Recently, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel, while meeting the people during his State-wide tour, announced that the State government was ready for peace talks with the Maoists provided they laid down arms and expressed their faith in the Constitution of India.
In its response, through its spokesperson (pseudonym, Vikalp), the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) of the CPI(Maoist) alleged (in a pamphlet issued on May 5, 2022) that the offer was dodgy, and wanted the Chief Minister to clarify his stand on the Maoist’s conditions for creating a conducive atmosphere in which to hold peace talks. The spokesperson also made other accusations and criticised the State government for not implementing the PESA or Provisions of Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 in Chhattisgarh. The major conditions the Maoists want include: a lifting of the ban on their party, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) and people’s organisations; withdrawal of security forces from camps, and the release of jailed leaders in order to participate in the talks. As the State government did not change its earlier stand, there has been no progress.
Earlier, in 2010, then Home Minister P. Chidambaram, tried to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table, with the line, “If you call a halt to violence, we are prepared to talk to you.” In response, Azad, alias Cherukuri Rajkumar (now deceased), a central politburo member and spokesperson of the Central Committee, CPI (Maoist), in an exclusive interview (11,400 words) to The Hindu (‘A ceasefire will create conducive atmosphere for talks’, April 2010), had it in writing what his party’s three pre-conditions to a dialogue with the Union government were.
He clarified that the condition of ‘withdrawal of all-out war’ (as the first condition) was nothing but a cessation of hostilities by both sides simultaneously, i.e., mutual ceasefire and not unilateral ceasefire by the Maoists. Second, for peaceful legal work by the Maoists, lifting of the ban on the party (the second condition) was necessary. The third condition was that the government should adhere to the Constitution and end the illegal murders in the name of encounters, tortures and arrests. In order to hold talks, it was necessary for the government to release some leaders (also a part of the third condition) or else, there would be no one to talk to since the entire party was illegal.
This interview and the stand by Ganapathi ( then party general secretary) on talks with the government were also published in the Maoist magazine, ‘People’s March’. Swami Agnivesh, the peace broker between the government of India and the Maoists, forwarded Mr. Chidambaram’s letter of May 11, 2010 (addressed to Swami Agnivesh) to Azad which specifically mentioned the Maoists promise ‘no violence for 72 hours’ to initiate talks. Azad responded to Swami Agnivesh (May 31, 2010) and reiterated the party’s stand. However, Azad was killed in an encounter with the Greyhound commando force of the Andhra Pradesh police on July 2, 2010 and the process of trust building derailed.
Why talks failed
In the State Assembly election campaign in 2004, the Congress party promised to revive the peace process (that had broken down during Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu’s regime) if voted to power in Andhra Pradesh. To initiate talks, the State government lifted the ban on the party in May 2004. Consequently, there was four-day peace dialogue in October 2004 between the representatives of the People’s War (PW) party and government representatives at the initiative of the Committee of Concerned Citizens. A mutually acceptable team of mediators (led by former civil servant S.R. Sankaran) was constituted and an agreement on a ceasefire (eight clauses) was reached. The PW party (which had just merged with the Maoist Communist Centre of India, and other splinter Maoist groups in September 2004 to form the CPI(Maoist)), proposed a 11-point charter of demands such as legislation on land ceiling; creation of a separate state of Telangana; and questions associated with armed action by either side. Matters of land reform figured prominently in the discussions. While the State representatives raised the issue of laying down arms, this was not the agreed agenda and the issue was held in reserve for the second round of talks.
‘Clause 7’ (of the ceasefire agreement) which permitted the Maoists to undertake propagation of their politics without carrying weapons, had become problematic. Though the Maoists at the peace talks had handed over their weapons to their cadres while leaving the jungles, media pictures of activity by their armed squads made the police uneasy. The talks ended with an agreement on a ceasefire till December 16, the government promised to consider the main demand of land distribution among the landless, and talks again in November. Later, the Chief Minister declared that there would be no talks with the Maoists unless they agreed to lay down arms. The Andhra Pradesh Home Minister levelled allegations against the Naxalites about extortion for their meetings and construction of their memorials. Thus the peace process collapsed mid-way and the ban was re-imposed on the CPI(Maoist) and its sister organisations.
Using this background, it can be reasonably implied that the Maoist’s demand of withdrawal of armed police forces can be met by a mutually agreed ‘ceasefire’, with its limited meaning of abjuring violence by the Maoists and the halting of anti-Maoist operations by security forces for some period. The State government cannot afford the risk of moving out security forces as a pre-condition for initiating peace talks.
Second, the release of jailed Maoist leaders need not be made a pre-condition by the Maoists, as most senior Maoist leaders are at large; there is no senior cadre in Chhattisgarh’s jails. Moreover, the Chhattisgarh government has not only withdrawn criminal cases against many tribals but has also ensured expeditious trial of Naxal cases. The government is also hard at work to implement PESA.
However, with regard to the third condition, of lifting a ban on the CPI(Maoist), the PLGA and its front organisations, some concessions may be thought of to let the talks happen. Further, it cannot be denied that the Maoists misused the ceasefire during the 2004 peace talks in Andhra Pradesh; Azad admitted in the interview, “We used it to take our politics widely among the people in the State and outside.” Therefore, moving forward with the lessons learned, suitable modalities may be worked out if both sides are serious about peace talks.
R.K. Vij is a former Special DGP of Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal