September 21, 2020
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Andhra Pradesh

The Lull Before The Storm?

Would piecemeal efforts only help entrench the PWG? Is a consolidated approach extending across a number of states practical? Are negotiations, at best, no more than an interregnum in the rising graph of extreme Left Wing violence?
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The Lull Before The Storm?

The ongoing cease-fire between the Andhra Pradesh (AP) government and the Left Wing extremist (aka Naxalites) of the People's War Group (PWG) raises a number of questions. The PWG has remained unwavering in its ideological commitment to 'class annihilation', to capturing power through revolutionary warfare on the Maoist pattern, and in its rejection of Parliamentary democracy. This strategy entails building up of bases in rural and remote areas and transforming them, first, into 'guerrilla zones', and then into 'liberated zones', even as an area-wise seizure is consolidated, and cities are 'encircled'. Within the theoretical constructs of its 'people's war' strategy, as well as the PWG's past practices, moreover, negotiations have been used as a tactic and opportunity for recovery, consolidation and expansion. Under the circumstances, it is not clear what significant gains the state government expects to secure through a new phase of negotiations.

On June 16, 2004, officially, the AP government declared a three-month ceasefire against the PWG, with immediate effect. It also accepted the remaining three PWG proposals - constitution of a supervisory committee, initial dialogue with mediators and final discussions between ministerial representatives and PWG state committee representatives. The official announcement came a day after the PWG state secretary, Ramakrishna, had laid down conditions for taking any steps to initiate talks with the government. The government and the political parties have consistently appealed to the Naxalite groups, especially the PWG, to shun violence and carry out their struggles as partners in the democratic set up. But each time in the past, talks have failed due to lack of faith between the negotiating parties and because of PWG conditionalities.

The process of trying to seduce the PWG back into the 'mainstream' has a long and futile history. N.T. Rama Rao initially adopted a soft approach towards the Naxalites, describing them as desabhaktalu (patriots) and annalu (elder brother) in 1982. The result was that, during the 1983 Assembly election campaign, he secured significant advantage as a result of Naxalite support to his party. After the elections, the Naxalites were given free rein to consolidate their activities, and there was a spectacular surge in their strength. However, by 1985, a series of ambushes of police parties and official convoys had made political accommodation impossible, as did the PWG's escalating demands. A Special Task Force was established and armed police posts were created in the worst-affected areas, as the security forces were given a 'free hand' to deal with the terrorists. By 1989, the Naxalites were in flight under sustained security forces' pressure.

Relief came with elections, once again. The PWG had begun flirting with the Marri Chenna Reddy led Congress-I during the elections of 1989, and Chenna Reddy unilaterally withdrew all restrictions on the activities of the PWG immediately after his government was sworn in. At this stage, the Naxalites had articulated three conditions for talks: the freeing of all Naxalite prisoners who had undergone long spells of incarceration without trial or conviction; allowing freedom to the extremists to hold public meetings; and restraining the police from interfering with the 'legitimate activities' of all shades of Naxalites. No talks, however, commenced, though relaxation of the state's pressure on the rebels continued. Once again, the PWG took full advantage of the government's 'soft approach', consolidating its strength before its excesses forced Chenna Reddy's successor N. Janardhan Reddy to re-impose the ban on the organization, on May 21, 1992, by which time the Naxalites were virtually running a parallel government in their areas of influence.

N. T. Rama Rao returned to power in 1994, setting into motion another phase of the 'soft' policy against the Naxalites. In 1995, the proscription on the PWG was relaxed for three months. A phase of galloping consolidation for the PWG followed, as a new generation of sophisticated arms, explosives and timing and triggering devices became easily available. There was also an expansion of linkages with other extremist organizations in the country, as well as with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, and the revolutionary communist parties in Nepal and the Philippines. Linkages were also established with some ideologically incompatible terrorist groups in India's Northeast.

The successor Chandrababu Naidu regime re-imposed the ban on the PWG on July 22, 1996, and a policy of armed confrontation with the rebels was re-established. Nevertheless, intense public pressure and an Andhra Pradesh High Court order to initiate 'proper measures' to contain the continuing violence compelled the outgoing Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government to invite the PWG for talks in January 2000. The PWG, however, turned down the government's offer for a dialogue, pointing out that talks could not be held as long as the state continued its 'repression' of the 'mass movement'.

The peace process was brought back into focus in April 2001, once again in the context of elections, this time, to the local bodies in the state. The Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC) on April 17, 2001, appealed to both the state government and the PWG to hammer out a plausible way for unconditional talks. In turn, the PWG leadership had responded through a public statement that proposed five conditions for holding talks with the AP government, including, inter alia, a lifting of the ban on the group and action against officials involved in alleged 'fake encounters'. Responding to the PWG's charter of demands, the then TDP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu - now in his second tenure - ruled out prospects of holding talks with the PWG unless the outfit was ready to give up arms.

Subsequent efforts by the same government, were, however, initiated on January 28, 2002, when the police were instructed not to resort to "unwanted and unnecessary action" against the PWG. The Naxalites reciprocated by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. The government made an offer of talks, and the PWG named revolutionary writer P. Varavara Rao, and balladeer Gaddar as its representatives in preliminary negotiations to determine the modalities for holding talks. The group also suggested that the CCC, headed by S.R. Sankaran, should act as observer during the talks. The peace process, however, received a jolt when four Naxalites of the PWG were killed in an encounter at Narella village, Karimnagar, while the talks were on. The PWG set a deadline of July 20, 2002, for the government to announce a cease-fire, a demand that was rejected by Chandrababu Naidu, who declared that those violating the law would be dealt with resolutely. The government also alleged that the Naxalites had been using the talks as a 'smokescreen' for expanding their base.

This, then, has been a regular pattern: the PWG has used the 'peace process' and periods of 'cease-fire' as opportunities to consolidate its position and expand its bases into new areas, and this has particularly been the case when it comes under pressure. Recent years have seen a massive expansion of the Naxalite movement, both within Andhra Pradesh, and in other states, through consolidation of the PWG's activities, as well as alliances with ideologically compatible partners. However, the PWG has been significantly weakened within its own traditional area of domination. In several villages in north Telengana, long considered PWG strongholds, its dalams (armed squads) have suffered badly as a result of frequent police action, and cadres have surrendered in large numbers. There has also been a thrust on development and people's participatory activity, which has helped in neutralizing the Naxalites' influence on villagers.

The current ceasefire and soft approach in Andhra Pradesh will have necessary and serious repercussions in neighboring Orissa and other states. The PWG has long worked to consolidate its position in Andhra-Orissa Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC) areas, and, with some relief within AP can be expected to divert significantly greater energies to Orissa. Other states, which may be more or less affected include Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The Naxalite problem cannot be treated as a problem of a particular state or region alone. The Naxalite presence has already reached disturbing proportions in nine states, where they seek to establish a 'Compact Revolutionary Zone' (CRZ) extending from Nepal through Bihar and the Dandakaranya region to Andhra Pradesh. Apart from their traditional strongholds, there has been a significant expansion of Naxalite activities into new areas such as North Bihar, North Orissa, central Chhattisgarh and eastern Uttar Pradesh. A ceasefire in AP, far from solving the problem, may, in fact, compound it further, creating opportunities for further extension of the 'people's war'.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the AP 'peace process' appears to have set a trend in motion, with the Jharkhand government also offering a unilateral cease-fire with the PWG on June 19, 2004. The PWG's response, in this case, was a list of demands, including the immediate removal of paramilitary forces from extremist strongholds, investigation of alleged 'fake encounters' and the lodging of criminal cases against the guilty, withdrawal of all Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) cases against cadres, and lifting of the ban on the PWG - a combination of demands that the state government would find nigh impossible to accept.

There is, today, an overwhelming need for a consolidated approach to the Naxalite problem, which extends across a number of states. Piecemeal efforts to solve the problem through negotiations in the past have only helped entrench the movement further. This danger needs to be recognized before another ill-conceived political gambit creates additional spaces for further Naxalite expansion. While talks with the extremists need not be entirely ruled out, it is necessary for such talks to be coordinated across states so that a permanent solution is at least visible - however improbable it may be. At present, negotiations are, at best, no more than an interregnum in the rising graph of extreme Left Wing violence

Nihar Nayak is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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