An ambush of political leaders in central India that killed 27 people underscored the resilience of the nation’s left-wing guerrilla movement four years into a government offensive to stamp out the insurgency.
A police campaign that was escalated in 2009 has killed about half the senior leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), said N. Manoharan, an academic who researches insurgencies in India at the Vivekananda International Foundation. The guerrillas are retreating in the states of West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, scene of the weekend attack, while they are gaining ground elsewhere, he said.
The rebels “want to prove a point that they’re not in decline,” Manoharan, who is based in New Delhi, said yesterday. “The concern is this marks the beginning of a new period of violence.”
India’s communist insurgents operate across a dozen of 28 states, a swathe of land referred to as the “Red Corridor,” recruiting locals with the message they won’t benefit from the exploitation of their land by the state. Rebel bases are typically located in remote forested regions, some rich in iron ore, bauxite and other minerals which the government says could become the basis of a stronger regional economy.
In the latest spasm of violence, about 300 rebels on May 25 struck a convoy of vehicles carrying senior members of the Congress party, which leads the federal government, through Bastar, a guerrilla stronghold in Chhattisgarh. Among people killed in the deadliest attack by the group in three years were the party’s state chief, Nand Kumar Patel, and his son.
The Maoists today claimed responsibility for the attack in a four-page message and video-clip sent to reporters, the NDTV television channel said. The rebels said they targeted Congress leaders who had supported paramilitary police offensives against the group, and regretted the deaths of any civilians, according to the channel.
The insurgents are well armed and more motivated than the security forces they are battling, said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, based in New Delhi The attack was aimed at galvanizing support from sympathizers and sending a message the rebels can still hit high-profile targets.
“The government had become complacent,” Chandrasekharan said. “While there has been a reduction in incidents, the guerrillas may have just retreated waiting for the right opportunity. This is a classic tactic.”
Violence linked to the Maoist revolt killed a record 1,005 people in 2010, with a growing number of assaults on economic targets including railways and mining operations. The number of attacks has fallen over the last three years, according to data from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Last year, 415 people died in the conflict, the lowest since at least 1998.
Chandrasekharan said there should be an investigation into why Congress party leaders coming back from a rally ahead of a state election this year were allowed to head into a Maoist-dominated area without a larger police escort.
The rebels blocked roads and exploded landmines to halt the convoy and then opened fire, police said. Mahendra Karma, the architect of a villager force called the Salwa Judum that was used by the state to counter Maoists and which human rights groups accuse of carrying out atrocities, was also killed.
Karma had survived at least four attempts on his life. The rebels sang and danced around his body, the Hindustan Times reported yesterday, citing eyewitnesses to the attack.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who described the left-wing movement as India’s most serious internal security challenge, has pursued a strategy of promoting economic development and armed counterinsurgency to quell support for the insurrection. Public pressure for government action against the Maoists grew after rebels in April 2010 killed 76 policemen in Chhattisgarh, the deadliest attack on security forces.
Singh’s approach has been undermined by corruption and the behavior of security forces, according to human rights groups and analysts including Nandini Sundar, a professor in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, who has written an anthropological history of Bastar.
In some Maoist areas, police burn villages, rape women and engage in extra-judicial killings, Sundar said. Money meant for development is often siphoned off by corrupt officials, increasing resentment, she said.
Two calls and a text message to the mobile phone of India’s Home Secretary R.K. Singh were not answered. S. Jayaraman, special secretary on internal security, referred questions to Singh when contacted. A call and a text message sent to K.S. Dhatwalia, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs, were not returned.
A July report by New York-based Human Rights Watch entitled “Between Two Sets of Guns” laid bare the consequences for often tribal communities living in zones where the Maoists and police fight. It blamed security forces for arbitrary arrests and torture of Maoist supporters, the “soft targets” left behind when rebels disperse into thick forest cover.
The rebels carry out targeted killings of police, political figures, and landlords, the advocacy group found. “People’s courts” hold show trials of suspected informers and order executions, it said.
India’s Maoists, called Naxalites, take their name from a group of villages known as Naxalbari in east India where farmers revolted to gain land ownership in 1967.
The guerrillas say they are fighting for the rights of poor villagers and tribal communities whose resources are, the rebels argue, being exploited to propel India’s $1.9 trillion economy with few benefits for local people.
Efforts to defeat the rebels are being hampered by too few police, while the absence of roads, schools and hospitals makes it hard to persuade sympathizers abandon the guerrillas, Palaniappan Chidambaram said last year when he was the home minister.
“They are not winning hearts and minds,” Sundar said. The state’s offensive “is basically just pacification.”
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