War with Maoists: The wound that needs to heal urgently
Talking peace with Maoist rebels came up recently in Parliament. “The central government will consider engaging in dialogue with the Left Wing Extremists,” junior home minister Hansraj Gangaram Ahir declared in the Lok Sabha on 18 July, “only if they renounce violence and express faith in the democratic process and Constitution of India.”
That’s an obdurate stance born of egotistic and nationalist positioning. A similar position contributed to a disastrous three years in Jammu and Kashmir, and finally compelled central government functionaries to announce it was open to political dialogue. Meanwhile, this very government has made a great show since 2015 of talking peace with Naga rebels even though these rebels continue to train, arm and freely impose a parallel administration in Nagaland, and parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh; and have at no point expressed particular faith in India’s democracy and its Constitution.
Then why this reluctance to talk peace with Maoists, who call India home, who have no intention to secede territorially even though they have in some ways seceded ideologically?
There was a slim window of opportunity in April 2014 when a spokesperson of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) with the nom de guerre Abhay offered conditional truce in a statement on behalf of the country’s largest rebel conglomerate. Among other things the offer demanded recognition of CPI (Maoist) as a political party; lifting a ban on the main party and its affiliates; and release of imprisoned Maoist leaders before peace talks.
As I wrote at the time, the choice for Maoists would be to talk peace with the incoming Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government—its victory a foregone conclusion—or all out war, or a bit of both. For a stretched Maoist enterprise, the last could be the preferred option to buy breathing and manoeuvring room.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had already reneged on peace in mid-2010, when during the tenure of P. Chidambaram as home minister a Maoist representative for peace talks, Azad was abducted and extra-judicially killed by a police team. (See Maoist rebellion: peace is entirely a matter of intent, Mint 25 May 2017.)
That government continued its stated plan of action, to “strengthen the numbers, equipment and infrastructure for our security forces posted in these areas” and in tandem “continue to pursue a development agenda to empower the people in these areas”.
Ergo: let encirclement and attrition play out, following precisely the path the government accused Maoists of: talk-talk, fight-fight. Only there were no talks, just repeated efforts at peace talks being sabotaged by hawks and vested interests. The thinking was that gradual attrition would buy the Maoists some time, but not much, as the current cycle of rebellion is primed for cracks with the establishment’s immense and persistent pressure, and with much of the first-tier Maoist leadership in jail, and numerous cadres lost to both battle and surrender.
In 2014, the BJP’s manifesto offered a similar path: “Chalk a national plan in consultation and participation of the state governments, to address the challenges posed by the Maoist insurgency. Talks with the insurgent groups will be conditional and within the framework of the Constitution.” Ahir’s statement in Parliament merely cemented this intent to the previous government’s actions.
This could lead to several more years of conflict, as Maoists, while under great duress, are hardly about to give up. More rebels are losing lives, but so are police and paramilitary forces, and non-combatants. Meanwhile, India loses a priceless opportunity for peace and prosperity.
Were the BJP to offer a closure to this war over livelihood, identity and dignity in the heart of India, it would earn the party and its excitable collective a legitimate governance heft beyond controversial economic and monetary policy, and encouraging ultra-nationalism as a weapon of mass domination.
Equally, if the government needs to reduce its obduracy and short-sightedness, then Maoists need to dial back their sanctimoniousness.
The rebels are routinely brutal. Vehicles have been blown up with non-combatants in them. Maoist kangaroo courts against suspected traitors continue, with sentences passed for shooting, beating and hacking people to death. Instances exist of booby-trapping the bodies of slain state troopers to blow up in the face of colleagues who arrive later—and so, take more of the enemy down: guerilla warfare. Railway tracks continue to be sabotaged. Minors continue to be recruited.
It’s time to stop this war. This wound that bleeds the economy and makes a mockery of democracy needs to urgently heal.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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