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RARELY, in recent memory, has the mood been bleaker. Be it continuing inflation, the ‘failure’ of talks with Pakistan, or the upsurge of rage in the Kashmir Valley, there is a widespread feeling that the UPA government has lost its grip. Even as key ministers continue to squabble in public, both the prime minister and the UPA chairperson maintain an unnerving silence. No one seems clear as to what is happening, far less about the official policy on major social issues.

When Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, frontally challenged the Union Home Ministry strategy of ‘containing and countering’ the growing menace of left-wing extremism (read Maoists) in the central Indian tribal heartlands, treating it as a ‘purely’ law and order problem without taking into consideration issues that affect tribals, and was not ‘pulled up’ by the High Command for breach of party discipline, many were hopeful about a new approach. This hope, it now appears, was misplaced.

For all the talk of a two-track strategy – combining a strengthening of the policing and law and order machinery with a slew of schemes for enhancing the welfare of local peoples, preponderantly tribals and dalits – the focus securely remains on ‘winning back and holding territory lost to Maoist influence.’ All advice to the contrary by counter-insurgency experts about involving the army and para-military forces on the frontlines seems to have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. Nor have there been any fresh moves towards evolving a new mining policy, rigorously implementing the Forest Rights Act, expanding the working of schemes like NREGA and, above all, activating the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) which would empower local communities. It appears as if we are preparing for war.

Two recent developments have strengthened this feeling of unease. The first was the ‘elimination’ of the CPI (Maoist) spokesperson, Azad, alongside Uttarakhand journalist, Hemchandra Pandey, in an ‘alleged’ encounter by the Andhra Pradesh police. Azad, as revealed by social activist Swami Agnivesh, had for some time been engaged in back-channel discussions towards an eventual ceasefire and ‘peace’ talks between the ‘banned’ CPI (Maoist) and the government. His ‘elimination’ at this stage, whether or not the encounter was genuine, only generates suspicion that those in charge of counter-insurgency operations are skeptical, if not reluctant, about even exploring the avenues of bringing the cycle of violence and counter-violence in the region to an end.

Equally disturbing, and bizarre, is the attempt by the Chhattisgarh police to label some prominent critics – Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Himanshu Kumar and Nandini Sundar – as Maoist supporters, ostensibly because they have been in touch with a tribal activist from the region who, the police claim, is an important CPI (Maoist) functionary. This revelation, incidentally, came in a press conference by the DGP Chhattisgarh. Surprisingly, no effort has till now been made by the police to issue an arrest warrant against the accused. Surely, one does not ‘announce’ the intention to act against a person allegedly involved in ‘waging war against the state.’

Treating this merely as a suo motu move by the state police would be wrong. The Union Home Secretary, G.K. Pillai, in a recent interaction with The Indian Express, claimed to have intercepts of telephonic conversations between Maoist leaders and their sympathizers (all unnamed), ‘proving’ that these social activists whip up propaganda and organize protests against government action on behalf of the banned party. ‘Being in contact with a proscribed group is violative of the law’, he asserted.

It is hardly secret that each of these named individuals, and many others, are vocal critics of the official anti-Maoist strategy – both the Salwa Judum operation of the Chhattisgarh government and Operation Green Hunt of the Union. But so are they of many of the actions of the CPI (Maoist). Incidentally, so too are many counter-insurgency experts who, despite sharing little ideological affinity with the social activists, echo the need to ‘win back the hearts and minds of the affected people’, not place them in the midst of a crossfire.

Treating all critical voices as ‘anti-national’, calumnising them and threatening them with legal action is a sure sign of a regime in panic, one is no longer sure of its social support or the degree to which it remains in control. No one is claiming that the conflict is not serious, far less that there are easy responses to what are deep-rooted problems of exclusion and powerlessness. But surely, even the spin doctors of the UPA must realize that stifling dissent, open and legal, only brings back memories of the Emergency. And, even they cannot wish this.

Harsh Sethi