A heavily armed mob of Maoist rebels ambushed and killed 73 Indian policemen in one of their jungle strongholds in central India on Tuesday, sparking concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s massive counterinsurgency operation launched against the rebels last year.
This is believed to be the worst attack ever from the leftist guerrillas, who have a presence in 22 of 28 states and pose one of India’s greatest threats to security.
“The casualty is very high, and I am deeply shocked at the loss of lives,” said P Chidambaram, India’s home minister. “This shows the savage nature of [the rebels] and the brutality and the savagery they are capable of.”
India’s Maoist insurgents, also called Naxalites – after Naxalbari in the state of West Bengal, where the armed rebellion was first launched by local communists in 1967 – claim to champion the rights of India’s poor and disenfranchised tribal population. Many activists claim their violence is motivated by socioeconomic deprivation.
They were once dismissed by India’s political class as a ragtag rural insurgency. But last September Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called them the country’s “biggest internal security threat.” According to official estimates, the Naxalites have seized nearly a third of India’s land, setting up parallel governments. In recent years they have attacked police forces, hijacked trains, and carried out beheadings. Last year they rejected government overtures for a cease-fire and negotiations.
Calls for retaliation
The rebuff came even after the government mobilized nearly 100,000 troops late last year to launch Operation Greenhunt to try to seize 40,000 square kilometers of Maoist-controlled territory and to capture “dead or alive” 20 top rebel leaders and 30 commanders who operate mainly in the remote and often inaccessible jungles of central India with some 12,000 gun-toting rebels. The government has been tightlipped about its progress so far.
Tuesday’s killings provoked angry reactions from military analysts and opposition politicians, who are asking the government to retaliate strongly.
“Killing 73 … police personnel in a short span of time in a single battle is no longer subliminal violence,” Nitin Pai, editor of the monthly “Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review,” wrote in a blog post.
“In all likelihood the Naxalites have crossed a threshold – this incident is likely to stay much longer in the public mind and increase the pressure on politicians to tackle the Naxalite threat with greater resolve.”
“This was a ghastly attack…a senseless bloodbath,” Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesperson for the opposition Bharatiya Janta Party, told reporters. “There is a war within and the entire country is affected by it. The entire nation is furious over the incidents. We have to hit them hard.”