Friday, August 01, 2008

Oslo Peace Conference - Two steps backwards in understanding conflict / violence

Some of the mediocre information which was displayed at conference can be
viewed at
It mainly consists of copy pasted work from the internet with a heavy
dosage of state propoganda.

A report on the Oslo peace conference which took place a few months ago..

Via Gyanoprapha


If a group of eminently undistinguished European NGO's get together to organize a Conference on Peace and Reconciliation in South Asia, you might be forgiven for wondering why it hardly receives any coverage in the Indian media.

But if you were told that it was attended by the likes of

• Prof. Brahma Chellaney, Centre for Policy Research, India
• Mr. Kalpataru Das, Member of the Orissa State Legislative Assembly, India
• Mr. Francois Gautier, Editor in Chief, La Revue de l'Inde
• Mr. Giridhari Nayak, Inspector General of Police, Chhattisgarh, India
• Mr. Ramvichar Netam, Home Minister of Chhattisgarh, India,

and that the subject of their discussion with European MP's and journalists and other analysts and egg-heads was the threats of naxalism and the "spontaneous citizen response" of Salwa Judum, and that this was the first such opportunity for the state to present its case abroad, you might wonder why it did not receive even passing coverage. But thanks to the moderators of CGNet, here is a report that appeared on April 22. Unfortunately, the provenance of the report remains unknown, for reasons that will become clear when one reads the report.

My attempts to discover an internet trail for the Oslo peace conference in the Indian media on Google today proved infructuous, except for this which refers to the naxalite tragedy in Chhattisgarh only in passing, and this, which has none.

A little investigation will reveal that two of the NGO's associated with the conference - Art of Living and the International Association for Human Values - are both the organizational children of someone who makes himself known under the title of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Nothing unexpected about a sadhu propagandizing for peace, in fact I wish more would do so honestly and critically. But what is a sadhu who claims to be promoting peace doing in the company of the persons listed above? And why, if his interest in peace is non-partisan, were there no opponents of Salwa Judum, or people critical of the government's stance on the maoists, represented at the conference?

Another participant in the discussion was a French journalist resident in India called Mr. Francois Gautier. His own website shows him to be a fervent supporter of the right-wing Hinduist form of politics that goes under the name of Hindutva. This form of politics has generally been associated with Hindu religious extremism that (together with the extremism of Muslims) has wreaked havoc in our country through terror bombings and riots for the last two decades. In Chhattisgarh, more so than its opposition the Congress Party, it has also generally been associated with an exclusively "get tough" stance towards the problem of naxalism that has actually resulted in an acceleration and increase of violence, while doing very little to improve health, education and basic human rights to the communities being destroyed by a predatory model of development.

Not surprisingly, the report shows that Mr. Gautier was as anxious to dismiss dissenting opinion in Salwa Judum and naxalism as you would expect from a man more interested in propagating a particular ideological point of view than promoting a dialogue for peace and reconciliation.

The curious thing is that Mr. Brahma Chellaney, whose website has pictures from all his foreign conferences, has somehow failed to update his website with any information about Oslo till today. The conference website says very little about his own participation, and certainly he doesn't tell us very much either. Does this suggest how unimpressed he was with the whole proceedings?

All in all, it seems to have been a conference that only resulted in some more kudos for the publicity-hungry Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (which I couldn't help unkindly thinking is a name that is designed to maximize his brand equity among gullible foreigners). But because it was so one-sided, it could not have shed much light on how to actually bring about peace. I was not surprised to see that, having failed to convince the Supreme Court of the legality of its Salwa Judum operations, the Chhattisgarh government is now reduced to riding piggy-back on the reputation of godmen to convince the world outside India - in its first such move abroad - of its credibility as peacemaker. But someone should have told them that having Netam the Home Minister publicly make the laughable claim that Naxalites eat little children may not have been the best way to achieve credibility.


This conference was held in Oslo, Norway on the 10th and 11th of April. It was organised by the International Association for Human Values, a volunteer-based, charitable non-governmental organisation based in Geneva and founded by H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The first day was dedicated to panel presentations and individual
presentations about each conflict that was to be discussed during the
conference. Before the panel sessions were initiated H.H. Sri Sri Ravi
Shankar introduced the International Association of Human Values and the
'Art of Living'. He spoke of the importance of coming together in a safe
environment to communicate and find solutions to the conflicts in South
Asia, particularly emphasizing Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India. He
underlined the importance of inner peace, harmony, dialogue and listening to
each other. He spoke of common goals and respect for human rights. He hoped
that through coming together here in Oslo good policy measures would be
formed and roadmaps to peace would take shape.

In the first panel session the history and current situation of conflicts in
India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma were presented. The Home minister of
Chhattisgarh, Mr. Ramvichar Netam, was last in line to present the history
and current situation in Chhattisgarh, India. As he was presenting the case
with a translator close by, I was puzzled by the fact that he never
mentioned why the Naxal movement had come about in the first place. He
mentioned it started as a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, but not once did he
remark why it exists and why it is that so many people join, and what the
goal of the movement really is.

The minister presented some amazing number
of crores that had been spent on development projects and infrastructures in
Chhattisgarh that of course the Naxals had obstructed and destroyed. As he
kept on talking I suddenly noticed the writings on the 'fact sheets' hanging
on all the walls in the conference hall. 'The Maoist Mayhem' was one of the
headings that had been cut out from an Indian newspaper. 'Killings by
Naxalites', 'The Naxal terror'…My observations were interrupted by a comment
coming from the Home Minister, and I quote; 'The Naxalites not only kill
people, they eat human flesh. They kill little children and roast them.' At
this point I glanced at the rest of the audience. People were shaking their
heads and were clearly put off by the terrors of Naxalites, which of course
very few had prior knowledge of.

At the second panel session the director of the 'Art of Living Foundation'
in India, Swami Sadhyojathah, presented a suggestive roadmap to peace
building for the Naxal conflict in Chhattisgarh and India. Considering the
'Art of Living' is an NGO I assumed they would provide a slightly more
balanced picture. He claimed 'Art of Living' to be heavily involved in the
rehabilitation of terrorists, meaning Naxalites, in Chhattisgarh. Facts and
figures were presented on killings and lootings by Maoists. The director
said that India has among the highest rate of deaths due to terrorist
killings in the world, with the Naxals pushing the statistics up. The
headlines of the slides on the PowerPoint presentation were written in red
and the first had the elegant wording of 'How to nix the Naxalites'.

Interesting how His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had emphasized in his
opening speech the importance of listening and dialogue for building peace
and reconciling differences. Not to mention the importance of meditation to
change a terrorist's goals and the building of toilets for the tribals to
teach them about hygiene. I can really imagine how happy tribals must be to
get toilets, considering they must leave now and then to continue their
practice of shifting cultivation. The headlines were indeed an invitation
for further peace talks, weren't they? Since the Art of Living is heavily
involved in Salwa Judum camps in Chhattisgarh and are working actively for
building peace in the region, shouldn't they aim for neutrality and
respecting all parties involved in the conflict?

Slightly disturbed after the distorted presentations the first evening I
decided to arrive the next day with an open mind and give the conference a
second chance. This day was designed for workshops on each conflict. In
these workshops panel participants and audience were suppose to discuss more
in-depth about the issues and present a document containing various policy
measures to deal with the 'Naxal Terror' in India, but in particular in
Chhattisgarh. In the panel session for the Naxal workshop sat Mr. Kalpataru
Das, member of the Orissa State Legislative Assembly, Mr. Francois Gautier,
Editor in Chief, La Revue de I'Inde, Mr. Giridhari Nayak, Inspector General
of Police in Chhattisgarh, Mr. Sashi Raj Pandey, Chairman of Art of Living
Nepal. The moderator for the discussion was Mr. Nirj Deva, Member of the
European Parliament.

The Home Minister was nowhere to be found. Later I
discovered that he was busy sightseeing in downtown Oslo. The session opened
by the moderator saying that as a member of the European Parliament he is
responsible for channelling 33 million Euros in development aid to India, a
phrase which was complimented by laughter. The Inspector General of Police
then presented his viewpoints. Two things caught my attention during the
Inspector's presentation.

Firstly, the Chhattisgarh government has spent and are spending thousands
of crores on development in Chhattisgarh. But that
their work is difficult because Naxalites are attacking infrastructure and
threatening government officials. Secondly, that the Salwa Judum was
mentioned in only one sentence. It was referred to as a peaceful spontaneous
uprising by tribals who have desperately searched the assistance of the CG
government to aid in their organisational activities. Later in the
discussion a man directed a question in regards to this movement to the
Inspector General, asking whether assisting the Salwa Judum is a good
strategy and if they would continue employing this strategy.

The Inspector General pointed out that it is not a strategy, he argued that the movement came about when tribals got tired of the Naxal violence and wanted to stand up for themselves. As a government they must protect their citizens and thus
provide support to such a movement like the Salwa Judum. He ended the
statement by referring to the importance of rehabilitation and that the Art
of Living is doing a good job in achieving that. Very interesting arguments,
considering the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it is a spontaneous
uprising and that a committee has been appointed to document atrocities
committed by Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Secondly, if the Art of Living
wants to claim they are designing a roadmap for peace in CG, should they not
aim for openness and creating an environment for dialogue? Isn't that what
building peace is about? How do you expect to do that if you insist on
calling the other party a terrorist? After Mr. Nayak had spoken, Mr.
Kalpataru Das shared his viewpoints on this issue. It was hard to understand
whether he was for or against a joint military/developmental approach in
tackling naxalism. In general he seemed to focus more on the importance of
including the tribal leaders in decision making and that providing education
and employment should be major concerns, as he claimed the government in
Orissa had prioritized. He argued for the importance of including Adivasis
in the mainstream. Only to do this you had to physically bring the Adivasis
to the urban centres and not to the 'mainstream' where they are currently
living. I leave it up to people more familiar with the Orissa case to judge
the validity of such statements. Mr. Das was followed by Francois Gautier
who didn't add much more to the discussion other than reinforcing the view
on Naxals as terrorists and that the Art of Living is doing an amazing job
in converting these terrorists into human beings, through meditation and
stress management.

It was odd how no concrete examples of this were shown or
that they didn't bring a 'converted' Naxal to the conference. There were
representatives from Art of Living in the audience who were encouraged now
and then to speak about the extraordinary work the NGO does. However these
spoke about slum projects in Gujarat and Kerala. I still have not figured
out the relevance and connections with these projects and projects run in,
and I use their own words, 'Naxal infested' Chhattisgarh. Could anyone
enlighten me?

During the workshop session someone asked if they had made an effort to
invite representatives from the Maoist movement in India or Nepal. The man
representing the Nepalese case said that they had tried, but due to
elections no one wanted to leave. The moderator expressed a firm 'no' when
asked the same in regards to Maoists in India. I questioned quietly in my
mind why there were no representatives from Human Rights Organisations in
India to present their point of view or even academics working on these
issues present.

Such people are highly informed about the status quo and are
risking their lives and professions to document atrocities committed by both
sides in the conflict in CG. It was scary to sit in the audience and observe
such an imbalanced presentation knowing that the Naxal issue is not that
commonly known outside India. In fact hardly anyone knows about it. Earlier
in the day I had the opportunity to ask some questions to the Inspector
General of Police. I asked him if it was the first time this conflict has
been presented and discussed outside India. He confirmed that it was the
first time.

So I asked why they decided to do it here, in Oslo, Norway and
why now? At which point he never gave me a proper answer and mumbled
something I was not able to hear, and finished of the sentence by saying it
was a good idea and that the Art of Living does good work. What makes the
aspect of not knowing scarier is that it is in fact the first time it
*is* presented by government officials outside India, and this would be
the version the world comes to know about.

After all the presentations were done, the floor was open to anyone in the
audience to ask questions. A young man wondered why it is that despite a
growing GDP and an India that is largely participating in the world economy,
how it is that such a movement can grow? Wouldn't you expect that when a
country's GDP is boosting, money will be redistributed to the vast
population and eventually you would see a decrease in social problems and

Maybe it was a clever question, I am not sure. The moderator
passed it on to the panel participants mentioning the odd lack of a trickle
down effect for deprived people. After all, the whole panel agreed that the
Naxalite movement needs deprived people to exist, because they are too weak
to resist forced recruiting. Again, the Inspector General responded that
thousands of crores have been spent on deprived people in Chhattisgarh, but
stressed the necessity of more resources and developmental projects. He also
underlined that there cannot be any development unless the Naxalite movement
is countered with military means and the violence stops. No dialogue will
take place unless Naxalites lay down their arms - first.

Another person in the audience posed the question of land reform. Why it
has not been done and why the government does not see this as a partial
strategy for solving the issue of marginalisation and poverty in
Chhattisgarh. A stressful and short answer was provided by Mr. Nayak and Mr.
Das, saying that land reform is a priority. The moderator swiftly moved on
to the next questions.

Several people started gearing their questions and
comments towards development and globalisation. A UNDP representative said
that he could understand why people join the movement because it provides
food, shelter and something to do. Again, it was confirmed by the moderator
that the movement breeds on deprived people. It was fascinating to see how
comments from the audience were transformed into slanted and speculative
conclusions by the moderator and its panel.

Nevertheless it was frustrating to listen to this. Someone tried pointing
out that it is it not difficult to understand why people turn to such a
movement if the alternative is abrupt poverty and continued marginalisation.
Another person pointed out the importance of reflection considering the
people affected by development projects were not present to voice their
concerns. These statements were met with rather harsh interruptions and a
moderator that pointed the finger to the next person in line to ask
questions, not making sure these questions were addressed properly. An
enormous sensation of disempowerment crept under my skin.

Was I going to say something, anything? Where do you start? The stories had been so twisted from the get go that I did not know where and how to begin. In front of me
sat a panel that was not particularly open to opinions differing from
theirs. I raised my hand and stood up. By the time I was allowed to speak we
had reached the part where we had to make policy suggestions so that the
panel could write it down and present it in the plenary session. I said I
wanted to make two concrete suggestions and add some correcting comments.
The Naxalites had been accused of obstructing the work of many NGOs in

I wanted to add that when I spoke to these NGOs working in CG,
they were equally concerned about the uncontrollable violence coming from
Salwa Judum. So that if the government wants to get rid of the violence,
they must also control the forces unleashed in Salwa Judum. I stressed the
importance of including the people who are directly affected by so called
'development' in the process of decision making and forming of policy
guidelines, and suggested that representatives from the tribal council would
be a good start. I made sure to point out that I was not pro-naxalism and
that use of arms and killings of civilians is unacceptable under any
circumstances, but that this goes for all sides involved in a conflict. I
also said that I hoped the panel would not label me a Naxalite sympathizer
just for pointing out the necessity of taking marginalised people seriously,
which frequently happens to people in India highlighting human rights
concerns in relation to this conflict. I stressed the need to understand why
people opt to join and to take those motivations seriously, only then can
the root causes be addressed and a peace process be initiated. One has to
recognise that the Naxal movement is providing marginalized people with
something that the government currently is unable to do, this fact cannot be

As a finishing touch I pointed out that the CG government should
try to limit the number of licenses given out to private companies in the
area. At which point the moderator told me to shut up and sit down. Mr.
Gautier then hushed the audience that seemed to agree with my viewpoints. He
asked me how long I had been in India for. I responded in total three
months, and that I had followed this conflict for over a year. He replied
sarcastically, "so after three months in India you think you know everything
about India, I think you are patronizing". This man lives in Pondicherry.
Not exactly a place where the French population mixes with the locals I have
heard and seen. Then again, I was only there for a week, how would I know.

I wonder if I had touched a sore spot due to his reaction? In the document
the panel had come up with, containing policy measures for fighting
Naxalism, they were labelled 'terrorists' and 'enemy'. I thought the whole
idea of the workshop was to bring forward benign suggestions as to how to
create peace and reach reconciliation. It is a bit tricky to do that when
you brand the other party a 'terrorist' isn't it?

Anyways, the workshop ended and I still felt disempowered then and I still
do now by just thinking about it. It is absurd how I can sit in a developed
country and yet get chills down my spine due to this sensation of
hopelessness. I can't even begin to imagine the degree of disempowerment
marginalised and poor Adivasis and Dalits must feel in Chhattisgarh and
other states living in the midst of the battles between government forces
and Naxal cadres.

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