all parties to abandon arms and offered a rehabilitation package. While some are reading her offer as call to stop using arms, others perceive it as a call to surrender arms. How do you read her offer? If surrendering arms was not a pre-condition, would your response be different?
Mamata has given a call to surrender arms. But most of the arms are in the hands of the CPM and the TMC. Second is the Congress. In our case, the point is not the arms but our ideology. We believe in armed struggle. But quantitatively, we hardly have 1 percent of the arms the CPM possesses. It is true that after the formation of the new government, 2,000-3,000 arms were recovered from the CPM. But 50-60 percent of them are rejected and outdated weapons. This is less than 2 percent of the arms the CPM possesses. In Gwaltore, where locals attempted to take away arms from the CPM, the police restricted people from doing so. No arms have been recovered in Purulia and Bankura districts either. In Taldagiri, a CPM leader was beaten to death by TMC workers and it was portrayed as a mass agitation. So who is Mamata actually addressing when she says surrender arms? Has the TMC ever agitated without arms? The TMCwas armed during the Garbeta, Keshpur incident in 2000. In Nandigram, apart from the Maoists, both the TMC and the pseudo-Left were well armed. In Junglemahal, the party goons are carrying AK-47 and Insas rifles supplied by the police. This talk of surrendering arms is only meant to intentionally combat our revolutionary struggle. There is no question of surrendering arms. The government should first take the initiative to create a conducive atmosphere for talks.

Initial press statements from the party indicate that you have rejected Mamata’s offer because two demands have not been met — the unconditional withdrawal of troops and the release of all political prisoners. Are these not issues to be resolved during talks? Post-polls, Junglemahal is seen as more peaceful. There have been no reports of arbitrary arrests by the joint forces. Is this not a changed atmosphere conducive for talks?
The statement that there is peace in Junglemahal is absurd. All CPM leaders who terrorised Junglemahal are still active in the villages. The administration has not taken any steps against them. P Chidambaram had himself admitted that the joint forces cannot act without the help of the CPM cadres. Now, Opposition leader Suryakanta Misra has said that they will cooperate with the government in every way to combat Maoists. The joint forces are assisted by the Harmad, secondly by their own network, and thirdly by a section of the TMC. The TMC-dominated villages are forming their own information network to assist the forces. Villagers who come forward against State repression through rallies and mass meetings are facing the same blockade from TMC as they did from the CPM. The TMC is attacking villages in the same way as the CPM.

‘Make a monitoring committee with participation from both sides. We have not closed our doors’

For example, last month, a group of TMC cadres under Ardhendhu Patra’s leadership ransacked 13 houses near Thoria village. The joint forces did not stop them. To protest the incident, the Bandi Mukti Committee (BMC) of Junglemahal organised a public meeting on 6 July in Belpahari. The public meeting had police permission. The BMC is not banned in this state. It upholds the issue of unconditional release of political prisoners, which this government had also considered a political agenda before elections. On 6 July, 13 buses were coming from Berakakno village of Nayagram to attend the meeting. The buses were stopped by the TMC leaders. Patra’s team defaced posters and hardly left any democratic space for the people to raise their voices. But later, they alleged that the Maoists had beaten up the TMC leaders.

If the intellectuals (without party affiliation) agree, the Maoist party and people of Junglemahal are ready for a public hearing on the incident. If Sujato Bhadro and Deboproto Bandopadhyay (IAS officer and TMC Rajya Sabha member) want to come here for a probe, we have no objection.

Fear factor The Maoist leader claims that the joint forces are being helped by Harmad cadres
Fear factor The Maoist leader claims that the joint forces are being helped by Harmad cadres

On 11 July, the tractor of CPM leader Haridwar Singh was set on fire by the villagers. He was a police informer who had left the village and was being protected by the joint forces. The next day, the forces entered Simulpal and beat up the villagers. The injured had to be hospitalised.

This exposes the actual nature of the TMC. Their motive is to capture Junglemahal. As people are becoming aware of this hypocrisy, the TMC is appointing bodyguards and police forces to protect their leaders. We urge intellectuals to come forward and see the role of the Maoist party in Junglemahal. If we are proved guilty, we will accept the punishment given by the people. Will the TMC accept their faults if they are found to be guilty?

It is not true that there are no arrests. Post-polls, PCPA leader Manoj Mahato was arrested and falsely charged with murder cases. He was merely moving among the people to organise them for rallies. He has the constitutional right to do so. Many others are charged under false murder cases and portrayed as Maoists. Are we to believe that Mamata is unaware of these facts? Even when people complained about the arrests, she is taking no action. What does it show? Read between the lines.

Yes, there are changes in the atmosphere after the elections. But they are not sufficient. More changes are needed. To your question of whether talks can proceed unless our conditions are met, this can also be a process among many other processes. We also have to see what Mamata and other leaders are saying openly during their visit to Junglemahal.

Is it a realistic pre-condition to demand unconditional withdrawal of troops even before there is a declaration of ceasefire? Is not the first natural step a temporary suspension of operations on both sides?
In one way, we agree with your proposal. At first, the government can take steps for suspension of troop movement and secondly it can withdraw. But the government is misinforming the whole world by saying that there is no troop movement over here. We agree that the situation is different from the period when the CPM was in power. In June and July, we did not notice any night ambush. But the troops are very much present and moving all around Junglemahal. Secondly, the forces include new counter-insurgency troops. This force is small and comprises 10-15 members. Along with the Cobra commandos, they are undertaking combing operations. Wherever they find information about us, they barricade the place within two hours. After 10 July, several police camps have been set up. In the name of patrolling, they enter villages and threaten people. They are restricting mass rallies by saying the new government wants peace, not such agitations. The forces also mention that they are quiet now as there has been a change in government, but they won’t tolerate it for long. Hence the propaganda of suspension of troop movement in Junglemahal is false. The troops are collecting information from enemy camps and acting accordingly. There are several villages that help us by giving food and shelter. The troops ransack those villages.

There may be a question of temporary troop suspension but unless and until the government approaches us specifically, it is not possible to respond. All factors for suspension of troops and ceasefire are not in the hands of the Maoists. The government has failed to make a favourable condition for ceasefire. This is the ground reality. Considering this, if Mamata still wants peace talks with the Maoists directly, or wants to send us any message, we have no problem. But at the same time, she must understand that peace is not a daily commodity available in the local market. Long lectures from the CM are not enough to address the question. Peace talks are a long process, Mamata should respect this. If the government is really honest in its effort for peace talks, we have no objection.

At what point will the Maoist party be willing to declare ceasefire and accept a mutual ‘cessation of hostilities’? Define exactly what you want the West Bengal government to state.
Mamata’s appointed committee led by Sujatro Bhadro can talk to us or meet us directly. But prior to that, the joint forces should stop harassing people. They should stop their illegal activities in the name of routine patrolling. The movement of counter-insurgency forces should be stopped. False cases against political prisoners should be withdrawn. If Mamata wants to do this through her review committee, we will wait. We are not supporting or boycotting this committee. Our demand is that Mamata unconditionally release all political prisoners and her network buildup should be stopped unconditionally. Only then can we think of peace talks.

There can be no unilateral ceasefire. We have never demanded it. If there is ceasefire, there should be a monitoring committee. It should have participation from both sides.

Let both parties sit together. Before that, the mediators and interlocutors have to sit and discuss modalities. From the side of the government and the Maoists, we have to give power to the team to supervise the activities of the government, its forces and the ruling party. At the same time, from our side, we will cooperate with the supervising committee in all aspects to continue the peace, and any of the government’s so-called development activities.

The talks between our party and the government are not in the hands of just the West Bengal government. This is dealt with by Chidambaram. He is the most trusted member of the Manmohan government and the most trusted agent of the World Bank and Pentagon. Chidambaram says the state government has the power to deal with law and order issues. But the reality is different.

Take the example of Chhattisgarh where our party recently ambushed a Congress minister. Informing the Chhattisgarh CM, Chidambaram directly suspended the SP of the district. He has also directly suspended five IPS officers of Jharkhand. It shows that at any moment, at any cost, the Union home ministry will act. Hence the talks are not only in Mamata’s hands.

Keep it green Forest tracts in Salboni should be made no-go areas for industries, says Akash
Keep it green Forest tracts in Salboni should be made no-go areas for industries, says Akash

You have mentioned cessation of hostilities. We do not notice this in her approach. Since the elections, we have not administered any extreme punishment in the people’s court. Though the public has demanded extreme punishment for culprits, we convinced them against it. Why? We want to expose the character of the State in front of the people. Whoever is in power, whether it’s the TMC or the CPM, they murder whoever goes against them to suppress democratic voices. This differs from our ideology. You will not find a single instance in the past 11 years in Junglemahal where we have beaten someone to death. Both the police and administration let it pass as criminal activities of local goons. The scenario is the same in the reign of TMC as it was during CPM rule. These brutal hostilities among political parties actually expose what kind of democracy they want to preach. Our motive is to stop this hypocrisy. Has Chidambaram ever uttered a word against the brutality between TMC and CPM? He won’t because he has to strike a balance. Without it, he cannot carry on his war against the people.

What is your assessment of Mamata’s government so far? Do you see this as a pro-people government?
Mamata is a propagandist who is keen to establish her pro-people credentials. After coming to power, she announced a two-member committee headed by Rajya Sabha member Deboproto Bandhopadhyay. He has recommended that forest land be made no-go area for industries. Mamata should enact this. Instead of giving 1,000 acres in Salboni forests to the Jindal group, the government should announce forest land as non-industry zone.

But what is the TMC actually doing? It has formed the Kharagpur-Midnapore Development Authority with TMC district leader Mrigen Maity as the chairperson. He is continuously pursuing the Jindal group for industry in Salboni. Regarding Mamata’s land policy, we will comment after the parliamentary session.

There is a sense that inclusive and propeople development policies could make the Maoist party irrelevant in Junglemahal. What will be the key issues of your armed struggle?
This is propaganda. As the political, economic and social crises are getting deeper, the state is compelled to take pro-people stances, like the Congress in UP. The people of Junglemahal have consolidated themselves under our leadership for the past 11 years. This took place against the social fascism of the CPM and this is what resulted in the decline of the CPM raj. They key issue of our struggle is also development. For the past four years, we have been undertaking parallel development. We will continue this. Secondly, we want to resist State terrorism. Third, our agenda is to establish a democratic autonomous functioning of the panchayat. Next, our focus will be to resist oppression and the anti-people activities of the TMC.

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
tusha@tehelka.com

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