The attack is an embarrassment for Maharashtra’s new Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan, who only last month tried to convince Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Naxal activity was declining in his state due to better policing. Speaking at a meeting of the chief ministers of Naxal-troubled states, Chavan had also claimed success in curbing Naxal activity in two neighbouring districts of Gondia and Chandrapur, long the hub of Naxal terror in Maharashtra.
Chavan’s claims may have some value. According to Maharashtra’s Additional Director-General of Police Pankaj Gupta, who heads the state’s anti-Naxal operations, the Naxals have killed 50 policemen in Gadhchiroli since 2005. Compared with this, the nearby district of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh saw more than 70 policemen killed just last year. “This is a one-off incident, a desperate effort by the Naxals to prove their existence,” says Gupta. He claimed the attackers were not from Maharashtra but from Chhatisgarh.
"[O]ne-off incident" indeed:
This region falls in what the Naxals call their “liberated zone”, which covers several districts in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. While the Naxals are quite potent in Chhattisgarh, their violence has come down considerably in Andhra Pradesh, where the police killed many of their leaders in 2005, and in Maharashtra, where 150 Naxals surrendered before the police last year. Said Gadhchiroli Superintendent of Police (SP) Rajesh Pradhan: “Despite a few incidents we have managed to stop the Naxals from expanding the area of their influence.”
A ride through the country, however, tells a different story from the police version. A board boldly declares ‘Red Salute to the Martyrs’ outside a village named Saawargaon, near the encounter site. Villagers huddling in a roadside shack reluctantly admit they fear both the Naxals and the police, and have faced the brunt of both. “The Naxals force us to cook for them and give them shelter,” villager Buddhesingh Naitab told TEHELKA. “If we refuse, they cut off our limbs. But if we help the Naxals, the police arrest us. What do we do?” Three years ago, the police picked up Naitab and his wife accusing him of working for the Naxals. Although they filed no charges, they kept them in custody for one year. Villagers allege the police have detained 250 local people since the February 1 killings. The police, however, deny the charge.
Needless to say, even leaving aside Naxalite coercion, the sort of police brutality Tehelka cites will ensure that the insurgency will not lack for support or recruits.