The offer for peace talks by the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of Maoists in Chhattisgarh has raised many questions.
The three most important among them are: Coming from a zonal committee -- as opposed to the central committee or the politburo as is the norm -- is the offer genuine and credible? How will the government react? And the most intriguing and insidious: Is this the result of a deal that the government cut with the rebels in the run up to the elections? How genuine is the offer?
Questions have been raised about the credibility of Pandu, the DSZC member, who had twice made statements in the past fortnight inviting the government and where he figures in the Maoist pecking order.
"Offers for talks are usually issued by the central committee. If in this case, Pandu is issuing the statement, what about the other zones in other states or even in Chhattisgarh? Are they for sitting down with the government for talks?" asks P C Hota, a Raipur-based independent journalist.
Intelligence sources, however say that Pandu is senior enough and it is no surprise that the offer has come from him. Instead, all their doubts are about the motive of the Maoists. "Though they are nowhere near finished, they certainly have suffered quite a few setbacks in recent months. So one needs to verify what their motive is before jumping to any
conclusion," a senior state intelligence officer said.
Communist Party of India-Marxist leader and leader of the tribal organisation Adivasi Mahasabha, Manish Kunjam, however, said the move is important since the Dandakaranya region is the most important Maoist stronghold in the country and the invitation from the zonal committee should be seen in that light. "The DSZC is as powerful as the state
committee. So, any offer from them should be taken with due seriousness. Further, what they have demanded as conditions for talks are all very fair demands," he said.
Thus, assuming the authenticity of the offer, where does the government stand?
The State's response:
First, there are the demands of the Maoists: 'A conducive and pro-people atmosphere' in general; the dismantling of the Salwa Judum campaign in particular. This basically strikes at the very root of government action and means it has to go back to square one. "What this effectively means is the government has to go back on almost every step it has taken so far in its previous term," Hota said.
In turn, welcoming the Maoists' offer, Chief Minister Raman Singh said he is ready for talks if the Maoists lay down arms. Which is asking them to go back to square one. "As things stand, there is no 'condition or atmosphere' for talks," Hota said.
Experts are even more cynical and take a harsher view. On the one side you have the Maoists, who are known to use peace talks as a diversion tactic and buy time to regroup whenever they have been weakened. "It is the policy of the Naxals that they will never sit for talks with any government -- state or Union. Also, another thing that needs to be kept
in mind is that whatever method they employ, their final objective never changes," said P V Ramana, a research fellow at the Delhi-based think-tank IDSA.
"On the other side, you have a government that has pursued a very ruthless anti-Naxal agenda. Is it possible that a chief minister who pursued a very ruthless anti-Naxal policy shift his stand and sit down for talks? If he does, the question to be asked will be: why a change of heart now," he said.
So, keeping in context the in the light of recent developments, there could be only one reason for the offer, he said.
"The Maoists may be trying to test the government's intent very early into its second term," Ramana reasoned.
Others have also raised the point of how the government will go ahead, if the need arises. There is already talk in Raipur that the state has decided to appoint the director general of police to head the government in the talks if it happens. "The problem here is neither is the Naxal problem a merely law and order problem nor is the DGP a government representative. He is only a departmental head," Hota said adding that this shows the government may not be really serious about holding talks.
"Even if both parties agree on terms for talks, the choice of the government to head the talks will become a contentious issue," he said. So if neither the government is serious nor is there a conducive atmosphere, why has the issue cropped up now?
Was there a pre-poll deal?
This leads to the most pertinent question being raised from many quarters. Was there a pre-election deal between the Maoists and the government? This question had surfaced in the local media soon after the BJP won the elections.
The election was supposed to be a close affair with the Congress and the BJP running each other close. But while the results from across the state were on expected lines, the Bastar region, where the Congress was expected to dent
the BJP's earlier tally of nine out of 12 seats, proved spoiler and the BJP got just about enough seats to form the government.
In fact, in Dantewada constituency, till polling day all indications were of a close fight between Mahendra Karma and Manish Kunjam. But a senior police officer in the region was confident on his was back from a remote polling party. "The BJP will win. Not just in Dantewada, but in the rest of the region," he said.
A senior intelligence officer agreed: "The Congress votes all were in the villages. And since polling was considerably disrupted due to Maoist violence, the BJP emerged as winners," he said.
"Everywhere else in the state, the results were on expected lines. It was the Bastar region that tilted the scales in the ruling party's favour. So there is no doubt that the BJP gained due to the disruption of polling in the region. And it is quite possible a deal was cut," he added. A security analyst who did not want to be named for this report, said this
seems to be the most likely reason for the Maoists' invitation for peace talks. "This seems like the only reason. I know that there was speculation to this effect at high levels during the election time. It is very much possible that the Maoists had cut a deal before the elections and a ceasefire might have been part of it. They might be checking if the government is willing to keep its end of the promise," he said.
Kunjam, whose loss was one of the shock results of the elections, said there is indeed something fishy in the way the government has responded.
"The second offer from Pandu came on Thursday. The same day, you had the home minister welcoming the offer. The chief minister also said it was a welcome move. Could the government speak so soon without even having discussed the issue? It was as though they were expecting it," he said.
Asked specifically if there could have been a deal between the two sides, he said: "There has been this suspicion ever since the election. I think the government should use this as an opportunity to clear the air. If the two parties come out in the open and sit for talks, this issue can be confirmed and clarified one way or the other," he said.