Insurgency-hit Chhattisgarh is one of the five states where Assembly elections will be held in November-December. As the state gears up for the two-phase polls on 12 and 20 November, tensions have been on the rise, with Maoists issuing warnings against voting, election booths being set up in villages for the first time in 20 years, and alliances between formed between regional and national parties.
The conflict between security forces and the insurgents in Chhattisgarh is likely to escalate ahead of the polls, with both sides dialing up the pressure in terms of the strength of the forces and cadre, as well as arms and ammunition. In Naxal strongholds such as Bastar and Dantewada, security personnel, including jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have been deployed aplenty.
The government and police are expected to be on the highest alert in the run-up to the elections as insurgents have threatened to disrupt voting. Despite precaution, a Maoist attack on a Doordarshan crew and a convoy of police personnel on 30 October resulted in the death of the DD cameraperson, Achutyanand Sahu, and three policemen. They were attacked around Nilwaya village in the Aranpur area of Dantewada district. Another attack was also reported in Bacheli, where five people, including two Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel, were killed.
However, in a letter dated 2 November, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) expressed regret for Sahu’s death and said “journalists were not enemies, but friends”. Sainath of the CPI (Maoist)’s Darbha Divisional Committee said: “…There are daily attacks on villages; villagers are killed in fake encounters; they are slapped with fake cases, and fake surrenders are orchestrated. In this environment, work began on 1 October to build a road connecting Aranpur to Burgum. To protest this development, we ambushed a police unit on 30 October.”
The Dantewada incident not only highlights the significance of the elections being held at Maoist hotbeds, but is also a chilling reminder of the Darbha Valley massacre in 2013, in which much of the Chhattisgarh Congress’ top leadership of the time was wiped out.
At least 27 people were killed in the Naxal attack in May 2013, only a few months before the Assembly elections at the time.
In a planned operation, the insurgents had ambushed and killed several Chhattisgarh Congress leaders, including state secretary Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh, former Union minister VC Shukla and former state minister Mahendra Karma.
The Congress leaders were on their way from Sukma to Jagdalpur after a rally, which was part of the party’s ‘Parivartan Yatra’, when the attack took place. They had passed through insurgency-affected areas during the march.
Former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, who was a Congress leader at the time, had also been scheduled to travel with the convoy, but had changed his plan at the last minute and decided to travel by helicopter.
The attack is believed to have been carried out with the signature simplicity Maoists used in past strikes. The militants used the thick forested area of the Bastar-Sukma border to their benefit and laid an ambush.
After ambushing the convoy, they detonated an IED to create a crater and cut off the convoy’s escape route. Once the vehicles slowed down, the Naxals opened indiscriminate fire on the Congress leaders.
Mahendra Karma was the real target
Mahendra Karma had been on the Maoist hit-list ever since he led the controversial anti-Naxal operation “Salwa Judum” in Chhattisgarh.
An The Indian Express report from 2013 said: “Evidence indicates that rather than an attack to eliminate top Congress leaders, the Maoists’ target was only two — Pradesh Congress Committee chief Nand Kumar Patel and Salwa Judum architect Mahendra Karma. All the others probably died in the crossfire, as Maoists later let the survivors go. They even gave water to some, including Konta MLA Kawasi Lakhma, and administered a painkiller injection to Congress leader Dr Shivnarain Dwivedi.”
Patel and his son were reported missing, and their bullet-ridden bodies were found in the forest area the next day. Shukla is believed to have succumbed to his injuries on 11 June, 2013.
A report in Hindustan Times described how the militants had celebrated Karma’s death. Karma had surrendered to the insurgents after his security personnel ran out of ammunition.
The report quoted Sattar Ali, a Congress leader from Konta in Sukma, as saying: “We were terrified and shocked to see the Maoists singing and dancing after killing Karma. They also trampled over his bullet-riddled body.”
“Karma raised his arms, surrendered before the Maoists and appealed to them not to kill any Congress workers. They dragged him a few metres and indiscriminately pumped bullets into him,” he added.
Conspiracy theory against Ajit Jogi
Soon after the incident, The Times of India reported that the Madhya Pradesh BJP had accused Jogi “as the one who had a hand in the ‘conspiracy'” of the Darbha Valley attack. Narendra Singh Tomar, the then Madhya Pradesh BJP president, made the accusation on 31 May, 2013.
Even current Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was among the BJP leaders who had supported Tomar’s allegation. The report quoted BJP leader Rakesh Singh as highlighting that “Jogi always said Maoism was a ‘social movement’ to scuttle all internal security operations” and demanding an investigation into his role “in this conspiracy”.
In May, Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited Chhattisgarh on the anniversary of the Darbha Valley attack. He tweeted: “Five years ago, on this day, I lost my friend Nand Kumar Patel in a frightening Naxal attack in Chhattisgarh. Senior leaders VC Shukla ji, Mahendra Karma Ji and many others, lost their lives and were injured… All these patriots gave their lives for the country. We salute their valour and courage.”
The threat of Maoists is bound to make the elections in Chhattisgarh a tense affair. It now remains to be seen what the insurgents have planned for the polls and whether the state and security forces are prepared to tackle them.