With no time to change into his customary flat green combat fatigues, Kishenji fled into the forest wearing a powder blue windbreaker and slacks. But even an intimate knowledge of the jungle's tangled paths was no match for a battalion of soldiers sporting infrared goggles. Guarded by only a small security detail, a fraction of the size of his usual phalanx, Kishenji found himself cornered, and started a firefight that lasted for over two hours. While the guerrilla leader and his loyalists desperately sprayed the forest with bullets, the CoBRAs retaliated with precision artillery. When the shooting stopped just before dusk, the advancing troops found a wiry middle-aged body bleeding out onto the forest floor. After hiding for four decades in malarial jungles and mining towns, Kishenji was dead. Forsaken by his fleeing bodyguards, he was killed less than a week after taunting the "useless and worthless" Indian forces for being completely incapable of catching him.
The Maoist insurgency may very well survive the death of its field general; there are several plausible replacement candidates, including Kishenji's brother Venugopal. A massive retaliation attack at some point in the next month seems inevitable. The Maoists themselves have been doing their best to spin the killing, leaking stories to the press about their annoyance with a man who they now claim was little more than a figurehead to them. But there is no denying that Kishenji was the lifeblood of the rebel group, the operational commander who stirred his fighters to battle to the death against a far superior force. With their great uniter gone, the movement risks degenerating into turf wars and squabbles over who controls the profitable mining extortion trade that funds guerrilla salaries.
Kishenji's demise also punctuates an incredible run for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has staked much of his reputation on the fight against a rebellion he once called "the gravest internal security threat we face," one more worrying than even Islamist terrorism. After years of condemnations from the media for incompetence, from human rights organizations for a policy of targeted assassinations, and even from the Supreme Court for creating illegal militias, the government's strategic successes are undeniable. Conflict deaths this year are down by 40 percent; the Maoist organizational structure is being dismantled; and now its leader is gone.
Not everyone is celebrating. The Maoists, for all the chaos they have sowed under Kishenji's leadership, enjoy widespread support in the indigenous communities where they operate. The mining companies fear the Maoists, often acceding to the latter's extortionist demands -- payouts that have made more than few rebel fortunes, and transformed the rebellion itself from a scrappy agrarian uprising into something that often resembles an elaborate and bloody protection racket. The indigenous communities know this, but still support the Maoists; they know they have few other options. Laws to protect tribal lands exist, but they are easily sidestepped by paying off corrupt politicians and police. The Maoists have brought this hypocrisy to light, however brutally.
In a way, the offensive that claimed Kishenji bears an eerie similarity to the past. After its founding, the initial Naxal movement grew for a decade, turning increasingly violent as demands for more egalitarian economic and human rights reforms went unheeded. By the late 1970s, the government had had enough of the unrest and liquidated dozens of the movement's leaders. The violence subsided and the campaign was declared an unconditional success. But little was done to address the underlying causes for violence: inequality, a lack of justice, and a broken local government. Naxal student leaders voiced these concerns at the time, but nobody listened. Twenty years later, one of those same students tapped into the still-festering grievances to launch a new war.
Military advances may once again break the grip of Maoist violence, giving India another once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop the violence in its heartland. But the gains will be similarly short-lived this time around unless Delhi finally corrects the discriminatory practices towards its indigenous communities that have lingered since its independence. If not, it is only a matter of time before the next Kishenji heads down a jungle path into the shadows.