The killing of 55 security personnel by Maoist insurgents in a remote camp in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region is the most devastating attack by left wing extremists in the State in recent times. The deadly pre-dawn assault carried out by an estimated 300 to 400 rebels armed with grenades and petrol bombs is the fourth by Maoists on police and paramilitary personnel in 2007. In January, seven Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device when on patrol; in February, six security force personnel perished in a powerful landmine explosion in the Bijapur area; and in early March, this month, another landmine took the lives of four members of the Nagaland Armed Forces and two policemen on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border. An analysis of the data compiled by the Institute of Conflict Management reveals that security personnel are much more vulnerable to Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh than elsewhere. In 2005, 49 members of security forces were killed in the State (as against 29 in Bihar and 27 in Jharkhand); the corresponding figure for 2006 was 55 (as against 5 in Bihar and 47 in Jharkhand).

With a forest cover of 44 per cent and the presence of a tribal population of 32.5 per cent that has been denied its share of development, Chhattisgarh has for long provided fertile ground for the naxalite movement to take root in. However, the last three years have seen a marked increase in Maoist activity. It is a result of at least three factors. First, the consolidation of the Maoists after the September 2004 merger between the People's War and the Maoist Communist Centre of India. Secondly, the `ceasefire' that operated in 2004-2005 in Andhra Pradesh between the State government and the Maoists allowed them to expand their influence in the neighbourhood. Finally, the Chhattisgarh government's inept policies in dealing with the naxalite challenge, highlighted by the hugely flawed Salwa Judum (`purification hunt') campaign. This state-led mobilisation of tribals against the Maoists served only to expose innocent tribals to the wrath of the extremists, displacing large numbers from their villages. The campaign, which was suspended in 2006, exposed the folly of instigating people to fight against extremists without effectively protecting them. The point to remember is that Maoist extremism feeds on popular discontent relating to vital livelihood issues. While it is necessary to tackle the menace with a firm hand, any long-term solution must go deep into the socio-economic circumstances that provide extremists space and opportunities to disrupt normal life and commit anti-human atrocities.