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Chidambaram to attend Dantewada public hearing

New Delhi, Nov. 16: Union home minister P. Chidambaram has agreed to attend a civil society-sponsored public hearing in Dantewada, a Maoist hotbed in Chhattisgarh’s south Bastar, sending out another crossed signal on the drive against the guerrillas.

Chidambaram’s assent is being interpreted by civil society groups wanting to avert armed confrontation as a “victory against hawks in government” who have been pushing a military response to the recent Maoist surge in parts of central and eastern India.

At a time concerns have been expressed within influential sections of the Congress over the adverse political consequences of launching a crackdown on the Maoists -- it may entail considerable collateral damage to tribals who are part of the Congress’ aam aadmi constituency -- the visit may also be Chidambaram’s way of appearing amenable to political openings even as he spurs on the security forces.

“Chidambaram agreeing to come to a public hearing (jan sunvai) is not merely a climbdown from his earlier belligerent stand,” a civil society negotiator told The Telegraph. “It is also a signal to the security forces that the government has not abandoned the political approach to favour only the military.”

Chidambaram’s decision to go to south Bastar -- the date is yet to be finalised -- was clinched during a meeting he had with Dantewada-based activist Himanshu Kumar yesterday. Kumar, who runs the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) in the Dantewada jungles, is suspected -- like Binayak Sen -- by many in the security establishment to be close to Maoists.

Kumar denies any links, but has for a long time been outspoken in his criticism of government/ security policy in the Bastar region; among his chief allegations has been that it is the government, and not the Maoists, who are the chief perpetrators of “violence on the people”.

Plans for a joint offensive under the Centre’s supervision and monitoring are currently afoot. Although the first major push is likely only after the completion of the five-phase Assembly polls in Jharkhand, central paramilitary forces have begun deploying along Maoist-dominated areas in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

Vijay Raman, a top home ministry official with field experience in countering insurgency, is co-ordinating the would-be offensive.

Civil society activists are increasingly convinced, though, that the have been able to “move key levers” to put brakes on the security offensive. One of them even spoke of successfully lobbying top Congress leaders to pressure the Centre to give up bellicosity.

“Many senior partymen, including Digvijay Singh and Ajit Jogi, have advised the government, probably through Sonia Gandhi, to pull back from military brinkmanship,” a civil society spokesperson said. “We believe they have been heard in the right government circles, a military approach will yield nothing but more killings.”

On the contrary, security bosses who have been in regular touch with Chidambaram, reveal no sense of a go-slow. “My interactions tell me nothing about a rethink on the offensive against Maoists,” a top Chhattisgarh police officer said. “There may be procedural issues like elections in Jharkhand, but preparations are underway, we have to take them on because they pose an armed threat to the system, they are not people you can politically negotiate with beyond a point. The Union home minister has a very clear understanding of this.”

The Citizens’ Initiative for Peace (CIP), a leading human rights body, renewed its call for talks today, demanding an immediate cease-fire of both the government and the Maoists. Latching on to frail negotiations noises made by both sides over the past fortnight, the CIP said: “We hope and trust that both sides will carry on the talks with an aim to finding solutions to the concrete problems faced by the people of the affected regions. Any disagreement in the first round should not lead to the breakdown of talks. There should be a series of talks to arrive at mutually agreed solutions.”

The VCA’s Himanshu Kumar, though, came back with a mixed sense of his meeting with Chidambaram yesterday. “We were mostly iterating stated positions,” he told The Telegraph. “He said Maoists were disruptionists, I said the state was the main actor of violence, why else is it sending so many troops into the region?”

At one stage, according to Kumar, Chidambaram did renew his offer to freeze all controversial mining MOUs in Bastar -- a bone of contention for rights groups who allege that the chief reason behind the security offensive is to “clear tribal land for corporate interests”.

But the home minister’s offer was contingent upon the Maoists ceasing violence --- a guarantee Himanshu Kumar was in no position to furnish because Maoists themselves have repeatedly rejected the conditionality.

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