Questions Raised Over Intended Target of Maoist Attack

(The New York Times blog)

Mustafa Quraishi/Associated Press

Mahendra Karma, center, surrounded by bodyguards at his residence in Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh, on Apr. 15, 2007.

NEW DELHI— On May 25, a convoy of cars carrying senior leaders of the Congress Party and others was attacked by the Maoist guerrillas in southern Chhattisgarh in central India. It was one of the most audacious attacks by the Maoists, who now work under one umbrella group called the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

One of the 25 who were killed was a man the Maoists had been trying to hunt down for years. In 2006, Mahendra Karma of the Congress Party founded Salwa Judum (which in the local tribal language means “purification hunt”), an anti-Maoist militia made up of young tribal men. But instead of inflicting significant damage on the Maoists, the group ended up isolating the tribal population further after its cadre recklessly killed innocent people and looted and plundered villages, resulting in the displacement of over 150,000 people. Over the years, Mr. Karma had escaped many assassination attempts. But this time, the Maoists got him.

Sanjeev Gupta/European Pressphoto Agency
Wreckage of a vehicle at the site of the Maoist attack on a Congress
Party convoy in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on Sunday.
But what was really surprising about the attack was the way another Congress leader, Nand Kumar Patel, was targeted. The National Investigation Agency said that according to survivors, the Maoists took Mr. Patel and his son Dinesh hostage after tying their hands, and then shot them in a little forest clearing. The Congress Party general secretary Digvijaya Singh said in a post on his personal blog that the rebels had been looking for Mr. Patel in this particular attack and had not been expecting the presence of Mr. Karma, but he didn’t say where he had gotten this information.

A few days after the killings, however, the Maoists released a statement saying that their main target was Mr. Karma but they also sought to kill Mr. Patel, along with Mr. Karma, because Mr. Patel had been the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, which governed Chhattisgarh at the time he sent paramilitary forces to root out Maoists. They added that Mr. Patel had a “history of suppressing the people.”

But the question is: if that was the case, why was Mr. Patel never the target of such attacks before? Mr. Patel has had no history of rancor with the Maoists. In fact, he was among the few politicians in Chhattisgarh who were not seen as hawkish on the issue of dealing with the Maoists.

While conspiracy theories floated around in the state capital Raipur, Mr. Singh, in the same blog post, raised questions over the killing of Mr. Patel. “Why were they looking for Nand Kumar Patel, who was apparently not a supporter of Salwa Judum and who had been consistently opposing the police atrocities on tribals in Bastar? Why did they kill him and his son?” Mr. Singh asked.

A day after the blog post, the central government minister for tribal affairs, K.C. Singh Deo, alleged that some politicians and corporate houses could be “in tandem” with the Maoists.

While the truth behind Mr. Patel’s killing may take some time to appear, Mr. Deo has some basis for his allegations, since in Maoist areas many local government officials connive with the Maoists to siphon off government funds. In fact, the nexus between politicians and Maoists is quite old. In Andhra Pradesh, where the majority of senior Maoist cadre comes from, politicians have piggybacked to power on Maoist support. In 1982, the popular Telugu actor-turned-politician N.T. Rama Rao won the state’s chief minister post after calling the Maoists “Desh Bhaktalu” (patriots). But once he assumed his position, he went after them.

In 1989, the Congress Party snatched power from him by repeating the same formula: declare Maoists as patriots and use their popularity to win elections. This trend continued for many years.

Courtesy of Rahul Pandita

A Maoist camp on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in Aug. 2010.

In the Maoist-affected state of Jharkhand, bordering Chhattisgarh, it is widely believed that in many areas, one cannot win an election without shaking hands with the Maoists. In caste-ridden Bihar, 
Maoists have received political patronage for decades.

In the recent times, this murky association has come to fore in West Bengal as well. In a newspaper interview in April 2009, the Maoist leader known as Kishenji admitted that the rebels had sided with the mainstream leftist party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), in 2000 in West Bengal to fight another political party, Trinamool Congress. The guerrilla leader revealed that he had personally collected 5,000 cartridges from the Communist Party office to be used against the Trinamool Congress.

But in 2009, the tide turned. This time, the Maoists turned against the governing party and established liberated zones in the Lalgarh area of the state. This time, they had the support of Trinamool Congress.

In 2011, the Trinamool Congress snatched away West Bengal from the Communists, which had governed the state for more than three decades, and the seats in the Maoist-affected areas played a vital role in that victory. Immediately after winning the elections, the Trinamool chief, Mamata Banerjee, turned against the Maoists, and in November same year, Mr. Kishenji was killed near Lalgarh by security forces. Her own senior party member, Kabir Suman, spilled the beans about her ties with the rebels by writing in his book an account of how Ms. Banerjee had met two senior Maoist leaders.

More recently, the Home Department of the Maharashtra state government has cautioned that Maoist leaders and their supporters may have been elected to panchayats, local village-level governing councils.
The politicians know how to use the Maoists in their areas of influence to their advantage. The Maoists may not believe in democracy, but they know that it is important to keep ties with politicians for short- and long-term gains. In public, both ridicule each other. But sadly, in this nexus, it is the innocent people who ultimately drown in the cesspool this nexus creates.

Rahul Pandita is an author, more recently of “Our Moon Has Blood Clots.” He works with the newsweekly Open. Follow him on Twitter @rahulpandita

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