A sprawling, yet largely hidden, war is raging in India's rural countryside, and after years of ignoring it, Delhi is signalling a military counteroffensive.
India's Maoist insurgents, also called Naxalites, have expanded their area of operations from just four states 10 years ago to half of India's 28 states today. In 165 districts, they claim to run parallel "People's" governments. This year alone, fighting between rebel and government forces has claimed more than 500lives – many civilian.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned heads recently by calling the Naxalites, "The single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country."
To tackle the threat, Delhi is planning to deploy 11 battalions of paramilitary police and is sponsoring opposing vigilante groups who espouse violence. But issues of underdevelopment and poor human rights are the real oxygen of the Maoist insurgency, not local police weakness, argue critics of the new government approach.
"India has failed to rein in the Maoists simply because there are no quick-fix solutions to the problems arising out of [bad governance]," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), Delhi.
Hardest hit in this conflict are poor, tribal residents of rural villages like Ulgara, a hamlet in the rural interior of Jharkhand state. Naxalites pass through often, stopping sometimes to demand food, which villagers quietly admit they give out of fear. Five years ago, in the wee hours of the night, nearly 100 guerrillas attacked the village, torching 19-year-old Rakesh Kumar's house. His father was shot and his family beaten.
"We're stuck in the middle – between the Naxalites and the state," says Mr. Kumar, explaining that it's neither safe to support the Maoists nor turn them away.
Many beleaguered villagers have fled the area. Others, including the Kumars, are scrounging together money to move to the city. In parts of India, fearful villagers have reportedly abandoned whole villages.
Recent reports suggest that this rural insurgency is slowly, yet inexorably, spreading into four more states, with what analysts see is a long-term plan to extend their red corridor – called the "Compact Revolutionary Zone" – throughout India. Their ultimate stated goal is to capture India's cities and overthrow Parliament. In an interview last year with The Telegraph newspaper, a national daily, a member of the Maoist Central Committee named "Comrade Dhruba" said, "Our mass base is getting ready. After five years, we will launch our strikes."
While most observers doubt the Naxalites can directly threaten urban India, the guerrilla attacks are becoming more audacious – and lethal. Rebels attack in large numbers – much like the Maoists of Nepal, with whom they're suspected to have links – often to overwhelm their target.
Attacks on police forces, train hijacking, and brutal beheadings are common. Just last month, India witnessed its worst spasm of Naxalite violence. In the thick of the night, nearly 800 armed Maoists sprayed bullets, killing 32, in an anti-Maoist relief camp in the Indian state of Chattisgarh – an impoverished region most affected by Naxalite violence.
While the insurgents garner support mainly through fear, Mr. Chakma says, some people in the hinterlands relate to and support them because they champion the cause of the poor at the bottom rung of India's caste and class hierarchy.
In remote, interior villages, Naxalites claim to distribute sacks of pulses to the masses, collect funds to run schools, and organize mass weddings for the impoverished. They also target corrupt officials, despotic landlords, and loan sharks.
The Jharkhand High Court recently expressed concern over the fact that more and more people in areas where Naxalites are active were approaching the kangaroo courts of the Maoists to settle disputes. Government courts take years to dispense justice. A recent study revealed that for every million people, there were only 10 judges in India's courts. The rebels can be approached any time, and justice – most often from the barrel of a gun – is swift.
An elderly woman in Chaukhra, an obscure village, says she approached Naxalites for settling a lengthy land dispute she had with another villager. "They were most helpful," she says, declining to give her name for fear of local chastisement. "They know very well who is right and who is wrong."
As the twilight sets over Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, a tiny band of leftist ideologues led a protest against rising food prices. A stream of adivasis, or tribal people, mill around the rally. Many are said to be Naxalites who slip back into the forest after the meeting under the cover of darkness. The Naxalites are sustained in their jungle war with the help of leaders who run underground front organizations in the cities – which operate despite being banned. These leaders provide strategic assistance, mobilize Naxalite sympathizers, and instigate such demonstrations.
"We're not not terrorists," says one such front organization leader. "We're fighting a people's war. We want the proletariat to rule, not imperialistic governments."
This decades-old armed rebellion, he says, is to stop pauperization of India's indigenous, tribal people at the hands of the rich, and their displacement due to industrialization.
Governments in states like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh have signed deals worth millions of dollars with industrial companies for steel mills and power stations – deals that the state sees as necessary to create jobs and provide the raw materials for economic growth. However, such deals, he says, end up displacing villagers, and, moreover, the benefits never trickle down to them.
"These injustices have happened for decades. People's voices have been muzzled. It's the only way to get them heard," he says responding to a question asking if violence is the only way to remedy the problem. "Why else would our cadres live such unglamorous lives in jungles?"
Although the death toll of civilians killed in Naxalite violence is mounting, their aim is to "never harm the proletariat," he says.
He refuted eyewitness reports suggesting that the Bal Mandal – children's division – of the Naxalites were being used for armed conflicts. "Children in this conflict are used only as messengers and informers," he says. Without giving an estimate on the number of children enrolled with the Maoists, he says the Naxalites do provide them "military training" to prepare them for "any situation."
The Indian government's tougher approach to the growing Naxalite problem includes arming thousands of villagers with guns, spears, and bows and arrows. Human Rights Watch calls the move "a mistake," arguing that "scrupulous respect for rights is the best answer to the Naxalites."
As Maoists enter the political process in Nepal – with help from the Indian government – some observers wonder if the same process can be tried with India's Maoists. So far, however, the insurgents have shown no proclivity for joining hands with the Indian government, and Delhi has said that the rebels must give up arms before any dialogue can happen.