Peace overtures: Out of merely political expediency
It does not require the benefit of hindsight to argue that the Andhra Pradesh government in the past has done more to dignify the Naxalites than all of psalms by palmach put together. As studies in contrast, the Naxal strategy and the government response are striking. The Naxalites have addressed old turf battles in an effort to consolidate and expand the area firmly under their parallel administration. In this backdrop, it is worth re-examining the past negotiations held between the Andhra Pradesh Government and the Naxalites, then under the banner of People’s War Group (PWG). Several rounds of talks were held between the state home minister and a PWG representative in February 2002. But having rested and re-equipped, Naxalites made it clear that they were no longer interested in talks with the government, which had shackled its own police squads chasing the Left wing extremists. With the Naxal leadership back in safe havens, the emissary hit out at the Congress government in the state and announced that they were pulling out of talks. Here it is to be noted that the PWG had earlier refused to lay down arms and later put the blame on the police for disrupting the talks, following a police encounter.
After assuming the power in 2004, YSR endeavoured to present a contrast. Earlier, Chandrababu Naidu in alliance with BJP allegedly ran a repressive regime with a ban on people’s movement. Hence, the process of reversals. Reddy might have scored a brownie point against Naidu with his peace overtures and by allowing a free run for the Naxalites. Thus, in 2004, his government decided not to renew the ban on PWG, meeting one of the key demands of the extremist outfit. And relegating the PWG’s ‘non-negotiable’ refusal to surrender arms on the back-burner, it again initiated talks with the PWG leadership. The State Government sincerely tried to work out solutions within the constitutional framework to resolve the socio-economic issues raised by the PWG. However, one did not know whether the government got any secret assurance from the PWG that it would abandon the path of violence, declare allegiance to the Indian Constitution, disband their terrorist training camps in the interior forests and stop meddling with the civil administration in the villages. On the contrary, what was made obvious by the politburo member of PWG was that armed revolution was non-negotiable in the peace talks. It was also made clear that during the so-called ceasefire, the Naxalites would carry arms for self-defence.
What is more, even before coming to the negotiating table, their first demand was to remove the state Director General of Police for he was accused of helping in the covert operations. Other demands of the PWG included removal of police camps, disbanding of Grey Hounds, recalling of CRPF, freedom for all political prisoners, putting an end to the exploitation by World Bank and MNCs, etc. The politburo members also rejected a clause in the draft ceasefire agreement that the PWG should not take up a recruitment drive, collect weapons and explosives, threaten people, summon government officials and question them. Completely prostrating itself before PWG, the Government accepted its most of the above demands including that of giving “land to the tiller”. For this purpose, the Government announced the constitution of a high-powered committee to identify land for re-distribution among the poor. It also assured PWG to undertake a detailed land inventory, along with a new proposal to contain land sharks, and a time-bound programme to implement Regulation l/70, which prevented non-tribal people from occupying tribal lands.
PWG made full use of the ceasefire. It regrouped itself after the demoralisation that was witnessed after the Alipirit (mis)adventure, and the change of government and its attitude came quite handy for such a regrouping. PWG restarted the people’s courts in villages for instant justice, settling disputes and extorting money from contractors. Large-scale recruitment of youth took place in villages. These explains why certain clauses in the draft agreement were not acceptable to PWG, especially pertaining to recruitment and movement with arms in the villages. This forced the Government to recommence police patrolling in those areas to maintain law and order. The ceasefire agreement was also not renewed. The Naxalites exerted pressure by blasting a landmine injuring four policemen. At the end of first round of talks, the PWG leaders picked up their automatic weapons at Chinna Arutla village, 10 km from Srisailam. While holding his weapon, their leader Ramakrishnd thundered: “Holding talks is just a part of our strategy. The ultimate goal is armed struggle.”
Finally, accusing the government of being insincere, the Naxalites walked out of the peace process as the state witnessed a spate of violence by the Naxalites and encounters by the police. The breakdown of the peace talks was not unexpected. It was never meant to succeed. The government and the Naxalites sat at the negotiating table for four days between October 15 and 18 merely out of expediency, not to thrash out a negotiated settlement. The Congress-led government in Andhra Pradesh launched the peace process merely out of political compulsion, without forethought and careful preparation. Therefore, it clearly failed (or was calculatedly blind) to assess either the true intentions of the Naxalites or the full ramifications of adopting a ‘liberal’ attitude towards them, whereas the Naxalites extracted the huge media coverage, which solely blamed the Government for the failure of these talks.