A chance for peace

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

The ceasefire offer by the People's War Group has revived the prospects of negotiations to find a lasting solution to the naxalite menace in Andhra Pradesh.

THE unilateral offer of ceasefire made by the People's War Group (PWG) has set the stage for talks between the powerful naxalite group and the Andhra Pradesh government for the first time in the three-decade-old history of left-wing extremism in the State. The month-long ceasefire, effective from May 10, was announced by PWG State committee secretary Ramakrishna to a group of journalists invited to the Nallamalai forest area in Kurnool district in early May. The government responded by offering safe passage to the PWG leaders. It set a deadline, May 20, for the PWG to name its representatives to the talks and work out other preliminary details.

All political parties in the State have welcomed the initiative, hoping for a definite and early end to the violence in the north Telengana districts. The spadework for the negotiations was done by a voluntary agency, the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC), which has been pursuing the dialogue process with dogged determination for the past three years. Its convener is S.R. Sankaran, a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer, known for his commitment to the uplift of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. He was Secretary, Social Welfare Department, when Regu-lation 1 of 1970, prohibiting the alienation of tribal land in the Agency areas to anyone except a tribal person, was promulgated. The regulation contained a presumption clause asserting that all land in the Agency areas is presumed to have belonged to the S.T.s, unless otherwise established by legal documents. Such a clause is not found in any other regulation in force in the rest of the country.

Sankaran was himself kidnapped by the PWG in 1988 along with a team of officials at Gurthedu in East Godavari district, while he was reviewing the progress of development works. At that time B.N. Yugandhar, another government Secretary, and K. Kannabiran, president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), negotiated for their release.

The committee consists of academics such as Prof. G. Haragopal, Professor of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, journalists such as Potturi Venkateswara Rao, a former Editor of Andhra Prabha and Udayam and until recently the Chairman of the Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh, and PUCL activists such as Kannabiran.

The committee members met Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu about a year ago and submitted a set of proposals to begin a dialogue. They also met some top PWG leaders. The committee is of the view that the PWG should not target civilians, it should not enforce its call for the boycott of elections and should stop targeting police personnel by blasting police stations and triggering landmine explosions. It wants the government to provide political space to the PWG to practise its political ideology and to plead the case of the deprived sections of society, such as artisans and the landless labour, which are in distress owing to the economic reforms. The committee wants the government to end the fake encounters and the harassment of innocent villagers who are forced by the PWG to provide food and shelter to its cadre.

The PWG had suggested that a team of government officials, preferably led by Home Minister T. Devender Goud, travel to the forest for talks. Predictably, the idea of the Home Minister or anybody else from the government travelling to the forest was rejected. Instead, the government assured the PWG that its representatives participating in the negotiations would be given safe passage.

The State government, which until recently had taken a hard line, even prevailing upon the Centre to proscribe the PWG under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, has agreed to give negotiations a chance.

In fact, the suggestion for talks to end the mindless violence came from the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 1996. While disposing of a case, Justice M.N. Rao and Justice S.R. Nayak directed that a peace commission be set up with persons who enjoyed the confidence of both the police and the PWG to bring about a cessation of police encounters and extremist violence.

WHAT are the issues that could form an agenda for discussions? The PWG secretary listed land distribution, Regulation 1 of 1970, the granting of bail to naxalites who have been arrested and the lifting of the ban on the PWG, as possible talking points.

The State Cabinet, which met immediately after the announcement of ceasefire, discussed in detail the extent to which the government could go in pursuit of a lasting solution to the extremist menace.

Devender Goud refused to accept any conditions for talks, such as the lifting of the ban on the naxalite group or stopping the combing operations. He made it clear that the government had an open mind and that it would like to take the Opposition parties into confidence in the process of negotiations. The CCC could play a key role in the whole exercise, he said.

The talks are going to take place at a time when the government claims that the influence of the PWG is on the wane and that it has been weakened considerably with dwindling cadre and firepower. In several villages in north Telengana, considered PWG strongholds, its dalams recently suffered the ignominy of being repelled by the village residents. In some villages, armed naxalites were forced to retreat in the face of the collective force of the residents.

The surrender of underground cadre in large numbers, an effective police campaign against naxalites, the thrust on development and people's participatory activity, such as Janmabhoomi and literacy drives, and regular visits by the Chief Minister and his ministerial colleagues to the interior areas, have helped neutralise the influence of naxalites on villagers to a great extent.

The police claim that the stepped-up militarisation of the PWG cadre in the recent past is a sign of weakness as people's participation is missing in their revolutionary movement. The strategic changes effected by the PWG in the past one year include the formation of a New Andhra Orissa Border Special Zone Committee and base areas in Dandakaranya and contiguous forest areas along the Andhra-Orissa borders, the tactful withdrawal of underground cadre, and the creation of special action teams in order to hit single targets, and the establishment of a central military commission.

Early this year, the government's ambitious plans to create an industry-friendly atmosphere suffered a setback when PWG activists blew up industrial establishments owned by prominent corporate houses and political families. Those attacks were planned to mark the first anniversary of the formation of the People's Guerilla Army and were aimed at scaring away prospective investors.

The prospect of dialogue between the PWG and the government has kindled hopes of finding a way out of the vexatious problem. The government and the political parties have consistently appealed to the naxalite groups, especially the PWG, to shun violence and carry out their struggles as partners in the democratic set-up. In 1989, Chief Minister M. Channa Reddy went a step ahead by withdrawing all restrictions on the activities of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and its front organisations. But the "freedom" was exploited by the PWG to consolidate its strength before a ban was imposed, sending its cadre underground again.

The land issue, cited by the PWG secretary, could form the basis for the talks even as huge chunks of cultivable lands are left fallow following threats from naxalite groups.

Figures of the Bureau of Economics and Statistics for 1998-99 indicate that the net sown area in the State is a little over 1.09 crore hectares out of the total geographical area of over 2.74 crore hectares. Land reforms failed to make an impact, because only about four lakh hectares of surplus lands was declared. It took nearly 10 years to acquire the surplus land from land owning farmers, owing to prolonged litigation. This land was distributed at the rate of half an acre (0.2 ha) per landless person.

For the talks to succeed, the PWG will have to reconsider its political ideology and climb down from its proclaimed philosophy of acquiring political power at gun-point. The masses have to be motivated not to wage a war against the state but to conduct a militant struggle for land. The State government will have to stop looking at the PWG violence as a law and order problem and consider the issue as one relating to economic disparities that have made life miserable in the countryside.

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