SOUTH BASTAR, India — Two years ago, Comrade Sunil spent half his day at school and the remainder working the red fields of his ancestral village.
But his life changed one night when he found his home torched and older brother dead outside, allegedly shot by a state-sponsored civilian militia cracking down on Maoist sympathizers.
As he keeps warm by a campfire deep in the mountain jungles of southern Chhattisgarh state, the 18-year-old member of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army vows to never give up the homemade rifle lying in his lap.
"The government does not care at all about the people here, and armed revolution is the only way to change this," said Sunil.
In the shadow of Bollywood and the info-tech boom, a guerrilla war is being waged across India by Maoist insurgents known as Naxalites. Estimated to have 20,000 fighters backed by a network of tens of thousands of village militia, they now control about one-fifth of India's forests and are active in 192 of the nation's 604 administrative districts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Naxalites the "single greatest security challenge ever faced by our country."
The Naxalite rebellion is responsible for a wide swath of violence. In October, guerrillas in Jharkhand state gunned down 19 people at a village cultural event
— including the youngest son of the state's former chief minister, the latest in a series of attacks targeting government officials and their relatives.
Terrorism is increasing in India even as the U.S. government is working hard to forge closer ties with the nation. While rapid economic growth has improved the livelihood of India's middle class — and profit margins of many American companies through low-cost production and clerical outsourcing — the extreme poor are lagging further behind.
It is no coincidence the Naxalites' strength is concentrated in India's poorest states, where poverty and high illiteracy rates among tribal and lower-caste groups offer fertile ground for recruiting. Theseareas are also rich in resources, giving the Naxalite groups the capacity to disrupt India's economic miracle.
Already, the group's efforts have stalled a $12 billion steel plant planned by a South Korean steel company; a two-day Naxalite blockade called in late June shut down key rail links, coal and mining operations in Jharkhand state.
Guerrilla leaders say economic warfare is part of a broader strategy to carve out "liberated zones" over the next 20-30 years that will become staging grounds from which to threaten major cities.
So far their activity has been largely limited to a remote swath inside the dense forest belt that runs north through Chhattisgarh state and up to Nepal, where Naxalites are consolidating their foothold among dirt-poor communities that have been all but abandoned by the government.
"The areas to which the Maoists have moved in to fight are in almost complete administrative neglect," said Ajai Sahni, director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. "You couldn't even keep cattle there."
The absence of capable security forces has emboldened the Naxalites to switch from smaller hit-and-run strikes to "swarming attacks" reminiscent of their counterparts in Nepal, according to Sahni. Security policy is the responsibility of each state in India, not the central government, which has led to lethal inconsistencies.
"This is guerrilla warfare," said Capt. Rajesh Pawar, a veteran of counter-insurgency operations. "The Indian army is not prepared for this."
Instead of bringing in suitably trained reinforcements, critics say, the decision to arm an anti-Naxalite civil militia has produced excesses on both sides, forcing some 50,000 tribal villagers to makeshift roadside camps to escape the violence.
Originating in June 2005, when tribal chiefs gathered to protest Naxalite influence, the civil-militia concept — called Salwa Judum ("peace movement") —was expanded by politicians. The creation of "Special Police Officers," often no more than rifle-toting teenagers, to enforce security has opened the door to rape and extra-judicial killings, according to a July report by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal People's Network, an alliance of rights organizations based in Delhi.
Raman Singh, Chhattisgarh's chief minister, calls the militias a "success story," a "nonviolent movement against exploitation," insisting it is the Naxalites who extort and harass those who refuse to cooperate with them.
On an otherwise scenic drive along one of Bastar's main roadways, the militias' work is clearly visible: fields lie fallow amid scores of abandoned houses and villages reduced to ash. The former inhabitants have been corralled into nearly two dozen state-run camps that line the region's roads. The largest, Dornapal, is home to more than 17,000 tribal villagers who live supervised by police in mud and sheet-metal barracks until conditions improve. An atmosphere of dull resignation prevails.
"There is no security here," said N.R.K. Pille, head of the Dantewada Journalist's Association, noting that violence has surged in the region since the program began two years ago. "Salwa Judum is harmful to everybody."
Save, perhaps, for the Naxalites.
The Naxalites take their name from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, where a local rebellion against landowners broke out in 1967. After nearly being wiped out in the 1970s by government repression and waning popularity, the movement splintered into various armed factions. The two largest factions, the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist Center, merged in late 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
At the outset, the Naxalites fought on behalf of the rural underclass against feudal landowners. Over the years they have proven adept at tapping into changing popular grievances.
A popular tactic has been to impose railroad and economic blockades in their five central stronghold states, which hold about 85 percent of India's coal reserves. India is still highly dependent on coal, and a pending shortage of electricity means that "Naxalism puts almost half of India's total energy supply at serious political risk," according to a report by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
To widen their ideological support base in urban centers, the group is also setting up new offices and pro-Naxalite websites to attract young and disaffected members of the middle class.
Maoist committee offices of varying levels can now be found in two-thirds of Indian states. This may foreshadow a "sudden and tremendous explosion of violence across India which will challenge the capacity of the Indian state to its limit," said Sahni, the security expert who also edits the South Asia Intelligence Review.
For now, the insurgents are in command in such hinterlands as South Bastar.
As dawn breaks over a bush camp more than two days hike from the town of Dantewada, a group of about 30 guerrillas belt out their war cry: "Long live the Maoist revolution, Long live those who died for the revolution, Down with Salwa Judum."
A divisional leader, known only as Pandu, paid a visit to give a briefing over a shared meal. Then the cadres broke up into smaller groups of six to conduct village-to-village patrols in their assigned theater, far beyond the reach of state authority.
"This is a people's war," Pandu said. "All people are angry with Salwa Judum and support us either directly or indirectly."
At a stop in a quiet hamlet, farmer Gani Ram Baghel poured his guests palm-leaf cups of a milky liquid made from mashed corn and rice. He said the Naxalites treated him with respect, which he returned, but he refused to take sides.
"We don't want to fight or leave our homes," he said. "We only want to live like we always have, a natural life."