India grapples with rising Maoist violence fueled by COVID-19 pandemic

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India’s Home Minister Amit Shah cut short an election rally in the east on Monday to head to the mineral-rich central state of Chhattisgarh, where Maoist guerillas at the weekend killed 22 security force members, officials said.

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In addition to the fatalities, 30 other members of the Indian police and paramilitary forces were wounded in a four-hour gun battle with Maoist rebels on Saturday, the deadliest ambush of its kind in four years.

On Monday, Shah traveled to Chhattisgarh to meet the injured pay tribute to those killed.

Also known as Naxals, the Maoists have waged an armed insurgency against the government for decades. Their leaders say they are fighting on behalf of the poorest, who have not benefited from the economic boom in Asia’s third-largest economy.

Shah told reporters the government will “not tolerate such bloodshed and a befitting response will be given to put an end to the ongoing battle with Maoists”.

People wearing protective masks crowd a marketplace amidst the spread of COVID-19 in Mumbai, India, on March 22, 2021. (Reuters)
People wearing protective masks crowd a marketplace amidst the spread of COVID-19 in Mumbai, India, on March 22, 2021. (Reuters)

Security experts said the latest attack by Maoist rebels, considered India’s biggest internal security threat, has forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government to re-evaluate counter-insurgency operations against the ultra left-wing fighters, who have been able to increase new followers during the pandemic.

“In the last few years the Maoists have had opportunity to regroup themselves in their core region of dominance,” said Uddipan Mukherjee, a joint director for government agency, the Ordnance Factory Board. He has been researching the Maoist strategy for more than a decade.

Mukherjee and others with expert knowledge said the pandemic had allowed the insurgency to recruit more to its cause.

“We have intelligence reports that the Maoist leaders during the pandemic have managed to recruit hundreds of new foot soldiers, including women, living in the forests who leak details about security force patrols,” a New Delhi-based bureaucrat who oversees country’s internal security said.

“The pandemic has made the intra-state movement of Maoist leaders much easier,” the senior official said on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Chhattisgarh, one of the fastest-developing states in India, has 28 varieties of major minerals, including diamonds and gold, a government website said. The state has 16 percent of India’s coal deposits and large reserves of iron ore and bauxite.

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