Monday, May 27, 2013

India's Maoists - A new terror

LATE in the afternoon, a long convoy of vehicles, lightly guarded, trailed along a narrow road in the bush. Crammed with Congress politicians—currently the opposition in Chhattisgarh state, though part of the ruling party nationally—the cars contained most of the party's state leadership returning from a campaign rally. Whether from complacency, or ineptitude, the convoy was poorly secured as it passed through an area known for activity by India's violent Maoist, or Naxalite, movement.
A few weeks earlier the extreme leftists, who claim to fight on behalf of tribal people and for a forthcoming Communist revolution, had spread leaflets in the area, opposing the Congress campaign. The cars were packed together, making a single, juicy target. Few police or other security men were present. One of the first cars reportedly hit a landmine, before a group of attackers—numbered variously at between 150 and over 1,000—opened fire from a hillside, with small arms. The few close-protection police in the convoy reported that their own weapons jammed, or else they quickly ran out of ammunition. Some politicians and their advisers attempted to flee, or play dead. Some begged, successfully, for their lives. But the Maoists, reportedly guided by a local woman, rounded up targets chosen for execution, leading them into nearby trees to be shot.

At least 29 people were killed in the massacre on May 25th. That the victims were politicians out campaigning, and that so many civilians were killed in one go, marks a change from previous, even bloodier, battles with paramilitary and police forces. The main target, Mahendra Karma (pictured above), may have represented—in the eyes of Maoists at least—a semi-legitimate figure for attack. A notorious political figure in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh, he had been a Communist in his youth, but switched to be a Congress parliamentarian and was accused of complicity with corrupt firms that plundered the state’s tribal areas for their forests and mineral wealth. Most important, he was the man most responsible for starting a vigilante force in 2005, arming tribal villagers to attack Maoists. That force, Salwa Judum, led to tens of thousands of tribal people being displaced and hundreds of villages evacuated. It led to the violent division of the Bastar region, with civilians abused by both the Maoists and the government’s security forces; they were suspected by both sides. Mr Karma was despised by many, and eventually his vigilante group was found to be responsible for widespread abuse, including rapes, murder and arson in the villages and inside the fortified resettlement camps that been established for the villagers, as in a war zone. Salwa Judum was ordered to disarm by the Supreme Court in 2011, but by then it had already come to be seen as a hated failure, an example of how not to conduct counter-insurgency. It almost certainly encouraged more people to join the Maoists.

Mr Karma’s death might have been understood at a popular level. But the murders at the same time of the state’s Congress leader, and his son, both of whom were led into the brush and shot dead, spread revulsion. Other victims were found to have been beaten, stabbed and otherwise tortured before being shot. An octogenarian Congress leader, a former cabinet minister of India, Vidya Charan Shukla, was shot three times, but somehow survived and was taken to hospital alive.
For the Maoists this marks a new, unwelcome shift in method. "This was not class war, it was murder," said a former bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. Presenting themselves as an army, the Maoists had previously been relatively judicious in sparing civilians during battles (though individuals are also picked out for punishment or exemplary killings—for example, if they are suspected of being informants). Such a deliberate massacre, of over two-dozen unarmed civilian men looks to be a kind of first for the movement, and an attack that has united many in horror and anger. Previous attacks which killed even greater numbers, notably the bombing of an express train in 2010, were marked by their indiscriminate style.

Rahul Gandhi, the scion of Congress's dynasty, rushed to Chhattisgarh on the night of the murders. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, and the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, followed the next day. They, along with politicians of other parties, branded the assault as an attack on democracy itself. It now seems likely that politicians will agree on a tough, perhaps brutal, response by security forces. It may come within weeks, ahead of monsoon rains that typically come before July.
On May 27th the way from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, to Jagdalpur seemed subdued. There were funerals for some of the victims and the day before there had been a one-day protest strike. Analysts in Chhattisgarh and in Delhi were struggling to grasp what the Maoists might hope to gain by the new form of bloodshed. It may represent an effort by the extremists to prove, in the face of their apparently declining military effectiveness in recent years, and some successes by Indian government forces, that they remain a potent force. Another theory is that a young faction within the larger and relatively disciplined Maoist army perpetrated the massacre to demonstrate its ruthlessness to elder leaders.

The consequences of the attack will unfold in the coming months. The state is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had expected to be returned to power after state elections that are likely to be held in November. Victory at that time, with possibly three more in other states, could have served as a start for national elections in 2014. But now a sympathy push for Congress, which may field relatives of the slain as candidates, is quite possible. And doubts have been raised about the competence of the BJP's long-ruling government in the state.

More broadly the nature of the Maoists’ attack raises anxiety that old restraint may fall away, perhaps in other states, such as Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha and West Bengal. Attacks on local politicians may be followed by similar assaults on national ones. A rural assault may be followed by urban ones. The Maoists have marked a new move, one that seems to signal more bloodshed to come. By Banyan for The Economist

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