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Page last updated at 23:43 GMT, Thursday, 15 April 2010 00:43 UK

Support slips away from India's Maoists

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Funeral pyre of a CRFP troop killed in Dantewada, April 2010
Public sentiment has turned against the Maoists

Earlier this month, Maoist rebels in India carried out their most audacious attack in the central state of Chhattisgarh.

At the crack of dawn they ambushed a large group of paramilitary soldiers returning from a patrol in the dense jungle of Dantewada district.

They killed 74 troops, one policeman and one driver - they also took 75 weapons.

The killings have stunned the authorities and put the spotlight on India's Maoist strategy.

Last October, the government announced a "massive anti-Maoist offensive" in several states, including Chhattisgarh, and more than 50,000 troops have been deployed with the aim to "fight the rebels, restore domination, and develop".

Earlier this week, the home ministry said an additional 6,000 central forces would join the battle.

Law and order issue?

But some - even within the government - have been questioning whether the Maoist problem can be tackled simply as a "law and order" issue?

Senior Congress party leader Digvijay Singh said Home Minister P Chidamabaram was "treating it purely as a law and order problem without taking into consideration the issues that affect the tribals".

P Chidambaram
We need a strong head, a stronger heart and enormous staying power
Home Minister P Chidambaram

"We can't solve this problem by ignoring the hopes and aspirations of the people living in these areas... In a civilised society and a vibrant democracy, ultimately it is the people who matter," he wrote in the Economic Times newspaper.

But the government, it seems, is unfazed by the criticism.

Speaking in parliament on Thursday, Mr Chidambaram said "we need a strong head, a stronger heart and enormous staying power" to deal with the Maoist problem - which the Indian prime minister has described as the biggest threat to India's internal security.

The home minister's statement makes it amply clear that the government is determined to go after the Maoists.

And it appears as if the public is behind him.

Touching a chord

The Dantewada killings may actually help the government's campaign - although the incident was a big setback for the authorities, it has been an even bigger public relations disaster for the rebels.

Photographs of wailing family members mourning the dead troops and burning funeral pyres, have touched a chord with many across India.

Maoists train at a camp in Jharkhand, March 2010
The rebels have lost out on the goodwill

Many of the dead soldiers were young men in their early twenties and many of them came from poor and underprivileged families. Some were reported to be the sole bread-winners for their family.

In a remote village in Chhattisgarh, the sister of a slain policeman appeared before local television cameras to challenge "the Maoist leaders to come and convince me about the cause they are fighting for".

She said she wanted to ask the rebels why they killed her brother, who was a poor Christian tribal - the same group of people the Maoists say they are fighting for.

Anti-Maoist sentiment is very visible in the media and the calls for the government to come down hard on the rebels are getting louder.

'Indefensible'

Some have even suggested that the government use air raids to target the insurgents.

"The ambush... must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. No matter which side of the political divide you are on, the violence is indefensible," senior columnist Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times newspaper.

"In every complicated political situation, there is usually a turning point, a stage when people say 'enough is enough'. I suspect we have now reached that point."

A tribal family in Chhattisgarh
Years of bad governance have kept the tribals in acute poverty

Mr Sanghvi says it is "tragic when a government has to use force against its own people, but there comes a time when a government has to assert itself".

The editor-in-chief of the Indian Express Shekhar Gupta advises the government to "settle down for the long haul" and "do not close your options" in dealing with the situation.

"Insurgencies in India," he writes, "follow a pattern pretty much like a bell-curve. The graph of violence rises in the initial period, producing more and more casualties on both sides.

"But at some stage the rebels come to the realisation that this state and its people are too strong and resolute to be ever defeated, no matter what the score, in a particular day's battle in a long war."

'Mistakes'

Mr Gupta, says the Maoists will come round "once you convince them of the futility of war".

That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Maoists derive their support mostly from the tribal populations who have endured poverty and neglect at the hands of the authorities during years of bad governance.

A senior official who has formerly served in the region told the BBC, "Some beginning has to be made. A lot of mistakes made over the years have to be corrected."

Public anger is now being heard everywhere and no one seems to be prepared to hear pro-Maoist voices any more.

Many are agreed, however, that no matter who fires the gun, it is the poor and the ordinary citizen who almost always bears the brunt.



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