At least 15 police personnel and one civilian were killed in a suspected Maoist insurgent attack in the west-central state of Maharashtra on Wednesday, according to Indian officials.
The men were traveling in convoy to provide reinforcement to a police post in the Gadchiroli district when a landmine detonated, killing all 16 men, including the driver.
Police have blamed the blast on Naxal militants known to be active in the region. In a press conference on Wednesday, the Director General of Police, Subodh Jaiswal said the insurgents “want to overthrow the state established by the constitution of India.”
“We are very firm in our belief that they need to be dealt with the full power of the state behind us.”
Militant attacks in several states, including Maharashtra, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, where the rebel movement still has traction, are common.
Indian Maoist – or Naxalite – groups have been active in the country since the 1960s, but the modern insurgency did not begin until the early 2000s with the emergence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.
More than 2,100 civilians in India have been killed in the Maoist insurgency since 2010. Security forces in the region, wary of a possible second attack, are cautiously making their way to the blast site, said Jaiswal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a statement on Twitter: “Strongly condemn the despicable attack … I salute all the brave personnel. Their sacrifices will never be forgotten.”
Shortly after the attack Jaiswal reiterated the commitment of security forces in the region to the counterinsurgency operations.
An endemic issue
“Whether it is a retaliation or not is not of much consequence to us. What is important is that we lost 15 of our colleagues who have made the supreme sacrifice and for us that is a very grievous loss,” he said.
The issue of local militancy has haunted successive governments in India for decades.
In April 2017, 25 police officers were killed and six others injured when hundreds of suspected Maoist rebels attacked a convoy in central India.
Suspected Maoists have also struck during India’s elections, which are currently ongoing. On April 18, a polling supervisor was gunned down by alleged Maoist militants in the eastern state of Odisha. The supervisor, Sanjukta Digal, was leading a team to a polling station in the Kandhamal district on the eve of the second phase of voting in the state.
In another incident in the same district, alleged Maoists approached a vehicle heading towards a polling center and forced officials to disembark before setting fire to it.
According to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, 90 districts across 11 states are currently affected by some form of Naxal or Maoist militancy. In 2017, 75 security force members and 188 civilians were killed in militant violence.
The government has responded to the Maoist insurgency with a security crackdown in areas in which the groups are active, an approach that has been criticized by some observers as heavy-handed and prone to abuse. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report cataloged incidents where police and soldiers “have arbitrarily arrested, detained, and tortured villagers, who are mostly from disaffected tribal communities.”