Saturday’s murderous Naxalite attack in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, in which three senior Congress party leaders and nearly 50 others were either killed or wounded, is a wake-up call for the government.
For some time now, the Congress-led federal government and the state governments, run by different political parties in the country’s large central forest belt, had started believing their rhetoric that they were winning the battle against the Naxalites, as the Indian Maoists are called.
This attack took place in the sprawling Maoist stronghold of Bastar where the State’s presence is confined to a few isolated paramilitary camps. Maoists run a parallel government.
Senior Congress leaders Mahendra Karma and Nand Kumar Patel were shot dead by a large number of armed Naxalites, who cut off the road and were then reported to have engaged in continuous firing on the party convoy heading to Jagdalpur town.
Chhattisgarh state is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is at loggerheads with the Congress politically.
A former central information minister and senior Congress leader, Vidya Charan Shukla (84), was critically injured. Seen with his bloody clothes, Shukla is under treatment in hospital. At least one account says that Shukla was lying wounded till a bunch of reporters reached the site of the attack.
Till late Saturday, it was believed that Chhattisgarh Congress party chief Nandlal Patel and his son had been abducted, but on Sunday morning television channels began reporting that their bodies had been found.
Given that there were no security personnel on the spot to secure the site where Congress leaders and workers were massacred, it’s hardly surprising that the bodies of Patel and his son were found only a day later.
Mahendra Karma has been a Naxalite target for quite a while given that he was instrumental in setting up the Salwa Judum organisation, a government-supported front of armed tribals, to assist in armed operations against the Naxalites.
Formally known as the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the Naxalites are active in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and parts of Bihar and West Bengal. They believe in overthrowing the Indian State through armed struggle.
Known for their audacious attacks on security personnel, the Naxalites are known to have a long memory in targeting those who opposed them. In 1993, they killed a senior police officer, K.S. Vyas, in a Hyderabad cricket stadium while he was jogging.
N. Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, narrowly escaped being assassinated by the Naxalites in October 2003.
In 2005, hundreds of armed Maoists descended on Jehanabad jail in Bihar and rescued 250 of their associates. They have attacked security personnel time and again, displaying to the world at large their lethal capabilities.
Though their list of murders and attacks is long, Saturday’s Chhattisgarh massacre is possibly the most high-profile attack staged by the Naxalites ever in terms of going up the political chain.
Last year, the Naxalites kidnapped the Collector of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh, Alex Paul Menon, only to release him after a gruelling 12 days of custody.
In the case of the Congress leaders under attack, they appeared to have no intentions of taking them into custody. They were especially vicious against Mahendra Karma, who was reportedly beaten with rifle butts before being shot several times, eyewitness accounts suggest.
Ashutosh Bhardawaj, Raipur-based reporter for the Indian Express newspaper, said in a piece Sunday that the Naxalite attack came in the wake of the Congress party’s “intensified efforts to reach out to tribal-dominated Bastar (division) in recent months. With Assembly elections due this year, the party’s top brass had been visiting the region regularly...”
Whatever may have been the desperation of the Congress in reaching out to the tribals in the five districts of Bastar division, the fact is that basic security protocols have not been followed – all leaders travelling in a single convoy being only one of them.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly described Naxalism as India’s biggest security challenge, but other than the usual brutal, law and order approach, precious little has been done to tackle the Maoists. Given that top Congress leaders have been targeted, India will see high-decibel media coverage for a few days about the menace posed by the Maoists.
Afterwards, it will be business-as-usual. India’s remote war – far away from the big cities of Delhi and Mumbai -- will recede into the background again – till the next attack.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan. He tweets @abaruah64.
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