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V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

An IAS angel who understood Maoist movement

At times in our lives we meet angels who soothe our anxieties and show a way out of our problems. Religious books say that angels are created “with one purpose, the purpose to love and to serve all without condition”. Finding such angels in our much maligned bureaucracy is the rarest of rare experience. One such person was S.R. Sankaran, who passed away on 7 October 2010 after an illustrious career in the Indian Administrative Service. His admirers have launched a website where several common people have written about their experiences with him. His humility was legendary, but his devotion to the downtrodden was fierce. Hundreds of Dalits, safai karmacharis, former bonded labourers and adivasis thronged his house in Hyderabad when he died. The story of how he, along with others, was abducted by the Peoples’ War Group (PWG) in East Godavari District in 1987, and his long dialogue with left wing extremists, is well known. That experience was an eye opener to the social issues behind the Naxalite movement. Faced with Naxalite violence and state counter violence, a group of Hyderabad citizens formed the Committee of Concerned Citizens in 1997. He was naturally chosen to head the Committee, which became the catalyst for the TDP and Congress governments from 2000 to 2005 for holding peace talks with the Naxalites. Unfortunately, both attempts failed. Meanwhile, the PWG and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) merged, calling themselves Maoists in 2004.
In June 2006, Mumbai’s Nehru Centre organised a seminar on the Naxalite threat, assembling serving and retired police officers, human rights activists, academics and senior media personnel. I wrote its theme paper and chaired it. But my studies were incomplete. I then decided to visit Hyderabad to meet knowledgeable persons, including Sankaran. He received me at his modest home in Hyderabad on 22 October 2007. Several cobwebs in my mind were cleared during my one-hour interaction with him. He was not a sentimental idealist despite becoming a social activist. On the contrary, he had a sharp mind and could discern hidden trends in the Maoist movement. He thus displayed the true quality of an administrator. I was taken aback when he told me that the Naxalite movement was making deep inroads into West Bengal. I did not believe him at the time. His prognosis came true with the sudden spurt of organised violence in the Lalgarh area from 2 November 2008, following a landmine attack on the West Bengal Chief Minister. By June 2009, the Maoists had “captured” 48 villages from government control after setting police posts on fire.
In his briefing he seemed to reject the alleged operational cooperation between Nepalese and Indian Maoists, often parroted by our media and intelligence agencies. He was categorical that Nepalese Maoists were like our CPI(M) and had no collaboration with the Indian Maoists. The Nepali stream wanted abolition of monarchy and establishment of multi-party democracy, which they nearly achieved. On the other hand, the aim of the Indian Maoists is overthrowing the present “semi-colonial and semi-feudal” government. He also told me that AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh had met him to get a better idea of the Maoist movement. But he told me that government did not have any strategy on how to deal with them. Generally, tribals and rural people do not have any faith in our government. They find the parallel rule by the Naxalites more effective and honest. Also, upper classes in villages started respecting the downtrodden under the Naxalite “rule”.
At the same time he was quite candid in admitting that the Maoist leadership was “possessed” with the illusory conviction that the masses were with them and it was only a question of time before they would capture power. They, however, did not have any plans on what to do after the takeover of power. The top Maoist leadership was dedicated but did not seem to know that some lower cadres were indulging in extortions for personal gains. In any case, it is the local militant who matters for villagers.
He gave an interesting assessment on the reason why talks with them failed in Andhra Pradesh. Although the Maoists blamed successive Andhra governments for the failure, according to Sankaran one of the strongest reasons behind the failure was, the MCC, the larger formation, did not want the Andhra peace agreement to be a precedent in other states.

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