On the early morning of April 6, the 81 troopers from the Indian Central Reserve Police Force were exhausted. For three days straight, they and a single district policeman had patrolled the thick forests of Chhattisgarh, a state in rural western India. They were on the lookout for fighters from the Naxals, an armed group originating in West Bengal that had split off from the Communist Party of India in 1967. Forty-three years on, senior officials in New Delhi consider the Naxals India’s most serious internal threat.
Just 2 days earlier, the Naxals had killed 11 Indian Special Forces soldiers in a bomb attack. In February, 24 government troops died in a pitched battle with Naxals.
The CRPF troopers, known as ‘jawans,’ were resting from their patrol in Chhattisgarh when a large Naxal force hidden among the trees opened fire; a bomb blast destroyed one of the jawans’ vehicles. The Naxal group numbered up to a thousand fighters, according to the government.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Gunfire peppered the weary, confused CRPF troopers. After just minutes, 72 jawans and the sole district policeman lay dead. When a government helicopter rotored in to retrieve eight survivors, it too came under fire.
Something had gone ‘drastically wrong’ to have allowed the Naxals such a complete and bloody victory, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in the aftermath of the attack. ‘The casualties are very high and I am deeply shocked at the loss of lives.’
The April attack underscored the seemingly growing danger posed by India’s Maoists and highlighted the government’s lack of preparedness. The Naxals have efficiently adopted tactics and weapons from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Indian forces remain hamstrung by the government’s state-based approach to internal security and the inability of states to effectively share ideas.
More broadly, the Naxals’ apparently growing strength speaks to the inability of the Indian government, at both federal and state levels, to offer residents of impoverished western states an alternative to rebellion. The Naxals don’t exist in a vacuum; they are the products of the inequality and failed governance that plague rural India, and which underpins many of the world’s insurgencies. Where India has succeeded in suppressing the Maoists, this limited success has hinged on progressive economic policies bolstered by sustained police efforts.
Communism has been a powerful political force in India since the 1920s. Over time, there emerged two major communist parties: one rooted in Chinese communism and the other in the Russian brand of the ideology. The Naxals were a ‘splinter offshoot’ of the pro-Chinese party, according to Teresita Schaffer, an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C. ‘These guys split off from the pro-Chinese crowd because they [the formal party members] were not radical enough.’