by Swami Agnivesh, sanhati
February 17, 2011
For the first time, to my knowledge, the dreaded and hated Maoists have released five hostages. These hostages were from the Chhattisgarh armed forces. They had been held captive for nearly 18 days. They were released without any precondition on 11 January.
Two surprises awaited me when I went to receive these jawans, into the thick forests of Ambujh Marh in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district. One was the serenity of the jungle. Could this really be a place of war? The second surprise was the Maoist resolve to stick to their word. We had gotten delayed by two to three hours on account of not knowing the routes too well. But they had waited.
I was accompanied by Gautam Navlakha and Harish Dhawan of PUDR, Kavita Srivastava and V Suresh of PUCL and Manu Singh of Sarva Dharma Sansad. After having walked for nearly 10 kilometres to a village (I don’t want to name this village so that their inhabitants are not harassed) we were greeted by songs of welcome in their traditional Gondi, and by uniformed cadres with rifles slung over their shoulders. We were seated under a make-shift canopy. Around us sat nearly two thousand tribal men and women. A loudspeaker set up near us was run on battery, as there was no electricity.
Then the five jawans who were held hostage walked in. What followed was very moving. The relatives of hostages, who had accompanied us, hugged their close ones, each crying on the other’s shoulder. While setting out on this journey, we would never have believed that things would come to this pass - so peacefully.
The stillness of the jungle was broken finally – by shouts of Lal Salaam. We joined in. What struck me was that almost each member of the Maoist cadre – man and woman – seemed to be in their early twenties. They looked lean and thin, emaciated – and yet so determined. But what has left a lasting impression on me from this day is the hostages themselves. Not one had a scratch on them. Each one of them testified on the loudspeaker that the Maoists had treated them “like family members”.
Unfortunately, the national media has not taken an interest in highlighting this peaceful release. If a few of these jawans had been beheaded the media would have rejoiced in flashing sensational bloodcurdling images 24/7. Here, stringers from the national media had walked with us in good numbers. But with a few exceptions this story – which was well covered locally for Chhattisgarh – was not broadcast to national audiences.
Now it is the turn of the government of Chhattisgarh and the Government of India to reciprocate this unconditional release of the jawans. I made this demand when I addressed a joint press conference with the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister the very next day on 12 January.
This brings me to the darker side of what transpired at Ambujh Marh. The poor tribals gathered there told heart rending stories of torture and brutality they have to suffer day-in and day-out, at the hands of the state. Women complained about husbands, brothers and sons being thrown into prison – either on flimsy charges, or without any charge at all. More than 300 such poor tribals are today languishing in different jails of the region.
I have seen exploitation written large across the faces of these original inhabitants of the land during this brief visit. Traveling here gives you the feeling of a genocide that is going on secretly – through sixty three long years of independence. Sixty three years which have seen a willful and systematic abdication of the constitutional mandate for these people. Travel here and you will not ask questions like “Why have young men and women been forced to take up arms?” Not many of the people here understand what Maoism is – but they do believe that armed resistance is the only way to end the exploitation they are subjected to.
Another aspect of the darker side was the prevalence of several well equipped CRPF Camps at Chhattisgarh. These camps have been the faces of Operation Greenhunt so far – the state’s response to the Naxal problem. Now the state has a new face – the military training centre.
One of India’s biggest Military training centres is coming up at Chhattisgarh. Would it not be logical to suspect that this military training centre will be a cover for the launching of military operations on the lines of what has happened in the North East and in Kashmir, facilitated by the AFSPA?
On the one side the Chief Minister Raman Singh has gone on record saying the Salwa Judum and its new incarnation SPO have been huge blunders and highly counterproductive. How I wish this realization had dawned on the powers that be much before the Supreme Court had to take them to task (on the Salwa Judum). But it didn’t.
Is it not high time, even now, for the Ministry of Defence to consider the counterproductive nature of this military training centre – and the devastating collateral damage it could wreak?
So here we have the centre and the state playing on two different planks. The same Chief Minister who would earlier stridently demand strong action against the Maoists is now supporting the need for a sustained dialogue – as the only way to resolve things. If this is a genuine need, then why is it not being felt by the central government.
The government of India through the home minister’s letter dated 11 May, 2010, has suggested 5 steps that my lead to peace in the region. The most important step is the cessation of violence from the Maoist side for 72 hours, to be reciprocated by the paramilitary forces. This should be followed by a long term ceasefire and formal invitation to the Maoist leaders for dialogue. Dialogue, which should center around crucial points like the release of prisoners arrested under flimsy grounds – under the UAPA or Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act.
Going back to when the hostages had not been released, I had spoken to the Home Secretary G K Pillai and he had promised that there would be no paramilitary intervention till the release took place.
This 42 hours of suspension of operations – by both the government and the Maoists – proved crucial in paving the way for us civilians walking into dense forests and securing the hostages’ safety. This could be the model ahead – extended to 72 hours.
During my brief conversation with the Maoist leaders present there I had urged them to fix me a time and date for meeting their senior most leaders, such as Ganapathy – during such a 72 hour ceasefire period.
The success of this release operation was pegged on trust on the part of both sides – and both sides honored this trust.
If the same could be carried forward then not only the interim period of ceasefire, but even as long term cease fire can be the light around the corner.
I urge the Government of India, particularly the home minister and the prime minister, to seize this opportunity to renew their offer of peace talks.
A word of warning here. The first peace initiative taken up by me immediately after getting a letter from Mr P C Chidambaram, had gotten a very positive response when the CPI(Maoist) leader Azad had in a letter dated May 31 2010 expressed the Maoist keenness to join the peace process – and in fact demanded a longer term of ceasefire.
The prospects of this interim ceasefire – the three day ceasefire, starting on the 10th or 15th of July, 2010, receded completely, and the peace process got completely derailed due to the (alleged) brutal and cold blooded murder of Azad.
Now, in spite of assurances from the Prime Minister and Rahul Gandhi that a judicial enquiry will be conducted, nothing happened for six months - so the whole thing will be decided by the Supreme Court which has served notice on the Government of India, and the matter is coming up for hearing on 14 March.
But let there be a new beginning with confidence building measures from both sides. The first step has already been taken by the Maoists by the unconditional release of the hostages. It is the turn of the government to respond and build on this.
My services as a peace activist are available as always.