By Medha Chaturvedi

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Pictured, Alex Paul Menon who was abducted by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh.

In April, Maoist rebels kidnapped Alex Paul Menon, a senior administrator in the Sukma district of Chhattisgarh state, as he met tribal villagers. Two security guards traveling with Mr. Menon were killed when he was abducted. The rebels’ demands included the release of jailed comrades in Chhattisgarh and the end of government counter-insurgency operations against their movement.

Mr. Menon was held for 12 days before being handed over unharmed to a team of four negotiators, including Brahma Dev Sharma, a former district collector and commissioner of Bastar district, and G. Hargopal, a professor from Central University of Hyderabad. Both were chosen by the Maoists as negotiators.

India Real Time spoke with Mr. Sharma about the negotiations and the Maoist insurgency. Edited excerpts:

IRT: You were handpicked by the Maoists for the negotiations, do you think the process went as planned?

Mr. Sharma: My position is very clear on this. I was asked to help and so, I was involved in the negotiations to find the best solution acceptable to both the sides. However, in my opinion, the most effective negotiations between the Maoists and the government happened in 2004 in Andhra Pradesh when all the stakeholders were involved in the process, when a team of mediators headed by former Indian Administrative Service Officer S.R. Sankaran negotiated the demands of the Maoists and the government representatives. Sankaran himself had been kidnapped by the People’s War Group some years ago and [was then] a civil society activist. Following the mediation, there was a ceasefire for six months because all the stakeholders agreed that the socio-economic aspect of the Naxalite insurgency needed to be addressed, rather than treating it as a law and order situation and combating it with only counter-insurgency offensives.

In the recent cases, however, that sharpness and involvement of all stakeholders hasn’t come about. All the organizations talk on their own line and put forward their own perceptions. There is a need for a coherent inclusive round of talks which represents all interests and arrives at a compromise acceptable to all.

IRT: Do you think that kidnapping foreign nationals, as was seen in Orissa in March, proved to be counter-productive for the Maoists?

Mr. Sharma: The government saw the issue of abduction of foreign nationals in isolation. What they failed to acknowledge was the actual reason for this kidnapping, hurting the tourism industry in the state. Tourism comes with alcohol consumption which is directly influenced by the Excise Policy that India follows which the Maoists are opposed to. In terms of a possibility of an international backlash with the abduction of foreign nationals, I feel that public memory is very short-lived. Sporadic incidents as such would not leave a lasting impact.

IRT: Do you think that the Maoists are facing factionalism as was evident in the Orissa case when the State Organising Committee led by Sabyasachi Panda, functioning under the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee, called for a ceasefire during the period of negotiations while separate factions carried out attacks including the killing of a sub-inspector in Malkangiri district?

Mr. Sharma: Factionalism is everywhere in India. As a nation, we are in the habit of not standing united and the Maoists structure is no exception to the rule.

IRT: What is the biggest reason for this insurgency to have carried on for so long?

Mr. Sharma: India was primarily an agrarian country before the British occupation. After Aurangzeb’s time, the British changed that and made it predominantly industrial and post Independence, it again became an agrarian country. In this context, these tribal areas had their own worth in terms of natural resources. After the fourth and the fifth five-year plan, the Western concepts of globalization were again encouraged in India and these again came to the fore. The problem is that the government has brought these areas to the fore, but left the people marginalized. Consequently, the people in these tribal areas were massively displaced. The government of India has an account of every brick used in the construction of what they call appropriate infrastructure, but no account of the number of people who were displaced. This is a contradiction that needs to be addressed.

What the state is now giving to the tribals in the form of aid is nothing but perversion and is treated as alms. When I was the commissioner in Chhattisgarh, my simple question to the state authorities was, “Would you knock before you enter someone’s home?” Why would you just barge into the jungle without even asking those who live there, for whom it is home? You don’t discuss the plans you want to implement in these areas with the locals and you don’t talk about their displacement so then, who are you to ask them to not support the Maoists? This is a clear case of the state abdicating its responsibility.

IRT: Is there a distinction between the Maoists and the tribals and are the Maoists actually representing local interests? What is the reason for the huge local support that the Maoists thrive on?

Mr. Sharma: As a Commissioner of undivided Bastar, back in the 80s when Maoism had just started appearing as a menace in Chhattisgarh, I asked the locals what they felt was the advantage of supporting the Maoists. They said that Maoism rid them of the three biggest problems they faced: the Patwaris (government officials who keep records regarding ownership of land), the forest guards and the police. The police force in India is a highly imperialistic structure and is seen as such by the locals.

What is happening in the tribal regions of what is called the “Red Corridor” is the worst form of exploitation by the state. The state is not willing to provide the tribals even basic dignity. The PM has said time and again that the development policies implemented in the area are for uplifting the “poor” tribals. By calling these tribals poor, you have already humiliated and undignified them. When they have all that they need for a satisfactory survival right there in their natural habitat, the jungle, how can you call them poor? Is just making roads in those areas sufficient?

When the government opens up the tribal areas, they do nothing to protect them from non-tribal settlers. This is the biggest contradiction because the government is implementing development policies in line with their own definition of development. What needs to be done is to define development in such a way that it does not humiliate the locals. Tribals are not Maoists and to put them in the same bracket is not correct. The state has a dialogue with the Maoists because they are at a conflict with them but the tribals, who are the actual stakeholders, are completely ignored.

IRT: What can the state do to contain this insurgency?

Mr. Sharma: This is a complicated problem with various layers. I feel that the first thing that needs to be done is to define land ownership in these areas. Under the principle of eminent domain, post independence, the government inherited rights to all the land under the British rule. Now, they claim that it is their land while the tribals claim it is theirs. My question is: who came there first, the state or the tribals? Independence Day was a celebration for everyone but for these tribals, it was a dark night which took away everything that belongs to them. The state is completely ignoring its own constitutional provisions as given in the Fifth Schedule (administration and control of scheduled areas and tribes). It is this capitalistic predomination which is the root cause of Naxalism and unless this is addressed, this insurgency will not end.

IRT: You have been an administrator and now you are a civil society activist. Having seen the problem from both the sides, what made you switch?

Mr. Sharma: I was happy as an administrator in doing whatever I could to ensure such injustice does not happen in my area of influence. I have always maintained that I don’t believe in the law, I am with the people, wherever they stand. As a district collector or commissioner, I had executive powers so that in my area of influence, I could stop this grave injustice. However, I resigned when I was to be the secretary to the state or at the center because that would’ve meant taking up an advisory position which, for me, was of no use in helping these people. I am happy being a part of the civil society now.

Medha Chaturvedi is a research officer with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. Her areas of research are left wing extremism and the process of internal development in Myanmar. Before joining IPCS in 2010, she worked for five years as a journalist covering organized crime. Write to: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @medhachaturvedi