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Are Maoists 'political prisoners'?

Last updated on: September 25, 2012 18:28 IST

Recent court decisions have granted 'political prisoner' status to arrested Maoists.

Bibhu Prasad Routray examines how that decision will affect India's battle to control and fight the Maoist menace.

Two judicial decisions in Kolkata have opened up a dormant debate on the status of the jailed cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist. Whether the arrested left-wing extremists should be treated as 'political prisoners'? Whether India should recognise the Maoist movement as essentially political in nature?

In August, the Kolkata high court declared seven suspected Naxalites, including CPI-Maoist backed leader Chhatradhar Mahato and Maoist spokesperson for Bengal and Gaur Chakraborty as 'political prisoners'.

Following the trend, on September 21, a sessions court in Kolkata bestowed a similar status on nine suspected Maoists -- including head of the outfit's technical committee, Sadanala Ramakrishna.

This piece attempts to provide answers to three important questions relating to this debate.

First, do the Maoists qualify to be 'political prisoners'?

Second, what could have prompted the judiciary in Kolkata to take such decisions?

Third, what are the implications of such decisions on the future developments with regard to Maoist activities in the country?

Extremism: Political dichotomy

Being given 'political prisoner' status has been the long-standing demand of the CPI-Maoist. It is one of the three pre-conditions laid down by the outfit for peace negotiations with the government.

Legal teams representing the Maoists have persevered to gain a 'political prisoner' status for all the high-profile Maoists lodged in different state prisons today.

This yearning for a 'political' status, however, coexists with a strategy that seeks to uproot all that is commonly understood as 'political'. For the Maoists, all forms of elections held in India are a sham. The outfit opposes the parliamentary form of government, regularly calls for boycotting polling, coerces candidates to withdraw from the electoral processes and kills those who disobey.

The mass resignation of gram panchayat members in various states under duress is a successful implementation of the Maoist strategy. The demand for a 'political' status, thus, represents bit of a paradox for the Maoists who display intense contempt for the political set-up.

The Maoist objective of replacing the prevalent structure of governance relies not on peaceful political means, but a doctrinaire violent protracted people's war aimed at annihilating all class enemies.

Although the Maoists justify their violence as a response to the 'active and structural' violence of the State, more often than not the 'annihilation' has been the first streak of actual violence in areas now dominated by the extremists.

This grand strategy of people's war has resulted at least 5,291 dead bodies of civilians and security forces since 2004, the year the CPI-Maoist was formed, till 2011, averaging 755 deaths per year and 63 deaths per month.

An overwhelming proportion among the fallen have been from the very classes and communities the Maoists claim to be seeking to 'liberate'.

The class war has further left school and gram panchayat buildings, road stretches, bridges, electricity and mobile phone towers destroyed. By no stretch of imagination, this trail of blood, gory and destruction qualifies to be a political struggle.

The CPI-Maoist's overt reliance on violence and mayhem is intrinsic to its larger strategy of weakening the State, ensure its retreat if not disintegration, thus allowing the Maoist functionaries a free hand to establish a janathana sarkar (people's government) -- an euphemism for an extreme form of authoritarianism devoid of any respect for commonly accepted legal principles including basic human rights.

Such forms of government are a reality in the territories under firm extremist control.

This extremist plan of action is more than evident from the profiles of the two of the 16 Maoists granted 'political prisoner' status by the judiciary. Chhatradhar Mahato, who started as a defender of tribal rights in the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal's West Midnapore district, swiftly degenerated into running errands for the Maoist leader Kishenji.

Mahato was a key figure in the numerous Maoist activities in the district including giving shelter to the extremist cadres and murdering cadres of the then ruling Left Front.

Mahato's People's Committee Against Police Atrocities was the front organisation used by the Maoists to build up their 'liberation struggle' in the area and provide their wanton violence a legal and humane facade.

Charges against 60-year-old Sadanala Ramakrishna are even more unambiguous. RK, as he is commonly known, was the head of the outfit's 'technical committee', overseeing manufacturing arms and spares and supplying them deep into the Maoist territories all over the country.

During his stay in Kolkata, from where he was arrested in February, the team headed by RK collected explosive substances, ammunition and oversaw a project to manufacture rocket launchers and other weapons.

Close to Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), ammunition, explosive materials, several diagrams and literature on rocket launchers were recovered from the arms factory he had set up in Kolkata.

It requires no complex science to understand that neither Mahato nor RK excelled in essentially 'political' activities.

Why the decision?

Given that the Maoist ideology and end game is fairly well articulated and understood in the country's strategic circles, the court decision could be treated with a sense of disbelief.

It appears that the judgments are based on an unwarranted focus on the end 'political' objective of the Maoists, while disregarding the 'means' the outfit adopts to achieve such an objective.

However, this sense of bewilderment needs to be weighed in the wider context of the culture of political opportunism in West Bengal.

Maoists are not banned entities in West Bengal. While New Delhi and all the states affected by Maoist activities have proscribed the outfit, West Bengal has chosen to bypass such a decision.

The Left Front government considered the Maoist problem a 'political' issue, which it said should be fought politically. Only after the goons of the Left Front, the 'Harmad Bahini', were systematically butchered by the Maoists did the Budhhadeb Bhattacharya government agree to a central force-led initiative against the extremists.

However, the facade of a political fight against the Maoist was maintained till the very end of Left Front rule in the state. It is, thus, not surprising that the Communist Party of India has welcomed the latest court decisions.

Surprisingly, close to 18 months since the Left citadel was knocked off in West Bengal by the Trinamool Congress, the status quo has been maintained. In spite of Mamata Banerjee's proclivity to label all strands of critics -- students, cartoonists, farmers -- as Maoists, the chief minister has sidestepped the administrative expediency of proscribing the CPI-Maoist.

In these circumstances, unless the law enforcement agencies manage to prove their charges of sedition against the arrested extremists, nothing stops the courts from declaring the Maoists, 'political prisoners'.

The bigger picture

On the surface, the 'political prisoner' status bestows only rudimentary benefits on the arrested Maoists, which should have been granted to all prisoners under the long-pending prison reforms project.

Compared to the benefits some of our corrupt politicians manage to enjoy while behind the bars, the provision of newspapers, better food and a cot to sleep for the arrested Maoists vide the court judgment does not exactly threaten the existence of the nation.

The bigger issue, however, is the distinction the judgments establish between Maoism and other forms of extremism. It elevates Maoist activities to a higher level. It makes the Maoist violence an acceptable form of dissent articulation. And it attaches a stamp of legality behind ideology inspired use of carnage for political objectives.

This is no doubt a dangerous and unacceptable trend. Needless to say, the court rulings in West Bengal have been nothing sort of a moral victory for the CPI-Maoist.

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is a Singapore-based security analyst and a senior analyst at Wikistrat. He was deputy director at India's National Security Council Secretariat.

Bibhu Prasad Routray