Congress leader Mahendra Karma, 62, had survived at least four attempts on his life by suspected Maoists. The fifth, on Saturday, proved fatal.
The rebels had been gunning for the powerful tribal leader of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region ever since he emerged at the forefront of Salwa Judum, the (now disbanded) anti-Naxalite vigilante movement.
Salwa Judum — Peace March or Purification Hunt in tribal Gondi language — saw young tribals in Chhattisgarh being armed with heavy weaponry to take on Maoists, most of whom are tribals.
The movement that started in 2005-06 was projected by its leading backers such as Karma as people’s resistance against Maoists.
The tribal versus tribal fight that played out in Chhattisgarh led to hundreds of killings and counter-killings before the Supreme Court ordered the state to disband Salwa Judum in 2011.
Karma, lauded by his supporters as “Bastar Tiger”, got Z plus category security because Maoists never gave up hunting him.
Born in the left wing extremism-hit Dantewada district of Bastar, he chose to support violent methods to beat Maoists at their own game.
After early attempts to kill him, Maoists made concerted efforts to target him in 2010, 2011 and last year. He narrowly escaped an ambush in Dantewada on November 8, 2012, after rebels triggered a landmine blast targeting his vehicle.
Chief minister Raman Singh condoled Karma’s death in the ambush. “He was a great fighter against Maoists. His fight will always be remembered,” the Bharatiya Janata Party leader added.
A combative leader, Karma was a minister in undivided Madhya Pradesh. After Chhattisgarh was carved out of MP in 2000, he became the industry and commerce minister of the new state.
After the Congress lost in the 2003 elections, he was made the leader of the opposition in the assembly. Karma lost the 2008 assembly elections.
Despite the loss, he remained a key figure for the Congress in conflict-ridden Bastar’s seven districts.
In the run-up to the assembly elections, due by December, Karma had taken a lead role in trying to win the support of tribals for the Congress.
Chhattisgarh is among the states worst affected by Maoist violence. Between 2008 and 2012, Maoists killed more than 400 troopers and 550 civilians in the state. During the same period, security personnel killed more than 300 Maoists.
The rebels, known as Naxalites, have been fighting the central government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers and the poor. They take their name from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari where the movement began in 1967.
The fighters were inspired by Chinese Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and have drawn support from displaced tribal populations opposed to corporate exploitation and official corruption.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Maoists India’s biggest internal security threat. According to the home ministry, Maoists are now present in 20 of India’s 28 states and have thousands of fighters.
The government has offered to begin peace talks with the rebels, but without success. The Maoists demand that the Centre first withdraw thousands of paramilitary soldiers deployed to fight them.
(With agency inputs)