Last week, Maoist insurgents in West Bengal paraded police officer Atindranath Dutta before the massed media, a prisoner-of-war logo draped around his neck. Mr. Dutta’s release marked the end of the ugly hostage drama in Lalgarh — but illustrated in stark relief the crisis in which India’s insurgency-ravaged heartland is mired. Later this year, the Union government plans to push in an estimated 75,000 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in an effort to restore the state’s authority. Just two days before Mr. Dutta’s release, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram made what has been interpreted as a last-ditch effort to ward off the inevitable bloodshed. In a letter to former Lok Sabha speaker Rabi Ray, he said the Union government was willing to hold talks with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) “on any issue that concerns them and the people they claim to represent.” The problem, Mr. Chidambaram argued, was that the Maoists themselves had no apparent wish to enter into a dialogue. He suggested that an end to insurgent violence would have to precede meaningful talks.

What now lies ahead? Maoist leaders, many analysts believe, have little immediate reason to come to the table, given that a cessation of violence would mean losing control of the substantial territories they now dominate. The Union government’s police-surge is more likely to prove no more than a holding operation. External forces, India’s counter-insurgency experience shows, can take years to acquire local intelligence and tactical knowledge. The CRPF, moreover, suffers from crippling officer shortages and lacks an organic intelligence organisation. Successful counter-insurgency operations — among them Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Tripura, and Andhra Pradesh — were built on an overall enhancement of police capabilities. Andhra Pradesh, which defeated a powerful Maoist insurgency, invested not just in its much-vaunted Greyhounds jungle-warfare unit, but in training its personnel, developing intelligence capabilities, and building a network of well-equipped police stations. Andhra Pradesh has 1,579 police stations to serve its 2,75,045 square kilometre territory. By way of contrast, Chhattisgarh has just a fifth as many police stations — 350 — although it, at 1,35,191 square kilometres, is half as large. The situation is no different in other insurgency-hit States such as Orissa. What the Union Ministry hopes is that the central forces it is now pumping in will be able to restore some semblance of order, if not law, while police modernisation programmes it is funding kick in over the next few years. The strategy is less than optimal — but better than no action at all. India’s Maoist movement needs to consider if the war it is precipitating will in fact serve the interests of the desperately poor it claims to speak for.

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