In a trademark illustration of their 'surprise attack', the CPI-Maoists launched a major assault on a police force in Rani Bodli village of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh in the early hours of 15 March 2007, killing at least 55 police personnel and injuring around 11. Of these, 16 were Chhattisgarh Armed Force jawans and 39 were Special Police Officers (SPOs) or members of the civil militia Salwa Judum organised by the state government in July 2005. Significantly, the Maoists have not suffered any casualty.
The killing of 39 SPOs clearly illustrates the objective of the Maoists: to slowdown efforts by the government to use the local people against them, like Salwa Judum. This was reflected in the statement issued by the outfit at the end of their 'Unity Congress' held in January-February 2007 at an undisclosed location, stating their resolve to advance the people's war throughout the country. The General Secretary of the Maoist party, Muppala Lakshman Rao Ganapathi indicated a shift in the Maoists strategy from hit and run tactics to attacking identified targets with impunity and spreading their presence further in the towns. The first manifestation of this resolve - assassination of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha Lok Sabha MP, Sunil Kumar Mahato, on 5 March - was claimed to avenge the killing of 11 Naxalites at Lango in 2003. In the light of this incident, the triggering cause behind this attack seems to be the recent controversy surrounding the surrender policy of the Chhattisgarh government as part of its Salwa Judum campaign. On 3 January, 79 Maoists were reported to have surrendered to the Chhattisgarh police. However, even as investigations soon established these surrenders to be 'fake', reports came in that not only had the police tried to exaggerate these figures by threatening people to surrender as Naxals, but the surrendering persons were also forced to sign documents that would empower the police to enroll them as SPOs. Many examples of such controversies have engulfed the Salwa Judum campaign since its inception, which has to the fury of the Maoists against the government.
The method of the attack is significant on several counts. The Maoists, numbering around 300-400, were armed with petrol bombs and grenades, and chose to wait for the security forces to lower their guard. They surrounded the police camp between 2 and 3 am, lit the periphery with portable gensets, and set the place ablaze by lobbing grenades and petrol bombs on the barracks. Thereafter, they engaged the security men in a three hour gun battle before melting away into the deep jungles in the region, taking away the camp's armoury. Before fleeing, the Maoists laid rings of landmines around the camp, blocking reinforcements.
The meticulous execution of the attack highlights several important points: Firstly, the use of home-made petrol bombs and grenades belies reports that the extremists are possessing lethal and advanced weapons. However, it does establish their growing expertise in devising more lethal uses for their crude bombs. Secondly, the use of generator sets to light up the target area before carrying out their attack highlights their efforts to distinguish their targets, i.e. security forces and SPOs, from the local villagers. Such measures will prove crucial for sustaining local support for the Maoists, which distinguishes them from other insurgent groups like ULFA who, not long ago, had unleashed a reign of terror against innocent Hindu civilians. Thirdly, it also exhibits the ability of the Maoists to mobilize hundreds of fighters despite the large scale presence and deployment of paramilitary and anti-naxal forces. According to official reports, these include 13 battalions of the central paramilitary forces to supplement the efforts of State Police Forces, 4 India Reserve Battalions, and 17 armoured vehicles to neutralize the threats posed by IED/landmine blasts.
On the surface, the significance of this attack clearly lies in its scale, lethality and meticulous execution. At a deeper level, this act of rebellion represents a negation by the Maoists of the oppressive authority of the state on the one hand, and the intensity of the threat posed by them on the other. The resounding victory scored by the Maoist is likely to bolster their strength enormously and reverberate across the 14 Naxal affected states. It is likely to give a fillip to the ongoing battle with the security forces in Chhattisgarh, a battle that is but a small reflection of the formidable challenge represented by the Maoist threat in around 165 districts of India. While this incident certainly demands an overhaul of the state government's policy of arming one section of the society against another, it also cautions the Central government and other Naxal affected state governments to tread warily in their fight against the Naxalites.