Initially, on February 19, Chidambaram had declared that the Centre would 'find ways to facilitate talks' with the Maoists if the latter halted violence for 72 hours.
On February 22, Koteswar Rao responded with a conditional offer of a 72-day ceasefire commencing February 25, if the government suspended operations against the Maoists, released all 'political prisoners' (read, Maoists in custody) and 'concentrate on development of tribal areas.'
This was, in some measure, a dilution of Rao's earlier stance, where he had demanded the withdrawal of all security force deployments in Maoist-dominated areas before he would engage in any negotiations with the state. The February 22 offer was made through the media, and triggered a flurry of adolescent posturing on both sides. On February 23, Chidambaram declared that he would accept no 'ifs and buts' for talks, and demanded that the Maoists first 'abjure violence.'
The puerile twist came in the tail, when Chidambaram gave the media his fax number (011-23093155) with the instruction that the Maoists could fax their truce offer to him directly, if they were ready. Not to be outdone, and again through the media, Rao gave his phone number with the declaring, "If he (Chidambaram) wants to talk on our ceasefire proposal, let him speak to me on my phone number 09734695789. He is welcome to call me on February 25, but after 5 pm." Unsurprisingly, there was no direct communication from either side.
The absurdity of this exchange is underlined by the fact that, less than a fortnight earlier, while addressing the conference of chief ministers on internal security at New Delhi, on February 7, Chidambaram had stated: "You will recall that at the last conference of chief ministers, I had announced that we would encourage state governments to talk to the Naxalites if they abjured violence. Our public offer was scoffed at and spurned by the CPI-Maoist. Hence, in consultation with the chief ministers of Naxal-affected states, we decided to boldly confront the challenge thrown by the CPI-Maoist."
Again, on February 19, Chidambaram argued, "There can be no half-way approach. Most people still think there could be a compromise or some kind of median approach. This is immature and foolish This is expected because as long as we did not engage them, they were happy and expanding. They will continue to expand unless we challenge them."
Precisely month earlier on January 19, Chidambaram said, "Left-wing extremists have to be confronted squarely and boldly. We have to deal with them firmly and decisively."
Within such a perspective, abruptly engaging in a high-profile media debate on talks no more than served the Maoist agenda of sowing confusion, particularly in the context of the apparent unwillingness on the part of at least two chief ministers among the worst-affected states, Shibu Soren of Jharkhand and Nitish Kumar of Bihar, to tow the Centre's line on anti-Maoist operations.
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the Sildha incident in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar declared, on February 16, "Maoists cannot be countered by force. All-round development and launching of welfare measures can bring the ultras back to the mainstream."
Earlier, on January 18, Soren went a step further, denying the very existence of the Maoists in his state: "The question is whether they are Naxals or not? The media has created a hype by claiming that Naxals are active in the state." Soren added, further, "If there is a need, then force can be used. But if the situation can be resolved without confrontation, why not solve it?"
Worse, it was abundantly clear that the Maoists had taken a decision to escalate and widen their 'people's war', and this decision had influenced the Centre's approach.
Chidambaram, at the February 7 conference, noted, "In consultation with the chief ministers of the Naxal-affected states, we decided to boldly confront the challenge thrown by the CPI-Maoist. Consequently, there was a rise in the number of deaths in 2009. As the security forces move forward to reclaim areas that are now dominated by the Naxalites, it is possible that this trend will continue in 2010 too."
On December 21, 2009, Koteswar Rao had, moreover, warned, "If 2009 was bad, 2010 would be 'bloodier' if the government goes ahead with its planned offensive against the Maoists. This so-called assault against us will backfire."
It must be obvious that fishing for talks in these circumstances could serve little purpose. Significantly, Chidambaram had himself noted, on February 19, that intellectual support to the Maoists made the task of tackling them 'very difficult', as it confused people. Far from injecting some clarity into the discourse, the futile talk about talks can only have further confounded issues.
This could not have happened at a worse time. The South Asia Terrorism Portal database indicates that fatalities in 2009 had seen a dramatic spurt to a total of 998, just below the high intensity conflict benchmark of 1,000 fatalities, as against 638 in 2008. In 2009, these included 392 civilians, 312 security force personnel and 292 Maoist cadre. The situation, however, is much worse. According the Ministry of Home Affairs data (Year-end Review, published December 24, 2009), Maoist-related fatalities in 2009, up till November, included 514 civilians and 304 security force personnel -- numbers that will take the 2009 total well above the high intensity mark. (Open source data frequently underestimates fatalities). The beginnings of 2010 are far from auspicious, and by March 1, Maoist-related fatalities were already totalling 160, including 65 civilians, 37 security force personnel and 58 Maoists.
Critically, Chidambaram has already noted that 223 districts across 20 states in the country are already infected by Maoist activities, up from just 55 in 2003 -- though areas that 'consistently witnessed' violence covered just 400 police stations in 90 districts in 13 states (there are 14,000 police stations in the country). The seven worst-affected states in 2009, in terms of fatalities, were Chhattisgarh (345 killed), Jharkhand (217), West Bengal (159), Maharashtra (87), Orissa (81), Bihar (78), and Andhra Pradesh (28) (SATP data).
It is now evident that the Maoist potential to penetrate other states, which had hitherto remained outside their grasp, has evolved enormously. On February 20, 2009, for instance, Kerala state intelligence sources indicated, against the backdrop of the launching of operations to flush out left-wing extremists from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, that the Maoists had penetrated into rural areas of Kerala in the guise of labourers.
Similarly, after the arrest of five Maoist cadre belonging to Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh by a joint team of the Chhattisgarh police and Gujarat police from the Hazira industrial area of Surat in Gujarat on April 10, 2009, Surat Deputy Commissioner of Police Subhash Trivedi disclosed that the group had visited Chhattisgarh frequently. "They used to return to Surat, either after carrying out attacks, or when any member fell ill."
On October 12, 2009, Balaghat Superintendent of Police H C Mishra, noted that more than 50 CPI-Moist cadre had sneaked into Madhya Pradesh's insurgency-affected Balaghat district, from Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, after the security forces targeted them in the two neighbouring states. It is evident that the Maoist geographical extension is continuing and, as in the past, may indeed be facilitated by the 'squeeze' that operations are exerting on them in certain areas.
Maoist consolidation and mobilisation has, indeed, continued despite the arrest of several Maoist leaders, prominently including Kobad Ghandy from an undisclosed place in Delhi, Chhatradhar Mahato from West Bengal, and Ravi Sarma and B Anuradha, who were arrested in Jharkhand. The Maoist organisational base clearly has the complexity and dynamism not only to survive such losses, but to continue to expand despite these.
Maoist networks of extortion are further testimony to this dynamism. Documents and hard disks seized from Misir Mishra, a central committee member of the CPI-Maoist who was arrested in Jharkhand in March 2008, had revealed that the Maoists collected over Rs 1,000 crore in 2007 through their state committees, and had set a target of Rs 1,125 crore for 2008.
Vishwa Ranjan, director-general of police, Chhattisgarh, stated on November 29, 2009, that the Maoists annually extorted up to Rs 20 billion across India, mostly targeting iron and coal mining companies, infrastructure project contractors and tendu patta (leaves of Diospyros melonoxylon used for bidis, local cigarettes) businessmen. These 'levies' are augmented through abductions, extortion and looting, as well as coercive 'tax collection' in rural areas. The home minister notes, moreover, "There is no evidence of Naxalites getting money from abroad. They are able to raise money in the country. But they also loot banks, kidnap and extort."
It must be evident -- and this is something that MHA rhetoric has repeatedly confirmed -- that an enemy as relentless and well-organised as the Maoist can only be countered through a coherent and well-thought-out strategy.
If, however, even a basic consensual assessment of the threat is lacking -- and is further undermined by the inconsistent public postures of the top central and state leaderships -- it is not clear how such a strategy is to be framed.
Unsurprisingly, the operations that have been fitfully launched over the past year have little potential to secure any enduring gains. A 'major', concerted and centrally coordinated offensive against Naxalites is supposed to have started with police in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh launching a joint operation on December 25, 2009, but with questionable gains, the government has been forced to backtrack.
The reality is, in the absence of a strategy that factors in available and required force capacities, any emphasis on operations is destined to fail. Each such failure will further undermine force morale and create rising and irrational pressure for 'negotiated', 'developmental' and 'political' solutions, even as Maoist consolidation progresses.
The false confidence that was generated by the deployment of 'massive' central paramilitary contingents into the Maoist-afflicted areas is a further case in point.
In the wake of the furious rhetoric about a 'massive offensive' against the Maoists, paramilitary deployments in Naxalite-affected states were raised from 37 battalions to 58 battalions. 21 additional battalions yield barely 8,400 personnel in the field, taking total deployment up to a bare 23,200 personnel for the six worst-affected states, with a total area of 1.86 million square kilometres and a total population of over 446 million. As has been repeatedly emphasised before, this is like trying to irrigate the desert with dewdrops.
A tremendous effort of capacity consolidation and building will have to precede any effective operational strategy to stall and then neutralise the Maoist rampage.
The most significant component of this process will have to be distributed across the state's forces, and cannot be engineered through paramilitary augmentations alone. In the absence of any consensus on the Maoist threat and counter-insurgent strategy, however, there has been increasing reliance on central forces and agencies.
Astonishingly, the government has reduced allocation for the paramilitary from Rs 30,900 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 29,940 crore in the next fiscal, introducing a new element of incoherence in the state's responses.
Assistance to the states for the modernisation of their forces, at Rs 19.75 billion, moreover, has seen no more than a modest increment of Rs 1.3 billion (6.6 per cent), making a mockery of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's commitments, in his budget speech on February 26, to make 'adequate funds' available.
A societal consensus clearly does not exist with regard to the Maoist conundrum in India. A range of Maoist front organisations, as well as sympathetic and often simply confused 'intellectuals', systematically undermines the possibility of the crystallisation of such a consensus (it is unsurprising that, while making his conditional offer of a ceasefire, Koteswar Rao appealed to 'intellectuals and human rights activists to mediate' between the Maoists and the government).
This is to be expected, and can be countered, if the state and its agencies are able to project coherent assessments, policies, strategies and perspectives. When the state itself sows confusion, there can be no prizes for guessing who gains.
Ajai Sahni is the Executive Director of Institute for Conflict Management. Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management.