The dense jungles of the Bastar region are far from the war-torn lands of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka indeed, far from just about everything. But the Maoist-inspired rebels here are increasingly a cause for security concerns in Central and South Asia.
The People's War Group (PWG), or the Naxalites, are so isolated even Hinduism has barely touched the ancient religion of its tribal people. Their ideology comes straight from the violent leftist movements of the 1960s, which called for the destruction of all governments, and their stated goal is the uplifting of downtrodden tribal people who are considered the lowest rungs of Indian society.
But several Naxalite commanders told the Monitor that the PWG identifies with and is willing to harbor violent terrorist groups such as the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and members of Al Qaeda.
"The Naxalites as a group have always supported other terrorist organizations," says Prof. Sidhir Rao, a terrorism expert at the Institute for Defense and Security Analysis in New Delhi, citing unverified news reports of PWG cadres being spotted in northeastern India.
Situated in the newly created state of Chattisgarh, carved out of the southeast corner of prosperous Madhya Pradesh, Bastar is a vast territory larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. British colonial administrators conducted a survey of the region in 1930, but never bothered to subdue it. India's previous rulers Moguls and other Muslim conquerors from the 12th century until the 18th century also showed no interest in taking on the vast jungle, where many of the residents continue to wear leaves for clothing.
Today, little has changed: Chattisgarh provides the Bastar region with no schools, police protection, courts, or medical care. "The area here has long been neglected by the government of Madhya Pradesh," says Pawan Dubey, editor of The Highway Channel, a local daily newspaper based in the district capital, Bastar.
It is this long neglect, residents and local observers say, which has pushed many tribespeople into the arms of the Naxalites, who provide services such as free medical care.
Take Panku, a village elder who earns about $40 a month as a shaman, or witch doctor. He and his family exist on a diet of rice, tubers, and wild foliage. To get medical care, he must travel as much as 45 miles on foot. Instead, he turns to local tribal remedies first. "We are forced to keep the ill alive with the help of herbs and magic" he says.
The Naxalites encourage this neglect, destroying development projects and power dams, killing state officials and policemen, and threatening intruders whether tourists or teachers or missionaries with death.
"The local administrators, especially the policemen are afraid to venture out of the main towns or their homes and offices," says Mr. Dubey, who adds that there are numerous instances of killings of local cops and officials. "About 12 have been killed in this area in the last one-and-a-half-months."
Since their origins in the town of Naxalbari in neighboring West Bengal state, the Naxalites have consolidated themselves within all the levels of society, drawing thousands of locals into their organization, even if these recruits have little understanding of Maoist ideology.
The PWG has its own standing army, for example, called the People's Guerrilla Army (PGA), which arms local girls and boys with everything from World War I-era carbines to Chinese-made Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and helps the PWG run their own taxation system. They have perhaps the most sophisticated village-level intelligence network in the country. And the law of the land has been transferred into the hands of small local courts, run by the PWG, known for their quick and brutal justice.
Local commanders, speaking to local media reporters recently, laid out their vision of justice. "We want to overthrow those who are in power and replace them in a way that the people of this region get their dues,'" said one local commander.
Arguing that the area is too unstable to develop, the governments of India, as well as the States of Madhya Pradesh and now Chattisgarh, have avoided sending officials and development funds.
Lawlessness has also made it impossible for the government to check on where the state government's allotment of development money has been spent, although privately some government officials admit the money has simply been shifted to other parts of the state, or to the pockets of corrupt officials.
Poor villagers like Panku are stuck between the rod of the government and the equally vicious gun of the PWG. "We do not wish to alienate either," he says.