It would be tempting, but dangerous, to see the deadly ambush by Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district on Saturday as just a desperate act of a fading insurgent group. It must, instead, serve as a wake-up call for the security forces to beef up their standard operating procedures, especially intelligence-gathering capabilities, in the Maoist heartland in central India. Twelve personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in Sunday’s attack, and four others sustained injuries. A road-opening party of the CRPF’s 219 battalion was ambushed about 450 km from the State capital Raipur. The insurgents used improvised explosive devices, country-made mortars and arrows mounted with explosive heads, and made off with some weapons and radio sets of the force. Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha that extremist groups were restless because of the “unprecedented success of the forces against them” in 2016, especially in Chhattisgarh where there was a 15% drop in left-wing extremist incidents. However, the precision and scale of the attack are an indication that the Maoists continue to hold formidable sway in Sukma, their long-time stronghold. In 2013 they ambushed a convoy of Congress leaders in Sukma district, killing more than 25 persons, including former Union Minister V.C. Shukla.
There have been periodic Maoist attacks in the region. It is estimated that over the last two decades at least 15,000 people have been killed in Maoist-related violence. More than 3,000 of them were security personnel. And while violence is down from its peak in 2009-10, in 2016 official estimates put the toll at 213 civilians, 65 security force personnel and 89 Maoists. The government has over the past decade taken a patchy approach to bringing the so-called “red corridor” under its writ. The only presence of the state consistently visible across the region has been of the security forces, not of the civil administration. Counter-insurgency operations by the security forces have often been undermined by poor intelligence, flagging alertness of the security forces and the absence of a multi-layered political strategy. The Maoists do not survive merely on ideology; they have a well-oiled machinery providing protection to various interest groups in the absence of a robust state responsive to the security and welfare needs of the civilian population. Ultimately, any fight against non-state actors will be effective only when the state puts forward its combined might to exhibit what it can — and indeed must — provide to the people.