Governments can justifiably try to bring over gun-wielding malcontents to the negotiating table only if they do so from a position of strength. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee must make sure that the Kamtapuri militants in north Bengal do not read a wrong signal in his offer of peace talks. The offer must not be seen as a sign of the West Bengal government’s weakness in dealing with militancy. There cannot be any talks unless, as the chief minister rightly stressed, the Kamtapur Liberation Organization lays down arms. Since he has repeatedly linked the KLO’s activities to the motives and material support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the state government has to relentlessly work to break the nexus before any conciliatory gestures are made. Such a threat assumes serious dimensions because of the area’s proximity to Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Therefore, an offer of amnesty to jailed KLO activists has to be a qualified one to ensure that the extremists do not get an easy escape from the rule of law. If some of the outfit’s leaders have expressed their willingness to surrender to the authorities, this may be the time not to show any leniency, but to keep the heat on so that the group’s back is broken.
After all, the chief minister may not offer much to the KLO in the event of any peace talks. Its demand for a Kamtapur “state”, to be carved out of north Bengal and some adjoining areas of Assam, has no basis, either in history or in politics. It has been a ploy to recruit some unemployed rural youths and to involve them in senseless violence. The Kamtapuri leaders have also sought to exploit rural poverty in order to rouse ethnic passions. Their economic argument too has little validity. Poor though some north Bengal areas are, these are not poorer than the remote corners of Bankura, Purulia or Midnapore district. Obviously, economic development is the crying need in all these districts. But the militants’ guns scare away, instead of bringing, development funds. Militancy is not only bad politics; it is also dismal economics.