Maoist rebels kill 75 Indian police
Victims ambushed at dawn in thick forest in Chhattisgarh
Jason Burke, South Asia correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 6 April 2010 11.52 BST
Maoist rebels exercise at a base in the Abujh Marh forests, Chattisgarh, in 2007. Photograph: Mustafa Quraishi/AP
At least 75 paramilitary policemen were killed in a dawn ambush by Maoist rebels in thick forest in central India today. The loss was one of the worst in a single attack by the insurgents in many years and highlights the increasingly serious problem extremist leftwing violence poses to the country.
Several hundred fighters from the Communist party of India (Maoist) appeared to have used mines and small arms against a unit of 120 men from the central reserve police force.
The force was taking part in a months-long operation in the central state of Chhattisgarh aimed at re-establishing state authority in thousands of square miles of territory now under the sway of the insurgents. This year has seen a series of such attacks though the latest is by far the most ambitious and deadly.
"Something has gone very wrong," the Indian home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said. "They seem to have walked into a trap."
The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who has recently described the Maoists as the greatest internal security threat currently facing his country, described his shock.
B Raman, a former senior policeman and intelligence operative, said that it would "go down as a black day" in the history of India's counter-insurgency efforts. "It is a very serious incident. It shows above all the level of popular support the Maoists have in that area, especially if the strength of the ambush force was as high as is thought," Raman told the Guardian.
Although government officials, police and alleged "informers" are often among their targets, Maoists also regularly attack rail lines and factories. A statement from a captured Maoist leader released to media a few weeks ago revealed how the group extorts hundreds of millions of pounds from local companies every year.
The insurgents largely operate in remote areas where strategically important and precious resources such as bauxite, uranium, iron ore and diamonds are found. "The growing activities of Maoists are threatening iron ore mining," said Ashok Surana, head of a leading industrial body, Mini Steel Plant Association. They are also known as Naxalites, after Naxalbari, a village in the state of West Bengal where their movement was born in 1967 in a heady mix of rural protest and urban ideology.
A first wave of agitation was crushed in the early 1970s. Since then violence has mounted as the Maoists exploit resentment among very poor, marginalised rural communities which have not benefited from India's recent economic growth.
"There is a lot of exploitation, poverty, land loss and alienation," said Raman.
Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of "tribal" or adivasi communities. They are now present in nearly a third of India's 630 districts. The rebels carried out more than 1,000 attacks last year, killing more than 600 people.
GK Pillai, a senior interior ministry official, said last month that the campaign against the Maoists would take 10 years at least. He said the hardest fighting was still to come. Yesterday Pillai promised "much firmer action".