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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 46, November 6, 2010

S.R. Sankaran: A Path-breaking Civil Servant

Wednesday 10 November 2010, by K S Subramanian


S.R. Sankaran (SRS hereafter), the unosten-tatious but remarkable civil servant who passed away recently, was known for his many qualities of head and heart. His simplicity, modesty and commitment to the rural poor was rivalled only by that of Comrade Nripen Chakraborty, the former Chief Minister of Tripura, with whom he had worked as the Chief Secretary. Whether he was posted in Tripura, Andhra Pradesh or the Government of India, SRS was singleminded in his devotion to the welfare of the rural poor. He worked for them tirelessly and totally unselfishly.

A famously dedicated civil servant of unimpeachable integrity, he replied in all modesty to my query recently, saying that it was true that he had been offered a Padma award by the Government of India and that he had declined it since he had done nothing to deserve the award! Widely believed to be an agnostic, to another question from me asking if he was a believer, he surprisingly replied in the affirmative but added that he did not observe any rituals!

Interestingly, I met SRS for the first time in the showroom of the PPH (People’s Publishing House) in Connaught Circus, New Delhi, one evening in the early 1980s. The showroom (alas, no more!) was a bustling place especially in the evenings, when a number of Left-inclined intellectuals, activists and others visited it. I too went there often, taking time out of my Home Ministry routine, to scout new material for my Ph.D thesis, then in progress, on the Indian communist movement. When I saw him SRS was browsing a book or a newspaper. We met and became friends. Many meetings thereafter brought us closer together.

When SRS became the Chief Secretary of Tripura, I was not in the State though I had, following the bifurcation of the Union Territories cadre, joined the Manipur-Tripura cadre in 1972 and served there till 1977 before proceeding to Manipur and then the Union Home Ministry in 1980 for a five-year term, a seminal experience for me as the Director of the Research and Policy Division. One of the stories I heard about SRS in Tripura was that during his visit to an interior tribal village SRS spoke to an elderly tribal woman and asked her what she wished to have from the Government of Tripura. The woman did not know who SRS was but perhaps guessed that he was a big man from Agartala, the State capital. She reportedly said: ‘I do not want anything but please remove the Forest Department and the Police Department from here!’ Another apocryphal story I heard related to how SRS and Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty (both bachelors!) would often meet in the evenings to discuss Marxism-Leninism! Maoism was perhaps an aberration in the estimation of the two!

During my visit to Hyderabad, I had taken the opportunity to go and see the two giants, K.G. Kannabiran (KGK) and SRS, to query them on my research project on the role of the Concerned Citizens Committee (CCC) in Andhra in dealing with the issue of state violence and Maoist violence. I was delighted when both of them promised to help me with my work. Further details were to be worked out when I visited Hyderabad later this year. Unfortunately, this was not to be. SRS is no more and the great KGK has had a severe medical problem.

The CCC in AP was a unique experiment in the history of conflict resolution in India, especially in the context of the emergence of Maoist violence, seen as India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’ in official circles. Both SRS and KGK, when I met them last, were forthcoming in their comments on the experience of the CCC and its possible relevance, with due modifications, in other parts of India affected by Maoist violence; but our discussion remained inconclusive. In addition to SRS, who is no more, and KGK, who is not in good shape, a possible third interlocutor for me, K. Balagopal, who perhaps did have own reservations on the role of the CCC in conflict resolution, has also unfortunately passed away.

THE CCC, a diverse group of fifteen members, was formed in Hyderabad in early 1997 to chalk out a possible civil society response to the serious situation that had arisen as a result of the ongoing brutal police encounter killings in the State and the equally brutal Naxalite response. Its aim was to break the psychosis of fear arising from the cycle of violence and counter-violence in the villages and to find a path to some democratic space in which the people could articulate their legitimate aspirations. The group travelled widely through the villages and met as many people as possible. It addressed both the Maoist leadership and the government with a view to winding down the violence. It did not attempt ideological critiques of the Maoists or of the government. As Convenor of the CCC, SRS clearly stated in 1998 that the idea was to initiate a democratic debate focusing on the aspirations of the people, their ‘right to life, right to livelihood and right to dignified and honourable existence’. The CCC tried to address the specific conditions on both sides, which led to persistent violence. The creation of a broader political debate was the ultimate aim. The efforts yielded some result when in 2002, the Maoists observed unilateral ceasefire twice for several weeks.

The reports of the CCC constitute a meticulously documented civil society effort to engage the state and Maoists simultaneously. The CCC noted in its final report in 2006 that the ‘reform-led market-oriented growth’ had led to processes of exclusion of the vast masses. A small segment in power perceived any mass mobilisation against the existing order as a serious security threat. In the mid-2000s, the reform agenda became more aggressive than before with little scope for imaginative state intervention. This led the CPI (Maoist) to up the ante in the States of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The CCC viewed violence as arising from a ’political culture that dispensed with accoun-tability and deepened impunity’ and said its agenda was about yielding democratic space to expanding ‘possibilities for political assertion by ordinary people. It was as much about restoration of rule of law as about urging a mature and humanised and accountable revolu-tionary praxis.’ (Maringanti, 2010)

The State Assembly elections in 2004 proved a crucial interlude in the efforts of the CCC. The Congress party Chief Minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who had succeeded Chandrababu Naidu, was more inclined to allow talks with the Maoists to come back on the agenda. The merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Coordination Committee led to the emergence of the CPI (Maoist) the same year. Talks did take place but by mid-2006 both sides formally disengaged from the talks owing to the persistent mutual suspicion between the police and Maoists about each other’s respective intentions and plans. The CCC was unable to create an environment in which the talks could be held without apprehensions from either side.

The CCC clarified that i) the Maoist movement is a political movement and there can only be a political resolution with the participation of political actors with the necessary sagacity; ii) the violence in the State arose from a cultural paradigm perpetuated in the administrative routines and organisational practices on both sides that are aimed at domination and not democratisation; interventions had thus to be located in local specificity through local public mobilisation; iii) those who mobilise must articulate a long-term political agenda; and iv) the de-escalation of violence can only be a means to democratisation and political regeneration; it is not an end itself but one point along a broader transformative agenda. (Maringanti, 2010)

Maringanti adds that that ‘from the perspec-tive of a transformative agenda’ the very process leading up to the talks between the contending parties must be regarded as an accomplishment. He spells out the lessons that can be learnt from the AP experience by those who wish to bring about peace talks between the Maoists and the government.

At my request, SRS was kind enough to send me the reports of the CCC, documenting its relations with the Maoists as much as with the Government of AP. These are of historic importance with many lessons to teach. The successive splits in the Indian communist movement throughout the sixties and seventies were of great importance for the development debate in India. The emergence of the CPI (Maoist) in the recent period has taken the development debate in India to an altogether new plane, which would have far-reaching significance with some of the most insightful minds participating in the debate.

It is interesting that the present Union Home Minister is more inclined to deploy massive Central paramilitary forces in the Maoist-affected States than to find time out of his busy schedule to sit down and read the Planning Commission’s recent expert group report on ‘Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas’ (2008), which has seminal lessons to teach. But then it would seem correct to say that governments neither learn anything nor forget anything as noted by a former District Magistrate of the Kalahandi district (Das, 2010) who in 1966 had pointed out to the State Government the need to adopt serious measures to mitigate the emerging famine conditions in the district only to meet with the prompt reply from the latter that his assessment was wrong and there was no need for any special measures in the district! But the famine did occur with disastrous consequences. Interestingly the author adds that a century earlier in 1866, the then District Magistrate of Kalahandi had similarly sent a missive to the government regarding the developing famine conditions in the district only to be met with a similar reply from the latter!

The role of the CCC in formulating a path-breaking new initiative to end the conflict in Andhra and to bring the livelihood interests of the people into focus deserves more attention than it has received. The role of SRS, who acted as the Convenor of the CCC guiding its deliberations in an unobtrusive and detached fashion, needs to be commended. Discussions must be organised to draw the necessary lessons from the Andhra experience.


Das, Jagannath Prasad, 2010, Reflections on Literature and Culture: Poems, Speeches Letters and Interviews, Rupantar Press, Bhubaneswar.

Maringanti, Anant, 2010, ‘Talks between the Maoists and the State: Learning from the Andhra Experience’, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, August 21.

The author is a former IPS officer and author of Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage, 2007)

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