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Yoga works where bribes failed in bringing ex-Maoist out of Indian jungle

Indian government's surrender package has limited effect luring cadres to give up arms.

RANCHI // The Indian government has been trying for years to lure Communist rebels into giving up their guns with promises of cash and other incentives, but for one man it was yoga rather than money that finally brought him out of the jungle.

Ramendra Singh sat in Bokaro police station in the state of Jharkhand. Not long ago, when he was still a sub-zonal commander of the Communist Party of India, this would have been the heart of the enemy's lair.

But now the police bring him tea and biscuits, and he talks not of Communist rhetoric, but of the virtues of meditation and breathing exercises.

"It has brought me peace of mind. I had a lot of mental trauma for many years," he said.

Last summer, Mr Singh, 42, abandoned his fugitive existence as a Maoist insurgent in the forests of eastern India and joined the state's surrender programme. He cannot be photographed because he is a marked man among his former comrades.

He had been underground with the armed rebels for 13 years, serving mainly as an ideologue, moving from camp to camp, schooling lower cadres in the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

"I joined the movement because I believed that they were the party to improve the economic, social and political situation of the poor in this country," he said. "I thought, 'The people will get land, there will be proper grain distribution systems and minimum wages for labourers.'"

But Mr Singh grew disillusioned with the day-to-day reality of the insurgency.

"Within six months to a year, I started to question the road I had taken. The party claimed to be the saviours of the poor but it's a joke. There are rules, but nobody is sticking to them."

Mr Singh was based in Bihar and Jharkhand, two neighbouring states where the Maoist movement is known to have degenerated into corruption and criminality to a much greater extent than other parts of the country. As well as extorting huge levies from businesses and mining operations, he says the Maoists often failed to live up to their Communist ideals. "There was a lot less control of the movement than is often presented," he said. "The party would order the redistribution of a rich man's land to the poor farmers, but the local commanders would simply take 5 lakh rupees [Dh36,731] and let him carry on as before.

"The Maoists also ruled on local disputes. They were the final arbiter, so they would just take bribes and rule in favour of whoever gave the most money."

Getting out of the movement was difficult, however. Mr Singh had been openly working with radical left-wing groups since the late 1980s and police had lodged 17 cases against him even before he went underground. He attempted to leave twice in the early 2000s only to be pressured back into the movement by the party.

This changed with a chance encounter in 2008 with a teacher from the Art of Living Foundation, an international yoga and meditation organisation that claims to have 300 million followers around the world.

"This teacher had been travelling through the jungle and came to the village where I was recovering from a sickness. I was very fed up at the time and he suggested I give up violence," said Mr Singh.

"After five days, some [Maoist] squad members came and threatened to kill him, but in that time, he taught me Sudarshan breathing exercises. I told him about my legal problems and that I was a fugitive, and the teacher said he would try to help."

Mr Singh found solace in the foundation's yoga and meditation regime and in 2009 he travelled in disguise to Bangalore to meet its spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

It was the foundation that mediated with the police on Ramendra's behalf and paved the way for his surrender last August. Jharkhand has one of the most generous surrender packages in the country, with mid-level members such as Ramendra receiving 250,000 rupees (Dh20,500), as well as a home in the city and school places for their children.

However, the package has had minimal effect. From about 6,000 armed cadres spread across the various left-wing insurgent groups in Jharkhand, only 30 have surrendered in the past year.

Part of the problem is the sluggish response of the local government. As with many others who have surrendered, Ramendra has only received the first 50,000 rupees of his rehabilitation package, which comes from the police. The remainder is due to come in monthly instalments from the government but has yet to begin almost a year after his surrender.

For his long-suffering family, the financial difficulties are a small price to pay for having him home.

"After he left, we would see him only every couple of years in secret meetings in the forest," said his 16-year-old son, who cannot be named for security reasons. "The police would come and threaten us and we would be scared every time we heard of police operations against the Maoists.

"We face problems now because the government is not paying the money, but we are not angry with them. We are just happy to have our father home."

Police privately concede their frustration at the government's failure to properly implement the surrender package, which has been in place since early 2009. But they say the criminalisation of left-wing groups mean many more individuals are keen to return to mainstream society.

Even Maoist sympathisers agree that the movement is degenerating. One human rights activist in Jharkhand with close connections to the Maoist leadership said controlling the greed of mid-ranking leaders was the biggest challenge faced by the movement. He described a typical scenario faced by the party. "You get people who were previously paid around 500 rupees per month in their job," he said. "They join the movement for one reason or another and become useful to the party as a good organiser, so they are given a job collecting levies from government officials and local businesses. Suddenly they are controlling 50 million rupees instead of 500 rupees.

"Their whole life they have been treated like a stray dog. Suddenly, they are being treated with respect and saluted wherever they go. Their ego explodes. These people are very hard to control."

Mr Singh said he did not regret his time in the underground, despite the corruption he saw, but he did realise the effect it had on his family life.

"I did it with passion and heart and for a purpose. I never thought of my family at the time. I saw it as the sacrifice I had to make.

"But in the end I felt cheated and now I have come out, I feel sad for the time I missed with my children."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae