The killing of 15 policemen at Markegaon village in Gadchiroli district on Sunday — reports said many had their eyes gouged out and limbs cut off — is clearly an attempt by the Naxalites of the region to regain lost ground.
“The needless savagery was purely intended to terrorise,” said a senior local policeman. “It was a message to the locals, specially the informers, warning them of the fate that awaits if they are ever caught helping the state against the Naxalites in any way.”
The Naxalite movement in this region, though persisting for the past two-and-a-half decades, has seen repeated setbacks in the last two years. The roughly 40 square km of ‘liberated area’ on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border where the Naxalite writ alone ran two years ago, has shrunk to less than half. And a host of senior leaders of the movement in Maharashtra have been arrested or killed.
It started with the arrest of two top leaders, Murali Satya Reddy and Arun Ferriera in Nagpur in 2006. This in turn led to the capture of two other top ideologues from Mumbai — Vernon Gonsalves and Sridhar Srinivas.
With Naxalite camps in the region being pinpointed and raided, following the arrest of these key activists, around 250 Naxalite workers, including some dalam (squad) commanders, surrendered to the police last year. Another major setback followed last Friday when 15 Naxalites, including two dalam commanders, were captured near Bhamragarh in South Gadchiroli.
Despite the Markegaon attack, the scale of Naxalite violence in Gadchiroli and surrounding districts has been comparatively less than in other Naxal affected states like Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Jharkhand. But the ruthlessness and stunning success of this attack shows that the Naxalites are still far from beaten.
Besides the conditions of backwardness and poverty that drew Naxalites to the region in the first place, remain. The Madia Gond tribals, who form the bulk of the population in this forested area, still eke out a primitive existence through subsistence farming or tendu leaf (used for making bidis) collection.
While they do inspire terror among the locals too, there is no doubt that the Naxalites have indeed forced the tendu leaf contractors, for instance, to pay better wages. (They also pay substantial sums as protection money to the Naxalites.) Even a report submitted by a Planning Commission appointed group in March last year acknowledged the Naxalite contribution to helping the marginalized sections secure a better deal. It noted how Naxalites had implemented land reforms, and forced the rich and powerful to observe at least the existing laws, which they otherwise ignored. It noted how the policy changes in the name of economic reform of the past two decades had actually worsened the conditions of the bulk of tribals and landless.
The Naxalites, who believe in violent overthrow of the state and have absolutely no compunctions about the means they use have to be neutralized, but the conditions that enable them to flourish need to be eradicated as well.