The Maoists may have signed their own death warrant by carrying out the massacre at Dantewada in Chhattisgarh. The very success of the ambush can spell doom for them. No government can accept the brutal gunning down of as many as 76 security personnel at one spot without gearing up for a massive retaliation.
In a way, the episode was like 26/11, which convinced New Delhi of the futility of a dialogue with Pakistan. Similarly, what happened in Dantewada could prove to be a turning point in the government's anti-Maoist strategy.
Before the deaths of so many Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, the possibility of a ceasefire as well as talks with the Maoists could not have been ruled out, especially because of the pressure from well-meaning, if naïve, civil libertarians.
Although the rebels had laid down difficult conditions, including the termination of the anti-Maoist Operation Green Hunt and the release of arrested leaders, a dialogue could have been initiated if there was a perceptible fall in the number of violent incidents by the Maoists like the blowing up of railway tracks, transmission towers and rural school and panchayat buildings used for housing policemen.
But now a point of no return has been reached. The reason is that the killing of so many policemen has exposed the government's vulnerability. Since no government can allow such an impression to gain ground, a firming up of the drive against the Maoists, as promised by union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, is very much on the cards.
This is all the more so because the government may have realised it will lose the support of the all-important middle class if it shows any sign of weakness. Already the belief that it is no longer safe to travel by the prestigious Rajdhani express trains in eastern India has hit the government's credibility.
Thankfully, the entire political class is united, for once, for taking on the Maoists, whose insurgency has been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest internal security threat in recent years. It isn't only the government's allies and former allies like the Communists who have supported the anti-Maoist offensive, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the government's inveterate opponent, has also said it will support whatever measures the government takes against the insurrectionists.
The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that although India has been no stranger to violent rebellions, rarely has such a large part of the country been virtually under siege from a band of outlaws. On earlier occasions, the uprisings by discontented groups had been limited to certain well-defined and not too large areas like Kashmir or the northeastern states.
Militancy has prevailed in both these areas for years without the rest of India losing its poise. The reason is that these are on the periphery of the country.
Only during the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s was the scene different because the state was next door to the heartland. Even then, the violent secessionist movement was largely confined to the state with the result that the police and paramilitary forces were not overstretched as during the present anti-Maoist operations. Moreover, Punjab is not a forested area like the tribal hinterlands where the Maoists have established their bases.
For the first time, therefore, the security forces are facing an enemy spread over a number of states, such as Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand that have patches of dense forest providing excellent cover. The largeness of the affected area means that it is nearly impossible for the police and paramilitary forces to carry out simultaneous operations everywhere.
As a result, the Maoists have the advantage, first, of slipping away from one state to another when challenged and, secondly, of being able to choose their own time and place for an attack.
It is also undeniable that neither the police nor the paramilitary forces are adequately trained and equipped to take on an ideologically motivated adversary, who has been able to convince the people of the area where they operate either verbally or with the threat of guns that they are fighting for them against the state. Given the lack of development in these areas, the Maoists may not have found it too difficult to enlist the support of the locals - at least initially.
Since the government depended mainly on the army to fight the insurgents in Kashmir and the northeast, the police and the paramilitary outfits have never acquired a level of proficiency that is now required against the Maoists. They haven't even been particularly effective in quelling large-scale disturbances, such as communal violence, because of poor leadership and lack of discipline. Political interference has also emasculated and demoralised the police. As a result, the army has almost always been called in on such occasions to restore peace.
It is not possible, however, to use the army to fight the Maoists because of the huge loss of innocent lives such a move will entail. However, the use of helicopters, though not gunships, and drones for aerial surveillance is now being contemplated because the Dantewada tragedy has clarified, as has an earlier incident in West Bengal where 24 paramilitary personnel were killed like sitting ducks, that the police and paramilitary alone may not be able to eliminate the threat of Maoist insurgency.