In a democracy, the government and its critics can — and should — have much to talk about among themselves. It should be a particularly welcome development if armed dissenters decide to talk instead. Most governments in the world have talked to groups which once seemed irrevocably sworn to violent means. There should thus be no problem for the Centre to respond positively to the Maoists’ offer of talks. The post-Independence political history of India has many examples of armed rebellions ending through negotiations. It has happened not just with insurgent groups in the Northeast but also with political extremists in other parts of the country. Many factions of Naxalites, the precursors of today’s Maoists, gave up arms and joined parliamentary democracy. Even in cases where talks failed to end the rebellions, as with some groups in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, doors to negotiations have remained open. As for the Maoists, an offer of talks had come from the Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, even before the rebels mooted the idea. Ending the Maoist violence is crucial to both India’s internal security and economic development. The biggest beneficiary of a peace process could be the poorest, especially the tribal, people whose cause the Maoists claim to be fighting for.
However, the trouble with the Maoists’ offer is that it comes with a rider. They want the government to suspend all operations against them for 72 days. It is not clear why the rebels want this time-frame for a cessation of the government’s offensive. In similar situations, whether with the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh or the Naga rebels, ceasefire agreements had been more definitive and transparent. Past experience also shows that rebel groups have used ceasefires in order to rebuild their organizations and rearm themselves. Even so, the government should accept the challenge and match the Maoists’ strategy of talks. After all, even a bad peace is better than a good war. But there can be absolutely no question of letting the guard down. Since the Maoists’ ultimate goal is to overthrow the ‘bourgeois’ State by means of force, no government can afford to call off the fight against them. Clearly, it is a battle of attrition and the Centre must send out the message that the State is strong and dynamic enough to engage in it. The search for peace must not look like a compromise with violence and anarchy.