Maoist rebels (aka Naxals) eliminated almost the entire first rung of Congress leadership in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh in a major attack on Saturday. The incident took place in the hilly Darbha area around 400 kilometers from the state capital of Raipur, where a cavalcade of about 40 cars were transporting top state Congress leaders through a Maoist infested area after a pre-election rally.
According to news reports, some 200 rebels blocked the road by felling trees. They then detonated landmines and fired indiscriminately, killing 25 party workers and security personnel. Another 32 people, including 32 policemen, who were accompanying the convoy from Jagdalpur to Sukma were also injured in the attack.
It is reported that Mahendra Karma, a top Congress leader, who has been at the forefront of organizing an anti Maoist movement, called Salwa Judum ("Peace March") was the main target of the attack. The formation of this anti-Naxal group in 2005 led to many retaliatory attacks on Left extremists and their sympathizers. However, following outrage by civil society groups the Supreme Court disbanded the movement in 2010.
The severity of the Maoist attack on Saturday jolted the Congress-led government in New Delhi and shook the entire party leadership. Soon after the attack, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Chhattisgarh to take stock of the situation. The PM vowed to pursue the perpetrators and bring them to swift justice. Congress President Sonia Gandhi called the incident “an attack on democratic values”.
A central cabinet minister, Jairam Ramesh, called the incident a “holocaust”. Ramesh said, “The Maoists didn’t like the development and welfare works in the area and proved once again that they have no faith in our political system, in democracy and constitutional values, and all the talk of tribal welfare for them is a sham, is an excuse, and an alibi for perpetrating the violent overthrow of a democratic system.”
Why did the Maoists react so violently at Darbha? Does the attack indicate a change in their strategy?
A week before the Maoist ambush there were reports of eight innocent tribal member who were killed, including three children, in a combat operation by security forces in the Bijapur district of the state.
“The incident on May 25 has to be seen in the context of the surge in violence in Chhattisgarh where innocent Adivasis (tribal members) were killed a week ago,” Kavita Krishnan of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist, or CPI(ML), told The Diplomat. “The state and the central government have been collaborating with each other in the war against people. In this situation, peace, democracy and justice are not possible.”
Before joining mainstream politics, the CPI(ML) was waging a very active underground armed movement against the democratic system. Krishnan, however, feels that it would only perpetuate a cycle of violence if the government launches an indiscriminate counteroffensive against the Maoists after the Saturday incident. Yet, many find a moderate approach unpalatable following the attack.
“This attack may have been an act of revenge,” reads an editorial in The Indian Express. “The fight is not for the greater welfare of the tribals on whose behalf they (Maoists) claim to be staging this revolutionary intervention, but for the destruction of the democratic state.”
It continues, “The government must make sure its writ operates in these areas, it must bring the solid protection of the state as well as development. There is no way to do this but to concentrate and scale up its anti-Naxal operations. Coordinating counter-insurgency efforts is crucial.”
However, The Hindu, a left-leaning newspaper, condemns the barbaric act but warns “against a heavy-handed response” from the government and says that “violence must always be turned into an opportunity to push for peace, and never as an excuse to use the armed might of the State on hapless villagers living in fear of both the Maoists and the security personnel.”
Some analysts say that the recent act is a sign of change in the strategy on the part of the Maoist rebels. Vivek Deshpande writes in The Indian Express that the Left extremists are “restructuring their operational strategy.” He continues, “The top Naxal leadership is deeply disconcerted by the government's blitz on the twin fronts of development and security”.
In the last five decades the insurgency has spread its wings in 20 out of 28 states in India and formed a “red corridor” spanning 200 of the country's 634 districts. The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of India’s indigenous tribes and rural poor, whom they say the government has neglected for decades.
The fact of the matter is that despite repeated counter offensives against the armed groups the Maoists continue to draw sustenance and shelter from people in remote areas where the Indian state has not managed to provide basic infrastructure.
This calls for a new strategy to stop their growing grip. Democracy requires reaching out to all sections of society and bringing them into the mainstream. Neglecting to do so in rural parts of the country is what feeds the Maoist rebellion.
A kneejerk counteroffensive would only add fuel to the fire. What is needed is a carefully considered strategy on the part of politicians to reach out to the young tribal members who have taken up guns to fight a system that has seemingly left them behind. That might make for a more dynamic Indian democracy.