The kidnap of a District Collector in Chhattisgarh even as the Odisha hostage crisis remains unresolved suggests the Maoists are looking at soft ways of escalating their ongoing war against the Indian state. This targeting of non-combatants, even if they are officials or representatives of the state, must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. That it directly refutes the Maoist claim to be battling for a higher purpose is also something that needs emphasising. Just as states undermine their democratic credentials by adopting extreme or authoritarian methods in fighting insurgents or terrorists, the use of anti-people means by those who claim to be fighting on behalf of “the people” robs their cause of any legitimacy. Of course, for the Central and State governments involved, the latest kidnapping highlights a key dilemma: every effort must be made to secure the release of the hostages, including negotiations, but care must be taken not to send a signal to the Maoists, or indeed other extremist groups, that abductions pay. The principle of never negotiating with hostage takers is a fine one in principle; in practice, however, it is always difficult to implement when specific situations arise. Governments need to have room to manoeuvre in dealing with such crises and neither the media, nor the courts, should do anything that ends up tying the executive's hands.
The Maoists are clearly expanding and deepening their footprint across a significant, largely contiguous, geographical area. They have terrain advantages, and would seem to have some element of sporadic ground support. To meet what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a few years ago rightly identified as the most serious threat currently facing India, the Centre needs to have a well thought out strategy. This is not a challenge that can be overcome by brute force. Counter-insurgency tactics that involve the use of civilian vigilantes and “Special Police Officers” have proved to be counter-productive. They have also led to large-scale rights violations in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. The security forces need better training and resources. Better intelligence gathering is also required. The need to ensure better coordination between the Centre and the States concerned cannot be over-emphasised. If indeed the current hostage situations are resolved through negotiation, the Centre ought to give some thought to the merits of a wider dialogue with the Maoists. Neither the government nor the left-wing extremist is in a position to overwhelm the other. Political wisdom lies in bringing about a negotiated end to a conflict that that has held the whole of the ‘Dandakaraya' region hostage for years.