Over the past few months, the message that Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has been delivering to Chief Ministers of the States hard-hit by Maoist violence is to prepare for tough action. Despite substantial investments in police infrastructure, and a steady surge of central forces, the Maoists face no imminent threat; the party and its armed cadre confront forces that are neither superior nor powerful. On February 9, Mr. Chidambaram held the latest in a series of meetings with Chief Ministers intended to set things right. For a variety of reasons linked to local political configurations, many States have been reluctant to join in the large-scale counter-Maoist operations. Hours before the meeting, Maoists succeeded in blowing up railway tracks in Jharkhand and Bihar. Despite this, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Jharkhand counterpart Shibu Soren failed to show up for the meeting. Earlier, Mr. Chidambaram had met with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik, and Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil. Although Mr. Chidambaram said that progress in these States was satisfactory, the truth is that there was little success to report.
Ever since he took office as Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram has been working hard to build a new architecture for addressing the Maoist threat, built around inter-State cooperation and intelligence-sharing. The sad truth, though, is that the bricks to support his architecture are just not in place. Ever since 2001, fatalities in the Maoist war have escalated steadily — 998 in 2009, just below the threshold widely used by scholars to define a high-intensity conflict. The escalation of violence has come at a time when other conflicts across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir to the North-East, are declining in intensity. By Mr. Chidambaram’s account, 223 districts — almost a third of India’s total — now face Maoist violence. While it is not true that Maoists control these territories, sustained violence has been witnessed in the jurisdiction of about 400 police stations in 90 districts. Last year, civilians and security forces accounted for more than 70 per cent of fatalities, up from 66 per cent in 2008. Underlying the failure of the forces to defend themselves or the people are years of neglect of police infrastructure and manpower — neglect that is impossible to set right in months, perhaps even years. Defeating the Maoists, as Andhra Pradesh has demonstrated, is indeed possible. It will require bottom-up commitment and hard work, though — something few States seem willing to engage in, the Union Home Minister’s efforts notwithstanding.