A massacre would have had the media out there in droves. Why did this peaceful transfer of five Maoist hostages not generate prime-time debate?
FIVE MEN walked unscathed into a clearing in the forest. Their relatives leapt in disbelief, hugged, cried. It was perhaps the first time India’s gravest internal security threat — the Maoists — released five hostages without a trace of the brutality that India has come to expect from them. The hostages were Chhattisgarh policemen, part of the ongoing joint-operation to combat the Maoists. For 18 days, these men had been held captive inside a Maoist stronghold. On 11 February, they were released without any precondition, unharmed.
As we drove into the forests of Narayanpur, I was unsure what to expect. The serenity of the landscape had already left me baffled. Could this really be a war zone? After myriad wrong turns and several delays, I was unsure whether we would ever come upon that fateful clearing in the forest. I felt both delight and relief when I found the Maoists had kept their word, their resolve, and perhaps most significantly, their trust. They waited. They believed we would arrive.
I was accompanied by human rights activists of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. After a seven-hour drive and a 10 km walk, we entered a nondescript village where an unprecedented exchange would unfold. An exchange that could mark a new chapter in India’s war within.
Whether we will arrive at that new chapter depends on how the Indian government reciprocates the unconditional release. It depends on whether the Centre views this exchange with cynicism, as a tactic to buy time, as a compulsion of insurgents under pressure. Or whether it responds in equal measure, with trust, with a sense of urgency and responsibility towards thousands of its weakest citizens who remain caught in the crossfire, waiting for peace, or at least a new chapter towards it.
But we have not yet arrived at that new chapter. That is why I cannot name the village where this exchange took place. It is almost certain that its inhabitants, who may or may not be Maoist sympathisers, will be harassed and tortured for days.
As we entered the village, we were greeted by uniformed cadres with rifles slung over their shoulders. They greeted us with songs of welcome in Gondi. We were seated under a makeshift canopy, surrounded by nearly 2,000 tribals. Suddenly, the five hostages walked in, unscathed. Perhaps it is a comment on the demonisation of the Maoists that none of us believed, when we set out on this journey hours ago, that things would come to pass so peacefully. The stillness of the jungle was broken by shouts of “Lal Salaam”. We joined in. The Maoist cadre seemed to be in their early 20s. They looked lean and thin, emaciated — and yet so determined.
But what left a lasting impression on me were the hostages themselves. I saw no fear in their eyes. I saw no markers of 18 days spent living, eating and sleeping beside men and women capable of brutal murder. One by one, the hostages stood before a loudspeaker and told of how the Maoists had treated them “like family”.
Imagine for a moment that the release had not been peaceful. Imagine that we had been greeted with the brutality that India expects, with chopped heads and sliced limbs. Within hours, shrill anchors would have beamed gory images into living rooms across the nation. Within hours, we would have been reminded of bloodthirsty demons whose sole aim is to overthrow the Indian Parliament. Stringers for several national media outlets walked the 10 km with us. So why has this peaceful release not made headlines barring a few exceptions?
What has passed in the forests of Bastar is a potent moment for reflection. It comes after the summer of 2010 when I first attempted a peace initiative between the government and the Maoists. A letter from Home Minister P Chidambaram suggested five steps to peace in the region. The most important was the cessation of violence from the Maoist side for 72 hours, to be reciprocated by the paramilitary forces. During this 72-hour period of no-violence, there would be a formal invitation to the Maoist leaders, talks would begin, and a long-term ceasefire would follow. I communicated this to Maoist leader Azad who was keen to join the peace process. He was carrying the home ministry’s letter to his comrades when he was killed in cold blood. The murder of Azad, alleged to be the handiwork of the State, completely derailed the peace process.
This peaceful release is a potent moment because it shows the Maoists are willing to trust despite having been betrayed, despite their leader having to pay with his life for trusting a peace initiative. That is why this peaceful release poses urgent questions.
Should this not spur a rethink on the idea of the Maoists as India’s gravest internal security threat? Should this not trigger renewed debate on the need for a largescale joint offensive? Should this not call into a question the recent move to set up a military training centre at the border of Abujmarh, the Maoist liberated zone? Would it not be logical to suspect that this centre will be a cover for launching the kind of military operations we have in the Northeast and Kashmir, leading to protracted war and devastating collateral damage?
That is why it is more urgent than ever that the peaceful release that has passed in Bastar be beamed into the living rooms of middle-class India, of those who wield influence, churn opinion and make policy.
Soon after the release, I held a joint press conference in Raipur with Chief Minister Raman Singh, who went on record to say that the Salwa Judum has been a huge blunder and counterproductive. He admitted the need for sustained dialogue as the best way forward. It is now the turn of the State to reciprocate the Maoists’ gesture.
TO SEE why this is so pivotal, so urgent, you will have to understand the darker side of our journey, to hear tribals tell of the daily torture and brutality they suffer at the hands of the State, to hear the women tell of the hundreds of men dead or thrown into prison on flimsy charges, sometimes no charges at all. In their eyes, across their faces and limp bodies, I have seen exploitation written large. Travelling through this land is like being in a place of secret genocide that has been eating away people through 63 years of Independence; of a willful and systematic abdication of the Constitution. In the past year, the exploitation has continued in the shadow of the many well-equipped CRPF camps across Chhattisgarh, the faces of Operation Green Hunt.
Travel through this land, through the many visible and invisible faces of genocide, and perhaps you can understand why young men and women have chosen to take up arms. Not many of them know who Mao was, or what Maoism is. Yet, they have come together because they believe that armed resistance is the only way out.
That is why it is more urgent than ever that the Centre seize this moment. I spoke to Home Secretary G K Pillai before the release. He promised that there would be no paramilitary intervention during our journey. The 48 hours of suspension of operations proved crucial in paving the way for us to bring back the hostages safely. This is the model that needs to be extended, to 72 hours and beyond.
Now, almost a year later, I have renewed hope in another beginning. I have already urged the Maoist leaders to announce a date for the cessation of violence for 72 hours, so that peace process can be restarted.
It was because both sides honoured their commitment that we were successful in releasing five hostages. It is only trust that can take this forward. It is the Centre’s turn now to show that it trusts the idea of peace enough to give it a chance. My services as a peace activist are available as always. I urge the government, particularly the home minister and the prime minister, to seize this opportunity and renew their offer of peace talks.