September 26, 2020
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Unprincipled Peace

As state governments - encouraged by the centre - engage in a 'peace process' with particular groups in one state, the same groups use the opportunities of the 'ceasefire' to extend operations to virgin territories, even as they consolidate activitie

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Unprincipled Peace
The dangers of incoherence in India's counter-insurgency policy are once again in evidence. As state governments - encouraged by the centre - engage in a 'peace process' with particular groups in one state, the same groups use the opportunities of the 'ceasefire' to extend operations to virgin territories, even as they consolidate activities in areas of current domination. This is a pattern witnessed again and again - but one that fails to register in the minds of India's political leaders.

Immediately after assuming power in Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy's government announced an 'unofficial' suspension of operations against the Naxalites of the People's War Group (PWG), on May 16, 2004, a move that was confirmed by an 'official ceasefire' on June 16, 2004. With the pressure off in Andhra Pradesh, the PWG has now shifted attention to neighbouring Karnataka, with a suddenly intensified focus on the 'socio-economic problems' of the tribals in the areas around the Kudremukh National Park (KNP).

As they expand into this virgin territory, the Western Ghats (hill areas) of Karnataka are fast emerging as a new base for Naxalites. Training camps and village meetings are being organized, unemployed youth are being recruited, and pamphlets protesting the eviction of tribals by the government have been widely distributed within a campaign for political mobilisation. With an adequate armoury of weapons including 8 mm rifles, single or double-barrel breech loading guns and hand grenades, besides a abundant supply of ammunition, their 'influence' is becoming rapidly entrenched in the region. These developments were brought to light in June 2004, when the Naxalites invited a group of journalists to highlight their demands. During this interaction, the 'Secretary' of the Karnataka Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) People's War (PW) state Committee, Prem, disclosed that the committee had decided to form armed squads in the state in May 2002. This became 'necessary', he argued, as the state, through its Police Force, began a series of 'repressive measures' against the local people. The people - tribals, farmers and daily wage agriculturists - were targeted because they opposed the government's plans to evict them from the KNP.

The 'Secretary' of the Karnataka CPI-ML-PW state Committee also demanded that the government immediately end eviction of the tribals from the KNP in Chikamagalur district, put an end to combing operations by the Police and disband the Rapid Action Force, which was formed to track down its cadres.

The PWG had earlier established an incipient presence in the eastern part of the state - in Raichur and Gulbarga - but was shifting base from these areas because of their vulnerability, both from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as these areas did not provide any natural cover to escape Police operations. On August 27, 1999, the Raichur rural Police had killed PWG leader Bhaskar while three others managed to escape. In another incident, Naxalite leader Ramesh had been arrested in May 2001.

The PWG's thrust into the Western Ghats of Karnataka, once again, exploits the failures, indeed, follies, of the state. It is the continued neglect of the tribals in the KNP area by successive governments that have created the conditions for the easy entry of the Naxalites. Kudremukh was declared National Park under sub section (1) of section 35 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, on September 2, 1987, by the state government for the protection of the highly endangered species in the forests, including the Malabar Civet, the king cobra and the flying lizard.

In 1998, the state government started issuing notices to the tribals to quit the national park area without even providing an opportunity for public hearings. The Forest Department joined the efforts of the Revenue Department to evict farmers and tribals from the KNP area, imposing fines for 'encroaching' on government land and warning them that if they did not leave the Park, they would be treated on par with poachers.

This intensified the series of agitations which have, in fact, been initiated and sustained over the past 10 years by young members of over 1,350 families that had dwellings in the newly earmarked KNP area in Belthangady taluk (administrative division), and who had been under sustained pressure as a result of the Forest Department's moves to evict them. The discontent among the tribals is now being well exploited by the Naxalites.

The Naxalites have established four armed groups - Tunga, Bhadra, Netravathi and Hemavati - in the affected Malnad Region, covering four districts. Each group or dalam has 15 to 16 members each, and these are operating in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Chikmagalur, and Shimoga districts. Sources indicate that some 50 'hard core' elements, owing allegiance to the PWG, are operating in Karnataka. In addition, reports available with the state Home Department indicate that the PWG has established three tiers in the state - the People's Guerilla Army (PGA), Local Guerrilla Army (LGA) and Striking Guerrilla Army (SGA), besides the dalams. The state Committee of the PWG has five members and four District Committees (DCs) - Perspective Area DC, Bangalore DC, Shimoga DC and Uttara Kannada DC.

The movement of Naxalites in the Malnad areas had been noticed by the predecessor S.M. Krishna government, and, in response, a Rs. 600 million rehabilitation scheme had been announced in November 2003 to treat the socio-economic problems arising out of poverty and lack of basic amenities for those living in the forest areas. In addition, as a direct counter-insurgency measure, the authorities had planned to involve villagers in combing operations through Grama Rakshana Samitis (Village Defense Committees, VDCs) but neither of these initiatives has materialized so far. Although the present Karnataka Chief Minister, N. Dharam Singh, has ruled out a cease-fire or cessation of Police operations against the Naxalites, he has expressed interest in pursuing a negotiated solution. He continues, nevertheless, to reiterate that the state government would deal with Naxalite violence as a 'law and order problem' and act accordingly.

It is significant that the socio economic conditions prevailing in the Malnad region are not quite as serious as the PWG projects them to be. In fact, the PWG had conducted a survey called 'SOCOMA' (social conditions in Malnad) in the early 1990's to assess whether conditions in the Western Ghats were conducive to the expansion of the Naxalites' base in the region. The survey, however, found that there was no acute poverty in the region, though class divisions did exist. Nevertheless, the PWG leadership decided to expand its operation into the area for 'strategic' reasons, and began to highlight the eviction issue in order to secure the sympathy of the local tribals. This is, in fact, the only issue available for exploitation in the region.

It is useful to recall, in this context, that when the Chandrababu Naidu government initiated peace talks with the extremists in Andhra Pradesh in 2002, Jharkhand had witnessed a dramatic rise in violence. This time, it appears that the opportunities of peace are to be exploited in Karnataka.

The infirmity of a policy of selective negotiations with the Naxalites is demonstrated elsewhere as well. In Jharkhand, while the PWG has evinced interest in peace talks with the government, its ally, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) - with whom the PWG is engaged in 'unification talks' - has opposed any such move. To demonstrate its displeasure at the peace initiatives in Jharkhand, MCC activists killed six Jharkhand Armed Police personnel, including an assistant sub-inspector, in a landmine explosion near Rania in the Ranchi district on June 22. The MCC is also conducting intensive training programmes and efforts to cement their base in the West and East Singhbhum Districts in the state.

Violence and consolidation activities by Naxalites in other states have also continued uninterrupted. Most recently, in Bihar, two persons were gunned down and seven kidnapped by the MCC in the Gaya district on July 9; and a police picket was attacked at Simrahni in Champaran district on July 14. In Chhattisgarh, MCC cadres killed and dismembered the body of a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Sarguja district on July 12. In Uttar Pradesh, the MCC killed two guards at a stone crushing company in Chahawan on June 30.

In Andhra Pradesh itself, while the government considers lifting the nine-year ban on the PWG, the group has intensified its mobilization drive after the withdrawal of state para-military forces from operational duties. Torchlight rallies, recruitment parades and praja darbars (people's courts) have been held across wide areas, including villages such as Bellamkonda, Dachepalli, Veidurthy, and Bollapalli. The PWG has explicitly rejected Chief Minister Reddy's appeal that its armed cadres should confine themselves to forest areas, asserting that the organization has 'every right to propagate its ideology'.

It should be evident that the Naxalite problem - which has seen a galloping expansion over the past decade - cannot be solved through piecemeal talks in individual states. Apart from the fundamental difficulty that the Naxalites have systematically exploited negotiations as a tactic for consolidation and expansion, and even on a presumption of good faith on their part, holding peace talks in one state, while combing operations are carried out in another, can hardly produce positive results against a movement that shows extraordinary unity of ideology and purpose across the entire span of its influence. This has at least been acknowledged by Jharkhand Chief Minister, Arjun Munda, who noted that "the affected states should come together to address the issues of Left Wing extremism… talking to a single group will not solve the problem."

Regrettably, no such unified effort is in evidence. The Central Coordination Committee (CCC) of Naxalite affected states headed by the Union Home Ministry has met twice to discuss the Naxalite problem, but has not been able to evolve any comprehensive strategy to tackle the Naxalite threat in various theaters.

Worse, utter confusion currently appears to prevail in the perspectives of the various state governments, with a clear division between those who support a ceasefire and negotiations, and those who have predicated such a process on a cessation of criminal activities by the PWG. While Jharkhand's Munda and Chhattisgarh's Dr. Raman Singh have welcomed the peace talks in Andhra Pradesh and evinced interest in replicating the experiment in their states, Karnataka's Dharam Singh has ruled out any cessation of police operations. Naveen Patnaik of Orissa, on the other hand, has maintained a position of studied ambiguity, while Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have remained completely silent on the matter. The CPI-ML has now indicated that it is "not averse to" negotiations with other state governments, provided "they give up their repressive measures. "

Security and intelligence sources, however, believe that this is just another turn of the wheel in a continuous and ruinous policy cycle, which squanders the operational gains of years of struggle by security forces, and creates opportunities for Naxalite consolidation and expansion. This has been substantially confirmed by Buchanna, a recently surrendered PWG guerrilla squad leader, who asserted "Obviously the (PWG's) demands will not be acceptable to any government and the talks are bound to fail," and that the talks were only intended to 'buy time to regroup'. Nevertheless, this devastating cycle has been repeated by government after government in the affected states, inevitably with the same outcome, and is based on a complete misunderstanding of the ideological coherence of the Naxalite movement, which has never displayed signs of dilution or revision that could make what is rejected as 'petty bourgeois democracy' an acceptable option.

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

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