The killing of Mallojula Koteshwar Rao, known as Kishenji, at the hands of counterinsurgency security forces in the Burisole forests of West Bengal's West Midnapore district may be a setback to the Maoist movement but it gives no cause to rejoice. The circumstances of the killing raise several questions. Was it really an encounter in the forests, as the security forces claim, or was he executed after being captured? If it was indeed an encounter, the Maoist leader battling security forces by himself with the AK47 found by his body, could he have been apprehended alive? In some ways, Kishenji's death recalls the dubious circumstances in which another Maoist leader, Cherukuri Rajkumar, known as Azad, was killed in Andhra Pradesh in July 2010, along with journalist Hemachandra Pandey. On the Supreme Court's intervention, the CBI is conducting a probe into that killing. The doubts about Kishenji's killing also warrant an impartial investigation. After all, the killing came at a time when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, through interlocutors, was exploring the possibility of talks. Even though a one-month long ceasefire in West Bengal had ended after the Maoists killed two Trinamool members, setting off a full-fledged operation in the State earlier this month, the interlocutors, on instructions from the Chief Minister, were trying to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table. Angered by Kishenji's killing, five of the six interlocutors have quit causing a setback to those efforts.
That Azad was killed at a time when the central government was contemplating a ceasefire and talks with the Maoists may be a coincidence. But there is no escaping the reality that over and above being a threat to security, the Maoist insurgency is a political question that needs political answers. It cannot be wished away with heavy-handed security operations. Its call to arms against the Indian state has drawn followers from the poorest, the most deprived, the most exploited sections of the people. As insurgents whose war is waged among the people, the Maoists have built a reputation for savage violence that has been unsparing of combatants and civilians alike, and sometimes deliberately put civilian lives at risk from the security forces. But they will continue to find supporters as long as there are people who feel excluded from the country's politics and its economic policies. Kishenji was successful in building up what was described, with some exaggeration, as a ‘second Naxalbari' in Lalgarh, and in organising people in Nandigram and Singur, precisely because he was able to tap into people's anger at economic policies that were perceived as unjust. His killing deprives the Maoist movement of a leader, but not the causes that sustain it.