FAKERY HAS always been a key instrument of power. But last week, as the President and Pr ime Minister of India made their Independence Day speeches, cocooned symbolically in towers of glass, the scale of that fakery shot skyward. Both leaders augustly urged the Maoists, yet again, to “abjure violence” and come for talks. Few among the millions of Indians who heard them would have caught the cynicism.

Swami Agnivesh certainly would have. It’s just over a month since the State shot down a man called Azad. There’s been some fitful noise over it. Civil society has protested valiantly; Mamta Banerjee has asked for a judicial inquiry. But for the most part, Indians have gone about their business, registering little and understanding even less. (I tried sharing some of its indignant shock with a public icon from Mumbai. He replied: “So what if they shot one guy?” The chasm was so wide, I subsided into silence.)

Guest relations Maoist leader Azad, shot dead in suspicious circumstances
Guest relations Maoist leader Azad, shot dead in suspicious circumstances

But the hard truth is the killing of Azad is a desperate new low in Indian public life. Azad was not just a key leader of the CPI(Maoist) — a mans whose death would be a face-saving notch on the carbines of competitive violence, one big fish to even the score for 76 jawans. He was a man mid-stream in a peace process initiated by the government itself. How could the State just ignore his death, then stand coldly on the ramparts of the Red Fort urging a new round of talks? Where are the certitudes that make the foundation of a civilised society?

Much of the events leading up to Azad’s death has been reported earlier in TEHELKA (The Maoist and the Undelivered Missive, 17 July, 2010), but it bears a quick retelling. Some months ago, as pressure mounted on him to defuse the civil war in the heartland, Home Minister P Chidambaram called Swami Agnivesh and asked him to bear a letter for the Maoists, urging them to come for talks. Agnivesh acted in good faith and sent the word out. It was a hopeful time. Significantly, Chidambaram’s letter did not merely make flamboyant demands asking the Maoists to give him “72 hours” to set the world right.

Instead, it asked them to announce a date for talks so the government could plan its response. It also promised that if the Maoists would lay down arms, “it goes without saying” the security forces would also suspend operations for the duration of the talks. The Maoists — mandating Azad to be their point person — responded positively. A mutual cessation of hostilities suddenly seemed possible. Apparently, a fixed date was imminent.

Then on 2 July, shockingly, Azad was shot dead. The Andhra Police claimed there was a pitched battle with 20-30 Maoists in the jungles near Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh. But, inexplicably, no security forces were hurt, the villagers claim there was no firing, and only two hand-picked people lay dead: Azad and a journalist called Hem Chandra Pandey. Pandey’s colleagues claim they saw him in Delhi on the morning of 1 July, far from the jungles of Adilabad. And the Maoists claim Azad was nowhere near Adilabad at all and was actually picked up from Nagpur and killed in cold blood, while on his way to Dandakaranya to build consensus for the talks.

So was Azad deliberately bumped off by the State?

It is incredibly self-defeating to dismiss those asking for an inquiry into this as “anti-national” or “Maoist sympathisers”. Or, in Mamta Banerjee’s case, to question why she isn’t falling in with the UPA’s line. Before the propriety of electoral alliances, there is the principle of natural justice. Don’t Indian citizens have a right to know what really happened? To know if we are living in a State that mouths peace but shoots its messengers?

The story of what happened after Azad’s death strikes an even deeper chill. A mortified Swami Agnivesh went to Chidambaram and asked him for an explanation: How could he compromise him as an interlocutor? How could his forces kill his own emissary? Reportedly, Chidambaram said he knew nothing about the killing and was not concerned about it. Either way, his response is disturbing. Here is a man who is helming a “coordinated strategy” against the Maoists, and the police killed a key person involved in his peace channel without his knowledge? What kind of “coordinated strategy” is that? And if that killing has set back his peace process, why is he not concerned about it, if not downright enraged? There is only the darker alternative to confront: He knew. And was unconcerned. Azad’s death was part of the strategy.

But Chidambaram is not the only door Swami Agnivesh knocked on after Azad’s death. He went to LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Sharad Yadav, D Raja, AB Bardhan, Jaipal Reddy and a host of other politicians. Each of them promised to ask for an inquiry. Agnivesh even met jailed Maoist leaders Kobad Ghandy and Narayan Sanyal to keep the dialogue alive. And wrote letters to Sonia Gandhi. Finally, on 20 July, Agnivesh met the Prime Minister. The mild doctor promised to heal the wound and requested him to take the peace process forward. Acting on his word, Agnivesh sent another letter to the Maoists on 22 July. But barely a week later, Sukant — another Maoist bearing Agnivesh’s letter — apparently found himself surrounded by the police. Somehow managing to escape, he sent an email to Agnivesh urging him not to send any more letters. Agnivesh was being used as a pawn by the government, the mail said. His letters were sniffer dogs for the security agencies. The call for peace was just a sham.

And there the move for “talks” now stands. Agnivesh sends a daily message to the PM’s office, but has had no reply. Sonia Gandhi has declined to meet him, directing him to Chidambaram instead. And the Left and the BJP have segued into each other. “What was it about,” says Swami Agnivesh quietly. “Was it just an empty PR exercise? How can the President and Prime Minister read out these written speeches spouting old platitudes like ‘abjure violence’ and ‘come for talks’, as if nothing has happened in between? This is absolute hypocrisy.”

But Agnivesh is just a symptom. If the State fails to act in good faith — by either laying to rest ugly suspicions or by redressing its own wrongdoing — how can anyone dare to engage constructively with either party?

OVER THE last year, the Maoist threat has been used by media and State to outlaw many crucial pieces of a democracy. Anyone who criticises the excesses — or the absences — of the State is immediately branded a Maoist. Being pro-poor is seen as potential insurrection. In just the last three years — astoundingly — a 100 people have been arrested in Maharashtra alone for the ‘heinous’ crime of reading Bhagat Singh and BR Ambedkar. Public figures like Mahasweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Medha Patkar, Binayak Sen — to name just a few — have been brushed aside as “Maoist sympathisers”. And dozens of pro-livelihood activists have been arrested.

If Azad’s death has set back his peace process, why is the Home Minister not concerned about it, if not downright enraged?

As TEHELKA’s own critique of the government’s stand on tribal issues has grown louder, sources say the home minister has begun to dismiss it as a Maoist publication. Where does this paranoia end? Contrary to perception, in June this year, TEHELKA had, in fact, sent a 10-page questionnaire to Azad, asking combative questions about Maoist ideology, intention, vision, reliance on guns, summary killings, and the efficacy of class war in a post-ideology world. Ironically, his reply reached us a day after his death. It said, “Thank you for your questions. I am on a journey and I apologise for the delay but will send you my answers by the end of July.”

As I folded the letter, there was a call from Husendi, a Maoist commander. Urgently, I asked him the same questions. “You’re raising such important issues of social justice,” I said. “But because of your ambition of capturing State power and establishing Communist rule, the Indian State is able to sidestep the focus on justice. Isn’t there a way of mobilising people without a gun?”

“Communist rule is a very distant ambition,” he replied in Hindi. “Just now we are fighting for democracy. We are fighting for the Constitution. Houses are being burnt in the jungles. Women are being raped. Hundreds of Adivasis have petitioned the district collector peacefully asking for food. But nothing happens. No media covers all this. What are we to do? Should we just abandon these people and go back to our homes?”

For the moment I have no answers. A spectacle of images rises before me: men like A Raja and the Reddy brothers walking free, destituting the country, secure in the armour of electoral politics. The bloody picture of an old, unarmed farmer in Hyderabad shot for protesting the takeover of his land. A 13-year-old boy shot in UP for being part of another demonstration over land. The vacant faces of tribals in Dantewada staring at the ashes of homes burnt for the tenth time. The fact that in 64 years, not one Governor has used the provisions of the Fifth Schedule to intervene on behalf of indigenous people.

As this story goes to press, Maoist leader Kishenji has sent a fresh offer for peace, contingent on two things: a mutual ceasefire for three months and a judicial inquiry into Azad’s death.

Is the offer sincere, is it not? Only events will tell. But the inquiry should indeed be non-negotiable. The State might think that makes me a Maoist. I think it makes me a concerned Indian citizen.