When Roger Fisher, negotiation guru and former director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, was once asked in an interview if he could really negotiate with a terrorist, he said, “I’d much rather listen to them than fight. A lot of times, they’ve got legitimate grievances packaged as extreme political positions.”

Near the end of 2012, the government made an important move towards negotiations with the Maoists, promising to put in place Crisis Management Groups (CMG), which are essentially teams to negotiate hostage situations in Left Wing Extremist (LWE) States. Clearly, the two high profile Maoist kidnaps of last year — Collector Alex Paul Menon at Chhattisgarh and the Italian tourists at Orissa — created much national distress. But as we embark on combating a new year of conflict, let us reflect for a bit.

Capturing hostages is believed to be the only way for Maoists to get the government to lend them their ears. So by agreeing to talk only when kidnapped, are we not asking to be held at gun point?

Getting the parties to the table is not the main problem, however. Recall the Committee for Concerned Citizens (CCC) — a group of former bureaucrats, journalists, intellectuals and fellow citizens who convened the 1994 Andhra peace talks. The CCC had earned enormous legitimacy as a result of the records of the victims of violence they built over the course of five years and their careful taking-to-task of both sides in an impartial manner. Where they failed, however, was in designing a realistic agenda and an effective process for parties that lacked the willingness and capacity to implement their promises.

So how can the CMG be made to develop that capacity? First, the panel must be prepared for the two sets of issues that the Naxalites are known to raise. The first set of demands is limited in scope, relatively tangible, and easier to evaluate — for instance, the release of imprisoned Maoists or the return of tribal land being occupied by non-tribals. Such demands present tangible and immediate choices to the government for which it can balance costs and benefits.

However, the second set of demands involves the underlying needs and perceived injustices that drive their movement. These are filled with historical baggage, larger in impact and potential cost and thus harder to weigh against the value of a particular life. To work through these requires formidable skill — which the CMGs can develop in Naxalite and government negotiators.

Such skills should be taught based on principled negotiation techniques, which start with a fundamental premise: never negotiate the demands, start with the needs and wants underlying them. This analysis is done through a carefully constructed process of sharing information and active listening that doesn’t come naturally to conflicting parties.

As the underlying needs are revealed, the parties learn to find creative solutions through an evaluated give-and-take based on needs, not demands. Furthermore, as the parties get close to an agreement, the process needs to anticipate potential challenges to its implementation in order to avoid the failed promises of the past.

Being trained in communication and relationship-building techniques is essential for creating the necessary psychological safety at the table for frank and path-breaking discussions, especially given the harsh rhetoric in public spheres.

Physical safety is the second factor. Naxalites have never been allowed to negotiate directly because of this dilemma. How to negotiate with a banned party without lifting the ban? Naxalite negotiator and trade union leader Dandapani Mohanty suggests that imprisoned Maoists be brought in under police custody to negotiate on behalf of the party rather than roping in members of civil society who are removed from the realities of the parties’ interests.

Finally, the hostage negotiators can work with their counterparts to develop a set of procedures for how they define an agenda, carry out negotiations, and ensure that agreements are implemented. The government negotiators can be continuously training their counterparts through the examples that they set and building faith on both sides.

The Home Ministry recently declared that the year 2012 had seen the lowest number of incidents of violence involving Maoists under UPA rule, with the “lowest” amounting to 1,365 recorded incidents. The government has repeatedly refused to talk to the Maoists “until the violence stops”. And now that violence is at bay it is propagated as a counter-insurgency success that overrides any need for talks! If talks have to happen, it is not possible with the well-meaning but fragmented mediation efforts of B.D. Sharma, Swami Agnivesh or Professor Haragopal. The year 2013 calls for another CCC, this time with nationwide ambit, to demand talks that deal with more than just the release of hostages.

“Do you know that all [episodes of capturing] hostages are unplanned? The Italian tourists and the Collector just happened to be there when the Maoists were looking for a hostage to communicate their demands to the government,” smiles Mohanty. The setting up of CMGs is a big step forward. The question is whether they will pave the way, creating platforms to address the root causes of the movement or only produce themselves at gunpoint.

(Prof. Boyd Fuller teaches Negotiation at The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Shriya Mohan is an independent journalist.)

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