Since the formation of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in 2004, the two decade-long war on left-wing extremism (LWE) by various Indian states has been marked by sporadic calls for peace talks. The latest was Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Bhupesh Baghel’s offer. The appeal, made in May 2022, was promptly dismissed by the extremist group. In spite of a drastic reduction in extremist violence, it is evident that the appropriate conditions for a negotiated settlement, referred to as “ripeness” by IW Zartman, haven’t been reached. It won’t therefore be misplaced to conclude that LWE will likely end in India’s forests, and via security force operations, rather than at a negotiating table.
The CPI-Maoist demands that three conditions are to be fulfilled before it agrees to a peace process. These include the removal of security force camps from conflict-affected areas, revoking the ban on the CPI-Maoist, and releasing the group’s leaders from prison. These demands have been made twice in 2022 alone—in March and in May. For the past several years, the government has insisted that any peace process must be unconditional. This indirectly suggests that the CPI-Maoist’s demands may be taken up during negotiations. For instance, in March this year, the Chhattisgarh home minister said that any discussion on conditions will be possible only after talks are held.
Often, a group’s operational weakness is projected as sufficient reason for its interest in a negotiated settlement. With such a premise, the operationally feeble CPI-Maoist’s steadfast obduracy could be baffling to many, including official circles. However, ideologically-oriented extremist movements don’t usually conform to this conventional wisdom. Operational vulnerabilities can translate to a decline in bargaining power at the negotiating table. This will eventually mean compromising on the ideology that has shaped the entire existence of the group and its leaders. It explains why a number of old insurgencies in India’s Northeast still prefer to fight the state rather than talk peace. The same applies to the CPI-Maoist, which is still led by the old guard, i.e. high-caste Telugu ideologues who have spent their lifetimes as part of both the current group as well as its predecessor.
Peace processes that bring violent clashes to a halt often provide extremists with an opportunity to regroup and recalibrate. The People’s War Group (PWG) did precisely that during their peace parleys with the Andhra Pradesh government in 2004. The group, which merged with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) to form the CPI-Maoist that year, canvassed for support in the state’s districts, taluks, and villages as part of its overground activities. The group presently envisages no such advantage in Chhattisgarh since the state police establishment and its intelligence branch’s wide reach would prevent such a repeat. On the other hand, the halting of extremist violence may even allow the security forces to penetrate deep into the handful of safe zones that keep the CPI-Maoist alive today.
From the state’s perspective, a peace process does not appear to be necessary, as the CPI-Maoist is believed to be close to extinction. India’s central intelligence agencies have reportedly told the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that in the past nine months (October 2021-May 2022), eight central committee members of the group were neutralised. Five other central committee members were arrested in Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, and Kerala. This leadership vacuum isn’t easy to fill. The group will find it very difficult to continue in most states, barring Chhattisgarh. In short, the CPI-Maoist will indulge in survival-centric manoeuvres in the coming months, but its ability to orchestrate violence will be severely limited. Not surprisingly, MHA statements on LWE haven’t even nominally mentioned peace talks. The ministry, according to its own logic, isn’t interested in a bargaining process and has no plans to accommodate the set of grievances the CPI-Maoist has been espousing for the past 18 years. In April 2021, the Home Minister Amit Shah had instead vowed to fight against “these enemies of peace & progress.” The same approach appears to be continuing.
Although it has accepted its weakness and the cadre losses, and although it has decided to strategically retreat in various theatres, the CPI-Maoist does not see defeat as imminent. It probably sees a chance instead for survival—and possibly revival—by continuing to exploit the various societal schisms that have sustained it so far. The state, on the other hand, believes itself to be at the cusp of a military victory. This is a classic stalemate situation. Zartman once wrote of the perception of a “hurting stalemate” as necessary for negotiation. Both parties must consider the stalemate to be strategically unviable due to the damage it inflicts. Such a feeling isn’t mutual in Maoist theatres, especially in Chhattisgarh. It isn’t a surprise then that the CPI-Maoist will still risk the choice to go down fighting rather than be part of an unrewarding peace process.
This article was published at IPCS