MUMBAI // A day after Maoist rebels blew up a bus in a landmine explosion in Central India, killing 31 people, the government issued a fresh appeal for talks with the rebels - an offer they immediately declined. "Maoists should say: 'We will abjure violence. We will suspend violence and actually suspend violence for 72 hours,'" said P Chidambaram, India's home minister. "We will get the chief ministers on board. We will respond. We will fix a date, time and place for talks and let the Maoists come for the talks on anything they wish to talk."
Speaking to the Indian media from the jungles of Bastar in Central India, the deadliest theatre of the insurgency, Ramana, a senior Maoist leader who goes by a single name, rejected the offer and asked the government to halt Operation Greenhunt, its 100,000-troop-strong counter-offensive launched against the rebels last year, before it would even consider the offer of talks. "We cannot give up our weapons," Ramana said.
Pressure on the government to review its anti-Maoist strategy is mounting from the opposition and the public, outraged by the rising tide of brutal attacks launched by the rebels in recent months. The Maoist rebels, also called Naxalites, control nearly one-third of India's land mass. The rebels have toeholds in 22 of India's 28 states, according to the government. They are most active in 11 of these states, a vast region that stretches through much of eastern and central India, a region widely known as the "red corridor".
Monday's deadly explosion left a three-metre deep crater in the ground and also killed 11 civilians. On April 6, in a patch of jungle not far from where this explosion happened, rebels raided a police convoy at dawn, killing 76 men and hacking off the limbs of survivors. It was the deadliest Maoist attack in recent memory. Mr Chidambaram indicated yesterday that he was eager to intensify the ongoing counter-offensive against the rebels.
"We allowed this [Naxalism] to fester for many years. Nearly 10 years," he said. "We underestimated the gravity of the situation. They simply kill and then find a reason to justify their killing." Despite their rudimentary military arsenal, the Naxalites have outfought the government, killing two policemen for every dead rebel since 2007. In Operation Greenhunt, the government is using armoured vehicles, laser-guided weaponry, and mine-sweeping equipment. It is also considering importing US-made surveillance drones to track down the rebels' movements in the jungles.
The most critical question, analysts said, is whether the government use the army to battle the Naxalites. The Indian army is generally deployed to deal with external threats. The battle against the Naxalites, considered India's biggest internal enemy, has so far been led by the police and paramilitary forces. "If the army does not step in now, there will be a day when [India's] army chief will have to report to Muppala Laxman Rao," said a senior army officer, who did not wish to be named, referring to the chief Naxalite commander who ranks high on India's most-wanted list. "The police are weak and ineffective to handle the growing menace of Naxalism all by itself."
In a recent countrywide opinion poll conducted by New Delhi Television, 67 per cent of respondents supported the idea of bringing in the army to combat the rebels. "Some 40,000 [police and paramilitary] forces are deployed in Bastar for anti-Maoist operations and they are just sitting ducks," an unnamed government official in Bastar told the Indo-Asian News Service. "Every day they pray for their life. Around one million civilians of Bastar's 3.2 million population reside in cut off areas and are left to the Maoists' mercy."
Vishwa Ranjan, the director general of police for Chhattisgarh state, where Bastar is located, said the rebels have turned the entire region - blanketed by dense, malarial jungles - into a minefield. "Up to 25,000 sq km of Bastar's 40,000 sq km is intensively mined," Mr Ranjan said. "[It is impossible] to de-mine the massive forested pockets, and there is no technology to detect mines buried more than four feet inside the ground."
The site of Monday's blast was screened for landmines four days before the attack, but the mines went undetected because they were planted several feet below the ground, according to Mr Ranjan. Mr Chidambaram has ruled out involving the army - for now. But he said he was trying to convince the government's ruling cabinet on approving the use of air support in anti-Naxalite operations. But the idea is already drawing criticism from various sections, including from some within the government.
"Those who talk about this do not know the terrain of the area," said Digvijay Singh, a senior leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). "We need to win over the people of this area." Naxalism, he pointed out, was taking root across much of rural India because of widespread socio-economic deprivation. More than 70,000 villagers in 800 villages in mineral-rich Central India, he said, have been displaced because of mining and other industrial activities.
The idea of using air support has also been turned down by senior defence officers, who fear civilian deaths from precision strikes could backfire dangerously. "We have the capability to conduct strikes with utmost precision. However, it must be understood that if a 250kg bomb is dropped at a spot, its impact will be in a radius of at least 800 metres and that may affect many people who may not themselves be insurgents," Mr PV Naik, the chief of India's air force, said last month. "After all, we are dealing with our own people in our own territory."