22 February, 2011

Talking to the Maoists?

by Uddipan Mukherjee

Uday India, Cover Story, 12 March 2011, http://www.udayindia.org/content_12march2011/cover_story.html

NOTE: "On February 22, though the Maoists initially agreed to release from captivity both the Malkangiri District Collector and the junior engineer, later on they retracted and freed only Majhi, the engineer. The ultras have placed more demands to free the bureaucrat. The Maoists continued with their tantrums. However, on February 24, Krishna was set free"

In the evening of February 16, a young bureaucrat and a junior engineer paid the price of being too honest and probably too fearless. The collector of Malkangiri district in Odisha was generally used to roaming around in his area of jurisdiction on a motorcycle and that too, without proper security. It is not only a bit, but quite unusual for a District Collector to be a maverick of this genre. And quite expectedly, he faced the consequences. 

The popular collector and the engineer were kidnapped by a bunch of pro-poor(?), ‘robinhood-type’ hoodlum Maoists. Following the modus operandi of the cross-border Taliban-esque terrorists, the Maoists placed their list of demands which necessarily contained the release of a couple of their top leaders. The government of Odisha reacted, no doubt, in an ordinary, predictable and characteristic fashion as had happened quite often in the past: from releasing terrorists in return for the daughter of a high-profile politician in Jammu & Kashmir to the release of a terrorist-mastermind in return of airplane hostages in the late nineties.

On Tuesday, February 22, a top Maoist Srinivas Srimanulu was granted bail by a local court in Odisha1. Though he got bail only in one case and four more criminal cases were pending against him, it is to be noted that the legacy of ‘releasing in return’ was re-initiated. Furthermore, the Odisha government initiated ‘talks’ with the Maoists to seek release of the concerned officers. Ironically, it is the Maoists who nominated the three ‘interlocutors’.

Finally though, such concessions paid off for the Odisha government as the abducted-duo were released2 by the Maoists on February 22. State Home secretary U N Behera said that the government has agreed to follow due process of law to withdraw cases against five Maoists, including Ganti Prasadam and Padma, wife of top Naxal leader Ramakrishna. The government also agreed that no coercive action will be taken by the security forces as long as the Maoists do not indulge in unlawful activities. But the Maoists, by definition, are a banned outfit !

Behera was however ambivalent on the release of Asutosh Sen, Sriramulu Srinivasulu, Gananath Patra and Jiban Bose, central committee members of the Maoists.

Well, this seems to be a season of ‘talks’ and compromises. And it is not only in India that ‘talks’ are taking place.

After an ‘aborted’ attempt in Sri Lanka, the Norwegian peace brokers are in the news once again. On 15 February, the Philippine government and Maoist rebels sat down for their first formal peace talks in more than six years3. The negotiations are taking place in the Oslo suburb of Nesbru. These are aimed at ending an insurgency that commenced in the late 1960s.

Coincidentally, on 12 February, few days before the Filipino rebels sat down with their authorities, Raman Singh, Chief Minister of Chattisgarh said that his government would not hesitate to consider any proposal for peace talks with the Indian Maoists4.

Interestingly on that very day, sharing the same dais, social activist Swami Agnivesh even appealed to both the government and the Maoists to opt for a 72-hour ceasefire to facilitate a peace process5.

In fact, this has been the standard programme on offer by Agnivesh and other like-minded activists so as to defuse tension in India’s hinterland which has been causing turbulence since 1967, a period quite similar to the insurgency in Philippine. According to Agnivesh and others, the peace process probably could have shaped up, but was abruptly halted when reports of death of the Maoist spokesperson Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad surfaced in the first week of July, last year6.

Last year, in a letter to Swami Agnivesh, Azad had stated his party’s intentions of holding talks with the government. However, he was skeptical regarding the commitment of the Union government. He felt that the Home Ministry was probably trying to create a veneer of ‘talks’.

There were counter-allegations as well from New Delhi regarding the non-serious approach of the Maoists towards settling the bloodshed through deliberations. As a matter of fact, the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram had responded to a ceasefire offer of Maoists by issuing a statement on 22 February 2010. Quoting him: “I would like no ifs, no buts and no conditions for talks.”7

The Maoists had then sought for a conditional ceasefire; asking the Government to halt the paramilitary offensive against them for 72 days and involve suitable mediators for talks.

Naturally, the pertinent question at this juncture is that after a year, have both the government and the left-wing ultras mellowed down their approach? More importantly, the government of two states: Chattisgarh and Odisha seem to be kowtowing in front of the Maoists. They suspended their searching and combing operations as per the demands of the leftist-ultras.

It may be that Raman Singh’s recent declaration was in resonance with the gesture shown by the ultras in releasing a group of abducted jawans in Chattisgarh after a period of 18 days. The interesting part was that the jawans were not ill-treated by the Maoists at all. Nevertheless, this was basically possible as Chattisgarh agreed to suspend search and combing operation for 48 hours. The amusing aspect was the rebels had sought suspension of operations for only 24 hours.

What can thus be gleaned from the behaviour of both the parties in this low-intensity conflict? Is this mere rhetoric on the part of Raman Singh that he is agreeable to ‘peace talks’? Or is this a sign of ‘war fatigue’ for both the sides? Or do both the sides want to erect a fa├žade of ‘talks’ to buy more time?

Going back to the Filipino case, the government and the Maoist-guerrillas have been involved in ‘stop-start’ negotiations for the last 25 years; without any concrete result however. In the meantime, the fighting has consumed close to 40,000 lives.

In a seminal work titled: “How Insurgencies End”, published by RAND Corporation in 2010, researchers Ben Connable and Martin Libicki have shown with the help of statistical data that the longer an insurgency lasts, the more likely the government is to win8.

In tune with this finding, it may be stated that the state-actors would generally benefit if a low-intensity insurgency lasts long. Moreover, until the rebellion spills into major towns and cities, the danger from an insurgency to the security of the nation-state is not really significant.

Even in the Indian context, it would be noteworthy to remember that the ‘talks’ between the Maoists and the provincial government of Andhra Pradesh was carefully utilised by the latter to discern information about the radical outfit’s top brass. And finally it was the two-pronged attack of the elite Greyhound force alongwith the agenda of development which paved the way for the victory of state forces in Andhra. As if to corroborate this, a senior Filipino insurgent was arrested on the eve of the February 15 talks near Oslo.

Bringing the guerrillas to the negotiating table is always accompanied by the danger of letting them regroup. But it won’t be unwise to talk to the ultras from a ‘position of strength’. At present, the government does have a psychological advantage though. The Indian Army has been given a green signal to set up a training base in the Abujhmaadh area of Chattisgarh9. This is the epicenter of Maoist activity in India and such a move must have had its impact on the rebels.

But the present crisis generated by the Indian Maoists has taken away some part of that advantage from the government. The abduction of an officer belonging to the elite Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in the Malkangiri district of Orissa10 in effect is a pointer to the fact that the rebels are not genuinely interested in ‘talks’. They are just tracing the well-tested path of kidnapping to get their demands met. In such a situation, doesn’t it project a weak face of the government to come to the negotiating table and release members of the banned outfit?

In these circumstances, it needs to be observed whether the Indian policymakers take up the Filipino formula or go ahead with the ‘successful’ Sri-Lankan brute force methodology to quell the Maoist insurgency. It can be added that even in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been dealt strongly by the government through focused counterinsurgency operations and the results have been positive.

On the other hand, the Indian Maoist leaders must appreciate that scores of Adivasis cannot simply be sacrificed at the altar of ideology. And furthermore, picking up honest officers who want to work for the masses surely would turn out to be counter-productive for them. The reason is simple. The Maoists feed on the Adivasis and the poor. That is, the more hapless and poor the Adivasis become, the more fertile would be the recruitment ground for the Indian Maoists. The kidnapping of the IAS officer in Odisha has given rise to mass protests against the Maoists, which in essence is what the Maoists detest. On the contrary, the state forces shall relish such blunders by the Maoists in the ongoing counterinsurgency warfare.

Will the IAF fire at the guerrillas in self defence at Abujhmaad?


1: “Orissa hostage crisis: Maoist gets bail as talks continue”, The Economic Times, 22 February 2011, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics/nation/orissa-hostage-crisis-maoist-gets-bail-as-talks-continue/articleshow/7548769.cms

3: Wojciech Moskwa, “Philippines start new peace talks with Maoists”, Reuters Africa, February 15, 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFTRE71E1A920110215?sp=true

4: Joseph John, “Won't shy from talks with Naxals”, msn News, February 13, 2011, http://news.in.msn.com/national/article.aspx?cp-documentid=4915485

5: ibid

6: Uddipan Mukherjee, “What can the Maoists ‘Talk’ About?”, Uday India, August 21, 2010, http://udayindia.org/content_21august2010/cover_story.html

7:  “No 'ifs and buts' for talks with Maoists, says Chidambaram”, ExpressIndia, February 23, 2010, http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/No-ifs-and-buts-for-talks-with-Maoists-says-Chidambaram/583256/

8: Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki, “How Insurgencies End”, RAND Corporation, 2010, ISBN/EAN: 9780833049520, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG965.html

9: Supriya Sharma, “Army promises maximum restraint in Abhujmaadh”, TNN, February 15, 2011, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Army-promises-maximum-restraint-against-Maoists-says-they-are-own-own-people/articleshow/7501790.cms

10: “Maoists, Orissa Govt close to striking a deal?”, NDTV Correspondent, February 21, 2011, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/maoists-orissa-govt-close-to-striking-a-deal-86902


  1. The issue at concern is " why abduction of DC and Jr Egr and exchange strategy? when maoist have already broken jails and have cashed upon loop holes of government in the past"
    Was it the way to show "willingness to talk" or actually the cadre would gain strength from release of fellow comrades?
    When in chattisgarh last april they could wipe out a battallion of CRPF why such weak step?
    well they are faceless and amoebatic in their structure hence it is not easy to conclude about the next step.
    Thanks Uddi Sir for such great narration of the issue.

  2. Sir, do you really feel that Government is keen to solve the issue called mioism????? I doubt. Coz,while honorable Prime Minister sayed on records that maioists are the biggest intenal threat, at the same time his establishment is sending ill trained forces to fight. No proper plan, ridiculous! Sometime i feel that do they really want to uproot this problem or these just short term political gain!!!!!

  3. @Sankha, India's biggest problem is lack of implementation,,,lack of co-ordination,,,

    its a complicated matrix,,,will talk abt it in detail in person,,,,