Why were we all so outraged at Musharraf’s infamous breakfast for senior editors at Agra during the summit in 2001? Of course it had to do with his arrogant finger-wagging and hectoring tone. But the biggest provocation was his unambiguous assertion that attacks on Indian security forces in Kashmir were fine since they were all a part of a freedom struggle.
Even so, how could he justify the killing of so many innocent civilians, like of bystanders caught in a bomb blast, Prannoy Roy asked him. Musharraf said, without even a fake expression of sympathy, it happens all over the world in the course of freedom struggles, even in the Palestinian situation, that innocents get caught in the crossfire.
This statement finally wrecked that summit. It even left those of us who had so passionately supported the dialogue, in spite of the still-raw wound of Kargil, outraged.
Now apply that Musharraf logic to the intensifying Maoist turmoil. The intellectual Left’s sympathy for the Maoists is primarily derived from the argument that Maoism is nothing but a fightback by tribals in our poorest, most deprived regions against colonisation by an unholy politician-contractor-corporate cabal. And if a few innocents get caught in that crossfire, you can simply say too bad, but these things happen. See how similar it is to Musharraf explaining the terror unleashed by his infiltrators in Kashmir?
Musharraf is history and the compatriots he has left behind are paying for his stupidities. Closer home, however, the root causes apologists for the Maoists have been a little quiet of late, very quiet indeed on this bloody Friday.
A week back, they were also leaning over each other’s shoulders to be heard for their condemnation of the bombing of a bus carrying some part-time tribal policemen but only because it was also primarily carrying civilians.
Of course it was immediately qualified with the rider that the policemen were wrong to ride a civil bus, and that in future security forces had better follow that rule: do not use public transport, buildings and so on. As if it was a war between the armies of two nations.
Maybe, after a couple of days pass, somebody would again underline the need for any Indian soldier in any kind of uniform to desist from riding a train or they would invite open season on them from the Maoists. But maybe not.
Because you have begun to get the sense that some sanity is finally returning to the debate on violent Maoism and how India needs to deal with it.
The first mythology that is now getting settled is that this is some kind of a regular war between two combatants where we should be equidistant. People taking up arms against their own legitimate and constitutionally elected state cannot be described as combatants in a war between nations fought to Geneva Convention rules. Even if the Maoists once got away with parading the kidnapped West Bengal police officer as a Prisoner of War.
From then on a totally specious argument was built up that Maoists attacking security forces was fair game. The carnage in the bus has ended that argument. A soldier who wears the uniform and follows the orders of a legitimate, constitutional state is not to be equated with insurgents, and his family has as much right to expect that he will come home safe, as that of yours or mine, or any civilian.
Of course, the same right also belongs to the families of all Maoists too, whether tribals or one of their mostly upper-caste Andhra leaders, but only as long as they propagate their ideas democratically and do not wage war on their own state.
A state fighting to preserve order, and its lawfully constituted armed forces, are not an alien army of occupation. Of course it goes without saying that the state and its forces have to respect the law and human rights. And if they won’t, they will be called to account under the nation’s laws, as now happens often enough in Kashmir.
This silly nuancing, where attacks on security forces are justified as normal wartime activity, and civilian deaths are selectively condemned, is now losing its relevance as decisively as did Musharraf’s rant at Agra.
These three weeks’ depredations have built the critical mass of public opinion that the government would have needed to craft an effective response to what the prime minister, for five years, has been describing as India’s greatest internal security challenge.
There is no doubt that the challenge is not merely military and that there is no one-track, military, or developmental, solution to it. The challenge is so great because it is so complex.
India has dealt with tribal and separatist insurgencies for decades, but this is the first which involves more than one state. The very fact that the Maoists roam the jungle terrain that respects no borders between eight states creates a very high degree of difficulty which is more political than even military or logistical.
These states are ruled, respectively, by the UPA (Maharashtra, Andhra), its political foes but allies against Maoism (BJP in Chhattisgarh and until recently Jharkhand, BJD in Orissa), its allies-turned-adversaries (Left Front, West Bengal) and a rival but a prospective ally (Nitish, Bihar).
There are further complications. See West Bengal for example, where the UPA’s current partner is actually sympathetic to the Maoists and where the incumbent it is challenging is a partner in the fight. On top of it, you are operating in a sensitive region with widespread and genuine grievances over a six-decade-long total failure of governance.
It is in this unprecedentedly complicated politico-economic-strategic environment that the Centre and, more importantly, the Congress leadership have to craft a new mandate and define its limits. While debates must rage within the government and outside, all policy confusion must end now.
The Congress can make a beginning by first of all telling its own that this is too important an issue to be exploited in intra-party warfare. Then there has to be some kind of a multi-party consensus on a solution that spans politics, economics and counter-insurgency until you have a Maoist leadership willing to negotiate on reasonable and democratic terms.
It was never going to be easy but the Maoists, out of their sheer bloodthirsty arrogance, have now attracted popular anger and vacated significant moral and political space to the government.