Tuesday, April 29, 2008

India Urged to Meet Maoist Rebel Group

New Delhi -- A government-appointed panel is urging Indian officials to consider negotiations with Maoist rebels who are securing a widening foothold in the center and south of the country.

An openness to talks would mark an about-face for the Indian government, which until now has viewed the insurgency as a law-and-order problem best tackled with security actions by individual states.

The recommendation was contained in a report by a panel appointed by the Planning Commission, the Indian government's internal think tank. The report was completed and given to the government earlier this month. A draft copy of the report was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, and the major recommendations in the final report were confirmed with a panel member.

"Both the central and the state governments should have an open mind about having peace talks with Naxalites without any prior conditionality," the draft report says. The Indian government's stance is that it won't negotiate before the rebels renounce violence and give up crime and their arms.

The report paints a bleak picture of the outcome of grappling with 40 years of so-called Naxalite rebellion -- a name given to the Maoist rebel movement after it started in the district of Naxalbari in West Bengal in the late 1960s. Those affected by the violence suffer from a lack of proper governance and poverty-alleviation programs while politicians have ignored their responsibility to help.

"To reduce the anger of the people, it is necessary that [those affected] should feel that they are a part of the mainstream of Indian society and not an external element to be looked down upon by others," the draft says.

In recent years, the Naxalites, who favor the overthrow of the Indian government, have made significant inroads in the center and south of the country. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Naxalism the biggest internal security challenge that India faces. Some state governments have responded by backing or tacitly encouraging local vigilante groups -- known as Salwa Judum -- that aim to counter the Naxalites. In the state of Chhattisgarh, the violence between the two sides has displaced about 100,000 people, many of them from indigenous tribes. The report also recommends the winding up of Salwa Judum, which means "purification hunt" in local dialect.

A spokesman for India's Home Ministry said the government has dealt with the Naxalites in a "holistic manner, in the arenas of security, development, administration and public-perception management."

Some experts said the report's recommendations are unlikely to be adopted wholesale by the government, given the extent of Naxal violence and the rebels' continuing and frequent attacks on security personnel. More than 220 people have died so far this year in Maoist-related violence. The death toll was 650 in 2007 and 742 in 2006, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a New Delhi-based research outfit.

"The developmental approach, as suggested by the report, takes time -- maybe 20 to 25 years -- to address the Naxal problem," said Ajai Sahni, the organization's executive director. He said it is more important for the government to restore control and start winning back land lost to the rebels. "Talks are possible when they have lost the will to fight," he said. "Right now, they are still ascendant."

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