In ambushing a Congress party convoy in Chhattisgarh and brutally killing 24 people, including senior leaders Mahendra Karma and Nand Kumar Patel, the Maoists have demonstrated their willingness to escalate the conflict in Bastar regardless of its consequences for ordinary people in the region. Mr. Karma, who became the public face of the violent anti-Maoist Salwa Judum movement that was initiated by the local police with Central and State government support in 2005, was a controversial figure. Indeed, the well-documented excesses committed by the movement led the Supreme Court to insist the Judum be disbanded. His killing was not unexpected, which is why he had been given Z-plus security, but was always likely to invite a major counter-attack by the security forces that would affect ordinary villagers as much as it would Maoist fighters. In going after Mr. Karma, the Maoists have demonstrated not just a lack of concern for those who will soon be caught up in combing operations but also that they have learnt nothing from their past attacks on political figures like Chandrababu Naidu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Attacks on politicians always matter more to the ruling establishment than attacks on security forces. In both Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, these assassination attempts marked the beginning of the end for the Maoists.
Whether seen as an assault on the Salwa Judum, the Congress, or on the combined might of the State and Central governments, the latest killings will only worsen the situation in Chhattisgarh. Far from strengthening the democratic forces working for peace and equitable development in the Adivasi areas, Saturday’s attack is likely to end up being used by sections of the political establishment to push for larger, more lethal operations by the paramilitary forces and the police. For this very reason, the Central and State governments must guard against a heavy-handed response. Purely military operations will only increase alienation and reduce intelligence gathering even more than is already the case. Indeed, the attack raises many questions about the effectiveness of the money and manpower being deployed so far. The BJP-run State government — which has spent crores of rupees on the ruling party’s Vikas Yatra — must also face uncomfortable questions about why it was the Opposition rally which has faced the brunt of the Maoist attack. If the Central and State governments are not careful, the ambush could result in the spiralling of violence in the region. Violence must always be turned into an opportunity to push for peace, and never as an excuse to use the armed might of the State on hapless villagers living in fear of both the Maoists and the security personnel.