Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2011 > Failed Peace Process between Mamata and Maoists: A Post-mortem

Mainstream, VOL L, No 1, December 24, 2011 (Annual 2011)

Failed Peace Process between Mamata and Maoists: A Post-mortem

Tuesday 27 December 2011

by BISWAJIT ROY

“It began as a tenacious essay in political realism, entered a phase of sheer drama unbelievable in its unreality, and ended in the bitter rattle of gunfire. The reference is to the ‘talks’ between Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh and the Naxalites (2004).”
—K. Balagopal,
Economic and Political Weekly,
March 26, 2005

With Maoist top-gun Kishenji’s killing in an encounter, fake or genuine, the peace process between the CPI (Maoist) and Mamata Banerjee Government has met the fate of the Andhra talks even before it could begin. Security mandarins and their political partners, both in Delhi and Kolkata, may have reasons to gloat over the killing as Maoists surely suffered a huge setback, both in military and organisational terms. Now the Trinamul, the new ruling party in Bengal, will be able make further inroads into the strongholds of their friend-turned-foe in the State’s tribal hinterland, traditionally known as Junglemahal.

An eerie calm, enforced by the Centre-State joint forces and Trinamul’s armed vigilante groups, will continue until the Maoists regain their strength to strike back. But sustainable peace will remain a chimera without the political solution of the issues which were thrown up by the militant mass movement that had begun in November 2008 against the last Left Front Government under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the then main ruling party, the CPI-M.

In the wake of the popular outburst against police repression on women and children following the rebel bid to kill Bhattacharjee, Maoists were the main organisers of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) that spearheaded the movement against the Left Front Government and CPI-M. The Trinamul, the then principal Opposition party, entered into an uneasy marriage of political convenience with the Maoists in order to harvest the public anger against the joint forces in electoral terms.

But, unlike Singur and Nandigram, Mamata and her men failed to hegemonise the oppositional space in Junglemahal because of armed Maoist resistance as well as lack of Trinamul’s organisational base before the Assembly polls in May this year. Simmering tension over the turf notwithstanding, both sides held together against their common enemy, the CPI-M, in the Assembly polls this May. After the Trinamul-Congress alliance assumed power with a sweeping mandate and Mamata morphed into the chief executive of the State, some members of the pro-Paribartan civil society initiated the peace process with the blessings of the new Chief Minister. The Maoists, who had been friendly to Mamata despite misgivings, responded positively.

However, the outcome of the five-month-long parleys in Bengal ran parallel to the similar exercise in Andhra 2004 with one crucial difference, as one of the government-appointed interlocutors pointed out: the Bengal process died in the pre-talks round. But the similarities were galore. The mutual mistrust between Mamata and the Maoists led to competitive one-upmanship and brinkmanship with continued turf war at the ground level. The ignorance about each other’s politics, mindset and decision-making process only increased their political myopia coupled with military arrogance.

The conflicting signals about building mutual confidence and the resultant growing trust deficit were palpable much before the killing of Kishenji. The aborted Bengal process, which could have opened a new chapter of political experiment, both in parliamentary democracy and revolutionary politics, ended in the victory of the champions of competitive violence ensuring another spell of state terror, ruling party hegemony and reprisals by an armed under-ground. Kishenji’s killing is a ‘huge success’ for the government forces that would break the backbone of Maoist resistance, at least for the foreseeable period. But there will be no full stops to violence in Junglemahal. Only the hapless people of Junglemahal will continue to be at the receiving end.

The avenging angels of the CPI-M, now in the Opposition and at the receiving end of the ruling party and government’s wrath, also belittled the peace initiative from the beginning and mounted pressure on Mamata to complete the unfinished agenda of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Govern-ment regarding the Maoists. They swapped roles with Mamata after Kishenji’s killing. Mamata in her Opposition avatar had condemned the killing of the CPI (Maoist) Polit-Bureau member, Azad, at a public rally in Lalgarh in presence of Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar et al. Now she has dismissed the complaints of fake encounter killing of Kishenji by Varavara Rao, the CPI (Maoist) and human rights bodies claiming that the joint forces had offered enough opportunity to the fugitive leader to surrender.

On the other hand, the CPM, which had virtually sided with Chidambaram in condoning Azad’s murder when the party was in power, now raised ‘questions’ about Mamata’s claims regarding the circumstances of Kishenji’s death and accused Mamata of influencing the CID probe into it, a routine exercise. Nevertheless, the Marxists evidently enjoyed the irony of history as the State Opposition leader, Suryakanta Misra, reminded Kishenji’s pre-poll desire to see Mamata as Bengal’s new Chief Minister. The CPM had widely used the slain leader’s media comments in this regard to harp on the Maoist-Mamata nexus. “Kishenji got the befitting reward for his desire within six months of the new government,” Misra commented after his controversial death.

The most media-friendly Maoist leader who was also the most televised guerrilla in the country, Kishenji was conspicuously silent on the Bengal peace process fuelling media reports about his opposition to it and friction among senior Maoist leaders on the issue. But the key mediators felt differently. Maoist representatives assured them that their leadership, including Kishenji, had been supportive of the peace initiative. According to them, he was waiting two km away from the place of the last rendezvous between the two sides. Maoists had offered the mediators a visit to him but they declined.

Cynics, of both revolutionary and statist hues, have already started celebrating the failure with their usual we-told-you-so wisdom about the impracticality of the dialogue between an elected government and those who want to overthrow the parliamentary system forcibly. Maoists and their sympathisers in human rights groups as well as the Mamata camp dismiss the ‘sandwich theory’ as they claim complete identification of the local population with their respective causes and blame the rivals for the renewed bloodshed and terror. The blame-game notwithstanding, an unbiased examination of the ground reality will reveal that both the warring sides were responsible for vitiating the situation in the wake of the post-poll changed political equations and military strength.

The Realpolitik and Lack of Vision

DESPITE the rhetoric of democracy and revolution, development and people’s power, both sides played their part in the politics of opportunism. The subsequent replay of Andhra 2004 cost the Maoists dearly once again. They supported the YSR-led Congress in ousting the Chandrababu Naidu Government following his vow to finish-off the Maoists after they tried to blow up his motorcade. The peace talks failed after YSR demanded surrender of Maoist weapons and the subsequent ruthless police onslaught wiped out a large number of Maoist rank-and-file who had exposed their hideouts.

In Bengal, the Kishenji-led PWG had entered into an understanding with the Trinamul in the Garbeta-Keshpur zone after a brief bonhomie with the CPI-M. Following the Maoist bid to do a ‘babu’ on Buddhadeb in 2008 in Junglemahal and the subsequent offensive by the joint forces and CPM harmads, the clandestine relationship strengthened despite mutual misgivings over the clash of interests.

The anti-land grab movement in Singur and Nandigram earlier witnessed Mamata’s dominee-ring politics as she occupied the entire Opposition space by elbowing out other mainstream anti-CPI-M forces since the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. The rainbow coalition has faded further since then. Maoists, who had no direct electoral stakes in Singur and Nandigram, survived the clash of interests at that time. In view of the electoral importance of 14 Assembly seats in core Junglemahal out of 40 in three districts which the Left Front had mostly retained in the parliamentary polls in 2009, Mamata kept the Maoists in good humour to ensure the ultras’ covert support for the Trinamul, unobstructed poll campaign of her candidates, voter turnout above the State average and violence-free poll.

After her landslide victory in the Assembly polls this year, however, she changed her tune. She demanded the Maoists/PCAPA to be sub-servient to her changed political priorities and play second fiddle to the new ruling party in Junglemahal. In return, she offered to restrain the Centre-State joint forces from hot pursuit of armed Maoists (if they lie low) and marginal role for the PCAPA leaders in her developmental scheme, albeit on her terms.

She refused to recognise the emerging political reality across the globe indicated by popular movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the Anna Hazare campaign closer home that democracy is no more all about elections and electoral victories. The widening gulf between the electoral parties, the democratic institutions that they dominate and the people they claim to represent has underlined the growing importance of non-elected voices and need for new political paradigms and institutional experiments, particularly in grassroots democracy.

Instead, she bragged of brute majority in State Assembly after her UPA partner, the Congress, complained of bullying by the big sister and her party. This only reminded one of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s arrogance and intolerance in the same vein.

On their part, the Maoists apparently expected a quid pro quo for their pre-poll support and insisted on maintaining their upper hand in Junglemahal in view of their strategic plan of creating guerrilla zones across the tribal hinterland. They refused to recognise Mamata’s massive mandate and Junglemahal’s expectation’s from the new government and the people’s will-ingness to give her time to deliver. Their armed squad-driven domination exercise, with little or no political control and lack of free interaction with the local people, led to the failure to appreciate the shifting allegiance of the anti-CPM forces that had veered around the PCAPA and changing public opinion. Wanton killing of rivals of all hues and suspected police moles irrespective of their class background only alienated their supporters and justified state repression.

Even the worst critics cannot deny that the Maoists had gained popular support to a good extent by tapping the widespread and accumulated anger against the CPI-M apparatchiks and their government in Junglemahal by investing blood and toil over a decade. But dealing with a newly installed populist government was a different ball game. They too ignored the lessons from the new Left-wing social-political movements in South America and elsewhere that armed insurgents of all hues now need to contest the existing nation-states and their supporting parties through radical experiments in democracy even if they want to win popular support for their brand of revolution. Opportunist politics of sleeping with the enemy’s enemy at the time of polls and hit-and-run from jungle hideouts is not all about the protracted people’s war that Mao had waged.

In this scenario, we will try to draw some pertinent lessons for all concerned from the experience of the aborted peace process in the light of the Andhra peace initiative in 2004. This post-mortem is intended not to end in blame-game but to identify the still unresolved live issues which need to be addressed if the stake-holders are still interested in honourable and sustainable peace in Junglemahal.

The Trajectory of the Peace Process: Conflicting Signals

THE five month-long peace initiative in Jungle-mahal formally began with a joint statement of the new government and its team of six interlocutors on July 7 following a meeting of high officials, Ministers and the go-betweens in presence of the Chief Minister. The team included known human rights activists Sujato Bhadra and Choton Das, journalist and former rights body leader Debashsis Bhattacharya and other three civil society members; Asokendu Sengupta, Kalyan Rudra and Prasun Bhoumik. Mamata herself picked the team from among those who had been active in Trinamul’s pro-Paribartan campaign before the Assembly polls and also enjoyed the trust of the Maoists and rebel-controlled People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). The statement conveyed the government’s ‘sincere interest in discussions for the peaceful solution of the problems of Jungle-mahal’ and the appointment of the interlocutors. However, it did not mention the Maoists and PCAPA.

Promising a special package for economic and social development of Junglemahal and rights to forest dwellers, the statement asked all sides to ‘hold fire’. It said that the ‘government would take legal moves to recover (illegal) weapons’. While appealing to the Maoists for talks ‘to create a democratic atmosphere free from fear and terror’, it also reflected the government’s strategy to entice the potential prodigals in the Maoist rank-and-file. It promised not to be ‘revengeful to those who would wish to surrender arms’ and offered them ‘financial package and social rehabilitation’.

Taking care of the Maoist/PCAPA concerns, the statement assured to investigate the incidents of ‘atrocities and injustice perpetrated during the earlier regime, on the basis of specific complaints’. But on the more immediate and most contentious issues, the statement belied the hopes of the Maoists, some human rights groups dominated by other Naxalite groups and their civil society sympathisers. On the demand for the uncondi-tional release of political prisoners, it merely asked the government-appointed separate review committee (which also included key peace negotiators) to ‘expedite its work’. This committee was largely in tune with Mamata’s poll mani-festo. But on the other demand for withdrawal of the Centre-State joint forces, the statement said that they ‘will be withdrawn (only) after Junglemahal becomes free of (illegal) weapons and peace returns there’. The implicit message was clear: the forces would remain deployed as a deterrent against the Maoists’ bid to regain the turf and their with-drawal would depend upon rebel violence.

The mediators, however, later argued that Maoists never insisted on the acceptance of their two demands as the precondition for talks. Neither did their detractors in human rights groups before the polls. Their critics described it as a deliberate violation of her manifesto which had said that her party ‘does not believe in atrocities in the name of the joint forces’ operation but wants to restore peace through humane steps and developmental work’. She had repeated the same in her publicspeak before the polls as the other side pointed out. On the other hand, the statement reflected the government and Trinamul’s complaints against the Maoists as it asked all to ‘maintain the democratic atmosphere, join the developmental activities and stop threatening others who are involved in such works’.

A relaxed-looking and confident-sounding Mamata later herself briefed the media on the peace initiative. She addressed the Maoists as ‘my brothers and sisters and comrades despite having ideological differences’ and appealed to them to shun violence and join her developmental moves in Junglemahal. The interlocutors were also upbeat.

Mamata’s Changed Priorities

BUT the feel-good scenario changed perceptibly within a week. In her first round of public meetings on July 12 in Junglemahal, Mamata did not delve into the peace initiative and kept mum particularly on the two key demands of the Maoists and PCAPA—immediate release of political prisoners and withdrawal of joint forces. She also chose to ignore the new charter of the PCAPA which included a judicial probe into the fake encounter deaths of its leaders, release of their jailed comrades and punishment of police officers who had committed atrocities on tribal women during the earlier regime. The charter had also listed the demands for genuine autonomy for the region, developmental priorities, and people’s vigilance on the flow of funds, freedom to continue the PCAPA-led development activities as well as recovery of vested and tribal land allotted by the earlier government for the Jindal group’s mega steel plant at Shalboni.

Instead of dealing with the political aspects of Junglemahal’s discontent, Mamata stressed on her new administrative and political priorities by announcing distribution of subsidised rice for the poor tribals irrespective of their BPL and APL status (also non-tribals), distribution of cycles for poor school-going girls and promises on developmental projects including roads, bridges, schools and colleges. While she harped on development, renewed interaction between the nearly-defunct administration and hoi polloi and establishment of the rule of law, Maoists considered these announcements as her populist ploy to consolidate her support base in the contested zone at their cost.

Despite her placatory messages that Maoists should not ‘misunderstand her as there is no difference between both sides except on violence’, the tension between the two sides became evident as she publicly accused the rebels of trying to derail the government’s developmental moves at the point of the gun and by terrorising her party leaders. She was particularly peeved at the Maoists/PCAPA following complaints of rebel obstructions to the government/Trinamul’s move to distribute subsidised rice and other doles to the tribal poor through their channels. In an apparent retaliatory move, she declared the government’s plan to distribute subsidised food from police stations and BDO offices and urged the audience ‘not to listen to those who are stopping them’.

Mamata did not stop at assuring a rehabilitation package to those who would surrender. She alarmed the Maoists further by exhorting the local youth to ‘take up arms for the government and the country’ and capping that call with her announcement to recruit 10,000 special police constables from Junglemahal. It later turned into a flashpoint as the Maoists and a section of civil society members took it as a clear move on her part to raise an anti-insurgent armed force on the lines of Chhattisgarh’s infamous corps of special police officers, now being absorbed in the regular police force after the Supreme Court had rapped the Congress-led Centre and BJP Government in Raipur.

Mamata did not bother to clear the air on the apprehension that her move was aimed at copying Raman Singh, her former colleague in the NDA Government. Her Ministers and civil society supporters described it as a leaf taken from the book of Tripura’s Left Front regime. They justified it as a move in tune with her promise to create jobs for the local youth.

Maoist Nod for Entering the Peace Process

BUT the interlocutors continued their efforts despite these constraints. They met some of the jailed Maoists and key PCAPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato in between July 22 and August 6, and also interacted with other ‘stakeholders’ including leaders of the Jharkhand Samannay Mancha, a forum of anti-Maoist Jharkhandi and Naxalite groups. Welcoming the initiative, the jailed leaders too demanded the release of political prisoners, withdrawal of the joint forces and an end to fresh arrests to facilitate the dialogue. Outside the jail, Maoist leader Vikram, in a statement on July 20, asked the government to release ‘senior leaders’ and ‘withdraw 90/95 per cent of the joint forces’ from Junglemahal. Denying any difference in the rebel State leadership on the issue of dialogue, as the media speculated quoting government circles, he said they had ‘restrained themselves unilaterally despite provocations from the police’. In the meantime, the current Maoist State Secretary, Akash, approached the key interlocutors to know ‘Mamata’s mind’ and after a rendezvous between them on August 28, he gave the green signal for talks. It prompted the government to assure safe passage to representatives of the underground. Subsequent developments, however, proved that both sides were suspicious about the real motives behind the other side’s peace gesture.

The Bottlenecks

THE issues of unconditional release of political prisoners and immediate withdrawal of the joint forces continued to be the bottlenecks for the peace process from the beginning. The human rights groups got bitterly divided between the mediators and their supporters, who shared the government’s concerns and preferred to give the six-month-old dispensation some more time, and their detractors, who accused them of condoning Mamata’s post-poll volte-face. The spat between two sides made the anti-government camp indifferent and sceptical, if not openly hostile to the peace initiative.

The government-constituted review committee initially recommended the release of 78 political prisoners but the government curtailed it down to 52. The later list included two Maoists along with 50 others related to two Rajbanshi commu-nity organisations which are demanding a separate State in the north Bengal districts close to Assam. But not a single Maoist has been released so far. Though the Chief Minister herself announced her move to release 52 prisoners before Independence Day 2011, only 15 non-Maoist prisoners have been freed so far. Of late, the committee has recommended the release of some other prisoners and political status for Chhatradhar Mahato and his close comrades. But the government has not acted upon it either.

Mamata’s reluctance to act upon the review committee’s recommendations only emboldened those critics of the government and the inter-locutors who had described it as a ‘dilly-dallying’ tactics. The pro-government circles cited objections from the Union Home Ministry and procedural hassles over judicial recognition of the status of political prisoners as the major hindrances. But their detractors hit back by referring to the prosecution’s opposition to the appeals for such status by Maoist undertrials and convicts to complain that the government had deliberately dragged its heels and reneged upon the earlier promises.

On the withdrawal of the joint forces, Mamata first tried to assure the underground through the interlocutors and later declared in public that she had restrained the forces for four months to facilitate the talks. But the underground contested her claim by complaining about atrocities by those in uniform on common villagers and these included rape, arbitrary arrests of suspected Maoists and PCAPA leaders as well as hot pursuit and firing.

The government’s critics also pointed out that Mamata did not spell out her post-poll position on enforcement of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act under the new regime and the fate of 90 accused (under the UAPA), including Maoists and PCAPA leaders, lodged in jails. She tried to assure through the inter-locutors that no fresh arrests would be made under the UAPA. Nevertheless, fresh arrests of PCAPA leaders and suspected Maoist supporters, including those visiting Junglemahal from Kolkata and other parts, only vitiated the atmosphere further.
The blame-game at ground level turned ugly and violent fast between August and September. Mamata toughened her stand in dealing with the Maoists/PCAPA men and release of their jailed leaders after receiving reports from intelligence and Trinamul sources regarding the Maoists’ move to make truce with some of the CPM ‘harmads’. The Maoists denied the charge and in turn accused the new ruling party of raising its own armed vigilante groups, ‘Bhairav Bahini’ and ‘Jana Jagaran Mancha’, by co-opting ‘harmads’ to enforce the Trinamul’s supremacy.

In the meantime, the government asked the joint forces to move out from their camps ‘on specific tip-off against Maoists’ which led to exchange of gunfire between the two sides. Raids in Maoist strongholds, intermittent clashes with motor-cycle borne armed ‘Bhairavs’ and joint forces engaged in ‘area domination’, poster war under the guise of the newly formed anti-Maoist groups accusing Maoists of sexual exploitation of village girls vitiated the fragile peace. Mamata, as the Opposition supremo, had accused the CPI-M cadres and uniformed forces of committing worst sexual assaults on women in Singur, Nandigram and Junglemahal and often flanked herself with the victims at her public rallies a few months back. But as the Chief Minister, she now dismissed the complaints of rapes on the victim women of Junglemahal as ‘lies parroted by women under Maoist pressure to smear the government forces’.

Maoists Declared Ceasefire after Resuming Killings

THE peace initiative suffered a huge jolt after Maoists resumed murders claiming them as just and retaliatory to the joint forces-‘Bhairav Bahini’ onslaughts. This renewal of killings after a lull since the Assembly polls was now aimed at not the CPM cadres but Trinamul leaders and supporters.

The murders of key organisers of the Trinamul’s anti-Maoist resistance, particularly, Lalmohon Mahato and Rabindranath alias Babu Bose between August and September, incensed Mamata. The last one was a CPM cadre-turned-popular Jharkhandi faction leader. He fell out with the Maoists after the latter had hege-monised the anti-CPM People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). The Maoists accused him of joining hands with the CPM harmads and joint forces to hunt down and kill their supporters and PCAPA leaders. After the polls, the Trinamul had roped in Bose to build up its resistance against the Maoists in the strategic Jhargram area. Maoists claimed to have killed him to pre-empt that move. Sujato Bhadra condemned the killings on behalf of his team and expressed apprehension about its adverse effect on the peace initiative. His team again met Mamata who vented her ire on the killings but apparently gave a nod for continued efforts.

Within a few days of these murders, on October 3, the CPI (Maoist) State Secretary, Akash, in an apparent damage-control exercise, announced a conditional ‘ceasefire’ following his meeting with two key interlocutors, Sujato Bhadra and Choton Das, on September 30. The announcement was ‘countersigned’ by both the negotiators. The statement assured to enforce ‘ceasefire for a month in letter and spirit if the government reciprocates the same by stopping the joint forces’ crackdown during the period’. Maintaining that the ‘government would have to take the initiative to disarm the various other armed groups including harmads’, the Maoists assured to inform about the attacks by these groups to the government through the inter-locutors. “The sincere fulfilment of these condi-tions would create the atmosphere conducive for talks,” it added. The supplementary press statement by Akash on the same day detailed their demands and assurances as he wanted the government to strictly ‘confine the joint forces to their camps, stop patrolling and arrests’. In exchange, he assured ‘not to use arms and execute people’s courts verdicts on punishment (to rivals)’.

But the damage was already done by the renewal of reckless killings by the Maoists.

Mamata’s Outbursts against Maoists

THE Chief Minister and top State officials first denied having received the ‘ceasefire’ declaration in writing after the Maoists made it public through the media and later ignored it for almost a fortnight. According to the interlocutors, despite being angry over the killings, Mamata had told them to continue their efforts and wanted them to come back with a written statement from the Maoists committing them to the ceasefire and peace talks. She reportedly sounded warm after being informed about the ‘positive outcome’ of their second meeting with the Maoists. The mediators expected her to appreciate their ‘achievement in terms of obtaining the ceasefire agreement’ arguing that every peace process had suffered such jolts but resumed for the sake of larger stakes.

However, Mamata clearly had a different reading of the situation as she ‘evaded’ meeting the mediators to know the details citing her public engagements during the Puja vacation.

Her public reaction became known during her second round of public rallies in Junglemahal in mid-October. Holding the girl child of the slain Mahato in her lap and flanked by Bose and Mahato’s widows, she trained her guns on the Maoists. Blasting the underground for ‘double-speak in the name of peace talks’, albeit without naming them, she described them as ‘supari (contract) killers and jungle mafias’ and ‘cowards who run away after killing people and live by issuing statements to the media’. Challenging the Maoists for a public face-off, she dared them to kill her at a place of their choice and set a week-long deadline to decide whether ‘they will shun violence’. While the threat of a full-scale security crackdown after the deadline was implicit in her warning, she insisted that the government had so far kept the joint forces on leash. “Talks are still welcome. But killings and peace efforts can’t go together,” she warned.

On October 18, the interlocutors met Mamata at Writers Buildings in Kolkata for the fifth time. But the mood of bonhomie was clearly missing this time as the government circles later conveyed Mamata’s ‘dark mood’ and ‘stern messages’ to Maoists through the mediators. The interlocutors offered to step down after a ‘battle of nerves’ with the government side at the meeting. But the Chief Minister wanted them to continue the peace process, obviously because she did not want to take the responsibility for the failure of the talks. Bhadra disapproved the Chief Minister’s use of epithets against the Maoists and parried questions on her deadline.

With the local media largely interpreting these developments as clear signs of the failing talks, some of the anti-talk newspapers and channels mounted the campaign for an immediate crackdown. Several reports on differences within the Maoist leadership on dealing with Mamata came out along with questions regarding the silence of the party centre on the Bengal talks thereby stoking scepticism about the peace process.

Ground Rules for Truce

ON October 24, the interlocutors prepared a six-point note ‘after consulting both sides’ on the ground rules for maintaining the truce before the talks. They asked all sides to hold fire: the Maoists to stop murders, threats and display of arms, and the government to stop the joint forces’ operations and raids in villages temporarily to ensure the congenial atmosphere for the peace talks. Other armed groups, forums and individuals were also asked to exercise restraint. This was in tune with a similar exercise during the Andhra talks. Reaffirming their faith in the need for talks, the interlocutors hoped the Bengal talks would be a ‘pioneering model for similar ventures in other States’.

They invited opinions from both the government and Maoists within a fortnight to finalise the guidelines and pave the way for a meeting between both sides. The government would have to ensure safe passage for Maoist representatives during the talks, their statement iterated.

Once again the Chief Minister didn’t react publicly. The note was ‘leaked’ to the media, as the interlocutors later complained, by the government. Top government officials conveyed to the media her ‘anger’ about the ‘interlocutors’ treatment of Maoists at par with the legitimate government and its forces’ and consequent suspicion about the ‘neutrality’ of the interlocutors. The mediators cited the Centre’s talks with the ULFA and Naga insurgents as well as the govern-ment-Maoist truce in the Philippines to argue for equal status for the warring sides as an essential precondition for successful peace talks.

But Mamata’s next moves made it clear that she was not at all convinced. The interlocutors hoped that she would ‘appreciate’ their achieve-ment of extracting a month-long ceasefire from the Maoists and reciprocate by extending the period of restraint by the joint forces and Trinamul vigilante groups. But to their ‘utter disappointment and dismay’ they found Mamata ‘increasingly cold’ to the peace intiative.

Maoist Chargesheet against Mamata

THE Maoists raised their pitch with a virtual chargesheet against Mamata’s government and her party in an open letter addressed to Bhadra and other interlocutors on October 26. Akash not only complained about the ‘hellish state terror’ including rapes but also described it as ‘worse than the CPM regime’. The Maoist leader found Mamata ‘more eager than Chidambaram’ to finish them off militarily. He blamed her for trying ‘deceive the people of Junglemahal in the name of peace talks and developmental package’.

Castigating her for launching a ‘Salwa Judum of the Mamata model’, Akash cited various atrocities of the Trinamul’s ‘Bhairavs’ under the joint forces’ protection, and justified the killings of the Mahato and Bose as retaliatory. Claiming that the Maoists had kept ‘restraint since the political change in Bengal and did not kill anybody without reasons and tried to avoid clashes’, he blamed Mamata for ‘trying to kill the Maoists, including him, despite the fact he had been engaged in the peace talks’. Reminding that the Trinamul and Maoists were engaged in armed resistance against the CPM’s ‘harmads’ in Nandigram, the rebel leader ridiculed the ‘hypocrisy of the parliamentary parties’ which resorted to arms in their turf war but blamed the Maoists alone.

Nevertheless, Akash affirmed his party’s ‘sincere commitment to peace’, put up a 13-point charter of demands, and asked for a ‘direct and written communication from the Chief Minister on peace and development in clear terms’ and an end to attacks by the government forces. Complaining that Mamata’s description of the Maoists as ‘jungle mafia and supari killers’ had reflected a ‘fascist mindset’, he asked her to ‘stop threats and the use of uncivilised language’ and wanted the right to hold rallies and organise movements for the Maoists and their sympathisers.

Making it clear that the issue of arms surrender would not be a part of the agenda for future talks, he suggested a mechanism to ‘monitor the commitment of both sides to the peace process’. Reposing faith in the ‘sincerity’ of the interlocutors, the Maoist missive, however, rapped them too for failing to investigate into their complaints of the joint forces’ atrocities and prevail upon the government to stop the raids by those in uniform. It also castigated the mediators for keeping mum on Mamata’s ‘hidden agenda to prepare for a full-scale armed onslaught under the guise of peace talks’.

On October 31, Akash in a statement ended the ceasefire period reiterating his complaints. In a letter to Bhadra on the same day, he reminded that their fight was against ‘an unprincipled state’ and warned that ‘Mamata’s model of Salwa Judum would not only liquidate us but you too if we can’t stop it together’. However, on November 6, he offered to extend the ceasefire for four months while asking for a monitoring committee for the period before the talks. The mediators viewed the new offer positively in the light of their note on the ground rules which did not reach Akash before his last letter. But, the government side took it as a Maoist ploy to get respite from the security forces’ crackdown during the winter when their jungle cover would be thin.

Spiral of Violence Escalated

THE Chief Minister and her party responded by unleashing the joint forces and motor-cycle borne Trinamul vigilante groups as well as holding public rallies against the Maoists and fresh arrests. The spiral of violence continued as the Maoists killed one old and poor tribal, allegedly a member of the Trinamul-led village-level anti-Maoist vigilante group, in Purulia in the first week of November. Mamata reacted at a public meeting close to the place of murder by calling the Maoists ‘coward killers and extortionists who speak of tribal interests but kill tribals when they refuse to serve their petty interests’. She said the government would now be stern after restraining the joint forces for four months in the hope of a negotiated peace.

Though Mamata did not announce the resumption of full-scale security crackdown, she asked the Maoist-hit villagers across Junglemahal to organise gram rakshi bahinis or village protection guards to take on the insurgents. The joint forces arrested the underground spokesman of the PCAPA from a hide-out along with two others in West Midnapore. In Purulia, the government side engineered desertion from the Maoist-backed Banabasi Mulabasi Janaganer Committee to the Trinamul-backed Maobadi Birodhi Unnayan Committee and public disavowal of the Maoist violence by the converts. Both sides complained of atrocities on their supporters in both districts as well as parts of adjoining Bankura.

On November 14, Maoists retaliated by killing the Maoist-turned-Trinamul leader Rajen Singh Sardar’s father Ajit Singh Sardar and brother Baku Singh Sardar at Khuntar village close to the Ayodhya Hills in Purulia. Being the Secretary of the Maobadi Birodhi Unnayan Committee, Rajen was the main target of the raiding Maoist squad but he escaped unhurt.

Revealing the shifting sands of the turf war in Junglemahal, Rajen said Maoist leader Vikram had told him as well as some other local youth to join the Trinamul to facilitate their fight against the CPM before the polls. He said he was also associated with the Banabasi Mulabasi Janaganer Committee, and even served as the rebel squad member for some time before being arrested by the police at Ghatshila. After he came out of jail, Vikram suspected him of having arranged his own release by bribing the police and working as a police mole. The underground squad leader wanted to settle scores with him and asked his school master father to send him to their hideout.

In the meantime, equations between the Maoists and Trinamul had changed and local Trinamul leaders roped in Rajen and his friends to join their anti-Maoist forum. Maoists retaliated by killing his family members after failing to find him. Mamata described him and his slain family members as Trinamul workers and the latter’s dead bodies were brought to Kolkata ostensibly to pay homage to them in order to launch a counter-campaign against the Maoists.

Jitu Singh, in contrast, was a common villager belonging to the poorest of the poor. But he apparently earned the Maoist wrath as a suspected police mole like many such poor villagers had met the same fate at the hands of the Maoists and their kangaroo courts.

In retaliation, the joint forces killed two local youth, described as members of the Maoist squad that reportedly ran into an encounter with government forces after raiding Rajen’s home. The gun-battle also claimed the life of a Naga jawan. The killing of the ‘squad members’ was the first such action of the government forces since the change of guards at Writers’ Buildings.

Mamata also increased the monetary reward for surrendering every kind of illegal firearms as well as better package for those who would desert the Maoists. As the police showcased the deserters, the Chief Minister presented a high-profile surrendered Maoist couple at Writers’ Buildings to highlight the success of the government’s appeal to the prodigals. Maoists contested her by claiming that the couple was expelled from their rank much earlier and gave themselves up to the police months ago. The increasing queue of local boys and girls applying for police jobs, with even some of the family members of the Maoist squad members among them, unnerved the Maoists and emboldened the government.

The Endgame

THE fast escalation in competitive violence put the peace process on its deathbed. On November 16, the mediators wrote to the Chief Minister requesting ‘release’ from their responsibility in view of the worsening situation at the ground level. They met the Chief Minister later, produced the Maoist disclaimers about the government’s complaint of threats to the local job-seekers in police and pressed for restraining the joint forces. Mamata was non-committal but again did not want to take the blame for the breakdown. The mediators sent a letter on November 20 to the Maoists seeking contacts. But it could not ‘reach the targeted recipients’.

The government geared up for a massive hunt-down in the jungle hideouts of the Maoists. The State Police intensified its coordination with the Andhra Police as well as Central forces for a full-fledged crackdown on the Maoists. The guerrillas were on the run as the joint forces got tip-offs from their friends-turned-foes in the Trinamul camp including some former insiders. Kishenji’s killing took place on November 24. The Maoist Central Committee, though it never came out explicitly in support of the Bengal peace initiative, announced withdrawal from the initiative after calling the killing a cold-blooded murder. On November 28, all the mediators, except one, resigned on the ground of their ‘helplessness and inability’ to ‘carry forward’ the peace process in view of the ‘prevailing situation’.

What Went Wrong?

BOTH the interlocutors and their supporters had believed that peace was achievable in view of Mamata’s ‘recognition of the political nature of the Junglemahal problem’, her pre-poll assurances and post-poll interest in dialogue. The distinctions that Maoists had made earlier between the CPM and Trinamul also emboldened them. For them, Mamata could have broken the spiral of the government-Maoist competitive violence for the first time in India. Interlocutors now felt disappointed by both sides. But the key mediators blamed the Chief Minister and her high officials more for the breakdown of the peace process. According to them, the government failed to seize the opportunity created by the Maoist ceasefire and lull in Maoist killings for the full month of October.

However, their understanding of her politics appears to be still unclear as contradictory assessments revealed. While they insisted on her ‘initial good intention’, they blamed her ‘knee-jerk reaction to Maoist violence, intemperate public outbursts and lack of understanding of ultra politics and organisation structure’ for the eventual breakdown. The ‘pressure from Chidambaram, security and administrative mandarins and hawks among Trinamul Ministers and party leaders also took its toll’. A key mediator was alarmed about her ‘real intention’ after Mamata asked the underground Maoist leaders to come out in public without their hoods and announce their pledge for peace talks. She either did not understand the nuances of peace-making or she was trying to provoke the Maoists for armed hostility, they felt. Referring to the Centre’s negotiation with the ULFA and NSCN factions in the North-East, they insisted on equal status of the government and under-ground in peace talks and resented Mamata’s angry refusal to see the reason behind it.

At hindsight some of the mediators also felt that she had wanted to ‘divide’ the civil society and ‘neutralise’ the influential voices by appointing them as peace-brokers. Ultimately, they suspected that Mamata turned them into the ‘Shikandi’ of Mahabharat fame to facilitate the joint forces’ crackdown on ultras. But their detractors accused them of ‘belated wisdom at the cost of unity in the human rights groups’.

Interestingly, K.G. Kannabiran, the leading mediator in the failed Andhra talks, had also blamed the then Congress Government of ‘skul-duggery’. In an interview to Deccan Herald in 2006, he accused the YSR regime of using the period of peace talks to ‘go over the Nallamalla forests (the Maoist hideout) with a toothcomb’. “We (interlocutors) unwittingly played a treacherous role in believing the bonafide of the government,” he said. Nevertheless, he did not consider the entire effort fruitless. “I won’t say we achieved nothing. It was the people’s pressure that brought the government and Maoists to the table to talk peace. That was a victory for democracy.” Similar are the sentiments of the Bengal mediators.

Mamata’s side, however, denied any game-plan but criticised the mediators for failing to contain the Maoist violence during the initiative. They defended the Chief Minister’s public position that she could not avoid her constitutional responsibility to act against the Maoist killings. The interlocutors’ insistence on restraint in the joint forces’ operation and their advocacy of equal status for two sides further eroded the government’s faith in them, Trinamul leaders complained.

The detractors of the government shot back by referring to the withdrawal of the ban on CPI-ML (People’s War), one of the major constituents of the CPI (Maoist), by the YSR Government in Andhra and subsequent permission to the ultras to hold public meetings before and during the talks in 2004. According to them, though the Central Government has proscribed the CPI (Maoist), the Mamata Banerjee Government could have suspended the ban in Bengal and allowed the Maoists to propagate their politics if they had agreed to do it peacefully. Given her all-time-high clout in the Central Government today, she could have also released a few of the jailed State-level Maoist leaders and sympathisers as the party had expected. At least, efforts could have been made to facilitate their internal meeting to prepare the ground for talks with the government.

With the Supreme Court’s clarification on what actually amounts to sedition and fresh demands to repeal the colonial sedition law, the Maoist public criticism of Indian democracy and its mainstream participants would not have led to its fall but proved its resilience, they argued. For them, withdrawal of UAPA cases against the Maoist and PCAPA leaders would have put her on a pedestal different from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. This was important in view of the CPI (Maoist) leaders’ decision not to expose its underground top brass to intelligence surveillance and subsequent killings of its emissaries as post-talk Nallamalla killings in Andhra and Azad’s murder later. This gesture could have addressed the political issues that the Maoists/PCAPA had been insisting on and, in turn, reduced tension.

Azad, in an interview to The Hindu before his murder, had himself referred to the ‘rich experience and important lessons’ of the AP 2004 talks. “If at all a situation for talks arises once again....we can instruct our leadership in various prisons to take the responsibility… the mistakes committed in AP during talks with the government will not be repeated.” But the glitch in the formula, some people involved in the Bengal peace process pointed out, was the Maoist organisational principle that forfeited the internal stature of leaders once they were jailed. Accordingly, a move to hold separate talks with the jailed leaders was discarded.

The Question of PCAPA

MAMATA failed to make a distinction between the Maoists and PCAPA, the latter’s democratic character by constitutional standards, at least for a considerable period. She declined to address the social-political issues that the Lalgarh movement threw up. Both the PCAPA and its supporters have prioritised the action against violation of human rights and healing of the long-hurt ‘dignity’ of tribal and non-tribal women and poor as well as recognition of the political-cultural autonomy of the local communities. Mamata could have begun by announcing actions against the police officials accused of atrocities on tribal women in 2008 that had triggered the movement. But she tried to assuage the local feelings by a mere cosmetic move— financial compensation to the injured tribal women which some of them refused to accept. Similarly, she kept mum over the Maoist/ PCAPA demands for judicial enquiry into the fake encounter killings of several leaders of the Lalgarh movement. Though she has opened up investigations into several massacres including the 40-year-old Sainbari killing, her silence over the Junglemahal killings during the CPM regime is presumably guided by her decision to keep the joint forces and Central Government in good humour.

Her stubborn refusal to release the key PCAPA leaders, including Chhatradhar Mahato, himself a former Congress-turned-Trinamul leader, smacks of her brand of politics. Mahato had contested from the Jhargram constituency against both the Trinamul and CPM in the 2011 Assembly polls despite her request not to do so. Some of today’s peace negotiators were Trinamul emissaries during the failed talks on seat adjustments with the jailed PCAPA leader.

According to Trinamul leaders and pro-PCAPA activists, Mahato insisted on contesting to under-line his democratic credentials and independent voice of the PCAPA in the backdrop of the CPM campaign on his nexus with the Maoists and Mamata. The Trinamul first wanted him to contest as a party-backed Independent but later changed its mind and asked him to move away from the strategic Jhargram seat. Mahato refused to budge. Maoists opposed his decision and did not endorse his poorly-run poll campaign, apparently sharing the Trinamul fear of the division of the anti-CPM votes.

Mahato finished a poor third by polling only 2,00,037 or 12.88 per cent of the total votes polled. The poll outcome greatly compromised his bargaining power with Mamata and her men who dismissed him and the PCAPA as a spent force. The Trinamul now reportedly sounded Mahato to come to terms about his future politics before his release. According to Mahato’s wife Niyati, also a former Congress-turned-Trinamul worker, her husband first wanted his and fellow leaders’ release and a month’s time to discuss with his followers before entering into talks. With no breakthrough, Niyati and others close to Mahato accused Mamata of a ‘great betrayal’.

Leaders close to Mamata argued that Mahato and his men would create further trouble if freed now and the matter would have been considered only if the peace talks with his Maoist superiors had borne fruit. Clearly, she preferred to build up her party’s organisation and the administrative structure, hitherto largely non-existent in Junglemahal, in a bid to consolidate her political base at the cost of the Maoists and PCAPA. As her partner, the Congress, is contesting the Trinamul’s bid to make inroads into the former’s bastions in north Bengal, Mamata has reasons to ensure her absolute control in south Bengal that includes Junglemahal. But she must learn from the CPM, which could not hold its fiefdom despite denying the Opposition any space for so long.

Maoists Must Stop Killings and Respect Others’ Political Freedom

ON the other hand, the recent Maoist killing of rivals in Junglemahal, particularly Trinamul leaders, has damaged the peace process enormously. The PWG and its ally, CPI-ML (Janashakti), did not indulge in killings after the ban was lifted and talks were on the cards in Andhra.

Analysing the reasons for the failure of the Andhra talks, late Balagopal had blamed both the Maoists and government. Taking on the police-raj, he said: “The police should also agree not to kill a person taken into custody, nor hunt down militants and shoot them while eating, sleeping or bathing in a mountain stream as if they are wild game.”

On the other hand, he asked for ‘transparency’ in the ‘allegations that the revolutionaries make about persons being police informers, anti-people elements, etc, and (be) fair in their modes of proof, before setting out to punish them’. “And (they should be) mindful of the person’s social-economic background in deciding the punishment to be given. Indeed, this is perhaps the single most important demand that the people at large would place upon them.”

Disapproving the Maoist killing of political rivals, he said: “The Naxalites on their part could agree not to harm any and every leader of the ruling party, however small or inconsequential, in retaliation to the state’s repressive policies. That any and every policeman would not be killed in retaliation to ‘encounters’. That the routine political-administrative activity of the establishment would not be forcibly prevented.” Balagopal was also critical of the government and police for denying political rights to the Maoists and their mass organisations on the alibi that such lenience will ‘tend to increase revolu-tionary violence’. “If revolutionary violence is found attractive by significant numbers of the people, and will grow at the first opportunity, then that says something about the existing state of affairs, and whatever anyone may think about such a state of affairs, shutting it out forcibly from the society’s sight is no response.”

But he also pointed out the dichotomy in the Maoist position on political freedom as they considered it legitimate for them but refused to extend it to their rivals including parliamentary parties.

He referred to the Maoist logic that ‘these parties tell lies and cheat the people, and allowing people to freely follow them would be tantamount to allowing the people in their innocence to offer themselves to the cheating’. “This objection too is not without basis, but nevertheless the revolu-tionaries must agree not to obstruct the freedom, for truth can be realised only in freedom, though they will, of course, be free to expose the lies and the cheating,’’ he said.

The trajectory of the Lalgarh movement and PCAPA is ample proof of the Maoist double-standard on political freedom. They killed the CPI-M cadres, mostly accused as police moles and ‘harmads’ irrespective of their class background, and forced other anti-CPM Naxalite and Jharkhandi factions out of the movement. But substitution of one-party rule of the CPM or Trinamul by a Maoist variety cannot be accepted as a notion of superior political legitimacy despite the revolutionary claims of better representation of people’s interests.

Despite widespread dismay which many of their sympathisers also share, the Maoist leader-ship has to stop indiscriminate killings of suspected moles and security personnel. Azad and Kishenji had justified such killings but their logic only mirrored the logic of the state which they called repressive and undemocratic. For them, everything is justified during the war including booby-trapping the dead bodies of the slain policemen or moles. The public rotting of the body of murdered Salku Soren, a CPM supporter in Lalgarh, at the height of the Maoist power was a grim reminder of this mindless cruelty. But their enemies, including the government forces, too believe in the same axiom. Together, both sides have left little room for democratic niceties in the killing fields across the country.

Like Andhra, the row over the rebels’ right to display weapons and complaints of their armed intimidation by the government and ruling party have already clouded the peace process in Bengal. Akash not only made surrender of arms non-negotiable but insisted on the Maoist PLGA’s right to carry and display weapons demanding equal status for the government and insurgent troops. But Balagopal had found a similar claim untenable in Andhra earlier. According to him, this could be a realistic demand only when and where revolutionaries would be able to bring the government to its knees. But the ground reality in Andhra 2004 and Bengal 2011 were far away from that scenario.

Maoist Dichotomy on Conditions for Peace

ARGUING a case for withdrawal of the ban on his party, Azad had told the The Hindu: “If peaceful legal work has to be done by Maoists as desired by several organisations and members of civil society, then lifting of ban becomes a prerequisite.” But did he or his party believe in peaceful movements? Here he had couched his reply in terms of the immediate and ultimate with people’s consciousness as the key to the transition from one to the other. “We believe that ultimately people have to take up armed struggle to seize power. But this does not mean we take up armed struggle at the cost of all other forms of struggle and thereby invite the state to unleash its brute force on the people.”

It’s another matter how to assess the people’s consciousness and whether the Maoists consult the people before changing the form of struggle.

According to Azad, the Lalgarh movement was “a stark example of the transformation of a peaceful mass movement into a violent armed struggle. Lalgarh’s peaceful mass movement with simple demands for an apology from the police officials and an end to brutal police repression had transformed into a revolutionary armed struggle due to the brutal suppression campaign unleashed by the state and state-sponsored terrorists like the Harmad Bahini.”

But in a recent interview to Tehelka, Maoist State Secretary Akash made it clear that Lalgarh’s metamorphosis was planned much earlier and executed accordingly. “Our long-term goal is to establish a people’s government in Junglemahal through a process that leads to the establishment of liberated zones and seizure of political power through area-wise occupation. The 2007 all-India Congress of our party has already given the guideline that we want to make Junglemahal a liberated zone. All our activities, mass, political and military, are actually aimed at this,” he said.

Divided Civil Society and Hostile Media

THE fragile peace initiative in Bengal lacked the wider popular constituency from the beginning. In comparison to Andhra, the impact of the Maoist-government mutual violence on public life is still limited to a few blocks in Junglemahal. The hostility of a powerful section of the Bengal media to the peace initiative and their campaign for a full-fledged security crackdown on Maoists, even before the talks failed, only weakened the public opinion further. Unlike the positive role of a good section of the vernacular media in Andhra in 2004-05, its Bengal counterpart in 2011 did not care to build pubic opinion for peace through informed debates. Most of the local media have turned into weathercocks and become the mouthpiece of the government and new ruling party in tune with Mamata’s soaring political fortune.

The bitter division in the pro-Paribantan civil society, particularly human rights groups, between pro-Mamata and anti-Mamata factions also confused the peace constituency. Unlike the Committee for Concerned Citizens which had spearheaded the peace process in Andhra, a similar move in Bengal did not evolve as an independent civil society initiative but a half-hearted move by some who were close to the Chief Minister. The interlocutors’ endorsement of the government’s line of gradual and conditional release of political prisoners and their decision not to articulate their independent position in public, at least in the initial phase of the peace initiative, also added to the split.

The public spat between these sections revealed the stereotyped nature of the discourses in the human rights movement and civil society circles in Bengal. They failed to encourage fresh churnings over the issues involved in Jungle-mahal and attract new ideas and forces in the peace initiative that could have turned it into the beginning of a new politics. The refusal to oppose Maoist killings in unequivocal terms while condemning state terror and denial of the independent existence of the affected people caught in the crossfire in a conflict zone has only eroded the credibility of the human rights community as a non-partisan public watchdog.

True, human rights groups condemned some killings of civilians by the Maoists, apparently to be even-handed following criticism by governments and the media. The media, which had often ignored those statements, should be pulled up for its politics of suppression and playing up news. But rights body insiders can themselves vouch as to how much difficult these occasional acts of balancing are and how much tentative is their limit. Pending the debates on legitimacy of revolutionary violence against structural violence and repressive state machinery, the campaign against killings of non-combatants —civilians, unarmed members of government and revolutionary forces including POWs and political rivals—are part of the international conventions that guide the global human rights bodies in conflict zones. But closer home, apologists of both the government and insurgent groups often turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of their side.

Many sympathisers of the Lalgarh movement had lamented in private about the derailment of a genuine and unique mass movement by the Maoists in pursuance of their blueprint. But they failed to come out with their friendly criticism except a few feeble murmurs of disapproval as they feared it would help the ‘enemy’—the CPM and the government. Unfortunately, Bengal has no Balagopal who can be unflinchingly persistent in his public exposure of the competitive violence of the Indian state and its armed challengers as well as its impact on hapless hoi polloi, not as a politically correct exercise but for greater democratisation of the existing state, its partisans and those political forces who want to replace it with their cherished one. No claimant to the privilege of being the sole spokesman for the people or sole agency of public good and progress should go unexamined under the scanner of ‘higher human standards’, as K.G. Kannabiran had put in his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the collapse of the Andhra talks.

Is a Middle Ground Possible?

IN our understanding, the vicious blame-game may end and a reasonable middle ground can emerge only if the Central and State governments as well as Maoists are ready for acceptance of the ground reality that neither side can liquidate the other militarily, at least in the foreseeable future. Peace may have a chance if both sides prepare for major paradigm shifts, even for a mutually agreed period, in terms of the new economic and political vision for radical experiments in democracy and socialism, in this case, the people’s democracy, as the Maoists envisage it. This article is not aimed at exploring these possibilities and the minefields around them. Nevertheless, if we are to believe in the public vibes of the stakeholders in Bengal, a small beginning could have been made in that direction.

Both Mamata and the Maoists claim to champion the cause of development and democracy in Junglemahal. Therefore, both could have set the legitimate agenda for the talks. In turn, it could have broken new ground in terms of both contest and engagement between the parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties in a contested zone and the emergence of new grassroots politics.

Azad had succinctly put up the Maoist opposition to the prevailing model of development. “It is worthwhile to keep in mind that it is not the lack of development that has become the problem in the rural areas, particularly the adivasi-inhabited areas. On the contrary, it is its imperialist-dictated anti-people development model that is driving them to displacement and deprivation, death and destitution, and extreme desperation.” However, he offered a romantic picture of the past. “There need be hardly any doubt that the poor adivasis have been a happier lot before the civilised [corporate] goons set their foot on their soil,” he said.

Mamata Banerjee shared this criticism to some extent like some other Congress leaders by her populist instincts and vote-bank calculations. She had championed the plight of the land-losers in Singur and Nandigram and opposed the corporate-propelled development discourse of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government which endeared her to the Maoists. Her post-election administrative moves so far are largely in tune with her electoral promises on the land question, despite pressure from the corporate bodies for government intervention in land acquisition. But the Maoists/PCAPA now demanded that she should take back the land allotted to the Jindals for its steel plant project at Shalboni claiming valuable deposits under-ground while the government is reworking on the legality of Jindal’s possession of the land. The new government is mounting pressure on companies for quick use of allotted/acquired or purchased land for their professed purposes, namely, industry and infrastructure. It’s premature to call the exercise a sham.

But the Maoists are not convinced about the development credentials of the Mamata Govern-ment. In his interview to Tehelka, Akash did not bother to make any distinction between the present and future.

“As long as a government—it may be Mamata or XYZ—takes pro-people stands, we will not oppose it. But it is impossible for the new government to do this. For example, Finance Minister Amit Mitra is part of the pro-American lobby and will always serve imperial interests…. A white sari and Hawai slippers do not reveal the actual nature of the present government. We have to be conscious to understand how Mamata, despite popular slogans, is actually working for imperial interests. Decline of the CPI-M raj does not mean the eradication of social fascism.”

Given the level of distrust, the Maoist leader was not convinced about the development packages Mamata had announced during her rallies in Junglemahal. In his open letter to the interlocutors, he described the packages as ‘lollypop’. Clearly, Maoists are perturbed over Mamata’s efforts to outsmart them by offering subsidised rice to all tribals irrespective of their BPL status and promising roads and bridges, schools and colleges etc. to win over the locals.

Development and Participatory Democracy

IF the Maoists want to foil Mamata’s political game and pre-empt the corruption in-built in the administrative delivery mechanism, they can articulate their opposition by demanding people’s vigilance and control over the implementation of the projects including rice distribution.

A monitoring mechanism can be developed involving popularly elected village-level represen-tatives of poor tribals and non-tribals and women that would supplement the panchayats and other elected but virtually defunct local bodies. Representatives of political parties, NGOs and local civil society can join the process. Mamata’s Ministers had earlier indicated that they won’t mind if the Maoists launch their own frontal outfit to join the implementation and monitoring.

On the other hand, Akash (and earlier Vikram, his comrade from the Purulia squad) had evinced his party’s interest in overground development activities and grassroots politics. To prove their development credentials, the Maoists had invited journalists in their strongholds to visit medical dispensaries rainwater reservoirs, embankments, rural roads and drinking water supply and other such endeavours by the PCAPA men and women despite severe repression. The government and its joint forces have tried to destroy such parallel developmental efforts to demolish the underground’s popular support base.

Akash had hinted at new thinking in the Maoist rank-and-file regarding their role in development politics. “Both tribal welfare and political power are our primary goals. But one thing has to be clarified here: We don’t think tribal welfare will be obtained after achieving political power alone. It is not true that we are not participating in overground politics and we have never maintained that we will not do so. We address both the overground and under-ground process of politics,” Akash said.

His subsequent words indicated new possibilities further. “We are already opting for democratic participation. That is why we made an appeal to the past and present governments to come to the villages, the gram sabhas, then make their policies. If the government calls a meeting in these villages, the CPI (Maoist) will definitely participate.” Does it mean that Maoists would consider participation in panchayat polls which Mamata is likely to hold next year in-stead of 2013 as scheduled? Key interlocutors believed so after their interaction with the Maoists and claimed to have tried to convince the Chief Minister about this peace dividend.

Akash also indicated the Maoist desire to monitor the huge funds that come down to te panchayats. “We demand an inquiry commission that will take detailed accounts of allocated funds in the Junglemahal area. The point is to find out where those crores of rupees are going. We have already appealed to the new government four times but got no response. This is Mamata’s way of functioning. She does not feel responsible to answer any other parties or people.”

But Maoists don’t consider the prevailing self-governance institutions democratic and want their armed squads to stand guard as the final defenders of the people’s interests. Also, in the Maoist schema, the people’s committee is both the panacea of participatory democracy and organ of people’s power. “In our model of development, whether money is allotted by the Central and State governments or is the people’s own initiative, everything will be guided, directed, collected and checked by the people’s committee. We believe all this can be achieved only through armed struggle. This is because all institutions of the state, from the gram panchayat to Parliament, are hardly democratic,” Akash said.

“If anything works here, it is the people’s committee, especially made for the welfare of forest land. All forest products remain in the hands of the people and only they will fix rates when they sell it in the market… Another important aspect—our aim was to increase the production level in villages through development.”

There is no denying the fact that the Panchayati Raj institutions despite their initial potential, had largely become instruments of political control, domination of a new rural elite and appendage to state-party bureaucracy during the CPI-M’s virtual one-party rule. As a result, people’s participation in the gram sansads waned drastically. The situation hardly changed after the Trinamul bagged a few Zilla Parishads and a large number of Panchayats in 2008.

However, the question remains as to whether the Maoists would allow the non-Maoist parties to be part of their proposed people’s committee or would like to run it as their own fiefdom. If democracy means de facto Maoist rule through people’s committees and people’s courts, development through public participation in policy decisions, implementation and its monitoring will never be accomplished. In popular imagination, the Maoist party, despite its claim of superior political morality and legitimacy, would in due course degenerate into another supremacy-mongering political organisation, albeit of non-parliamentary hue.

On the other hand, if Mamata thinks that she would hegemonise the entire political space in Junglemahal at the cost of all opposition forces including the Maoists and dictate the terms of contests and engagements in developmental politics, peace will continue to elude her despite her government’s short-term military and political advantage.

The author is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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