16 February, 2015

Chasing Peace, with the Maoists

Geopolitics, February 2015, pp 52 - 55


Chasing Peace, with the Maoists

A new policy crafted by the Ministry of Home Affairs to counter the Maoist insurgency is awaiting Cabinet approval. And it is no wonder that the policy in contention focuses on decapitating the urban expansion of the extremists. It may be worthy of mention that in the first week of November 2014, Dr Jarla Appa Rao, the head of Telugu Department of the Andhra University and a tribal rights activist was arrested from his residence by the Vizag Rural police for alleged Maoist links. He was not the first one of the ilk though to have landed into prison for their dalliance with the Left wing extremists. Earlier in May, a Delhi University professor G N Saibaba was arrested on similar charges. Is the war now being fought in the urban educated circles or is it simply a reflection that the Maoist movement in the jungles of Red Corridor is taking a breather and in the meantime, the ‘spread’ is slowly on its way contemplating the future.

As reported by the Hindu in the last week of October 2014, Gudsa Usendi, the spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) of the Maoists condemned the surrender of DKSZC member Arjun and his wife Ranita before the police in the newly formed province of Telangana. Usendi lamented that the couple could not withstand the “difficult time” faced by the movement – an honest submission that the Maoists are indeed under pressure. To an extent, blame it on the financially lucrative and successful surrender-cum-rehabilitation policy of the Indian state for the Naxalites in the Naxal-affected provinces. During the same period, the Union government reportedly unveiled a policy to counter Left-wing extremism. Aman Sharma of the Economic Times wrote that the Indian government has admitted to the presence of the Maoists in as many as 15 provinces across the country. What however is the most interesting but no way amazing revelation is the Indian state talks about a new "southern theatre" of the Maoists at the tri-junction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A new ‘spread’ indeed?

Exploring Peace – a look at the International scenario

Are the Indian Maoists interested in peace? To put forth a far more feasible question, are they amenable to negotiations? Probably they are more concerned in ‘hoisting their Red flag of revolution over the historic Red Fort’, however as per their fresh assessment, not before 2080. They are far more interested in materialising their New Democratic Revolution (NDR) within the periphery of Marx’s historical materialism. They are obdurate in donning the combat role against the Indian state. They are eager to push forward, sometimes trudge as a tactical move, in this asymmetric yet long war. They might have the vested interest in prolonging the violence, pinching the state structures so as to initiate a reaction which could so speciously be termed as “state repression”.

In this regard, the international scenario also needs to be re-viewed. In August 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the government was engaged in exploratory peace talks with the violent leftist insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a bid to resolve a nearly 50-year internal armed conflict. The secret, initial dialogue between the Santos government and the FARC’s leadership led to the opening of formal peace talks with the FARC—the oldest, largest, and best financed guerrilla organization in Latin America. These talks began in Oslo, Norway, in October 2012 and thereafter moved to Havana, Cuba, where it is currently underway. But violence has continued in the country as both sides agreed not to hold a cease-fire during the negotiations. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reiterated this decision even in September 2014, saying he would not agree on a cease-fire until a peace agreement has been reached. The fighting between the Colombian government, right wing paramilitary groups and leftist rebels began in the 1960s, and over 200,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Such peace talks though could be peculiar to the Colombian approach but one thing comes out unscathed – even after 2 years of dialogues that too being brokered by third parties, peace remains elusive in Colombia.  Even if some quarters expect a permanent peace in 2015, however negotiators still need to agree on certain contentious issues on their agenda: a bilateral ceasefire, disarmament and the reintegration of FARC members.

Another glaring example comes from the Filipino case. The International Crisis Group reports that talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which negotiates on behalf of the Communist Party of Philippines – New People’s Army [CPP-NPA], have been intermittent and inconclusive since they began under the Cory Aquino government in 1986. Even decades later, they have scarcely touched on substantive issues. Indeed, the civil war is still on in the interiors of Philippines. And if the Nepal phenomenon is something to cheer about, then it could be seen more of an aberration than linearity or something which the Indian Maoists could disdainfully castigate as ‘armed revisionism’. Further, after watching the manner in which the democratic process has unfolded in Kathmandu and the way the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) [UCPN (M)] have held onto their positions, serious questions could be raised regarding the intent of the Maoists to resolve the political stalemate.

The Process of Securing Peace with the Insurgents

Perfectly sensible as well as tactical was Gandhi’s approach while spearheading the Indian National Movement. The messiah of peace, non-violence and truth pragmatically followed a methodology of Struggle-Truce-Struggle against the British Raj so as to reserve the energy and focus of the masses and on every occasion would unleash the Satyagraha with renewed vigour. After all, his also was a protracted war by and for the people. If the people were drained of their adrenaline too soon, even though it was a non-violent movement, the very purpose would hardly have been served. Now the Maoists in post-independent India are no Gandhians – even if they preferably aspire to be so with guns or if dramatically some commentators or authors elevate them to be. As far as strategy and tactics are concerned, for the Maoists, periods of peace are to be treated as punctuation marks in the path of the Protracted People’s War [PPW]. The periods are suitably adjusted keeping in view the relative power exercised by the state and the insurgents. To the Maoists, talking with the state authorities is a viable option, rather a tactical choice when the period is a downslide for them or if they plan to re-group, re-orient, and re-configure. Peace is definitely an asset in times of distress or more technically speaking, Strategic Defence. At other situations, when the Maoists claim to push the ground towards a Strategic Offence – the third and final stage of Guerrilla Warfare, peace is a liability. However, during the middle phase of a guerrilla war – Strategic Stalemate, choice of peace is decided by several factors. Moreover, considering the geographical spread of India and the consequent ‘spread’ of the Maoists, it will be hard for the insurgents to come to a definite conclusion at any particular point of time whether it’s a Strategic Defence, Stalemate or Offence since the situations could be different in different regions. For instance, if there happens to be a Lalgarh ‘bull’ for the insurgents, then it could turn out to be a ‘bear’ of Operation Anaconda in the Saranda forests at the same time. 

The 2004 attempted negotiations by the Andhra Pradesh government and the Bengal Talks of 2011 need to be viewed in this backdrop.

Journalist and rights activist Gautam Navlakha narrates that the 2007 Unity Congress of the Maoists stressed upon to utilise the relaxation in the enemy’s [government’s] ‘repression’ in order to complete the preparation for confronting future offensive. However, there are ‘scholarly’ arguments regarding peace which blatantly put forth the perspective of the insurgents. Economist Amit Bhaduri puts the blame squarely on the government by telling that “every time the authorities say they want to initiate a peace process, they want their armed adversaries to ‘abjure violence’.” This peace, continues Bhaduri, without categorical guarantee of safety from the government’s onslaught is dangerous for underground Maoist leaders. And further according to Bhaduri, the state policy all along has been to liquidate illegally its Maoist opponents in the name of peace talks.

Intriguingly, such rhetoric fails to appreciate the fact that for a modern state to flourish, the ‘monopoly’ of using force lawfully must be with the state itself and allowing armed groups to loiter around is a clear signal of the failure of the state apparatus. Furthermore, it’s strange to expect peace negotiations to commence while a parallel war is going on. A mutual ceasefire is a pre-requisite to any ‘talks’ with the adversary. The luminaries who spew venom against the state regarding the latter’s approach towards peace talks again seem to have a poor memory – abysmally failing to grasp the diplomatic manoeuvres adopted by the Indian state in dealing with the Maoists in the 2004 Andhra Talks and with several insurgent groups in North-East as well as in Jammu and Kashmir. To elucidate this point, the admission of Sujato Bhadro - the West Bengal based historian and TV commentator, who was interestingly also an interlocutor during the Bengal Talks of 2011, is essential. He tells that to their dismay, the Maoists took the lives of three activists [of other political parties] in a ruthless manner, even after the interlocutors contacted with them and a round of peace talks was completed on a positive note. Bhadro admits that the provincial Bengal government was willing to continue the dialogue process.

Kunal Chattopadhyay teaches Comparative Literature in Jadavpur University. He seems sceptical and to a large extent cynical about the fertility of the peace talks. He argues that the Indian state uses the pretext / bogey of the Maoist insurgent to unleash violence on the Adivasis. As per Chattopadhyay’s analysis, the Maoists are intrinsically not serious about talks since they are built on the solid platform of Stalinism-Maoism and hardly believe in the precepts of socialist democracy.  On a sombre note, Chattopadhyay predicts that with the kind of ideology that the Maoists adumbrate, which involves the belief that any struggle other than ‘armed struggle’ is revisionist, a sell-out to the ruling regime, the Maoists cannot engage in fruitful peace talks.

However, on a rather positive note, Peter Sederberg of the Department of Government and International Studies, University of South Carolina, comes up with the war model and the rational actor model – through which he shows that these models actually incorporate conciliatory strategies while the state negotiates with the terrorists; though the researcher acknowledges that conventional wisdom suggests that regimes should never bargain with terrorists. Sederberg also notes that conciliatory strategies have been used, sometimes with considerable success. Stephen Stedman at the Centre for International Security and Arms Control of the Stanford University, too appears optimistic. He agrees that the greatest source of risk in peacemaking comes from the ‘spoilers’ – that is, leaders and parties who believe that peace threatens their power and necessarily use violence to undermine attempts to achieve peace. But as Stedman points out, not all spoilers do succeed in stalling peace processes. In support of his argument, he cites the cases of the Mozambique National Resistance and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – the latter being more pertinent to this as it represented the most obnoxious form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And speaking with an American perspective, Daniel Byman asserts that talking with the insurgents is often a necessary first step toward defeating them or reaching an acceptable compromise. Moreover, along the lines of what the Colombian government and the FARC rebels had been doing, Byman further states that these talks must often be done even as insurgents shoot at U.S. soldiers, and they in turn, shoot at them. More apposite is how Byman cogently summarises:

Talks with insurgents are politically costly, usually fail, and can often backfire. Nevertheless, they are often necessary to end conflicts and transform an insurgent group into a legitimate political actor or wean them away from violence. Policymakers and analysts alike must recognize that the conditions for success are elusive”. 

The Indian Scenario – can Peace be achieved?

The Maoists – specifically the leadership - intellectuals or no-intellectuals, are cautious in winning the hearts and minds of the Adivasis and other native inhabitants of the Red Corridor – keenly adhering to Mao’s maxim: “The Guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish.....” The moment the guerrilla loses the safe havens, the movement fizzles out – after all, it’s a war for the people and has necessarily to be fought by the people. This is exactly where the fundamentals reside. The Indian state needs to and is knowledgeable enough to target the real stakeholders in this war – a rather ‘bad war’. The Adivasis in Chhattisgarh or the deprived lower-castes in Bihar-Jharkhand or the malnourished in Amlasole and Lalgarh in West Bengal; they are the real stakeholders and needs to be targeted as far as proper governance and developmental schemes are concerned. 

As a parallel ploy, the leadership of the Left-wing ultras could be pruned – systematically, as a strategy. However, extreme caution is to be ensured in not unleashing a spectrum of violence – at least in a scale which affects the population, and in turn depletes intelligence gathering by the security forces. Legitimate state power could be skilfully used by the government to diminish the movement without however indulging in humanitarian excesses. Rights violation needs to be avoided to the extent possible so as not to lose the war of propaganda both in the national as well as international arena.

With Al Jazeera getting interested in the present insurgency, with young scholars in top notch US universities trying to script their Master’s and Doctoral theses on this insurgency and even articles on the issue popping up in established magazines like Foreign Policy; the matter is certainly serious. For the Indian state, it is important to contain the insurgency – but far more important is to win the war in the media. And for that, an unrestrained use of violence devoid of rationale could be catastrophic. At the same time, sitting mum would be scoring a duck in the cricket field – which the government can ill afford. In this context, it will add to the wisdom what India’s Home Minister categorically expressed in June 2014:

“There is no question of any talks now. We will take a balanced approach. But the forces will give a befitting reply if the Naxals launch attacks”

In fact, mainstream media reportage referred to a Union Home Ministry official that talks with the Maoists will be held only when the rebels shun violence and come forward for dialogue. However, such admission remains unofficial. The Union Home Minister has exhibited his seriousness on the issue by saying that his Ministry will fully fund formation of Special Forces on the lines of the elite anti-Naxal Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh and initially such squads will come up in the four states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar. It’s hardly too old to trigger a lapse of memory that Greyhounds succeeded in flushing out the insurgents from Andhra. And it’s probably no wonder why the freshly recruited Indian Police Service [IPS] officers are being given a gruelling training of counterinsurgency warfare as an attachment with the Greyhounds unit. They are enduring a few days [seemingly months to the officers] in the jungle and living the life of a guerrilla so as to fight the guerrilla. To get conditioned in such adverse situations is a pre-requisite to win the war. And if tomorrow’s unit-level and district-level leaders are equipped, then the cause of worry would be minimised. 

A mutually agreeable peace between the government and the insurgents appears elusive at this juncture. Nevertheless, in line with American military strategist John Nagl, since no one likes to eat soup with a knife, peace in this low-intensity conflict is after all an imperative. 

Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is an IOFS [ADMIN] Officer. Views expressed are author’s own.