Maoist leader Azad's death has cost India years in lost opportunity, in lost lives of citizens, and for improving conditions in some of the most socioeconomically stressed regions
I don’t hold a brief for Maoist rebels—even they know that. But I do hold a persistent belief, as unseemly it may appear to mavens of conflict, of urgent peace with Maoists. At the very least: the beginnings of a true process. An underplayed development in mid-February flagged that crying national necessity.
A sessions court in Adilabad, in Telangana, permitted a petition to review the case of the death of Cherukuri Rajkumar, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (Maoist), who went by the nom de guerre Azad; and Hemchandra Pandey, an independent journalist painted by government agencies as a Maoist sympathizer. The petition was brought by the widows of the two killed in July 2010.
The government—including the Central Bureau of Investigation, tasked with probing the death upon a direction of the Supreme Court—has consistently held the two were killed in combat operations by police in a forest in Adilabad of what was then undivided Andhra Pradesh. The other school of thought questions the mysterious alleged abduction of Rajkumar from the station in Nagpur, Maharashtra, in early July 2010 by an Andhra police team, and his equally mysterious reappearance as a corpse in a forest of a neighbouring state. That year Outlook magazine, among a handful of other publications, carried post-mortem data that questioned the police version.
This whodunit will continue to play out in courts. But my point, then as now, remains that Rajkumar was an emissary for peace talks. Killing him, whether in a tactical feint by government or in uneasy compact with a section of Maoist leaders who also preferred war over attempts at peace, was a bad move. It has cost India years in lost opportunity, in lost lives of its citizens, both combatants and non-combatants, and for improving governance and livelihoods in some of the most socioeconomically stressed regions of India, where leftwing rebellion has with angry logic flourished for five decades.
Azad had been in touch with the government through various interlocutors, the most prominent of them the labour-and-rights activist Swami Agnivesh. The swami was also the conduit for P. Chidambaram, home minister at the time, who reached out with a peace missive to the Maoists in May 2010.
In a letter to Agnivesh, Chidambaram had suggested a 72-hour ceasefire from 1 June of that year as an initial act of faith. The government’s sole condition for talks was: “CPI (Maoist) should abjure violence." The present-day government maintains similar obduracy, an attitude that has, among other things, contributed to a messy three years in Jammu and Kashmir, at the end of which the central government was compelled to announce in 2017 that it was open to political dialogue.
The government has also, ironically, made a spectacle since 2015 of talking peace with several Naga rebels even though these rebels continue to train, arm and impose a parallel administration in Nagaland, and parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh; and have thus far not expressed faith in India’s Constitution. If the BJP-led government in New Delhi can bend for Naga rebels, even if for showboating, why not for Maoist rebels in the heart of India?
Anyway, the suggestion of a ceasefire was a fine one. The Maoists responded by insisting on a ceasefire of 2-3 months, with the dates to be mutually decided. Other demands included “initiating measures" to release party leaders—as I have written earlier: not so different from what government has done with the “pro-talks" faction of United Liberation Front of Asom, or the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest Naga rebel group with which the Narendra Modi administration signed a so-called framework agreement for peace in August 2015.
Azad was the Maoist face of the 2010 peace overture. And he was killed for it.
There have been intermittent, insincere efforts since. But that is hardly laudatory when Nepal made the journey in 2006 after a 10-year Maoist rebellion. Many leaders joined government; most cadres were absorbed by paramilitary forces and some even by the army. Two former rebel leaders became prime minister. Détente led to writing a new Constitution and charting a post-monarchy Nepal. Colombia signed a deal with FARC or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to end a 52-year-old conflict, and by mid-2017 implemented a United Nations-monitored process to “demob" over 6,000 FARC rebels, who handed over weapons as part of a reconciliation and rehabilitation exercise.
Azad’s death, and the questioning by his widow of the manner of his death, is not so much about glorifying a rebel, but mourning a lost opportunity for peace and shared prosperity that governments mouth so often, so readily.
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 business and human rights, runs on Thursdays.