An outlawed revolutionary group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has for more than three decades carried on a guerrilla war in the forests of central India, carried out a vicious strike last weekend. On the evening of May 25, a band of about 200 armed Maoists, both men and women, ambushed a convoy of Congress Party leaders that was on its way to a political rally in the state of Chhattisgarh. Almost the entire top rung of Congress leaders in the state was eliminated in the attack, in which 28 people were killed. Some of the victims were dragged out of their cars and shot dead at point-blank range.
The Congress, which holds power as the leading party in India's UPA coalition government but is the opposition in Chhattisgarh, was unnerved by the attack. Rahul Gandhi, the party's vice president, traveled immediately to Chhattisgarh, where he said that the massacre was "not an attack on Congress" but "an attack on democracy." The Maoists, meanwhile, sent a four-page statement signed by a top Maoist leader to the BBC, which said that the attack was "necessary revenge against the UPA's fascist Operation Green Hunt, which is being run in connivance with several state governments."
The letter-writer granted, in the cold language that characterizes violent revolutionary movements worldwide, that "some innocent people and low-level Congress workers were killed. They were not our enemies but they lost their lives. We express regret over their death and offer our condolence to the bereaved families."
The Maoists, known as Naxalites, were after one target in particular: the controversial Congress leader Mahendra Karma, whose killing was especially brutal (78 stab wounds were discovered on his body). Karma was the brain behind an organization fashioned to deal with the Maoist menace in Chhattisgarh: the Salwa Judum, or "Purification Hunt" in the local tribal dialect. This civilian vigilante force, made up mainly of tribal youth, was set up in 2006 with the approval of the government of Chhattisgarh to assist the local police and Indian paramilitary forces with their counterinsurgency initiative, Operation Green Hunt.
Members of the Salwa Judum were each given a gun and the status of "special police officer" by the state government, and asked to monitor other civilians. This was to invite upon the tribal peoples of the state a second rule of the gun to that imposed by the Maoists and put civilians in the crossfire. What Karma had achieved, as the Indian sociologist Nandini Sundar, one of the most perceptive observers of the crisis in India's "red corridor," was essentially a situation of "my militia versus yours." As the writer Ramachandra Guha wrote earlier this week:
The combined depredations of the Naxalites and Salwa Judum created a regime of terror and despair across the district. An estimated 150,000 adivasis [tribals] fled their native villages. A large number sought refuge along the roads of the Dantewada district. Here they lived, in ramshackle tents, away from their lands, their cattle, their homes and their shrines. An equally large number fled into the neighbouring State of Andhra Pradesh, living likewise destitute and tragic lives.
In 2011, acting on a petition by Sundar and others, the Supreme Court of India judged the Salwa Judum to be unconstitutional and ordered the government of Chhattisgarh to disband it. By this time, however, the Judum already stood accused of several outrages. And Karma, a tribal leader who had challenged the Maoist claim over the tribals of Chhattisgarh, was already a marked man, surviving several attempts on his life.
This back story explains the reluctance of the Indian press, even as it condemned the attack, to endorse the opinion of Raman Singh, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, who said of Karma: "He was a great fighter against Maoists. His fight will always be remembered." In the newspaper Mint, Sudeep Chakravarti, the author of an excellent book on the Maoist movement called "Red Sun," wrote:
Mahendra Karma is dead. And I am here to write ill of him.
This may be construed as indelicate in the aftermath of the savage Maoist attack on 25 May in southern Chhattisgarh that left him and several others dead—unlike Karma, many innocent of human rights wrongdoing. But it certainly is not an act of hypocrisy. Karma wasn't exactly a man of probity. For long, the Congress party's point man in Bastar, sometimes called "Bastar Tiger", Karma often resembled a wolf that preyed on the tribals of southern Chhattisgarh, many of them from his own tribe, with utter disregard for their livelihood and lives. While I abhor violence, including the revenge hit by Maoists that finally claimed Karma at 62, his death should not be used to whitewash his crimes against humanity....
The endgame in the battle against Maoist rebels is still to begin in earnest, but it will likely come sooner than later, precipitated by the 25 May incident. Meanwhile, the competitive hell that they and Karma & Co. created in Chhattisgarh festers. For now, Maoists remain here in force, intermittently fighting security forces.
It's clear, though, that the Maoists won't be rooted out any time soon. Long accused of having created the conditions that enabled Maoism to flourish by its apathy and arrogance toward the region's overwhelmingly poor population, the Indian state has been working belatedly on a double-sided approach to the counterinsurgency. The UPA government has allocated special funds to Indian districts -- there are as many as 34 of them -- affected by left-wing extremism, even as it has sent in almost 50,000 federal paramilitary troops to assist state forces in four states as part of Operation Green Hunt.
This project could require a few decades to take effect. Having entrenched themselves, the Maoists, who by some estimates number about 40,000, would now hardly be willing to give up the gains of their own "extortion economy" in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh, where several major Indian business have set up steel and power plants. The Maoist cadre unites around exercises in bloodlust, such as the gruesome beheading of a policeman in Jharkhand in 2009. And when the revolutionary leaders dismiss parliamentary democracy as merely imperialism by another name and seek nothing less than the overthrow of the state (anything can seem like light reading after half an hour perusing the Maoist document "Strategy & Tactics of the Indian Revolution"), it's hard to see what the government could offer them that they would find acceptable. As Subir Bhaumik wrote in a piece in 2010:
The body count will rise as Operation Green Hunt intensifies. Unlike India's many ethnic separatist movements in the country's Northeast or elsewhere, who negotiate for political space and call it a day when they get their pound of flesh, there is very little ground for negotiations between the Indian government and the Maoists. The Maoists seek a structural change of Indian polity that's unacceptable for India's neo-ruling elite, who have developed a stake in globalisation, liberalisation and capitalism.
The best books on the Maoist problem -- in particular works in the last five years by Arundhati Roy, Sudeep Chakravarti and Satnam -- are worth reading because they demonstrate how knotty the problem is, establish what historical and economic frames illuminate it best, and suggest what citizens can attempt to do to keep Indian democracy and the establishment honest. They give the Maoists a human face, something that the Maoists themselves have proved incapable of doing. These writers spent time in Maoist camps, and came back with stories about a cadre at once tremendously idealistic and committed, and pathetically doctrinal.
Indian democracy has many flaws. But when the reading of its failures is as uncompromising as that advanced by the "grim, military imagination" (Roy's phrase) of the Maoists, the result can only be a cycle of revolutionary violence and state reprisals, doomed to repeat itself endlessly and to take down many innocents in the crossfire.
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