Hopes of peace in the Maoist-hit hinterland brightened on Monday after the rebels offered a conditional 72-day ceasefire.
Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji, a top leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), said they were ready for a dialogue if the government stopped all operations against them from February 25 to May 7. Home secretary GK Pillai said if the offer was unconditional the government welcomed it.
The ceasefire offer came a few hours after President Pratibha Patil sent out a strong warning to the ultras in her address to the joint session of parliament.
The stand-off between the two sides has only been getting bloodier by the day. In 2010, as of February 15, the violence had claimed 125 lives; the left wing extremists have emerged as India’s most violent insurgent group.
The Maoist offer comes within a week of the rebels having butchered 24 paramilitary personnel at the Silda security camp in West Bengal, and just three days after Union home minister P Chidambaram offered to talk to the Maoists if they gave up violence for 72 hours.
“We never said to the Naxals that they lay down arms or disband their organisation. Let there be no violence for 72 hours and we are willing to sit down to discuss the issues,” Chidambaram had said in New
Delhi on Friday.
Kishenji said they would observe the ceasefire if the government stopped its ongoing operations, known as Operation Green Hunt. He said human right activists and intellectuals should mediate between the Maoists and the government. He also sought the release of political prisoners.
The establishment was wary of jumping to any conclusion. Some officials said the offer could be a tactical ploy to confuse the government and to regroup the armed cadres for more attacks.
However, more liberal voices within the establishment suggested that the government take up the offer and “bind them to peaceful negotiations” to bring them into the mainstream.
“The lessons of Andhra cannot be forgotten,” a senior official said, referring to the permanent dip in violence in Andhra since the state government held negotiations with the Maoists in the past.
Communist leader Gurudas Dasgputa said the Maoists should first lay down arms before talking peace. “If there is an offer for talks, the government should respond. But this does not mean that we should release political prisoners and remove the ban,” he told a TV channel.
When the offer comes formally, it has to be seen what are the pre-conditions, and if the offer enjoys the united support of the entire, secretive leadership of the underground party. The Centre wouldn’t agree to pull back its security personnel deployed in Maoist areas, but it might not be unwilling to cease operations, at least informally, if the Maoists convey serious commitment to peace negotiations.