By Tusha Mittal
SOCIAL ACTIVIST Swami Agnivesh sits in his room at 7 Jantar Mantar, perplexed, battling a strange sense of guilt. For the past few months, he has been mediating a backroom dialogue between the Government of India and the CPI(Maoist). Since May 2010, Agnivesh had facilitated the exchange of two letters between the warring parties. On June 26, he dispatched a third letter to top Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad. “The peace process was at a critical juncture. A very positive response was expected,”
Agnivesh told TEHELKA. “I was to receive a date from which talks could begin.” Much to his horror, what he received instead was news that Azad — the receipent of his letter — had been killed in the forests of Andhra Pradesh. “It is possible that Azad let his guard down because of my last letter,” Agnivesh said. “It is a great loss for all of us, including the government. Azad was a key person and most favourably disposed to the peace process. We must ensure that his death does not derail the possibility of peace.”
But the Home Ministry has a different view. “I don’t think this is a setback to the peace process. We had not received any positive response from CPIMaoist,” Home Secretary GK Pillai told TEHELKA.
For every conversation that leaps us forward, there are strings that pull us back. The rhetoric of Maoists killing 27 CRPF men two days before Azad’s death is one such shackle. Reading that attack as an indication that the Maoists were not serious about peace would be misleading. The on-going backroom dialogue was aimed at deciding a date from which a mutual cessation of violence would begin. Until such a date was arrived at, it was understood the violence would continue from both sides. And it did. In the weeks leading up to Azad’s death — five maoists were killed in Lalgarh, several maoist sympathisers were arrested, and adiviasi women continued to be raped by the forces. The Maoists too continued to kill.
The reason why Azad’s death must be seen outside this cycle of violence is because Azad was a key and unlikely salesman of truce, carrying Swami Agnivesh — and by default P Chidam – baram’s message to comrades in Dandakaranya. “Azad was building consensus for a ceasefire within the party. He had our full mandate. Now the government has shown it was never interested in talks,” Usendi, Maoist spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee, told TEHELKA.
While the first two letters have been made public, the third letter remains confidential. Sources have told TEHELKA of its contents — and it indicates how close both parties were to the possibility of dialogue. That is what makes Azad’s death significant, almost poignant. For the hundreds of adivasis and soldiers trapped in this war, it means a bleaker, bloodier future. Already the Maoists have vowed revenge when they could have been inching toward peace.
“This is a fascist State dreaming that peace will come back by liquidating people,” says G Haragopal, one of the mediators in the 2004 Andhra talks. “Such reactions show an insecure and unconfident State.” Azad’s killing in a gunbattle with the police in the remote forests of Andhra Pradesh, was hailed as one of the biggest catches since the goverment launched a joint-offensive against the Maoists in 2009. Azad was No 3 in the Maoist ranks, a politburo member, Central Committee spokesperson, and a close aide to Maoist chief Ganapathi.
The son of a hotel owner, Azad, 55, belonged to an upper caste family from Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh. An engineering student in Warangal, Azad earned two MTech degrees and helped found the Revolutionary Students Union. Jailed during the Emergency, he went underground shortly after.
“On the specified date, the CPI(Maoist) should stop all violent activities for 72 hours. It goes without saying that during the said period, the security forces will not conduct any operations against the CPI(Maoist)”
EXCERPT FROM UNION HOME MINISTER P. CHIDAMBARAM’S LETTER TO SWAMI AGNIVESH
ON JULY 2, Adilabad Superintendent of Police P. Promod Kumar claimed the police received intelligence inputs about a group of 25 to 30 Maoists moving around in the Adilabad forest area, near the Maharashtra border. A police team encountered the rebels in the hilly terrain near Sarkepally village. “Our team cautioned them to surrender, but they came under fire, forcing them to retaliate,” he said. According to the police, the encounter began around 11:30 pm on July 1 and lasted till 2 am on July 2. Later they recovered two bodies — Azad and an unidentified man.
Several details have emerged since, that counter the police version of events. Villagers in Sarkepally have said they did not hear gunshots on the night of July 1. The CPI (Maoist) has also released statements alleging the encounter was fake. “Azad was picked up from Nagpur. He had no reason to be in Adilabad. Azad was to meet our man at a cinema hall in the city on July 1. Our man waited but he never showed up,” Usendi said.
A brewing controversy surrounding the second body further strengthens the theory of a fake encounter. After photos of the bodies appreared in Andhra newspapers, a family from Uttarakhand claimed the second man wasn’t a Maoist but a freelance journalist called Hem Chandra Pandey. Hailing from Dewaltal town of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, Pandey had been based in Delhi since 2007. “My husband left Delhi on June 30. He had gone to Nagpur for an assignment and was expected back on July 2,” said his wife Babita Pandey. Pandey’s family claims he wrote for Hindi newspapers like Nai Dunia, Rastriya Sahara, Dainik Jagran. Editors of all these papers have denied this, but TEHELKA has clippings of his work published under the name Hemant Pandey.
‘I don’t think this is a setback to the peace process,’ says Home Secretary GK Pillai
Since early 2010, he had been working for an inhouse corporate magazine called Chetna, at Delhi Assam Railways Corporation Limited. Pandey’s colleagues at DARCL describe him as a quiet, helpful man who attended office regularly. Significantly, his colleagues say they saw Pandey last on July 1 — the same day the police claim he was killed in Adilabad. “He attended office for the first half on July 1 and then asked for leave,” office-in charge Abhishek Ranjan said. Another colleague who sits near Pandey said he saw him until lunch. TEHELKA has also learned that Pandey’s supervisor has a text message sent on July 1 saying he would be in for half the day.
However, Pandey’s family continues to believe he left Delhi on June 30 by train. Any proof that Pandey was in office on July 1 is crucial because it could blow holes in the police version. It would be extremely unlikely for someone to be waging guerilla warfare in the Andhra Pradesh jungles by night, if they were in Delhi until 2 pm the same day.
TO UNDERSTAND the significance of what happened on the night of July 1, one has rewind to Agnivesh, to understand why he feels that sense of guilt.
“Our party desires peace sincerely in the interests of the lakhs of Adivasis being cruelly crushed by the Indian State. If the government is serious, it should speak in terms of a mutual ceasefire, for a longer period of time”
EXCERPT FROM MAOIST SPOKESPERSON AZAD’S LETTER TO SWAMI AGNIVESH
On May 6-8, Agnivesh and several other activists marched through Raipur and Dantewada asking for an end to violence. On May 11, Chidambaram wrote to Agnivesh to clarify the government’s position. The key to talks lay in a specific date from the Maoists. “On the specified date (say, June 1), we would expect that the CPI(Maoist) will stop all violent activities,” Chidambaram wrote. “We would closely observe whether the CPI(Maoist) will maintain the position of “no violence” for 72 hours. It goes without saying that, during the said period of 72 hours, the security forces will not conduct any operations against the CPI(Maoist). It is our hope that talks will begin during [that] period.”
The letter was significant because it was the first time the government had shown its willingness for a mutual halt of violence, meeting a key demand of the Maoists. In a signed response dated May 31, Azad also indicated his party’s willingness for talks. “Our Party desires peace sincerely in the interests of the lakhs of adivasis who are being cruelly crushed,” he said. He mocked Chidambaram’s 72-hour figure as a joke. “If the government is serious it should speak in terms of mutual ceasefire, for a longer period of time, and spell out the government’s stand on fulfilling the minimum requisites like release of leaders and lifting the ban on the CPI (Maoist).” Azad also asked the government to “stop its efforts to escalate the war, including the measure of calling back all the paramilitary forces deployed in war zones.”
‘Azad was going to give a date for mutual ceasefire. He may have let his guard down because of my letter. I am in shock’
Agnivesh relayed the letter to Chidambaram. On the basis of his discussion with the home minister, Agnivesh wrote a third letter to Azad on June 26 clarifying questions raised by the Maoists. The third letter clarified that Chidambaram’s insistence on 72 hours did not mean that ceasefire would only last for three days. Rather, Chidambaram wanted a specific date from which 72 hours of “mutual cessation of hostilities” would begin. During that period, he would invite the Maoists for talks and initiate a mutual ceasefire agreement.
Agnivesh’s third letter asked the Maoists for the most operative part of the process — a date from which the 72 hours of no violence would commence. Had Azad reached his destination, perhaps that date of peace would be on its way to New Delhi.
WRITER’S EMAIL: TUSHA@TEHELKA.COM