The many mistakes that lead to the Naxal ambush

Last Updated: Mon, May 27, 2013 00:12 hrs

Saturday's ambush of the Congress' "Parivartan Yatra" by a battalion of Naxalites in Chhattisgarh was one of the most audacious such attacks in some time. At around three in the afternoon in Sukma, in the remote south of the state's Bastar district, a convoy of party members including several senior state leaders was ambushed by as many as 150 members of the militant organisation, according to local police. 

At least 27 people have been killed, including 10 policemen and former state home minister Mahendra Karma, instrumental in setting up the controversial and state-backed anti-Naxal militia known as the Salwa Judum that the Supreme Court in July 2011 had declared illegal and unconstitutional. 

Several other local Congress leaders were also killed, including the party's state president; the octogenarian Vidya Charan Shukla, information and broadcasting minister during Indira Gandhi's Emergency, was among the dozens of wounded. Concerns have rightly been expressed that this attack, like similar ambushes in the past of better-armoured convoys of police, followed a disregard of various aspects of standard operating procedure - for example, vehicles bunched up too close together, and senior leaders travelling together in the same vehicle and returning from a destination the same way as they went. 

Nevertheless, it seems that it was a security failure of considerable proportions.

It also shows that the Naxalites have good reason to fear democratic mobilisation. While some have argued that the sole purpose of the attack was to assassinate the founder of the Salwa Judum, that is not a tenable argument given the scale and location of the attack, and the number of casualties. 

Clearly, the recent decrease in deaths due to left-wing extremism being trumpeted by state and central governments was a mirage; it now appears that it could well have been the consequence of the state abandoning its quest to reclaim large tracts of areas held by the self-proclaimed revolutionaries. If the normal process of electioneering, the central right of citizens in a democracy, is carried out under threat, then that right is effectively denied - and all other rights, too, since they flow from democratic participation.

Part of the reason that the Indian state has failed to effectively confront the Naxalite groups in the past three years was painfully evident in the hours after news of the attack reached India's cities. It quickly became an occasion for politicisation: the Congress blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Chhattisgarh for not providing enough security, and the BJP responded that the Congress has long been too sympathetic to the Naxalites. 

Meanwhile, some in civil society searched for justifications for such violence in the often-reprehensible behaviour of state representatives in the area.

Both attitudes are partly responsible for the state's inability to effectively recover its suzerainty over Naxalite-dominated reaches of India's tribal hinterland. 

On the one hand, dysfunctional and politicised Centre-state relations even in matters of national security have severely hit police co-ordination and the operating efficiency of central paramilitaries. 

On the other hand, the government in New Delhi has not pushed as hard as it could have, given the belief of some in civil society and in the Congress that the Naxalites are merely "misguided". 

It must now be accepted that such violence is unprincipled and will not be held in abeyance for politics-as-usual. The only real long-term answer is to increase access of those in deprived areas to the benefits of inclusive growth. That will require, however, a greater effort to restore the rule of law than has been seen hitherto.

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