First the good news: the government and the armed groups in Tarai are reaching out to each other and may talk. The problem: it is unlikely they will either reach an agreement, or that the lawlessness in the Tarai will come to an end anytime soon.
Circumstances have forced both sides to veer towards talks. The government wants to be seen as effective in restoring order and sincere in tackling political grievances.
Both the Maoists and MJF have been associated with the armed activists in the past. This makes it easier to communicate. Some are quibbling about the composition of the negotiation team, but that does not take away from the fact that the government has pushed this process forward.
The armed groups know they are discredited. The splits in their ranks, criminal activities, absence of political work and public support, and the ability of the Nepali state to gradually co-opt key community representatives have put the militants on the defensive. They still need to be taken seriously, though, not only because of their potential to kill and destroy but also the idea of Madhesi separatism that they represent.
There has been a degree of introspection among the more serious militants. They held a meeting in Jayanagar a month ago. The process of unification of some of them has picked pace. They are politically vulnerable, and this is forcing them to engage with the state.
But talk privately to government leaders or Madhesi militants and one comes away with the sense of an elaborate charade. Even if formal talks happen, it would be best not to expect too much. Both sides are talking not because they want a solution, but they want to be seen as striving for one. The government wants to be seen as sensitive, the armed groups want to be seen as political groups.
The government wants to make sure that when it unleashes the security apparatus, it is not blamed for not trying to find a negotiated settlement. The armed groups want to ensure that they get a breather which can be used to expand their network and build a political platform.
The government is in no position to agree to a single autonomous Madhes, and the armed groups can't be seen backing away from this demand just yet. At most, the government may release some arrested cadre and some militants will halt killings for a bit. Temporary respite is the best case scenario.
What adds to the complexity is that the armed groups are not homogeneous and their internal power dynamics are constantly shifting. If Jwala Singh was powerful till six months back, he is on the margins now. Goit may be an ideologue but he has been thrown out of his own outfit and is relatively isolated. Ranbir Singh's JTMM and Manager's Madhes Tarai Mukti Morcha may merge soon. All this can alter if three top leaders of a group or 30 district activists shift loyalties.
Even if all the key groups come to the table, what do you do with a Tarai Army that blasted Chandranighapur this week killing innocents? Can this government, full of internal contradictions, politically sell and administratively implement a strategy of talking to some groups and cracking down on others simultaneously? Will this only give a pretext to the groups which are in dialogue to walk out? And can there be peace in Madhes when all the larger issues (representation, dignity, employment, economic stagnation) still remain?
The timing is not yet ripe for a way out. The incentives of major actors lie in promoting instability. The young militants have found a quick and easy way to earn, and the district administrators are happy with their share of the loot while journalists and NGOs act as middlemen. Sections of the Indian state and domestic anti-Maoist forces want the armed groups to be around to counter the left. Madhesi leaders are keen to use them during the next round of agitation.
Till the federal debate plays out and CA deliberations end, the armed groups are not going anywhere. We will just have to learn to live with them.