Truce and talks

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Success of the dialogue process between the naxalites and the government in Andhra Pradesh will largely depend on the civil administration's attitude towards people's problems.

in Hyderabad

BY launching a series of steps intended to facilitate peace talks with the chief proponent of the protracted armed struggle in Andhra Pradesh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People's War (P.W.), the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government has signalled its decision to tackle left-wing extremism in the State. The initiative, which is in keeping with the ruling Congress' election promise, was unthinkable during the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) regime, which adopted a tough stand against the naxalites. The government offer has been reciprocated by the P.W., which has announced that it will not resort to violence. The P.W.'s offer, of course, came with a rider - it would hold back the weapons only as long as the police did the same.

Ever since both sides agreed for a "ceasefire" on June 16, guns have fallen silent all over the State. But for an isolated incident of exchange of fire between naxalites and police personnel at Ajmapur village in Nalgonda district and a few incidents of naxalites beating up villagers for tilling lands that were occupied by them earlier, the situation has by and large been peaceful in the State. The seriousness with which both sides have been exploring the possibilities of coming to the negotiating table is such that in spite of objections from various quarters such "minor" incidents are not taken seriously.

So far, it is a win-win situation for both sides. If the government can claim to have halted the spiral of violence, the P.W. can draw solace from the fact that the former has conceded some of its demands, such as a halt to the anti-extremist operations, withdrawal of rewards announced on naxalites, the lifting of the ban on the P.W. and six of its front organisations, and permission to hold public meetings. With the majority of demands being met, a formal ceasefire agreement is due to be signed between the government and the P.W. and another Maoist group, Janashakti. The P.W. had nominated poet Varavara Rao, singer Gadar and G. Kalyan Rao as its emissaries to finalise the modalities for talks. Although the actual charter of demands on behalf of the P.W. has not yet been made public, Frontline managed to get it from a top naxalite leader (see box).

The efforts have become a topic of debate not only in Andhra Pradesh, but also in 14 other States where left-wing extremist groups are active. While the West Bengal government reacted cautiously saying that it was watching the situation in Andhra Pradesh carefully, the Karnataka government made an ambiguous statement about it being ready to hold such talks. However, the government in Tamil Nadu, where naxalites are active only in a few pockets, decided against holding talks with the P.W.

The Centre too has been maintaining an enigmatic silence. When Rajasekhara Reddy met Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil in New Delhi, he was believed to have been cautioned since the outcome of the process in Andhra Pradesh could have a significant impact on other States.

Thus the question whether the exercise will be a fruitful one assumes significance, especially in view of the P.W.'s categorical assertion that its commitment to armed struggle is non-negotiable (see interview). What is the government trying to achieve then? Will it be a working agreement with the P.W. that while the police would not target naxalites, the extremists would not attack political party workers? While the P.W. has made it clear that it will only try to use the opportunity to solve people's problems to the extent possible without abandoning the "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line" it pursues, the government's reaction has been somewhat vague.

Could it be that the Congress government is only exploring all possible avenues before launching a severe crackdown? Neither the officials involved in the talks process nor the Chief Minister is willing to part with any information on this count but for asserting that government only wanted peace to prevail in the State.

AN overall view of the situation suggests that each side is trying to outwit the other. If the P.W. needs a respite from the severe police crackdown that has led to heavy losses, especially in the crucial northern Telangana region, the new government needs some respite from the merciless onslaught of the naxalites on political workers and `police informants' in rural areas. The situation had reached such an alarming stage in rural areas that hundreds of people marked by the P.W. migrated to nearby towns, fearing attacks. The P.W., on the other hand, too was on the defensive with the police managing to infiltrate the underground party by winning over some disgruntled naxalites and making them work as `covert agents'.

That the P.W. leadership was worried was evident when it announced that it had averted a major covert action in which a party sympathiser, `Tailor Venkatesh', was caught trying to mix cyanide in the food of three central committee members in Nalgonda district in 2003. The P.W. executed the `covert' and sent videotapes of his confession to the media. Apart from such `covert' operations, the P.W. was also worried about its dwindling spheres of influence in the Telangana region, though it had spread to various areas in the State and outside too.

In such a context, a clear indication is that both the government and the P.W. are now concentrating on winning the people's support. If the P.W. would try to expose the sheer inefficacy of the bureaucracy in solving people's problems, the government is preparing to prove that the civil administration will now move into the affected areas and try to solve them.

In essence, both sides are now ready to mobilise popular support by seeking to establish and expand their respective strategic bases. And both sides are wise enough to realise that mobilising popular support is more than just winning over the people. On this count, the P.W. appears to have a slight edge over the administration, which is beset with bureaucratic problems. Seen as quick dispensers of justice, the naxalites are sure to expose the inefficiency of the bureaucracy in attending to people's problems. The government has a tough task ahead in winning over the people since the latter would go by deeds rather than promises.

The other major drawback for the government is the apparent lack of a unified effort by the civil administration, the police, and the legislative and judicial authorities to solve people's problems. Despite tall claims by successive governments, the fact remains that the civil administration has shunned the responsibility to attend to the problems and left its job mainly to the police. Now the first responsibility of the Congress government would be to ensure that the civil administration too moves to the villages and is seen as a provider of solutions to problems rather than a problem in itself.

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