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'Dantewada is a symptom of a greater malaise'

By Prasanna D Zore
April 28, 2010 13:48 IST
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Dr Keshava RaoCongress party's Rajya Sabha MP from Andhra Pradesh Dr Keshava Rao is vociferous in his opinion that only talks with the Naxals can help stop the cycle of violence that has engulfed central India and bring development to the marginalised tribals inhabiting this belt.

In charge of Naxal-hit states on behalf of his party, Dr Rao, who was the chief interlocutor when the Andhra Pradesh government held talks with the People's War Group -- now CPI (Maoist) -- spoke to Prasanna D Zore at length about his experience in dealing with the PWG in 2004-05, the lessons that other state governments grappling with the same problem can learn from the Andhra Pradesh experiment, how they curbed the menace of Maoism in the state, and what needs to be done for development to reach Naxal-affected regions of India.

Dr Rao strongly feels that the Naxal menace is a socio-economic problem and incidents like the Dantewada massacre (in which 76 CRPF jawans were killed by Naxals) should not impede talks with the Naxals and the problem could be tackled only by dialogue and creating a system for letting development reach India's tribal heartland through various flagship programmes enacted by the central government.

Sir, can you tell us about your experience in tackling Maoism in Andhra Pradesh and how it can be applied in Chhatisgarh and other states reeling under the impact of Maoists?

In my perception the issue is different. It is true that we held talks with the Naxals in Andhra Pradesh in 2004-05. First they refused to talk to the government following differences over giving up arms but anyhow we persuaded them for talks. The then home minister Jana Reddy was very active and we could persuade them with the help of civil liberties activist S R Sankaran and other human rights activists.

It was the first time in the country that the Naxals had shown their willingness to talk to the government. In the beginning they were a bit apprehensive and sceptical about the talks because they didn't believe in an elected government or a democratic polity. But we had to keep on persuading them.

Who did you persuade? Who were these representatives from the Naxal side?

They were the top Naxal leadership. We wanted to talk to Ganapathi (Muppala Lakshmana Rao, general secretary of CPI-Maoist) but he sent one of his representatives Rama Krishna (alias Akkiraju Harahopla, AP state committee secretary) and four others. The then home minister and I represented the government and we asked human right activists like S R Sankaran, Keshavrao Jadhav and K G Kannabiran to moderate the discussions.

They gave us an agenda for discussion and we discussed whatever they wanted. The government's condition that the Naxals should give up their arms became a bone of contention so we gave that up but reiterated that there should not be any violence. They used the word 'ceasefire' but we told them we belonged to the same country and were not enemy countries to use words like ceasefire. They agreed to it.

We then put them up in the government guesthouse in Hyderabad and talked to them for three days. After the talks Rama Krishna told the press that the first round of talks were successful. They were then followed by the second round. But the moment they left there were small incidents of violence again. The talks broke down later, not because of the incidents of violence but because they wanted to break it.

I would not like to talk much about that incident because according to a few people the Naxals used this lull to regroup themselves but it helped the Andhra Pradesh government to send a message that we were serious about talks and rural development in the state.

In fact, I was the chief interlocutor, and I made two points. One, the moment there are talks (which is what I am telling the Union government even now, I said it in the Rajya Sabha's consultative committee)… I am talking to you on issues now. The issue is all of us (in the Congress party) think that this (Naxalism) is a socio-economic problem.

But the moment we come to handle the situation (as a law and order problem) and the home ministry comes into the picture, then talking about arming the police is understandable. But when you consider Naxalism as a socio-economic problem, then bringing the police into the picture is not understandable at all.

Even the resolution that the home minister (P Chidambaram) is quoting from says that Naxalism is a serious threat and it must be looked from the angle of socio-economic conditions. What it means is that socio-economic conditions are the cause of the (Naxal) violence. So if you meet the socio-economic condition of development (in the backward and remote areas), there should not be any violence. But if something goes wrong (Naxals scaring development workers or indulging in violence) while implementing development policies, then it is a law and order problem. Even if something goes wrong and law and order becomes an issue, still we should go in for talks.

The resolution says our doors are open and we will talk to them (Naxals) at an appropriate time. So we believe in a three-pronged approach: development, talks and law and order problem. Let me tell you that there is no difference in the Congress party on this issue. As the prime minister said, we must reach development there.

But way back in 2005 the prime minister said that Naxalism is the biggest threat to India's internal security?

I will come to you (on that). He said development must reach... The cause of Naxalism is that development is not reaching. And what is Naxal violence? Naxal violence is a challenge, not a threat, to internal security. The words (used) are it is a challenge. And what is the challenge? If you do not meet the developmental aspirations of the people then it becomes a threat and also a challenge.

But that also does not mean that if you implement development policies they (Naxals) will run away. We must also be cautious about this aspect. Maoist parties will not shut down their shop even if we meet their agenda. We should instead focus on the people and win their hearts through development.

Now there is a difference between our approach and the Bharatiya Janata Party's. We consider the State as organic and believe in giving a human face to the administration. The other approach is that State is an inorganic body with an impersonal personality. For such an inorganic State, law and order becomes the prime and sole motive to maintain peace.

We believe that social order is of prime importance and law comes in to help and maintain this social order. The disturbances in society happen only if this social order is distorted. So we should see that social order is maintained through development, through harmony. So this is the basic subtle difference between us.

Is Chhatisgarh a law and order problem or a socio-economic problem?

Wherever it is, the Naxal issue it is a socio-economic problem. If we do not meet the socio-economic aspirations of poor people then talking to you or giving interviews will not help. Now how can we meet these socio-economic issues? When you will go there (Naxal affected areas), you will know their (affected people's) demands, their developmental needs, their economic and social needs and when you meet them there will be no problem. But you have to meet these needs through programmes and the Government of India has a lot of flagship programmes to cater to such needs of the deprived sections of our country. But the benefits of these programmes are not reaching the people for various reasons.

For example, you give forest land to the tribal people to plough. They develop the land and in the meanwhile if you find coal below it then you (industries) come to mine it. So it is sold out (to industries). So you need to look into these things.

So, you believe that if tribals had historically cultivated forestland then they should have the ownership of that land?

Absolutely. We have given it (in AP).

Does that mean that industries should not be allowed to mine it?

No. We have to have a policy. Are we making the tribals a stakeholder? Are we paying them enough royalty (for mining their land)? These are the issues we must look into. Industries should be allowed but the land belongs to the tribals. The government must take the interests of the tribals into account. Any policy must be evolved and not dictated. But at the same time the duty of the (state) government is to maintain law and order.

But isn't the killing of 76 CRPF jawans a law and order problem?

That's a law and order problem. That is why you (the government) have reacted. But let me ask you, how did this (killing of 76 CRF jawans) happen? We must look into that. Why did they (Naxals) indulge in this violence? For me development and law and order are intertwined, they are inalienable.

Are you suggesting that in all the areas where Maoism is a problem, bloodshed would not have taken place had there been socio-economic development?

Perhaps would not have taken place. This particular issue in Dantewada, which is a very sensitive issue, is a symptom of a greater malaise. But this incident is a wake-up call. It is certainly something to which we are now responding.

Wake-up call for whom?

Wake-up call to the collective failure of Chhatisgarh (administration). It's time to pull up their socks and see what is happening.

You mean to say the Chhattisgarh government is responsible for the Dantewada massacre?

I will not get into all this now. The bottom line is, meaningful development has not reached remote areas. Today there is deep distrust in tribal areas for government agencies.

Deep mistrust for government agencies at the state as well as central level?

What has the Centre got to do with this? It (law and order) is not the Centre's jurisdiction; it's a state subject. You can take funds from the Centre to implement various social welfare policies but you (the states) will have to implement them at the local level.

So the basic fault lies at implementation of policies at the state level?

I don't want to get into this again. I would only say that this issue has assumed such a gigantic proportion that both the states (affected by Maoist violence) and Centre need to co-ordinate and take development to the people.

What's the way forward in Chhattisgarh then?

The Chhattisgarh government must become sensitive to development of remote areas in the state and add special packages. I know the special packages (announced by the Centre) are not able to reach the people because of the hurdles they (the state) put. They should have their own wisdom, their own strategies to break those hurdles and create confidence in the people, win over the locals and take development to them. And, if necessary, please talk to people (Naxals). Once you start talking then the people at the periphery would know that you mean good to them.

That is why I still insist that talks are necessary to tackle the Naxal issue.

Do you think Operation Green Hunt will be successful?

I don't know what that is and even the home minister says there is nothing like Green Hunt. I will not comment on that.

But will the large-scale presence of central paramilitary forces help in curbing the Naxal menace?

I can only talk to you on policy issues. And that is if development could reach the marginalised, if they feel a sense of empowerment then such issues (violence) will not happen. But presently, since it has become a law and order issue, let the home ministry handle it. And they are doing their job.

Also, let us understand that we are not dealing with some cross-border enemy. These are our own people.

There are several laws enacted by Parliament to protect the rights of tribals, like the Forest Rights Act, Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas. Still there is a lot of discontent and distrust among them. Why?

Yes, but we must have a very serious monitoring of the implementation of these schemes at the state level.

Do you think it's the failure in the implementation of these Acts meant for the welfare of tribals that is at the root of Naxal violence?

Certainly, there are many missing links as far as implementation of the flagship programmes of the UPA government are concerned. I think the lack of serious implementation and lack of development could be the major cause of this (Naxal violence).

Do you believe in talking to Maoists after the Dantewada massacre?

I believe in talking to Maoists and other good-intentioned people to help solve the issue. It's important to tell Maoists that such kind of violence is not necessary and whatever they are asking, the government is prepared to do. This we need to convince them (the Naxals) of, and that is possible only if we talk to them.

We all believe that whatever happened (at Dantewada) is absolutely gruesome and condemnable. At the same time, just because it is condemnable, I don't sit still with apathy and stop moving ahead.

What can the Centre do to ameliorate this situation?

In situations like these, even if law and order is a state subject, the Centre does support states and we do help whenever they ask for it. The Centre is doing more than what it could do. The Centre sometimes takes co-ordinated action along with the states.

My point is, let us look at concerted development of these areas and if there is a law and order problem the government of the day (the Centre) will act. Nobody can challenge the authority of State power.

You are blaming only the state governments for poor implementation of Centre's flagship programmes but not taking any blame on yourself for the failure in their implementation?

The issue here is development of local areas (affected by Naxal violence). The Centre has its programmes which the state governments should implement sincerely. Otherwise we should have a mechanism whereby the Central government should implement special packages for these areas directly. But then the state governments will object to such an idea.

Again let me reiterate that this is a sensitive situation and I don't want to pin the blame on anybody. Let there be co-ordinated action with states taking the lead and the Centre lending a helping hand.

Are Maoists sending any feelers to you to mediate for talks, given your past experience of talking to them in Andhra Pradesh and resolving the issue peacefully?

The fact that Naxals had suggested three names (novelist Arundhati Roy, former collector of undivided Bastar B D Sharma and Trinamool Congress MP Kabir Suman as their choice of mediator if talks are held with the government) that could help mediate proves that there is scope for dialogue with them. When the problem of Naxal violence first started, the home minister (P Chidambaram) had said that he was for talks and dialogue. He said the Naxals should abjure violence before talks could begin. That is the best any man could do and I sincerely compliment the home minister for doing that. But again, keeping quiet will not help and one must keep on persuading them for talks.

It took one year for me to bring them to the table to solve the problem in Andhra Pradesh. And the people who helped us in Andhra could be brought into the picture.

As for me, I have no contacts with Maoists and no feelers coming to me.

Did the Greyhound force play an important role in curbing Maoism in Andhra Pradesh?

According to me, Greyhounds played a role whenever they were called in. I don't give Greyhounds that much of an importance. It was not the agency that helped curb it. It was the agency of talks, agency of understanding, agency of our development that helped.

When we sat for discussions with the Maoists in 2004-05 the first agenda was distribution of land. They also asked for release of some prisoners and removal of petty cases slapped against a lot of their supporters. However, we did not complete our talks when they left promising to come back for the second round, which eventually did not materialise.

Then how was the issue resolved in Andhra Pradesh?

What we did was we did not wait for the commencement of the second round. We immediately announced the Ranga Rao committee including locals and distributed 5.24-lakh acre land in two days flat among tribals across the state. Second, we dropped all the petty cases slapped against those who were arrested for attending meetings of Naxals.

Without their (Maoists) asking for it we offered employment to 17,000 tribal youth in the construction of roads, bridges and other forest activities. Then we established a Remote Area Development Board with Rs 538 crore at its disposal. We gave Rs 5,000 to every tribal to develop his land that the state government distributed so that the land could be brought under cultivation. So we pursued our development agenda steadfastly.

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Prasanna D Zore