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

Peace-talk Process in Junglemahal

Tuesday 27 December 2011

by SUJATO BHADRA

From 2001, the people of West Bengal began to acknowledge—albeit slowly—that in the remote areas of three districts, namely, West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia (traditionally considered as the most backward districts), the Maoists (in local popular parlance "Bon [Forest]” party) had been a political force to reckon with. Sporadic arrests, regular raids in villages for nabbing the Maoists and various kinds of human rights violations became the regular feature. Human rights organisations like the APDR and Bandi Mukti Committee have been protesting against this and demanding a political solution to the political problem. The then Left Front Government refused to pay any attention to this suggestion. In the midst of this situation, the people’s revolt against police atrocities in the Lalgarh area took place. As we all know, the government did not continue the talk with PCAPA, which had begun in June 2008 at the insistence of the Election Commission, and deployed instead the joint forces in the Jungle-mahal area. The net result was random arrests, false cases, incidents of forced disappearances, killing in fake encounters.

Civil society, various social organisations, human rights organisations continually demanded withdrawal of the joint forces and unconditional release of political prisoners and initiation of a dialogue with the Maoists and other stake-holders. The Lalgarh Manch, CAVOW and APDR issued public statements that pending withdrawal of the joint forces, suspension of operations by the joint forces must be carried out as a necessary prerequisite for the opening of dialogue with the Maosits and others. The desire for peace in the area was very much in evidence.

It is a known fact that the new government led by Mamata Banerjee had requested us [six of the concerned citizens—Sujato Bhadra, Debasis Bhattacharyya, senior journalist Asokendu Sengupta, Prof Kalyan Rudra, poet Prasun Bhowmick and human rights activist Choton Das] to initiate the talk process with the stakeholders, particularly the armed opposition party (that is, in popular parlance, the Maoist party). On July 7 this year, a kind of under-standing was enumerated on seven points. These were agreed upon and signed by the Home Secretary and by us. The seven points of under-standing included an economic package relating to health, food and education, investigation into all kinds of complaints in respect of human rights violations at the hands of the joint forces from 2009 to 2011, restraint in the use of arms by the Maoists and also by the joint forces and suspension of their operations, recognition of the forest rights of the people of this tribal region, participation of all people of the area in development and creation of a democratic atmosphere, an end to the situation of threat and fear, speedy release of political prisoners. The charter also made a general appeal to the members of all armed groups that if anyone would wish to surrender his/her arms, he/she could do so and the government would not take any revengeful action against the surrenderee.

We had readily agreed to accept the assign-ment for three reasons: 1) this new government, being sincere to its electoral pledges, has clearly recognised the political nature of the conflict, which is a definite break from the past; 2) repeated insistence on opening of dialogue to end the killings and sufferings of the people of the area and bring peace; 3) we fought against the misdeeds of the Left Front Government to the best of our ability over the years; so, it was our responsibility also to bring peace and help the new government build the infrastructure for development of the area.

Our team with utmost earnestness and sincerity formulated a roadmap towards peaceful resolution of the conflict. Three stages were identified: 1) the pre-talk phase-where we would have to create a conducive atmosphere and climate of mutual trust amongst the stakeholders; 2) face- to-face dialogue between the government and stakeholders.; 3) post-dialogue/post-agreement phase.

Following the international norms on conflict management, we had categorised the stake-holders into two groups — Track 1: armed opposition party; Track II: all unarmed oppostional organisations operating in the Junglemahal area,

Phase 1

NOTWITHSTANDING the prevalent practice of limiting the involvement at the peace talks to only the armed party/parties, we had held detailed talks with Track II (other unarmed democratic oppositional organisations and the jailed leader-ship of the PCAPA and Maoist stakeholders) on July 22 and August 6; and the talks with Track I (the Maoist party] took place on August 28 and September 30.

We had a series of discussions with the State Government on July 29, September 3 and 29, and October 18.

Disadvantage I

TO our utter dismay, the Maoists, even after our contact with them had been established and a round of peace talks with them was completed on a positive note on August 28, took the lives of three activists in a ruthless manner. This justifiably made the otherwise difficult situation more tough, resulting in enhancement of the administration’s prevailing mistrust of them. On September 29, however, thanks to the government’s willingness to continue the dialogue process, the peace talks got a chance. It is true that despite the commitment of the new government to release political prisoners that could not be undertaken at a quicker pace. The release of the political prisoners might have accelerated the peace process. However, the Maoists did not include this demand and the withdrawal of joint forces as preconditions for dialogue. We understood that these could have been part of the agenda at the negotiating table.

Major Breakthrough

WE had been able to persuade the Track I party to declare, albeit conditionally (to formally declare after the government halts the operations of the joint forces), cessation of arms or “ceasefire” for one month. And there is the indisputable fact that from September 30 to November 3, no violent incident, no loss of life occurred and no allegation of violence was levelled against the Track I party from any quarter, despite extreme provocation and no formal declaration of ceasefire from the side of the government.

We had also successfully persuaded the Maoists to agree to our proposal that in the event of any attempt by any constitutional organisation(s) to arm them or any armed attack on Maoists, they would duly inform the government through us to take legal action against the attackers. Hence, the Track I party not only accepted the authority of the elected government, but also restrained themselves from resorting to any counterattack etc.

It is pertinent to note that the Maoists had clarified in writing that though they were politically opposed to the recruitment of 10,000 police personnel from Junglemahal, they had not issued any death penalty warning to any candidate for the post of police constables etc. Neither were they harbouring any plan to bodily harm any leader of the TMC or CM, as alleged. Both these positions were communicated to the government. Short-term successes were temporarily achieved.

Further, it may be noted that the Track I party accepted the fact that the movement of the joint forces had been reduced considerably; and Track I and Track II parties also accepted in principle that the total withdrawal of joint forces was not needed for the peace process.

Disadvantage II

THE government unfortunately did not appreciate this positive development resulting in failure of the government to seize the historic opportunity [that is, the new situation of de-escalation of violence and considerable reduction of harm to the people since September 30; this is really a short- term benefit] to cement this breakthrough and enter phase II.

Perhaps the government took exception to the condition mentioned above. But the history of the peace-talk process shows that this kind of demand is not at all unique. In fact, the essential prerequisite of dialogue includes restrained use of arms by both parties and suspension of operations.

For instance, in Assam, the ULFA, the banned outfit, in the month of July this year (four months after their talks with the PM and HM), had announced unilateral ceasefire which led to the opening of dialogue with the governments—Central and State. This declaration was hailed by the government’s interlocutor, P.C. Halder, ex-IG (Central IB). And, prior to the commence-ment of peace talks in October in New Delhi, it may be noted, on September 3 this year, an agreement of “suspension of operations” was signed between the ULFA and Central and State governments. Instances of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s peace initiatives and of peace accords in the North- East, Punjab and Darjeeling are well known and have now proved to be sustainable. At the international level we have similar examples. Lack of understanding about the peace-talk process has caused a very difficult situation now. Short-term successes seem to be fast disappearing. The long-term benefit of lasting peace appears to be elusive.

Our Note of 24 /10/11 and its Aftermath

ON the basis of detailed deliberations with the stakeholders and government, we had submitted a confidential note to the State Government on October 24 and to the Track I party for perusal and for comments, additions, alterations, if any, by the parties within 15 days.

To our utter surprise, the confidentiality of the note was leaked and the “subject matter” became the object of severe criticisms/attacks by a section of the media against the interlocutors. The code of conduct and ethics of peace journalism were not complied with.

The government expressed its displeasure over the aforementioned note on two grounds [over phone].

Ground 1: whether the interlocutors have a right to give advice to the government.

We strongly feel, yes; though in the note we had put forward only some suggestions. By definition, interlocutors/mediators are not mere messengers. They identify the differences, diffi-culties and contradictions among stakeholders and try to iron out such areas of dispute through persuasion and create a roadmap for peaceful resolution of the issue.

Ground 2: whether the government and other stakeholders can be treated as equal.

We hold, yes, all stakeholders are to be treated as mutually equal. It is not a relationship between the victor and vanquished. A cursory glance over the history of the peace talks reveals that it is an essential component to treat the armed opposition party as an equal and with respect (which should be mutual) at all stages of the peace-talk process.

Issues like legitimacy of the government, superior strength of the regular forces etc. do not come into play. The mighty sovereign Indian state had made peace accords with even the “Boro militants”, and in November with the UPDS of Karbi-Anglong—both forces are no match for the Government of India.

Unfortunately, we in our inerface with the leaders of the Government of India failed to convince them on these points. Moreover, the government was doubtful of reposing trust on Akash’s declaration of cessation of use of arms. We explained this in detail to the government that being the State Secretary, Akash’s political and organisational command over the military section of the party must have prevailed and this was testified in practice. We had pointed out that unlike the ULFA, there is no anti-talk faction in the Maoist organisation.

Our Letter

THE positive development did not lead to its logical conclusion; it died half way, could not enter phase II, that is, a face-to face meeting between the Maoists and government represen-tatives did not ultimately materialise. Although the assurance of safe passage to the leaders of the party was given; it was also decided that some important Ministers would represent the government. Separately it was agreed that the government would also talk with the Track II parties and jailed PCAPA and Maoist leaders.

From October 31, the course of developments took a turn for the worse. The Maoist party hurriedly declared their unwillingness to extend the one-month “truce” any further on the ground that the government did not keep its promise of suspension of operations by the joint forces; killing of three Trinamul Congress workers allegedly by the Maoists further vitiated the peace-talk process. The government’s decision to resume paramilitary operations in full swing resulted in deaths in encounter of two allegedly Maoist cadres and one Naga soldier, and the raid and arrests sounded the death-knell for the peace-talk.

In this situation of helplessness, on November 14, we expressed our inability to act as inter-locutors and asked for release from our responsi-bilities. On November 19, the Chief Minister did not accept our request and appealed to us to try again. We did not refuse her request. But we failed to contact the Maoists. On November 23-24, the incident of the killing of Kishenji brought the peace-talk process to its final end. We, except one of us, resigned on December 3.

It may be noted that we never met Kishenji in this entire period of our interaction with the Maoists. We had no idea about his role as a party leader in this peace-talk process. We had met them last on September 30. Thereafter we had no direct contact with them and did not have any pre-scheduled date for meeting them. Our mode of communication with them was never IT devices, as wrongly claimed by some “investigative” reports.

Challenges Ahead:

WE are of the following opinions:

1. If the government still desires to continue the dialogue with Track I and Track II, then a formal announcement from an appropriate person of the government is necessary with respect to the total suspension of operations by the joint forces.

2. We have reasons to hold that attempts are on to impose the logic of the war economy forcibly on the newly-born government. The government has to overcome this pressure.

3. The government has also to tackle effectively the potential spoilers—a part of the media which has been manufacturing public consent for declaring war on its own people, and a section of the police and bureaucrats, who stand to gain from the war economy and war mentality. The people of the State know that this section of ‘trigger-happy’ police and bureaucrats was a part of the state terror during the LF regime. They have no experience of peace talks, and they, we are afraid, are not interested in taking lessons from history.

4. As the party in power has more responsi-bility and accountability, it should therefore show more patience and flexibility; thus the government should discourage any kind of provocative speech or public display that might create hurdles for the peace-talk process.

5. On the issue of human security, it may be noted that normal “law and order”/“strict justice” approach are not applicable during the periiod of the peace-talk process. Alternative approaches to security of life and justice [that is, reparations, transitional justice] in the conflict zone are available, and have been widely practised and studies on these had shown positive results.

Aspiration of the Time: Peace

EVEN in this situation, we are optimistic. That is because all stakeholders, including the govern-ment, seem to have finally recognised the value of peace. However, we have miles to go before bringing the stakeholders to the negotiating table. We do hope that using the tools of patience and flexibility with unwavering determination the government and Maoists can bring peace and development in Junglemahal. This example will surely inspire other States and peace-loving citizens of India to move forward with the slogan of peace.

[Whatever I have stated above constitutes my personal view. For inputs and insights, I am grateful to the other interlocutors.—S.B.]

The author, a noted human rights activist, heaaded the team of interlocuters set up to pave the way for the successful conclusion of the peace-talk process with the Maoists in West Bengal’s Junglemahal.

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