Guns and roses

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

The naxalites of Andhra Pradesh hold the first direct peace talks with the State government, signalling a new phase in their decades-old struggle.

in Hyderabad

THE first round of direct peace talks between the Andhra Pradesh government and the People's War naxalites, which began on October 15, ended on a positive note although the four-day-long negotiations began with a confrontation over the government's refusal to allow the rebels from carry weapons during the negotiations.

The Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader, Ramakrishna, claimed that the talks were successful to the extent of restoring peace and minimising violence from both sides. On day one of the talks, the two sides disagreed on the contentious clause in the draft agreement that barred naxalites from carrying weapons. As the rebel leaders were unrelenting, the government put the onus on the team of mediators comprising civil rights groups to convince the extremists that it could not operate outside the constitutional framework.

Having put this `non-negotiable' issue of arms on the back burner, the government insisted on working out solutions to resolve the socio-economic issues raised by the rebels within the constitutional framework. Instant justice could not be meted out to resolve concerns such as land distribution, economic deprivation, unemployment or social and gender disparities, as legal hurdles would come in the way, it said.

The World Bank-driven economic agenda was another talking point, with the naxalites demanding that the Bank be shown the door. The government promised to reduce its dependence on the World Bank but argued that it could not be wished away completely. The naxalites were clearly told that the government could not insulate itself from the forces of liberalisation and globalisation.

With "land to tiller" emerging as a key issue on the naxalites' agenda, the government announced the constitution of a high-power body to identify land for distribution among the poor and promised to do a detailed land inventory. Some of the other measures planned are a new method to rein in land sharks, a time-bound programme to implement Regulation 1/70 prohibiting non-tribal people from occupying tribal land, moves to scrap the rewards on the heads of naxalite leaders, reference of Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) cases to a review committee, and a liberal policy on the release of political prisoners.

The interregnum has seen some disturbing developments with the government hardening its stand on allowing naxalites to arm themselves and occupy lands in several districts. The government is banking on the mediators to break the deadlock over the weapons issue. The mediators are now veering around to the opinion that the naxalites should display some restraint and stop a public display of their prowess as it could vitiate the atmosphere.

Long-time observers of the naxalite movement feel that establishment of lasting peace would depend a lot on the display of wisdom by both sides in overcoming the numerous obstacles. The government has given the required thrust to the peace process by recognising the issue as a socio-economic problem and not just as a law and order problem. The absence of repression has led to another positive fallout - the naxalites have suspended their hit-list.

Since the ceasefire agreement in June, not a single encounter has taken place and no suspected informer has been shot dead or maimed. The villages are breathing free. The migration of youth to other States or the Gulf countries has come down owing to the absence of combing operations in the villages by the police.

Whatever may be the perceptions of the two sides and the stand of the hardliners on both sides, an important outcome of the talks is that a people's agenda has come to occupy the centre stage.

Although the media got distracted and started focussing on the issue of weapons and its implications, people began talking about real issues concerning their lives. A debate has also begun on the failures of the elected governments in resolving the genuine grievances of the people.

However, there is scepticism about any major outcome during the subsequent round of talks if the naxalites refuse to give up weapons, which is unacceptable to the government "Weapons give them strength and effectively silence people. Hence we cannot allow it. The only force entitled to use weapons is the police. Others cannot carry it," Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy said. He emphasised that the talks should be held within the framework of the Constitution.

WHATEVER the long-term implications, October 11, 2004, will go down in the history of the three-decade-long naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh as a red-letter day. It was the day when the key leaders of the underground movement emerged from the dense Nallamala forest to hold parleys with the representatives of the government.

Having kept their date, the naxalite leaders returned to the forest on October 20 "awaiting a sincere response from the government". But their retreat cast a shadow over future talks as the CPI (Maoist) and CPI-Marxist-Leninist (Janashakti) leaders made a show of picking up their automatic weapons before vanishing into the dark. This was in contrast to the day they emerged from the forests at Chinna Arutla village, 10 km from Srisailam. On that day they deposited their weapons with their comrades and on the day they returned to the forests, they rearmed themselves at the same spot.

Taking possession of his weapon, Ramakrishna proclaimed, significantly: "Holding talks is just a part of our strategy. The ultimate goal is armed struggle". The Chief Minister retorted, "Don't treat our effort as our weakness. We are ready to go the extra mile to achieve peace but the law of the land will prevail."

Human rights activists have asked both sides to read the relative meaning of peace rather than view it as a matter of strategy. The government and the naxalites have their own agenda and they do not mince words. The latter were perhaps more forthright in declaring that "talks are only a part of our strategy".

As they emerged from the forests, the naxalites proclaimed that they would not abandon their long-term goal of armed struggle. Democracy has not helped the poor and the downtrodden secure socio-economic justice in half a century, they said, adding that only armed struggle would liberate them from the clutches of imperial and global capitalist forces. They urged people to be prepared for a long struggle. P. Varavara Rao, a revolutionary poet, said "a second revolution was essential in China to sustain the gains of the first revolution", to convey to the people that the gains of armed struggle could be sustained only with the gun.

The government has its own strategy. The Congress, which came back to power riding on the crest of an anti-incumbency wave, had included the issue of naxalism in its election manifesto and promised a meaningful dialogue with the naxalites. By making the right moves by including representatives of a cross-section of society - intellectuals, media representatives, rights activists and legal luminaries - in the talks, the government reduced its implied stakes in any eventuality. In case of failure, it can always claim that it had sincerely attempted to find a solution to the issue and avoid criticism from any quarter.

The balancing act to avoid a clash between the arms agenda of the extremists and the constitutionally backed political agenda of the government needs vision. It is not simply about winning a battle of wits although there is a lurking fear that perhaps both sides are treating it just that way.

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