India grapples with rising Maoist violence, fuelled by pandemic

Jatindra Dash and Rupam Jain
·3 min read
Security forces officers carry the body of a colleague, who was killed in an attack by Maoist fighters, during a wreath laying ceremony in Bijapur

By Jatindra Dash and Rupam Jain

BHUBANESWAR,India (Reuters) - Indian security forces have stepped up operations against ultra left-wing guerrillas deep in the forests of a mineral-rich central state after they killed 22 police in an ambush at the weekend, a top police officer said on Monday.

At least 30 other members of the security forces were wounded in a four-hour gun battle with Maoist rebels that erupted in Chhattisgarh state on Saturday, the deadliest ambush of its kind in four years..

"The operation will be intensified," said Om Prakash Pal, deputy inspector general of police who is leading the fight against the rebels in Chhattisgarh.

The Maoists, also known as Naxals, have waged an armed struggle against government forces for decades. They say they are fighting for the poor who have been left behind in India's economic boom.

Chhattisgarh, one of the fastest-developing states in India, has 28 varieties of major minerals, including diamonds and gold, a government website said. It has 16% of India's coal deposits and large reserves of iron ore and bauxite.

The Maoists, considered India's biggest internal security threat, operate in mineral-rich territory in the east and south of the country known as the "red corridor," which has shrunk in recent years because of heavy operations against them.

But last week some 400 guerrillas armed with grenades and automatic rifles attacked a police raiding party in the Bijapur district of Chattisgarh.

Pal said the rebels also suffered losses and local media reported that drone surveillance showed them taking away bodies.

"They are definitely trying to strengthen themselves but the forces put a lot of pressure on them. Now they are confined only to very few pockets. In their core area they are shrinking very fast," Pal told Reuters.

WELL-ARMED 'MAOIST MENACE'

Security experts say police forces need to be better equipped to deal with the guerrillas who are often as well-armed as they are. In the latest encounter, they carried rocket launchers, AK-47 assault rifles and under barrel grenade launchers.

India's Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday vowed to end the "Maoist menace" after paying homage to the dead security personnel and visiting a hospital to meet the injured.

"The government will not tolerate such bloodshed and a befitting response will be given. We will put an end to the ongoing battle with Maoists," Shah told reporters.

He also held a meeting with top security officials in the state to "realign strategy" to dismantle the nexus run by Maoist leaders, a close aide to Shah told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Uddipan Mukherjee, a joint director for government agency, the Ordnance Factory Board who has been tracking war strategy deployed by the Maoists for more than a decade said the pandemic had allowed the insurgency to recruit more members.

Others with expert knowledge agreed.

"We have intelligence reports that the Maoist leaders during the pandemic have managed to recruit hundreds of new foot soldiers, including women, living in the forests who leak details about security force patrols," a New Delhi-based bureaucrat who oversees country's internal security said.

(Additional reporting Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Barbara Lewis)