x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Attack by Maoists holds lessons for India's democracy

Responding to a spate of politically motivated killings by Maoists will be a challenge, but could also be an opportunity, for India.

The Gandhi family and the Congress Party are naturally acutely sensitive to the dangers of assassination. Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards in 1984, and her son Rajiv was assassinated in 1991, after the ruling party of the day had limited his security cover.

So both Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul, a likely candidate to be prime minister next year, were aghast at the May 25 massacre by Maoist guerrillas of top Congress leaders of Chhattisgarh state in Central India. Nearly 30 people, including top local Congress leaders, died.

Sonia Gandhi demanded that state chief minister, Raman Singh, explain why adequate security hadn't been provided to the Congress party convoy that was attacked. Rahul accused the state leadership of a serious failure of intelligence.

Other Congress leaders pointed fingers at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), asking why the guerrillas had targeted only Congress figures. With Chhattisgarh holding state elections in November, politicisation of the deaths is probably inevitable.

The Danda Karanya Special Zone Committee, a Maoist guerrilla faction that claimed responsibility for the killings, has said that Congress leader Mahendra Karma was targeted because in 2005 he had helped set up Salwa Judum, a vigilante organisation of local tribal people, to combat Maoist tribal groups.

The Supreme Court shut down Salwa Judum in 2011, but before that Karma had become the face of the horrors of the vigilante group in the region's little civil war. Ironically, he was backed by Raman Singh, now the state's chief minister.

Ordinary tribal villagers, inducted into Salwa Judum as special police officers, were pitted against tribal Maoist fighters. Entire villages were sometimes burnt down by Salwa Judum activists if residents refused to inform on their Maoist brothers. Rape was a weapon of choice. Chhattisgarh slid quickly to the bottom of the human rights scale.

Mr Singh claimed to be fighting fire with fire, but allowed Mr Karma to become the public face of the movement. It ended up destroying Karma's political base in Chhattisgarh's mineral-rich Bastar district, where the Maoists were strongest. A former state minister, Karma subsequently lost every election he contested. In the meantime, the BJP filled the political vacuum.

At the time of his death, Karma was said to have become a reformed man. After the Supreme Court's strictures against Salwa Judum, he returned to old-fashioned politics. Along with the Congress president in the state, Nand Kumar Patel (and his son Dinesh, both of whom were also killed by the Maoists last month), Karma had been touring Chhattisgarh extensively, organising rallies and holding street-corner meetings.

The state Congress leadership was on a "change rally" across Bastar on May 25 when their convoy was targeted by Maoists hiding in the jungle near by. The handful of security men protecting the Congress convoy returned fire, but soon ran out of ammunition. That's when the Maoists emerged from hiding, identified Karma and riddled him with bullets. Nand and Dinesh Patel were taken away. Their bodies were discovered the next day.

The Maoists who claimed responsibility said the Congress officials had been killed in revenge for an attack on the Maoists a few weeks previously, in which three children were among the dead. The whole state was a legitimate target, the rebels said - because it connived with corrupt contractors to deprive the local population of a share in the region's rich resources, because most jobs go to outsiders, because there are very few schools for tribal children, and because officials and the political class have no interest in improving the lot of the tribal communities.

This Maoist narrative has held for a long time, primarily because much of it has, unfortunately, been true. India's tribal peoples have largely been left behind by the rest of the country. This has happened because these animist, aboriginal communities have little in common with mainstream Hindus, Christians and Muslims, and development in their areas has come in fits and starts; when it has come it has often been accompanied by serious corruption and by violence.

Recently, though, many tribal communities across the Indian heartland have begun to take the view that they are victims of Maoist-sponsored violence as much as state violence and ill-treatment. Democracy has not been able to separate the heavy hand of the state from the extreme violence and retributive politics of the Maoists. Chhattisgarh's tribal areas are a rich and fertile region cursed by violence.

Following the May 25 massacre, the government has said that it will not give up its two-pronged strategy to contain Maoists: police work and continued efforts to bring development, services and control of resources to tribal peoples.

The question now is whether the killings have become a new tipping point in the development of democratic politics, and whether political parties will learn the right lessons. In India's increasingly fractious political atmosphere, those are big questions.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi