Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | For govt, time is ripe to reach out to the Maoists

It may be politically unfashionable to suggest peace talks with Maoist rebels after attacks in the past couple of weeks, which includes the killing of a legislator in Chhattisgarh and his guards. But what’s the point of talking peace when there is peace?

An absent outreach with Maoist rebels currently applies to all major parties. The result is that a left-wing rebellion, which has existed in various avatars since May 1967, now approaches its 53rd year. It continues to kill more combatants and non-combatants than any other internal conflict.

Besides, if the government of India has initiated peace talks since August 2015 with several Naga rebel groups, this after years of ceasefire, reaching out meaningfully to people who once wished to secede from India, where’s the logic for not reaching out to Maoist rebels?

Nepal made the journey in 2006 after a 10-year Maoist rebellion. Some leaders joined the government, others were pensioned off, numerous cadres were absorbed by paramilitary forces and some by the army—former foes. Others were rehabilitated with self-help programmes. Pretty much what is now expected from the Naga peace process.

Colombia signed a deal with FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to end a 52-year conflict in 2017. By May that year, over 6,000 FARC rebels handed over their weapons to a United Nations mission, as part of a demobilization and rehabilitation exercise. Nepal took recourse to the UN, too, alongside aid of other countries, including India.

Here, there’s no need for UN intervention. Unlike Nepal, which was on the brink of destruction when the peace process began, India is not. Moreover, as with the Nagas, India retains an overwhelming security advantage over Maoist rebels. In Chhattisgarh and the Dandakaranya region, which includes Maharashtra, Odisha and Telangana, active rebel numbers are in the low thousands—some estimate no more than one thousand—compared to several tens of thousands paramilitary and police personnel.

The odds against rebels are even greater in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. In West Bengal, they are decimated. In Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu there are efforts at ignition, but as has been proven in places where ground is productively reclaimed, such as former Maoist pockets in West Bengal, governance, development and inclusion can win the battle more effectively.

The situation has never been better primed for peace talks with Maoists. They have never been this reduced in numbers and territory in the past 15 years. A leadership transition is still finding its feet. Cadre strength is severely depleted. Morale is self-confessedly low.

Some security experts speak in terms of a conflict having a natural arc, how resolution isn’t possible before reaching a particular point on that arc—like the pincer movement of diplomacy and security operations that brought most rebels of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to talk peace over the past decade. With Maoists, there is no diplomacy required except outreach, unless for both the rebels and the state, the economy of conflict remains more attractive than the economy of peace.

There have been prior attempts at peace. In June 2011, former President Pratibha Patil asked Maoists to “abjure violence" and join the mainstream—a standard home ministry line. Rebels were unimpressed. They wanted more before coming to the table. Besides removal of security forces from “all the Maoist movement areas", demands included scrapping memoranda of understanding between various state governments and transnational companies, stopping projects which “grab the lands of the people". They also wanted the government to “accept that people have the right to decide what kind of a development they want".

Rebels also demanded “that all … corrupt politicians should be arrested and punished, that all the black money stashed away in foreign banks must be brought back…before the government invites the Maoists to join the mainstream".

It was a deal-breaker. But ironically, some demands reflect what major political parties have variously promised since to the electorate of India. The government that takes office in May could find a legacy of peace quite productive.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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