Bargaining with an armed opponent is a nightmare for any negotiator. Indian Maoists, who control a big chunk of territory and have plenty of guns, know this well. In a recent letter in the Economic and Political Weekly, their spokesperson, Azad, put a high price on any talks with the Union government.

The Union government had only one condition for discussions, that of giving up arms. Azad pointedly rejected this: “Asking Maoists to lay down arms as a precondition for talks shows the utter ignorance regarding the historical and socio-economic factors that had given rise to the Maoist movement." This is the least of it. There are other demands that are nearly impossible to meet. These include scrapping of mining projects in tribal-dominated areas and withdrawing police and paramilitary camps from violence-affected areas. The icing, however, is yet to come: the government’s stand that they abjure violence is irrational.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

These demands have been justified in phraseology for which Maoists are well known. Explanations are peppered with expressions such as “people’s rights", and “liberation from exploitation". These words cannot hide the simple truth that extremist control of people and territory depends on gun power.

The logic is simple and was explained many decades ago by economist Mancur Olson Jr. Labour unions, special interests, agricultural and industrial lobbies and other pressure groups have to offer inducements to keep their flock together. Otherwise, many members will be tempted to a free ride. They will partake of all the gains while not contributing money, time and other resources for achieving collective goals. In many cases, the threat of violence is a good adhesive for an otherwise fractious collection of persons. In far-flung areas where dangerous and armed men abound, tribals dare not say anything that will endanger their lives.

Unless the government grasps this truth, all efforts at engagement will turn into appeasement. And appeasement does not work. It is here that the other track of Maoist strategy takes over (track II, petty bourgeois edition). Prime-time liberals warn the government that any police action will result in “genocide" and that India will be a sham democracy if the government tries to restore order.

This has weakened the resolve of the government. Contrary to Leftist speculation about a powerful and intolerant state, the government of India is prone to dithering in the face of adverse public opinion. In this case, it should not waver. Offensive operations are the only way to silence the guns.

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