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Give up arms and join the democratic struggle

by Nirmalangshu Mukherji, 4 November 2009

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The below article first appeared in The Indian Express, 3 November 2009

Lay down those home-made arms

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has asked the CPI (Maoists) to “halt” armed operations and to come to talks. Specifically, Chidambaram does not require that the “Maoists lay down arms”; he just wants cessation of hostilities for now for talks to take place. Laying down of arms may be postponed for later. Once this minimal condition is satisfied, Chidambaram is prepared to talk on all issues concerning tribal welfare and rights, industrial policy, models of development, and the like.

Assume that the offer includes a halt to the armed operations of the state as well in the concerned areas. Then Chidambaram’s conditions essentially match those of the Citizens Initiative for Peace and other civil society groups who have volunteered to negotiate between the government and the Maoists to bring both sides to the table — provided hostilities cease. Should we view this apparently friendly offer as Chidambaram’s attempt to walk that extra disarming mile to bring peace with dignity to the tribals?

The problem is that, in the same address, Chidambaram also regretted that previous attempts by various state governments to talk to the Maoists, after temporary halt to violence from both sides, had been unfailingly “futile”. Why then is the home minister offering to enter into another futile exercise? Further, given that the government has declared the CPI (Maoist) as a banned organisation, what does it mean, from the state’s point of view, to negotiate with an adversary with arms in its hands? Also, knowing that the Maoists will settle for nothing less than the seizure of state power after a protracted war, as their supreme commander has recently affirmed, what does the state want to talk about? Or, is this just a ploy to buy some time to organise whatever it is that Chidambaram and his colleagues in the intelligence wings have in mind? The option sounds plausible, for it is unlikely that the Maoists will ever agree to spend some time at the table without their arms safely in place. So, why does the home minister need some time?

To probe the question from one direction, among others, we recall that the earlier talks were held, essentially in Andhra Pradesh, when the Maoists were in a strong position, especially after the People’s War Group joined hands under the banner of CPI (Maoist). As the Maoist influence spread, the state of Andhra responded with enhanced gunpower. In a scenario of escalating violence, both sides needed some respite to consolidate their forces. Hence the “talks”; they were abandoned as soon as the Maoists realised the trap. If the present situation is to lead to meaningful talks, is there some difference in the conditions themselves? For instance, could it be that, contrary to popular belief encouraged by the mainstream media, Maoists are in fact on the run?

Chidambaram surely knows the real picture. From whatever is available in the public domain, it looks like the Maoists have lost considerable ground since their heyday in Andhra and Bihar. They are now basically restricted to some forests in the tiny new states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and some adjacent areas in Orissa and West Bengal. Many of their top and middle-level leaders have been eliminated or arrested in the past year. Despite temporary setbacks including considerable loss of manpower, the security forces seem to be closing in on those jungles. It is well-known that secret, militaristic organisations engage in public violence essentially out of desperation and need for visibility. From this perspective, the series of violent operations by Maoists in recent months, and their attempts to penetrate and hide among popular uprisings in the neighbourhood of their headquarters, could in fact signal that they are losing ground.

Add to this the increased repression of the state of unarmed tribal populations in those areas, including the unleashing of Salwa Judum, introduction of special forces, and the like. The recent enhancement of these operations belie Chidambaram’s “friendliness” towards the tribals and the rebels. While these insidious operations do on occasion compel some of the victims to join the ranks of militancy and take up arms, they also leave such populations in a state of exasperation. In sum, notwithstanding bombastic claims by their leaders, the Maoists could be fast losing their ability to hide.

If these conjectures are even partly true, they explain Chidambaram’s current, apparently friendly gestures from a purely tactical point of view. The state will not only talk to the Maoists from a position of strength, in allowing the rebels to retain their arms, the state will be free to retain its own to continue with “normal” police operations to further encircle the Maoists. Needless to say, if the Maoists do agree to enter into a dialogue under pressure from their friends in, say the Citizens Initiative, it will be a huge propaganda victory for Chidambaram. If the talks fail — as they inevitably will when the issue of surrender of arms comes up sooner or later —Chidambaram can officially declare an all-out war pleading the TINA factor. It would be the most “friendly” way of smashing the rebels and the tribal uprising, and pave the way for a “peaceful” introduction of mining and other cartels in the scene.

The Maoists can pull the rug from below Chidambaram’s tactics either by continuing the arms struggle or by voluntarily disarming themselves and joining the democratic struggles against the predatory state. They do enjoy considerable support among the tribal populations and sections of urban intellectuals. It is important that their “enemies” such as the Union home ministry, the Congress party, and the CPM continue not to attach the “terrorist” tag to them. Even this minimal support may not last long if the armed struggle continues and their organisation is progressively decimated in a protracted war. On the other hand, given their militancy, self-sacrifice, and splendid work among the poorest and the marginalised, they will be a major force in Indian politics if they give up arms and join the democratic struggle. The choice is theirs.

The writer is professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi