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AT THE END of the first round of talks between People's War, now called the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and the Andhra Pradesh Government, the naxalite groups seem to have wrested the initiative. They have made full use of the four day talks to voice their demands and project their agenda. In effect, the Government will now have to respond to this charter of demands, with PW making it clear that these could well be the terms for its participation in the next round of negotiations, planned for November. It would have been so much better for the Government to have settled its agenda and framework for the talks with PW and allied groups. But that would have meant adopting a pro-active, as distinct from a reactive, stance. Although the Government did raise the question of naxalite cadres moving about in villages with arms, PW has refused to give in on this issue. In consequence, no agreement was signed and no action plan was presented to take the process forward. To an extent, the thinking of the Government on substantive issues was indicated by Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy outside the ambit of the talks.

The demands of the naxalite groups are clear. They want the withdrawal of all cases against cadres involved in the "struggle," the release of all political prisoners, the cancellation of rewards on the heads of the wanted naxalites, and disbanding of armed gangs. Further, they want immediate action to distribute surplus land to the landless, starting with the setting up of a commission to identify these surplus lands. The Chief Minister has said these proposals would be placed before the Cabinet. Thus the continuation of the dialogue may be linked to the Government's response to these demands. The Government could have avoided being forced on the back foot had it tabled some concrete proposals and a framework to give a direction to the talks. It should have presented an action plan to address the people's problems and the major issue of land reforms. The PW leader Ramakrishna's open invitation to the people, at the mass rally, to approach the naxal dalams for quick redressal of their grievances should have been countered with a Government scheme to solve these day-to-day problems of the people.

Now that PW has set some of the terms, the Government has no option but to respond. On the land distribution issue, the naxalite groups insist, quite reasonably, that the proposed commission to identify surplus land must consist of "democrats and mass organisations," not bureaucrats or retired judges. There is a significant divergence in the estimates of surplus land available for distribution — the official figure is a meagre 4.69 lakh acres while PW puts it at a more plausible 84.2 lakh acres. This gap will not be easy to bridge. By way of demonstrating its commitment to addressing the basic livelihood issues, the Government must take immediate steps to identify the surplus land and distribute it. On its part, PW should resist the temptation of getting people to occupy forest lands unilaterally, as that would go against the spirit of the process and introduce fresh complications. As for the release of political prisoners and withdrawal of cases against naxalites, the Government can perhaps order a fast-track review of all cases and show a spirit of generosity and farsightedness. It is too early to predict the outcome of the talks, but the very fact that PW and its allied groups are now out in the open and engaged in direct negotiations augurs well for the democratic process. The process needs the guidance of a cool and steady hand, broad-based support across the political spectrum, an ability to innovate, and fresh thinking on socio-economic issues.

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