Jangalmahal Debate

Why ‘Peace’ Had no Chance in Bengal
G Haragopal

[Prof G Haragopal was one of the mediators in peace talks in Andhra Pradesh. We publish below an abridged version of his ‘Note on Peace Talks in Andhra Pradesh : Some Lessons’]

The peace talks between  the Naxalite parties and the state of Andhra Pradesh in the year 2004 was perhaps one of the most significant experiments, if one can use that expression, in the history of revolutionary movement. That the radical parties engaged in a protracted armed struggle with a resolve to overthrow the state and Indian state determined to put down the movement by fair or foul means could meet on a discussion table is an event, the possibility of which one could ever imagine until it really happened. From the hindsight several questions are being raised: whether such talks or experiments are desirable at all? Are these talks not responsible for the debacle of the movement in the state of Andhra Pradesh? What did the peace talks achieve at the end of the whole process? Did not those who worked for it from the civil society know the nature and character of the Indian state? Where from the parties involved in the dialogue draw the confidence or hope? These questions and several other questions are all important and have to be addressed. But those who are raising questions should equally be conscious that such a meaningful debate would have had no place if the experiment itself had not taken place. Assuming that the peace talks have completely failed, that such a possibility existed in history is something that can be construed as a contribution of the experiment.

There is a continuous discussion at the national level about the possibility of peace dialogue. The fact that Chidambaram, however deceptive and cunning he may be, continues to mention peace talks on different occasions for known and 'unknown' reasons. This has the Andhra peace talks in the backdrop. In Odisha in 2011 the Maoist party sought mediation on certain issues of the tribal people in the wake of kidnap of the district collector and a junior engineer. They brought the plight of the Adivasis into public debate and opposition of the Maoists to the model of development which has no concern whatsoever for the Adivasis. The failure of the state to carry its minimum constitutional obligation to the Adivasis exposed the so-called development projects. Their opposition to reckless mining by the companies and multi-national corporations has been powerfully conveyed to the larger sections of the society. The dialogue got release of a couple of hundred tribals illegally detained and also release of five activists whose detention was also unlawful. This process, if not achieved any gains, at least prevented loss of human life for a brief period.

The third instance is that of West Bengal where the Trinamul Congress made peace talks a part of the electoral mandate raising high expectations. What is important is not the end product but the very process. After all, history itself is a process of crossing mile stones and land marks towards a destination that nobody is very clear about the blue print. After all Marx observed that people make history but not the way they choose to make it. Human creative intervention is essentially exploring the alternative possibilities in the womb of history and it is in selecting an alternative one may or may not be totally rational and validity of the option is known only when the consequences fully manifest. One can only draw the lessons and improve upon the experiment and its complex political dynamics of transformation. That is where the experiment of Andhra peace-dialogue can be of great value and relevant not only to contemporary Indian society but may be for a long time to come.

The peace dialogue in the state of Andhra Pradesh was a result of tireless work of committee of concerned citizens (CCC) consisting of fifteen members for almost a decade. The members come from different walks of life - academic, legal, journalism, civil service and public life. Each member had some public standing for his or her contribution in respective fields and public causes. This cumulative social credibility (social capital) was the initial resource which made it possible to initiate the process towards a dialogue, although the idea of a dialogue between the Naxalite parties and the state was an after-thought or a by-product but not the end towards which the process began. The initial objective was to facilitate a dialogue or discussion within the 'civil society' by drawing different sections with a primary goal to build public opinion so as to build public pressure on the then People’s War and the Government of Andhra Pradesh to contain, if not stop, the cycle of violence and counter violence causing huge loss of human life - not only of revolutionaries and the police but some innocent people in the crossfire. That loss of human life on either side is an issue around which it was possible to mobilize public opinion and muster the support of print and electronic media. Thus the experiment began with a simple objective but intrinsically had a wider appeal.

The members of the committee commenced their work in the backdrop of an observation that a Judge made while dealing with a case related to Naxalite movement. He observed: can't these two parties at loggerheads explore the possibilities to put an end to the spiral of violence and counter violence? This was picked up by the media and some members of the society; however it is not clear how the exact process began. It is S R Sankaran, a remarkable civil servant and an exceptional human being settled in Hyderabad after he superannuated as Secretary, Rural Development to Government of India took the initiative to rally round like minded persons to engage in bringing down the overall violence in which the state and the Naxalite parties were ensnared.

The committee commenced its efforts first by visiting the villages in North Telangana which was the site of an intense struggle from the late seventies. Some of the districts of North Telangana like Karimnagar and Warangal were entrapped with deep feudal practices that continued, notwithstanding the historic Telangana Armed struggle of 1940s. These practices were unbelievable in post-Independent India supposedly governed by a democratic constitution and rule of law. The land ownership was so skewed that the laboring class was helplessly dependent on feudals who exploited them to tilt. It is these agrarian relations that provided the objective condition for the people to organize, protest and demand for a change which was met with stiff resistance from the landlord class who deployed the goons to intimidate and suppress the movement which gradually pushed the nature and form of the movement into an armed struggle. As both the sides, the feudal lords not amenable to any change and the oppressed determined to fight it out led to mounting of violence. This violent confrontation by nineties of the last century almost reached a point of no return resulting in enormous sacrifices of the Naxal leaders and cadres. The state police in the process of tackling the problem blatantly violated spirit of rule of law started and threw their entire might on the side of the landed gentry exposing the character of the state. This was buttressed by the repressive laws such as Disturbed Areas Act instead of dealing with the problem through agrarian changes and containing power of the landlords.

The social and economic power of the landed gentry backed by the organized police force and by the political party in power closed the democratic space and widened and deepened the armed conflict. This resulted in the killing up of political leaders and police personnel. The process reveals the very weak foundations of liberal democracy and limited scope for constitutional governance. These developments led to shrinking of role of democrats, societal organizations reducing them to that of mere spectators. Any social intervention or democratic initiative was propagated by the state as aiding and abetting Naxal movement. Civil liberties Movement which insisted on observance of rule of law, constitutional norms was condemned as a front organization of the Naxals and reached a point where the police started killing the unarmed civil liberties leaders in retaliation to Naxals killing up of the police personnel or political leaders. It is true that civil rights movement has been sympathetic to the cause of the movements and overall people’s suffering. The organization kept on telling the rulers to address the social base of Naxal movement and respect rule of law which is the source of state power and the only source of their legitimacy to govern. The parties in power never heeded to the advice and believed in their brute force as a solution to the problem.

The Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee was, of course, a product of the Naxal movement. It is this birth that shaped the attitude of the state and opinion of a large section of the middle class which itself is not deeply rooted in democratic culture. Consequently, the civil liberties movement which was essentially concerned with the excesses of the state power like fake encounters, lockup deaths, rapes had to seek wider social base and larger concerns with experiential understanding that the arbitrary state power had its own social roots in caste violence, family violence and other structures of dominance in societal order. Once this scope got enlarged there are any number of issues that it started fighting for. In the course of these changes organization started facing criticism from the state particularly the police, media, middle classes that why an organization which condemns varied forms of violence does not critically look at Naxal violence even in those cases where their excesses resulted in killing up of innocent people or kidnaps of unarmed state officials or mutual killings between Naxal parties themselves?

As the People's War and the Government in principle agreed for peace talks, the CCC did all that it could to facilitate the process. They rendered advice and gave suggestions to both the sides as to how the process could be taken forward. After the Congress came to power Raja Shekhar Reddy government, particularly the Home Minister Jana Reddy was keen in carrying through the process. The latter played a crucial role. The Government in quick succession announced its decisions to lift the ban on People's War, announce 'ceasefire' for three months, allow the party to organize its public meetings. The home minister formally addressed a letter to the party inviting them to talks. It also announced its representatives who would carry the talks on behalf of the government. The People’s War on its part was equally forthcoming, in fact they were the first to announce the cessation of armed actions, restraints to be observed. They also announced five mediators and three representatives. The Jana Shakti party also joined the process, announced its mediators and representatives. There were several rounds of talks formulating the modalities for the talks. The CCC substantially contributed and aided both the sides to arrive at a mutual understanding on modalities.

The peace in terms of cessation of armed actions in Andhra lasted for a brief period and cycle of violence and counter-violence came back. The Chief Minister started repeating that laying down arms is a pre-condition for any further peace talks obviously signaling back footing on their earlier pronouncements and electoral promises. The Naxal parties continued their resistance movement. The flash point came with the return of encounter killings and retaliation by the Maoist party by killing an MLA. The situation looked at one point worse than the rule by the earlier Telugu Desam regime.

The failure of the peace initiative in West Bengal or that of the Central Government are largely due to the deceptive character of politics. The Andhra talks fructified, even for a brief period, because of combination of several historical, social, political forces combined with a long democratic tradition laid down by a vibrant Civil Rights Movement. There was such a public pressure that the political party that rode to power however unwilling it was had to take some steps towards the talks. The Trinamool Congress and its leader are a product of misgovernance of CPM for more than three decades. These negative politics will not have positive values nor the West Bengal popular opinion was so organized that the Trinamool was afraid of that opinion.

It is also equally clear that the middle class Bhadralok is tired and devoid of democratic energy. The CPM carried such a propaganda against Maoist party in the name of Marxism that the middle classes were not open enough to look at Maoist movement as people’s struggle for an alternative. The latest resolution of all India CPM party on Maoist movement makes one feel that it is worse than a resolution by the BJP. At least the party out of power would minimum ask the question as to why certain sections of the people support the Maoist movement? The CPM should have supported the peace initiative in the longer interest of the people of Bengal. This was the major objective limitations that impaired the peace talks.

The second lesson to draw is that the Trinamool neither has an ideology nor an economic policy of its own. It is fully with the global model of development which is evident in the choice of the Finance Minister that Mamata Banerjee made. Maoist party and the other Naxalite parties are the only political force that is opposed to this path of development and organizing the people particularly the tribal community for this purpose. The global capital in nexus with the Indian state are determined and are willing to use fair or foul (mostly foul) means to put down the movement. The repeated statements of Chidambaram and his pressure on Indian army combined with Prime Minister’s Statement that Naxalites are the greatest security threat to the Nation leaves no space for any state Government to maneuver power at local level.

The third lesson that civil rights or democratic rights groups should realize is that they have to focus and address more the civil society than the state. In the case of West Bengal those who worked for peace pitched too many hopes on Mamata's rhetoric than creating the necessary pressure from the society. That is the reason why there was hastiness in completing the process than strengthening the process. In fact the citizens for peace initiative at the National level were seized of the issue and were planning to mobilize different sections and take a march in Kolkata. Binayak Sen volunteered to take the responsibility and visited Kolkata twice for this purpose. The West Bengal peace initiators did not even attempt to communicate to such other organization go for a concerted and coordinated action.

Fourth lesson is that Maoist party should recognize that while the party has its own characterization of the Indian state that is not reflected in its strategy or practice. After Andhra experience one should know that the state forces particularly the police take maximum advantage of any new party coming to power and use maximal force before the party in power loses its freshly acquired legitimacy. It also ensures dependence of new political force on the coercive arm before it decides to take action against erring police officers of the previous regime.

Fifthly, as far as law and order is concerned, notwithstanding the fact that it continues to be the state subject, it has been completely taken over by the central Home Ministry. No state Government where there are ongoing struggles has the guts to tell the center not to transcend the limits of a federal polity. The fake encounter of Kishanji, a total setback to peace initiative, by the CRPF is a clear indication that is where the real power of decision making lies. Now India perhaps reached a point where no peace initiative has a democratic space. The only option open still to peace initiative is to mobilize democratic opinion at the national level.

Lastly, peace initiative is something that under no condition that the society can afford to give up. In fact Azad's last attempt to further the prospect was scuttled by the state. Kobad Gandhi's emphasis on the urgent need of this initiative is located in the very historical context where neither the revolution is in the vicinity nor the state is in a position to put down the movement. Hence several experiments to contain violence and bring about even radical transformation with minimum loss of human life are the need of the hour.

Vol. 45, No. 3, July 29-August 4, 2012