End the stalemate

A relative lull in Maoist violence has been shattered with the abduction of Malkangiri district collector R Vineel Krishna and junior engineer Majhi in Orissa’s Chitragonda area. Krishna was returning from a public contact programme when Maoists took him and his colleague hostage. They have demanded a halt to the ongoing ‘Green Hunt’ operations in the state and the release of 700 of their jailed comrades. The Orissa government has suspended the operations and efforts are on to secure the bureaucrat’s release. Last week Maoists freed five policemen they abducted in end January in Chhattisgarh. While some will interpret the abductions as a sign of the Maoists’ declining capacity to carry out the kind of spectacular attacks that the country saw last year, it is evident that the almost 18 months after the start of Operation Green Hunt, the Maoists retain considerable sting in their tail. The abduction of a senior official underscores that they have capacity to strike terror in the hearts of the public as well as the Indian establishment. It does seem that the Maoists see hostage taking as an effective way — far more potent than even explosions and ambushes perhaps — to get  the government to concede their demands, even if only partial.

Home minister P Chidambaram recently described the situation on the battlefront as ‘a kind of a stalemate.’ Clearly neither side is winning. The government is hoping that the tide will turn soon in its favour. It is digging in its heels in the Maoist areas. A massive army camp for training in guerrilla warfare has been set up in the heart of the Maoist stronghold in Abujmarh. The Maoists are reportedly furious with that and can be expected to strike the camp in the coming months.

Ultimately, both sides must realise that a lasting solution lies only through the negotiating table. Setting up army camps and abducting officials might give the two sides tactical advantages but these are only short-term benefits. Instead they need to move towards a dialogue. Ongoing back channel talks to secure the release of the abducted officials carry the potential of growing into a larger peace initiative. But will the two sides grab the opportunity that is opening up? The trust deficit needs to be bridged immediately. A first step would require the Maoists to release hostages and the government to free locals against whom it has no serious charges.

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