The Union home ministry seems to be getting closer to reality in dealing with Naxalites of the Communist Party of India-Maoist. It is now willing to talk to the rebels even if they do not lay down arms; the Maoists never intended to, nor did they ever say so.
On the contrary, it was precisely on the issue of the Maoists's 'right to bear arms' that the October 2004 peace talks between the rebels and the Andhra Pradesh government broke down when the rebels trashed the peace process on January 16, 2005.
In an interview to a news agency on October 24, Home Minster P Chidambaram, while emphasising that the Centre had not set laying down arms as a pre-condition for holding talks with the Maoists, said, 'I have not used these words. Besides I am too practical to know that they will not lay down arms. They have to halt violence which means halt the wanton destruction of railway tracks, roads, telephone towers, school buildings and bridges.'
He should have also advised, if not warned, the rebels to desist from brutal and cold-blooded killings of police personnel and innocent civilians who they often brand as police informers.
He reiterated the Centre's position on October 30: 'They have to abjure violence and then we can work out the process (of talks) and we will advise the state governments to talk to them. But first they have to abjure violence.'
Three things stand out clearly. One, the home ministry has moved significantly from its hard-line position. 'We will talk, we will act, we will restore order and we will undertake developmental activities,' the home minister said on August 17, while addressing the chief ministers conference on internal security.
A month earlier, on July 7, answering a question in the Lok Sabha, he said: 'I am of the view and my ministry is of the view that we would first have to clear and hold an area dominated by Naxalites and then developmental activities will take place. He went to elaborate that the rebels impeded development activities and programmes. We build a road and they mine the road. We put a telephone tower and they blast the telephone tower. We build schools and panchayat houses, they blast them.'
He, thus, while not entirely negating the two-pronged approach of maintaining law and order and initiating development activities, gave primacy to militarily dealing with the guerrillas before undertaking development activities in affected areas when he said: 'Therefore, the State has to first gain total control over an area before actually development can take place.' The home minister's October 30 statement, thus, indicates a significant departure from the earlier stand.
Two, the home minister's statements betray a sense of inconsistency and vacillation in the Centre's approach in dealing with the Maoists. Addressing a gathering in Mumbai, on October 7, he said: 'As long as the CPI-Maoist believes in armed liberation struggle, we have no option but to ask our security forces to engage them we will arrest them, we will apprehend them.' This stands in stark contrast to what he said over the past one week.
This vacillation and lack of consistency at the highest levels within the home ministry seems to be somewhat common to the first and second tenures of the United Progressive Alliance. Earlier, on holding talks with the Naxalites, the then home minister (Shivraj Patil) said, on the sidelines of a conference of chief ministers of Naxalite-affected states, on September 20, 2005: 'f they drop arms, it is good. But if they want to carry arms and still talk... we don't have any difficulty. We are not afraid to do so.' Barely, six months later in a 'u-turn', the home ministry in its 14-point Naxalite policy declared its intent 'of not having peace talks with the Naxalites unless they agree to give up arms and violence.'
Three, there is the possibility that the Maoists might misconstrue the home minister's appeal to them to 'give up' violence as a sign of 'helplessness', and then go about with their macabre acts of violence and wanton destruction.
Despite the repeated appeals by the home minister, the Maoist leadership has not shown even the slightest sign of its willingness to enter into a dialogue with an elected government. The home minister also acknowledged this when he said, 'I regret to say that the response so far has been disappointing.' CPI-Maoist general secretary Muppala Lakshmana Rao alias Ganapathy declared on October 17, 'We shall confront the new offensive of the enemy by stepping-up... heroic resistance and preparing the entire party, PLGA (the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army), the various revolutionary parties and organisations and the entire people.'
If the Maoists do not respond positively but on the other hand, persist with their campaign of violence, the home ministry could, perhaps, do well to first weaken the Maoists -- not by force alone -- but through curtailing their violence as well as systematically reaching out the fruits of development to the remote and interior areas, rejuvenating the institutions of governance and re-occupying the space that it vacated and which the rebels have occupied.
Gradually, when the people are either won over or weaned away from the rebels, the latter would be forced to wind-up shop honourably, or they would be cold-shouldered, if not driven away, by the people themselves.
P V Ramana is a Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.