The latest act of depredation by the Maoists has shown that they remain as much of a danger for the established order as when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in 2010 that they posed the greatest internal security threat.
Evidently, the official efforts to contain them have been inadequate. As a result, the Congress has paid a heavy price with the virtual decimation of its entire top leadership in Chhattisgarh. Although the main target of the Maoists was Congress leader Mahendra Karma, 27 others, including state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel, were killed in cold blood.
But nothing showed the insensate fury which the Maoists felt towards Karma more than the fact that the women cadres stabbed him as many as 78 times and danced over his dead body in a revolting display of ghoulish glee.
Their wrath is explained by the fact that Karma had set up a vigilante group, the Salwa Judum, to take on the Maoists. Following criticism of the group's extra-constitutional activities, it was disbanded because of the Supreme Court's strictures in response to a petition filed by civil libertarians. But Karma remained Enemy No.1 for the Maoists probably because, being an adivasi, he was looked upon as a betrayer by the self-appointed champions of tribal rights.
However, the intervention of the human rights activists in what the Maoists regard as a "war" against the Indian state shows how carefully the government has to tread while fighting the insurgents. While the latter have no compunctions in indulging in gruesome violence against the government forces, as the massacre of 76 police personnel in Dantewada in 2010 showed, and are accused by even the libertarians of terrorizing the locals into submission, the government has to ensure that its drive against the militants does not entail what is known as collateral damage.
As a result, not only is the use of the army ruled out; even the deployment of drones and helicopters to spot and strafe the insurgents in their jungle hideouts is discouraged. The security forces are also criticized when civilians, especially women and children, suffer casualties during an operation although, as has been suspected, the Maoists use them as human shields.
The standard refrain of the civil liberty groups is that the "basic" problem of deprivation of the adivasis has to be addressed first in order to deprive the Maoists of their source of support. But the ground reality is that the official agencies are unable to function freely in the 170-odd districts (out of India's 640) where the Maoist
writ prevails. As a result, development activity can neither be undertaken nor sustained.
True the Left extremists have been able to secure a foothold among the dispossessed because of the government's failure to improve their condition. Moreover, the charge against the ruling dispensation is that it allowed rapacious private sector mining companies to take over tribal land without paying adequate compensation.
But, even if the root cause of the Maoist uprising is acknowledged, the fact remains that, for the present, the insurgency will have to be crushed lest large parts of the countryside become the haunt of the outlaws. As the attack on the Congress convoy showed, it isn't possible to travel by road in these areas. This is the reason why
Chief Minister Raman Singh always uses a helicopter during his tours.
After the latest carnage, the Maoists may convince themselves that they are winning the "war" by "liberating" the countryside before attacking the towns, as Mao Zedong prescribed. But even their ardent supporters among the Left-leaning intelligentsia are unlikely to predict that they will finally be able to topple the Indian state.
In any case the nation will continue to be jolted by outbursts of sadistic violence by the rebels, as long as the government is hesitant about launching a concerted offensive after gathering the necessary intelligence about the whereabouts of the Marxists with the help of local informers and aerial surveillance.
The official diffidence is due to, first, its many difficulties, including shortage of trained police personnel equipped with sophisticated weapons. Secondly, a reluctance to offend the human rights groups because of their clout in intellectual circles, including the media. And, thirdly, an innate belief that insurgencies have a relatively short shelf-life in India, as can be seen from the fading out of militant outbreaks like the Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Khalistani uprising of the 1980s and the insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast.
There have also been elements within the Congress who favour a dialogue with the Maoists instead of an armed confrontation. The country has also had the misfortune of having a "spectacularly inept" home minister like Shivraj Patil (to quote Wikileaks) who discounted the Maoist threat by saying that more people died in road accidents than in insurgent attacks. The present home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, has also faced criticism for an extended stay in the US despite the Chhattisgarh massacre.