Maoist hostage crisis in India: government indifference makes Maoists give up on mediation

Mediation has been successful at bringing down levels of violence and bringing popular welfare and social justice demands onto the political agenda. These gains are  underthreat as the government fails to take the process seriously.

Basudev Mahapatra
28 June 2012

Banned since 2009 as a terrorist organisation Communist Party of India (Maoist) armed cadres now have a presence in more than half of India’s 29 States. Maoists have adopted the tactics of abduction of civil servants and lawmakers since the 1980s. In the last 15 months, Maoists have made three abductions in Odisha and one in Chhattisgarh. However, while the earlier abductions were aimed at a prisoner swap, the recent abductions have raised the possibility of establishing peace by minimising violence and establishing dialogue.

Mediation, an alternative dispute resolution technique widely practiced in India for civil cases, was offered as a means of bringing the recent crises to a peaceful conclusion. While the Chhattisgarh state government has attempted to continue the dialogue process even after the release of the abducted civil servant, for the long-term resolution of issues and establishment of peace in the places of conflict, the Odisha state government has undermined its own initiative.

Gun lifted by Maoist in Dantewada district, Chattisgarh

A Maoist soldier lifts a gun in Dantewada, Chattisgarh. Image: Demotix

After twice accepting the offer of mediation made by India’s provincial government in Odisha, the Maoist leaders of Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee rejected the third offer of mediation made by the Chief Minister of Odisha for release of Jhina Hikaka, a lawmaker and Member of Odisha Legislative Assembly. The successful resolution of two earlier cases had raised hopes over the creation of a forum for political convergence between the left-wing extremists and the democratically elected government, which would help minimise violence committed by the Maoist rebels. However, the rejection of an offer of mediation in the most recent case points at the failure of the government in effectively dealing with the issues that concern communities who have a strong link with the Maoist movement.

In the two previous cases, mediation did not remain confined to the objective of exchanging persons. Rather, through the channels opened up by the mediation, the Maoists have brought public welfare demands onto the political agenda.

Both the mediation that took place in February 2011 for the release of an Indian Administrative Service Officer, then posted to Odisha as Malkangiri District Collector, and the more recent mediation over the release of abducted Italian citizens and one elected legislator, have greater political and philosophical relevance than the simple abduction drama and its follow up.

On 14th March 2012 two Italian citizens were kidnapped while trekking in the forests. The mediation was conducted between two sets of mediators, one representing the Maoist extremists and other the provincial government of Odisha. It lasted from March 22 until April 22, 2012. A month may look a long time to linger in a hostage dispute, but for the long-term gains it may prove to be worth it. During that time the mediation played a role in minimising violence in the area of Maoist conflict concerned, and pushed forward various public welfare demands on a constitutional framework through which the rights of the communities living in the forests and inaccessible pockets of the country are protected. This definitely looked like a process capable of awakening the State and its administration to the laws already existing in the country to empower the indigenous communities and other forest dwellers, while protecting them from social and cultural invasion and injustice from outside. The mediation also brought to the fore the possible applications of these laws and the kind of authority they grant to specific people and communities.

The demands? That India implement its own laws

The discussion seemed to have attained maturity. The mediator was trusted by both sides: Dr Brahma Dev Sharma is a retired civil servant who headed the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe development department of India for quite some time and worked extensively for the rights and welfare of the indigenous communities. In contrast to the mediation process held in 2011 for the release of an abducted civil servant, there was an attempt to validate the demands under specific laws and constitutional provisions meant to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities and forest dwellers. The demands were presented by Dr. Brahma Dev Sharma were lawful according to the norms of the Indian constitution and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA).

The PESA Act was revolutionary. It is the only one of its kind that not only guarantees the rights of the tribal communities living in the areas described in Schedule V of the Indian constitution, but also empowers those communities to participate in their own governance and decide their own development. But, against the spirit of the Act, tribal communities are being exploited and forcefully displaced by the government. The tribal people stand to lose everything – the land, the forest, the very mountain they live on and worship as their god, the water sources – in the mining corporations’ plan for open exploitation of mineral and other natural resources: even water from the streams. Since the local administration is in connivance with these profit maximising corporate miners, the issues raised by the tribal communities via the Panchayats are hardly heeded to. The plight of the tribal communities has lead to the desire to revolt against the system that has only been exploitative to them in the 65 years since Independence, making a space for left-wing extremism to grow in the hilly and forest tracts of India.

The Maoists’ demands included ‘no interference by outsiders in the name of tourism’ and ‘making the tribal domains free from commercial liquor trade’. The former is a reaction to an increase in the exploitation of primitive tribal groups as human safaris, in the expanding tourism industry. The demands referenced the ‘New Tribal Development policy’ and the ‘New Excise Policy of India’, adopted way back in 1974, which should provide protection particularly against the aggressive liquor trade which causes so many problems across rural India.

Terming that promoting the liquor trade in the tribal domains in the name of increasing revenue is nothing but exploitation, Sharma brought various provisions of the PESA Act before the representatives of the Government of Odisha. The Act in para 4 (m) and sub-clause (i) in the composite form declares, ‘while endowing Panchayats in the Scheduled Areas with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government, a State Legislature shall ensure that the Panchayats at the appropriate level and the Gram Sabha are endowed specifically with the power to enforce prohibition or to regulate or restrict the sale and consumption of any intoxicant’. In fact, this very provision of the special Indian Act is being flouted by the local administration and law enforcers, who favour outside liquor mafias to promote the trade in tribal dominated areas against the will and interests of the community members.

Meaningful politics, or politics by other means?

The mediation also tried to convince the State that a war-like situation prevails in the places of conflict because of the government’s excessive use of armed police and paramilitary forces, and their encouragement of retaliatory violence. Pointing at ‘Operation Green Hunt’ – a term used for the armed operations started by the Indian Government to curb left-wing extremism – the mediators elaborated that ‘Operation Green Hunt’ came into usage in the tribal areas of India without any idea of its real meaning. Some claim its scope is limited to a combing operation, while others call it a clearing operation. Just as the operation for the capture of territories from the Native American Indians by the Americans was eulogized as a ‘Hunting Expedition’, so the same is being attempted now in the tribal tracts of India under the name ‘Operation Green Hunt’.

While the Prime Minister of India has stated several times since 2006 that left-wing extremism has been the biggest threat to India’s internal security and the Indian government has made massive deployment of armed forces to curb the Maoist insurgency in the resource rich forest areas of the country, the referred mediation brought to fore some of the points that explained how the government grossly failed in implementing various policies and achieving in public welfare front and, also, how it lacked in enforcing laws of the land in their true spirit. The mediation attempted to influence policies and build pressure on the government to strictly follow Acts like PESA that are crucial in addressing the issues which underlie the growth of left-wing extremism.

For the first time, during these two mediations held in Odisha, the Maoist extremists brought welfare into their list of demands. Earlier, abductions by the left-wing extremists were limited to the exchange of persons against the abducted. But from the change in the trend in these two cases, with the constitutional basis of various demands particularly clear, it seems that the CPI (Maoist) party is slowly including various public welfare policies into its political agenda.

But quite contrasting to these two earlier cases in the province of Odisha, the left-wing extremists refused mediation in the third case: the abduction of elected tribal Legislator Jhina Hikaka. Why? One of the interlocutors in both previous mediations, Dandapani Mohanty, explains: ‘That is because the government didn’t act as it promised to get the civil servant released over a year back! Instead of fulfilling its promises, the government rather tried to blame the Maoists through engineered campaigns.  It’s because the government didn’t work to keep its promises, the Maoists this time didn’t offer any choice for mediation’. Because there was no mediation, the legislator had to remain in Maoist camps for almost a month before he was released.

Chhattisgarh, a different story

However in the next case, when a civil servant posted as a District Magistrate in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh was abducted, the Maoists agreed to mediation with the government and offered names of interlocutors for its own side.

The Chhattisgarh government’s agreement to set a panel to consider the demands of the Maoists and review the cases of under trial prisoners who were allegedly jailed under fabricated charges is surely an initiative to move in the direction of resolving the issues which lead to the growth of left-wing extremism. The same can and should be replicated in all the left-wing extremism affected provinces.

Mediation is important because, apart from pushing public welfare demands and policy issues before the government, it brings down violence to an almost negligible level: a state of peace prevails in the left-wing extremism affected area while the talks are on. During the period of negotiations in all three instances described above there was conditional peace in the places where the left-wing extremists were engaged in talks with government. Except a few stray incidents during the talks for the release of the Italian citizens, there was no violence in the Maoist affected pockets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. This particular observation raises some hope for restoring peace in the places of conflict where left-wing extremism is deepening its roots.

The Rural Development Minister of India, Jairam Ramesh, has said that the Maoists are fighting an ideological battle. To win the battle, the benefits of development must reach the target communities and their issues must be heeded to. Admitting to the fact that the indigenous communities are sandwiched between left-wing extremism and retaliatory action by the government through its armed forces, the Minister emphasised during a tour to a district that is largely affected by Maoist extremism that the benefits of development must reach the tribal people and their issues must be taken seriously and sympathetically. The minister also insisted upon the execution of PESA Act in its true spirit. So the issues raised through mediation have started reaching the ministerial corridors of India, and started to influence the lawmakers of the land. In such a situation, continuous talks and an approach from the government for the long term resolution of issues would slowly make extremism irrelevant in the areas that are severely affected by Maoist insurgency. As different groups are operating in different parts and each group has substantial operational autonomy, involving CPI (Maoist) central committee members in the process of talk would fetch better result as no group of Maoist extremists can disobey the appeals and instructions of the central committee.

As the Indian Rural Development Minister said, if it is an ideological war, an ideology can’t be dealt with using guns and bullets, but through sincere and continuous dialogue. The Indian government must give serious thought to this, as a means to resolve the conflicts in the places of left-wing extremism.

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