If it weren’t for Maoist rebels attacking security personnel in West Bengal on Monday, we could have been forgiven for thinking: peace is breaking out.
This past fortnight, home minister P. Chidambaram made an overture for talks with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), provided they “abjure violence”. His ministry also invited the Isak-Muivah group of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) for another round of talks this April to take ahead a 12-year ceasefire to a resolution of wants and needs. Key leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom are either in jail or temporarily blunted; several leaders are also engaged in what amounts to plea bargaining with the Indian government.
Then, on 11 February, the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front, from Assam’s vegetation- and resource-rich, but dirt poor, southern districts, followed their colleagues from the Jewel faction of the Dima Halam Daogah into surrender of weapons prior to talks.
However, it would be a mistake to interpret this flurry of activity as conclusive evidence that this patchwork nation, which often tramples first and thinks later, has taught its security mandarins and chief ministers useful lessons. Evidence suggests that politicians and policymakers are keener on an approach that favours attrition and battle weariness than pre-emptive solution, such as focusing on the root causes of such movements.
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Take the Karbi Front. It asked for little beyond being a state within the state of Assam. It asked that social development and infrastructure funds meant for the two districts that make up the Karbi Anglong region are decided and spent according to local needs, not what the politicians and planners decide in the state’s capital, Dispur. Or, indeed, what politicians and planners decide in New Delhi.
On a visit to Karbi Anglong earlier this month, I found a script similar to numerous other areas in India being played out. Expect the minimum from political leaders. Get far less. Instead, see politicians and bureaucrats get rich—the palatial residence of a former legislator overlooks the grounds where several hundred Karbi Front cadres—men and women—for the time being, gave up weapons. Take to arms to signal basic needs of livelihood and dignity. Get dismissed as terrorists by the government for this presumption. Face the might of the state. Take the lure of surrendering weapons for talks. Wait for such talks. Keep waiting for resolution.
NSCN (Isak-Muivah), the premier Naga group that in the 1980s revived the region’s decades-long war against India’s administration to search for the coalescing of Naga identity and geography, is still waiting. A breakaway group of NSCN, the Khaplang faction, too, is waiting after ceasefire. Talks have generally veered to monitoring ceasefire ground rules. Both conflict and the half-baked absence of conflict have bought little except a deepening of the economy of conflict: wholesale leeching of development funds and near-total unaccountability for it.
The last significant attempt to talk to Maoist rebels was made by Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who died in a helicopter crash last year, nearly as soon as he first assumed charge as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 2004. After a three-month ceasefire declared by Reddy that June, talks collapsed in October over disagreements. Among these were the withdrawal of criminal cases against “overground” and underground rebels and sympathizers, and massive land reorganization in favour of the landless. The Maoists refused to lay down arms as a precondition to talks—pretty much the same approach as the NSCN groups. As it happened, hostilities in Andhra Pradesh resumed by January 2005.
Around the time, Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik met Maoist representatives for exploratory talks. These went nowhere on account of mutual disagreement. Patnaik insisted on zero preconditions. Rebels pressed for guaranteeing Adivasis of Orissa the right to land and to implement land reforms, and to stop operations against rebels.
The approach has since largely changed from attempts by state governments to attempts by the Union government. Chidambaram’s ministry has to its credit achieved greater coordination in dealing with rebellions even as it has faced criticism for overstatements and glossing of overkill. But he and his colleagues in government, administration and law-keeping are far from ensuring the lessening of the causes of rebellion—a no-brainer: neglect can privilege violence—let alone preventing these altogether. In Kolkata last month, Chidambaram spoke of the government’s operations against the Maoist rebels in the state and elsewhere. “These are our own people,” he said without evident trace of irony. “We care for them.”
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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