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Interview: I am ready to review all the corporate MOUs: P Chidambaram

Posted by Admin on November 14, 2009

Home Minister P Chidambaram tells Shoma Chaudhury everything he is willing to do to de-escalate violence- Source: Tehalka
image 1-Class war?- A cop killed by Maoists at Sankrail, Bengal
PHOTO: PINTU PRADHAN 

2-Doctored Binayak Sen was jailed for two years for criticising the Salwa Judum 

3-Ashes to ashes A tribal woman in Chhattisgarh stands by her burned hut

In the past few months there’s been an escalated rhetoric from the State about Operation Green Hunt and “an all-out war against Maoists”. Now, with your offer for talks, a lot of that rhetoric has been toned down. What lay behind this sudden escalation and this toning down? And what, according to you, is really the best way to dismantle Maoist violence?
Everybody, especially the media, loves a war. You find this in every country – in the US after 9 / 11, in India after 26 / 11. You must not underestimate the gravity of the situation. The CPI(Maoists) have virtually taken control of many districts in seven states and completely paralysed the civil administration. Despite this, there was no conscious effort imageon the part of the government of India to raise the level of the rhetoric. We went about it in the only manner that we have to address a problem, namely, consulting the states. We consulted the states in January, we consulted the states in August and, necessarily, we put out a statement on what the consensus was. The consensus was that there should be coordinated action to take on the CPI (Maoists), which I think is perfectly right. So the Central Government offered paramilitary forces, real-time intelligence inputs, training, technical equipment and technology to the states. Show me one statement on the part of the Central Government, or me specifically, where I have raised the rhetoric against the CPI(Maoists). So I don’t agree that the rhetoric was raised and then toned down. The toning down, in fact, is again a perception. When we were asked if we will talk to the Maoists, I said yes, if they abjure violence we will talk to the Maoists. That’s been our stand from day one. The Prime Minister has said this, I’ve said it. So the so-called escalated rhetoric happened after the consultation with the chief ministers and the so-called lowering is after we said we’ll talk to the Maoists. Each event is simply how the media perceives it.

imageThere’s been a key shift in phrase from asking Maoists to “lay down arms” to merely asking them to “abjure violence”.
I never asked the Maoists to lay down arms because I know they will not. It is against their ideology. I have merely asked them to abjure violence. Unfortunately, much of the media did not notice the difference.

Many government functionaries have spoken of Operation Green Hunt to the media, but both you and Home Secretary Gopal Pillai have recently made public statements that it is a media creation. Are we to take it that this Operation does not exist? And if so, what are we to expect in the months to come?
There is no Operation Green Hunt. Name me an officer who has said this and I will take action. I have not seen a single paper or a single document in the Ministry of Home Affairs that uses the phrase Operation Green Hunt. It’s a pure invention of the media. What you can expect in the months ahead is merely a more coordinated effort by the state police to reassert control over territory or tracts of land where regrettably the civil administration has lost control. And for that purpose we will assist them in whatever manner is possible, particularly by providing paramilitary forces and sharing of intelligence.

There have been some other disturbing statements recently. At your interaction in the Indian Express office, you said, if need be, you would call in the army or the Rashtriya Rifles. You have also been saying that civil society is abetting a “climate of terror” and must “choose”. Raising one’s voice against State violence, excess or failure is the legitimate duty of a citizen; by doing that it does not mean one is supporting Maoist violence. Why trap people in this fatal binary? Why must we choose between two evils? Why would you want to outlaw democratic voices and lump them with Maoists?
I don’t blame you for inaccurate quotations. That’s something I’ve learnt to live with. You have quoted three parts of my alleged statements. All three are wrong. Let’s take the first one. At Indian Express I was asked, will the army be called? I said, no, the army will not be called for these internal security operations. I said, if necessary, the special forces in the army, which is the commando unit, may have to be called in for a special situation. That commando unit is meant for anti-terrorist operations and will be used with utmost caution.

Second, you quoted me as saying that civil society has to choose. Show me where I have ever said that. In my statement I outlined the Maoists’ history of violence and spelled out their policy of seizing state control through armed struggle. Having done this I said we are wedded to a democratic republican form of government, so civil society has to choose whether we want this form of government or an armed liberation struggle and a dictatorship of the proletariat. That’s a stark choice that you cannot duck. You are an Indian citizen living in India and you, I, and everyone has to make that choice. Now Kishenji, Kobad Gandhy and others like them have made that choice. They have the right to make a choice and they have. I have also made my choice. Imperfect as it is, I want a democratic republican form of government. I have taken an oath under the Constitution and I am obliged to defend this form of government that you, I and our forefathers, rightly or wrongly, chose and agreed to abide by. All I say is that all others too have to make that choice. This has got nothing to do with choosing between two kinds of violence. Therefore when you say that I told civil activists to make a choice, you must also provide the context — between what did I say make a choice.

Fair enough. Few would argue with targeted operations against Maoist leaders who, per se, do not believe in parliamentary democracy and want to overthrow it through armed struggle. As you say, we have made a choice about living in a democratic republic. But that cannot stop us arguing over its imperfect nature. When we point to state oppression or collateral damage or structural violence, as Home Minister can’t you engender a greater climate of justice? In so far as moral rhetoric drives action, can you not send out a message that violation by either the police or paramilitary will not be tolerated?
I entirely agree. We are an imperfect democracy; in fact our imperfections are growing every day. And we must debate, struggle and strive to keep perfecting this system. All I am saying is that no matter how frustrated we feel, no matter how slow the process is, let’s not throw out the system itself. I cannot make our democracy perfect overnight. There are other institutions which are required by the Constitution to see that the structures of governance work. There are the courts. There are the Human Rights Commission at centre and state level. There are commissions for minorities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is the RTI and the information commissioners and election commissioners. There’s a CAG and an accountant general to ensure money is correctly spent. If many these institutions work reasonably well, we’d have a system that works. The frustrating thing is many of these institutions are either faltering or paralysed. This is why our imperfections are growing.

Still, within my authority and power, there are certainly some rules I can ensure. For example, since I took over this ministry, I have made it very clear that anyone who is arrested by the police – State or Centre – must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours. I am totally opposed to staged encounters. It’s possible that in a gun battle between the police and those who take to the gun, people could get killed, but that’s unfortunately a battle. But if you arrest a person, he must be produced before a magistrate. There’s no question of tolerating an encounter, and I can say with complete confidence that since December 1, 2008, no one who has been arrested by the police has died in an encounter.

Likewise, I can ensure that certain norms are observed. For example there’s talk of torture chambers. I have made a thorough investigation and, to my knowledge, there is not a single torture chamber under the control of the central agencies. If you think there is one, if you suspect there is one, let me know where it is, and I know how to locate it and dismantle it.

In the same way, in our coordinated strategy against the Maoists, I have given instructions that there should be no firing unless we are fired at, there should only be intelligence-based operations, not broad sweeping cordon-and-search operations that could alienate local populations. I have been in Punjab, I understand the pitfalls. My point is every organ of government in this country — and I use government with a capital G — must discharge its responsibilities. If you had a strong district judge and a set of very strong, fearless magistrates, very little would go wrong in the criminal justice system.
image 4-Hunter, hunted Tribals in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh

5-Citizenship Activist Himanshu Kumar’s ashram was razed by the State on May 17

The problem is things are going wrong. In Manipur apparently there have been 285 false encounters this year alone. Tehelka itself exposed one shocking one in July. In the offensive against Naxals too, civil activists like Himanshu Kumar have been trying to highlight the fact that Salwa Judum SPOs have been burning down tribal homes, stealing hens and goats, raping women. There is a complete breakdown of trust because tribals can’t even get their FIRs filed. Civil rights groups are saying that for the peace talks to have any meaning, we have to restore people’s faith in the justice system. Can’t you send out a message to the administration that just because this is a conflict zone, excesses will not be tolerated? Arrest some of the SPOs against whom there are complaints…
imageI’m glad you think I have so much power and authority. Law and order is a state subject. All that you have spoken about in the last couple of minutes falls under the jurisdiction of the State governments, the Chief Minister and Home Minister of the state. You must take up cudgels with them. If I interfere too much they are likely to throw List II of the Constitution at me.

You are washing your hands of it.
No, I am saying raise your voice and take up cudgels with the relevant authority. Nevertheless, to answer your question, when I took over, one of the first issues that came up was the Salwa Judum and I made myself very clear, publicly as well as privately to the chief minister, I do not approve of non-state actors taking things into their own hands. That’s a function of the police. And to my knowledge, over time the activities of the Salwa Judum have virtually wound down.

No, the SPOs are still armed. The Supreme Court has directed that the villages that were evacuated under the Salwa Judum must be rehabilitated but the SPOs are apparently interfering with this.
Quite possible, but the SPO is an agent of the state government. We have them in Jammu and Kashmir, we had them in Punjab. In a sense, they are employees of the state government, so the state must bear responsibility for what the SPO does. If the SPO exceeds his authority or indulges in gratuitous violence, he should be punished. But law and order is a state subject and when there are duly elected governments, beyond prevailing upon the states to change their attitude towards law enforcement, beyond urging them, nudging them, prevailing upon them, there is not much I can do. It falls entirely within the jurisdiction of the state chief ministers to meet the requirements of the Constitution, justice and fair play.

To focus on your offer for peace talks. As it stands, your offer is unimpeachably worded. Crucially, you have offered to discuss all the key issues: land acquisition, mining, industrialization, forest rights, forms of local governance. But the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace feels that for the offer to have any meaning on the ground, you must make some gestures to restore people’s faith in the justice system. One of the things they suggest is, even if only as a confidence building measure, why don’t you hold a jan sunwayi or people’s hearing in Naxal affected areas?
If any civil rights group or tribal representative will organise it, I am ready to come.

Is that on record? Activists like Himanshu Kumar say you don’t even need to speak to the Maoists, just start speaking to the people directly — that will wean them away and restore their faith in the Indian State. In these places it’s not just that poverty alleviation has been absent, but that the State has only shown its most oppressive or malign face.
A group that owes allegiance to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came to see me. Even though I may not adhere to their politics, I told them if you want to work in these areas and convince tribals to invest faith in the State and eschew support to violence, I will extend all the support I can give, I will ask the states to support and, if necessary, I will come myself to speak to them. But I have not heard from them since.

In another context, you’ve mentioned that because there’s President’s Rule in Jharkhand, you’ve been able to achieve a lot, even though it’s a Naxal-affected region. So if you had a free hand in Chhattisgarh and Orissa and Bengal, or if there were Congress governments in these states, what are some of the remedial measures you would take?
While we can argue about this, I’m very clear in my mind, the first step is to ensure that there is no violence in an area. In a climate of violence, no one will listen to anyone else, no one will trust anyone else and nothing can be done. Maybe it’s out of context to say this, but this is a land where Gandhiji was born and he said violence has no place in civil society. I’m not a saint like him, but I firmly believe there’s no place for violence in our democracy. Therefore everyone — including the Indian State — must abjure violence. Then we must agree that the civil administration, however imperfect it may be, will be given the space and the time to do certain things. This is what we got in Jharkhand. Once we got the space and the time to do certain things, in just two and a half months, we achieved a lot. If you don’t believe me, just go back to the very same people who were complaining and ask them. A year ago, they were saying that the State has failed. Today you have a functioning PDS in the hands of women’s groups, old age pension is being paid, free rations are being distributed to everyone below the poverty line, schools have opened, teachers have been appointed. Just the day before polls were announced, I ensured that over a 1,000 doctors and paramedics were appointed, boys and girls in the tenth standard were given cycles, thousands of petty cases for violation of forest rights were cast out. All this was possible in two and a half months because we had broadly asserted control over these areas and, for reasons that I do not know, while the Maoists were indulging in acts of violence here and there, they did not interfere with what we were doing on the ground. At least in these districts.

image 6-Terrorists? Two of the women exchanged for a cop, kidnapped by Maoists in Lalgarh

7-Kandahar swap: This 70-year-old widow was one of the 14 women dubbed a Naxal terrorist

8-Stockholm syndrome Atindranath Dutta being released by Maoists

That’s exactly the point many concerned citizens are making. You have not had a big military operation in Jharkhand. You did not need it. You just took the initiative to reactivate civil administration on the ground. The Maoists have not had the temerity to harm that because they know if they attack anything that is bringing genuine well-being to the people, local populations will get alienated. Why not take the same initiative in Chhattisgarh or elsewhere?
This is not to say Maoists have been not been violent in Jharkhand. They have been particularly violent in instances like the Francis Induwar case. And now they have called for a boycott of the elections and put out a statement saying they will “target” and “punish” Congress and JMM in particular. The point here is, instead of arguing over who is responsible for the violence or who should stop the violence, why don’t the CPI Maoists heed my appeal and say, “yes, we will halt the violence and let us hear the Home Minister’s response”. Give me two or three days to respond, because imageI need to consult others in government and state governments. I am not a dictator, I have to consult everyone. Once they say, halt the violence and they actually halt the violence, between their statement and my response which will surely come in about 72 hours, if there is actually no violence, you will find that I am in a position to respond in a manner that violence can be ended once and for all and development can take place, and talks can also be held with the CPI Maoists. But the first step is to say, “we halt the violence”.

That’s a big statement. No one at any end of the spectrum can argue with that position. To get back to your offer for talks: You have offered discussion on all the key issues: land acquisition, forest rights, industrialisation, local governance. While this is an important gesture, why hand over the “rights discourse” to the Maoists? Why don’t you spell out better more equitable ways of doing all of this? Especially mining. There is a real misgiving that much of the military offensive planned in these areas is to take control over mineral-rich land. Companies like Tatas and Essar have signed MOUs with the state. Do you believe these MOUs directed the Salwa Judum or the urgency with which the state now wants to regain control of this land?
imageI think you are looking for a sinister design that does not exist. I think these MOUs have been signed over a period of time with different governments, long before Maoist violence escalated to this level. Be that as it may, I am prepared to request the Prime Minister to freeze all these MOUs and order a comprehensive review of all the MOUs that have been signed in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and South Bihar, and then decide which MOU should be implemented, with or without modification. I am prepared to request the PM to do that.

That is on record.
Yes, it is. But I don’t think that is the main issue. It may be the issue foregrounded but the real issue is – and this is something that I am at pains to draw everyone’s attention to – the real issue is that the Maoists are not merely champions of the people, defending their rights and challenging the Indian State to function better. Their real thesis is that the parliament system is a rotten system. They believe, and I quote, that “Parliament is a pigsty” and therefore an armed liberation movement is the only way to destroy the Parliament and establish the dictatorship of the people. Now, that’s an intrinsic ideological position. Who can argue with them and tell them they are wrong? If someone holds that position I can’t do anything about it but —

(Overlapping) I want to sideline the focus on the Maoists and focus on the Indian State —

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