India: Guerillas in the Mountains

To smooth over a nerve-wracking encounter with their village militia, the Naxalite cadres went on a hospitality offensive. An additional four hours' trek into the dense mountain jungle ended at one of their many camps situated on a high plateau where we were welcomed as their "honored guests". Ploughed fields and a vegetable garden were tended by a tribal family living on site, who welcomed our group with a mashed corn drink served in hollow gourds. Their faces bore none of the resignation common to the displaced I had met in the roadside camps. I asked the patriarch, Ram, how he felt about the Naxals' presence. He said he didn't mind them so long as their war never touched his home.

Women cadres, which made up about a third of the group that hosted us, began coordinating the evening meal with some of the younger male recruits. Seated in a haystack, I interviewed Sunil, a soft-spoken young man with an easy smile who had joined the cause a couple years ago after he claims his brother was killed by state-sponsored militia. Sunil took great pride in his appearance, his camouflage shirt wrinkle-free and tucked in, his brown plastic loafers spotless. A homemade rifle hung on his shoulder, though it was hard to imagine him ever using it. He admitted he'd never seen combat, but swore with the earnestness of a schoolboy that he was prepared to fight to the death. When dinner was ready we three guests and the village family were served first. Our portions were twice as large as the cadres, and no one touched their food until we started. Everybody ate their curried vegetables and rice in comfortable silence. By now visibility was limited to just a few feet around the campfire. So it was alarming when a squad of guerillas materialized out of nowhere. Their leader, Rajman, strode forward and introduced himself as the cadres stood up. His sharp, assertive movement and the deference paid by other cadres signaled a man who'd seen his share of fighting, notwithstanding the state-issue AK-47 he carried. The fire at his back made it impossible to see his face, adding to the theater of it all. But he made a brief speech to thank us for coming -- and produced a pack of sugar cookies for desert. We talked late into the night, going over the itinerary and the terms of our visit: filming and photos could only take place within a specified window of time; and no facial shots were permitted. The upshot was a sub-divisional commander would likely pay us an early morning visit for a rare interview. We then slept on the hard earth beneath an open sky. It was a sea change from the night before. At first light the cadres started their morning routine. The men and women broke into two groups and headed to separate stretches of a nearby stream where they washed their hair and feet, brushed their teeth vigorously, and combed their hair. A transistor radio was tuned to the BBC World Service. Foaming toothpaste at the mouth, Sunil said that living in the bush was no excuse for bad hygiene; if anything, his superiors had told him, it demanded an extra effort. When Pandu marched into camp the cadres all lined up and greeted him single-file, exchanging Lal Salaams ("Red Salute"). Like Rajman, Pandu looked the hardened fighter, although he was proved to be the more articulate. He distributed some Communist literature to the cadres before taking a seat on a tarp by the water's edge to take notes and read in private. Later in the day, Pandu and Rajman led the cadres through a series of training drills. These were followed by a round of motivational songs and chants punctuated by still more Lal Salaams. The cadres donned mismatched uniforms in varied shades of olive drab. Ages ranged from fresh-faced teenage recruits to veterans in their late 30s. Our interview lasted about an hour, during which he explained the current strategy of creating "liberated zones" in areas like Bastar. These would serve as bases for expansion, until the zones were inter-connected and reached all the way to urban centers. This process depended on armed conflict, but he said economic warfare including transportation blockades and other "deterrence measures" against companies wishing to do business in Special Economic Zones were also effective. Above all, he said matter-of-factly, their war was "a people's war" that would gather momentum in the years ahead as popular discontent swells in the face of heavy-handed capitalism. India's prosperity is an illusion; wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few city-dwellers, while the overwhelming majority is neglected or kicked off their land to make way for big business. These people, he continued, would flock to join the Naxalite movement sooner or later. Under the present circumstances, such assertions seemed rather out of touch. For all their enthusiasm, most of the foot soldiers that would see the fight through the years ahead didn't know who Marx or Lenin were. Some had heard of Mao but couldn't say for sure where he was from. Then again, despite humble beginnings, the revolutions they drove changed the course of history. A colony of fire ants had given me fits since the interview began, making it hard to hold the camera steady. I pointed out that some of the red devils were climbing up his leg. "They are our friends," he shrugged. "We must share the forest."