State in the cross hairs: Security men patrol a railway track after a passenger train was attacked by Maoist rebels near Jamui, Bihar Image Credit: AP

On May 25, insurgents belonging to India’s outlawed Maoist movement attacked a convoy of Congress leaders in the Darbha valley, which lies in the Sukma district (Bastar region) of the Chhattisgarh state. At least 28 people died in the attack. Those among the killed were senior state Congress leader Mahendra Karma, Chhattisgarh state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh Patel and former state legislator Uday Mudaliyar. Many senior party leaders, including former union minister Vidya Charan Shukla, were seriously injured. Shukla later succumbed to his injuries.

The Congress leaders were in the middle of a Parivartan Yatra (“Rally for change”) in the state, which had begun on April 12. They were returning to Jagdalpur from a meeting organised in Sukma with a convoy of 22 vehicles.

At about 3.30pm, near Darbha valley, the convoy ran into felled trees, which the Maoists had used to block the road, and when the first vehicle attempted to turn around, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off. Around 250-300 Maoists, including women cadres, who had taken position in the hills on both sides of the road, started firing indiscriminately. The Naxalites of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state were among the attackers. Mahendra Karma, founder of anti-Maoist Salwa Judum, had been on the hit list of Naxalites for some time. He was killed in a hail of bullets.

About a week earlier, on the night of May 17, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel opened fire at the villagers who had gathered for a local festival at Edesmeta village in Chhattisgarh. Eight villagers, including three children, were shot dead. The CRPF, which was conducting a combing operation in the area, claimed that its personnel retaliated after coming under fire from the Naxalites, but the villagers disputed this claim. They alleged innocent people were killed.

Shubhashu Chaudhary, author of a book on Naxalites titled “Uska Naam Vasu Nahin”, says, “All know that the power of Naxalites has increased phenomenally in Darbha valley in the last few years. It is surprising that so many senior Congress leaders went in the area without any security. It is a total failure of the state government and the intelligence agencies. It is remarkable that hundreds of Naxalites gathered at the place to carry out the well-planned attack. Maoist build-up in Darbha went unnoticed. Clearly, it is a glaring intelligence failure that led to the deadly attack.”

This Darbha carnage has once again brought to fore the severity of Naxal problem. But the roots of the problem are very deep, almost 50 years old.

The Naxalite violence began in West Bengal’s Naxalbari, the place from which it derives its name. Naxalbari was the site of a left-wing poor peasants’ uprising in 1967, which began with the “land to tiller” slogan. Then, the police crushed the uprising but in the following decades the influence of the Naxalite groups has increased in many parts of central and eastern India. The rebels wield considerable influence in many areas of states such as Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Over the years there have been many encounters between the security forces and Naxalites resulting in the death of hundreds of people.

Local support

It is believed that Naxalites are active in nearly a third of the more than 600 districts in the country. The reason behind the success of Naxalites is the support they are getting at the local level. Naxalites say they are fighting for the poor and the aboriginals, known as tribals, who have been ignored by the government for decades. They claim to represent the local interests in the struggle for aboriginal land rights and distribution of resources.

The ultimate goal of the Maoists is to establish a communist society, although their influence now is restricted to tribal and forested areas.

In the urban centres, the popular perception is that the Maoists are violent extremists. The government appears to be indecisive about whether to use military force to address the Naxalite threat.

Salwa Judum

Salwa Judum was founded by Mahendra Karma in 2005 as part of anti-insurgency operations in Bastar area of Chhattisgarh. The actions of Salwa Judum unnerved Naxalites, and the attack on Congress leaders on May 25 was apparently to exact revenge for the alleged atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum.

However, Naxalites themselves have been spreading terror.

In 2009-10, when the government and security forces were busy with assembly and parliament elections, they killed a lot of civilians and policemen.

To maintain their hegemony, they have their own courts in Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and they kill anyone labelling them as police informers.

They target policemen for allegedly committing atrocities against the people. But when the CRPF was deployed in 1990s even deadlier attacks began.

Encounters between security forces and Maoists became a regular occurrence. The violence has claimed several thousand lives on both sides.

Complacency proved fatal

The central and state governments were recently feeling quite relieved following a let-up in Naxalite violence. According to government data, there was appreciable fall in violent incidents during 2012. All Naxalite-affected states, including Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, had reported a decline. While 611 people were killed in Naxalite violence in 2011, 409 were killed in 2012, including 113 security personnel and 206 civilians. In 2010, the number of people killed was 1005. In recent years, many powerful Naxalite commanders have also been killed. Following some successful campaigns against the Naxalites and the reported fall in Maoist violence, the security forces, beguiled into believing that they had broken the back of movement, became lax. It was probably due to this reason that in a Naxalite-infested area such as Bastar, there weren’t even basic security arrangements for the convoy of senior Congress leaders.

The Naxalites made the most of the complacency of the security forces. From the way they meticulously planned the attack, it is clear that they had been kept informed about the convoy’s movements and programmes and the changes made at the last minute.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said: “The Naxalism problem is not just a law-and-order issue. In order to comprehensively dissolve the Naxalite threat, the government has to address the socio-economic issues. The root cause of Naxalism is abject poverty and total lack of basic facilities. There is need for all-round development in Naxalism-affected areas. The government as well as the society will have to focus on the development of these areas.”

The main reason behind the expansion of Naxalism in tribal areas is poverty and lack of development. The youths of these areas, which lack even the most basic facilities, are joining the Naxalite groups out of sheer frustration — they are unemployed with no means of support. If the needs of these marginalised tribal youths are addressed, there will be no discontent to fuel the Naxalite movement.

Government’s indifference

In 2008, the Maoists attacked a boat on the Balimela reservoir in Odisha carrying anti-Naxal Greyhound commandos. The boat sank, killing 38 troops. In Andhra Pradesh, the elite Greyhound forces had eliminated the Naxalites, but due to lack of coordination with other states, the insurgency had flourished in Odisha.

In 2013, the Naxalites murdered a CRPF soldier, Babulal Patel and then planted a 2-kilogram bomb in his stomach. This came to light during the post-mortem.

Back in 2005, the Maoists attacked Jehanabad prison in the state of Bihar, freeing 341 of their comrades. The prison’s security staff were no match for them and fled from the spot. They also abducted men of an opponent group, Ranvir Sena, who were in the prison, and later murdered them.

The government’s reaction was, however, only symbolic. Only a jailer was suspended and the areas close to the prison building were fenced. No action was taken against the Naxalites.

In 2009, Naxalites captured Lalgarh district, just 250 kilometres from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Lalgarh remained under control of Naxalites for several months. They declared it India’s first free district. However, the security forces ultimately succeeded in uprooting the rebels.

Earlier, in 2007, insurgents attacked a police base camp in Chhattisgarh killing 55 personnel.

In May 2011, top Maoist leader Kishanji was killed in a gun battle with the security forces in West Bengal. Kishanji was a politburo member, the third in command and in charge of its armed operations in the area since 2009. His death was seen as a big success for the security forces and a huge setback for the Maoists.

In March 2012, the Maoists abducted Alex Paul Menon, the district collector of trouble-torn Sukma district in tribal Bastar region. Menon was released after 13 days once the mediators of the state government and the Maoists reached an agreement.

It is noteworthy that the common people have suffered the most in the ongoing conflict between the Maoists and the security forces. Police put innocent people behind bars falsely labelling them as Naxals or stage gun battles to finish them off. Similarly, locals use the Maoists to settle personal scores, claiming to the insurgents that their rivals are police informers. Either way, the peace-loving tribal people become the target of the Naxals and the police.

In his previous tenure, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh appeared to be a staunch opponent of Naxals. But today, he appears indifferent. There was no mention of Naxalism in his “Vikas Yatras” (rallies for development), nor did he make any promise to tackle the issue.

However, the recent killing of Congress leaders in Bastar has yet again put Chhattisgarh under scrutiny for failing to contain the insurgency. This failure is that of the Raman Singh administration, because law and order is the domain of the state government. There are allegations that the state government had adequate security in place for Raman Singh’s Vikas Yatra, while it looked the other way as the Congress organised its Parivartan Yatra.

Shuriah Niazi is a freelance journalist based in central India.