South Bastar, India -- Two years ago, Comrade Sunil spent his days studying in a school classroom and toiling in corn and rice fields in his ancestral village. But life abruptly changed one night after he returned to find his home torched and his older brother shot dead by a state-sponsored civilian militia on the pretext that he had been a rebel sympathizer.
Now, warming his hands by a campfire deep in the mountain jungles of southern Chhattisgarh state, the 18-year-old member of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army promised never to give up the homemade rifle lying on 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, who refused to give his real name. The movement "is getting stronger because they know we fight for them."
In the shadow of Bollywood and the info-tech boom, a little-known guerrilla war is being waged in at least 16 states across India by insurgents known as Naxalites. Estimated to have 20,000 fighters backed by a network of tens of thousands of villagers, they control about one-fifth of India's forests and are active in 192 of the nation's 604 administrative districts. Currently, 20 of India's 28 states are affected by separatist conflicts, with Naxalites fighting in about 16 states, according to the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called these rebel armies "the single greatest security challenge ever faced by our country."
The word Naxalite comes from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, where a rebellion against landowners broke out in 1967. After nearly being wiped out in the 1970s by security forces and waning popularity, the movement splintered into armed factions. The two largest groups, the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist Center, merged in 2004 to form a Maoist political organization called the Communist Party of India.
In the beginning, the Naxalites fought on behalf of the rural underclass against feudal landowners, but have since become adept at tapping into other popular grievances, said Srinivas Reddy, an expert on the Naxalite movement based in Hyderabad. One such grievance, Reddy pointed out, is the displacement of thousands of farmers by multinational companies intent on exploiting India's natural resources such as coal, timber and other minerals.
As a result, the guerrillas have opted to disrupt investment in resource-rich areas.
Posco, the South Korean steel company, planned to invest $12 billion in a new plant in Orissa state, potentially the largest foreign direct investment in the manufacturing sector. But Naxalite violence and local protests have kept the project at bay for nearly four years.
In five central states that account for about 85 percent of the nation's coal reserves - India remains highly dependent on coal - rebels have blockaded railroad tracks, causing an energy shortage in those areas. In June, a two-day rebel blockade shut down key rail links, coal and mining operations, leading to losses of about $37.5 million in Jharkhand state, according to state officials.
"Naxalism puts almost half of India's total energy supply at serious political risk," said a recent report by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
Economic warfare is part of a broader strategy to carve out so-called liberated zones in the next 20 to 30 years that will become staging grounds for attacking major cities, rebel leaders say.
"This revolution will be carried out and completed through armed agrarian revolutionary war, encircling the cities ... and finally capturing them," Ganapathi, the secretary of the CPI, has said.
To be sure, most rebel-related violence occurs in remote areas inside the dense forest belt - sometimes referred to as the red corridor - that runs north from Chhattisgarh state to Nepal, where Naxalite rebels are consolidating their foothold among dirt-poor tribal communities, some analysts say.
"The Maoists have moved to fight in areas where there are almost complete administrative neglect," said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management, based in Delhi.
In March, a predawn raid on a police outpost in Rani Bodli in Chhattisgarh state left 55 security officers dead in a hail of gunfire and gas bombs. A new report by the Asian Center for Human Rights, a think tank based in New Delhi that monitors insurgent groups, said violence in Chhattisgarh accounted for 208 of 384 conflict-related deaths - civilians, security forces and insurgents - between January and September.
On Oct. 27, guerrillas shot 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 singling out government officials and their relatives.
Analysts say it is no coincidence the guerrilla strength is concentrated in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and other poor Indian states such as Bihar, Orissa, and rural areas of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra - where poverty and high illiteracy rates among tribal and lower-caste groups offer fertile ground for recruitment.
The absence of trained security forces has also emboldened the Naxalites to switch from hit-and-run strikes to "swarming attacks" reminiscent of their Maoist counterparts in Nepal, according to Sahni.
Capt. Rajesh Pawar, a veteran of counterinsurgency operations, underscored the lack of manpower and munitions, saying at least twice as many men are needed than the 10,000 men he has to secure the region.
More important, Pawar says, soldiers must be trained to fight a guerrilla war. "The Indian army is not prepared for this," he said, standing by a roadside depression where a Naxalite land mine killed three of his men earlier this year.
Critics say the Chhattisgarh government's decision in 2005 to turn to civilian militias - often no more than rifle-toting teenagers - has been a huge mistake. A July report by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal People's Network, an alliance of rights organizations in New Delhi, says the so-called Salwa Judum (peace movement) militias are guilty of rape, extrajudicial killings, burning villages to the ground and forcing about 50,000 tribal villagers into nearly two dozen makeshift refugee camps of mud walls and sheet-metal roof barracks.
Dornapal, the largest refugee camp, is home to more than 17,000 tribal villagers who live under the supervision of police and militia members.
"We are scared to go back to our homes," said Kumar, a refugee who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals. "The Naxalites come at night and the militia come by day. They both threaten us."
Back in the rebel's camp, a group of 30 soldiers belt out the daily war cry: "Long live the Maoist revolution, Long live those who died for the revolution, Down with Salwa Judum." The cadres then split into groups of six to conduct village-to-village patrols. Two hours later, in a quiet hamlet, farmer Gani Ram Baghel poured his guests palm-leaf cups of a milky liquid made from mashed corn and rice.
"We don't want to fight or leave our homes," Baghel said. "We only want to live like we always have, a natural life."
Comrade Sunil, however, does not share that sentiment, saying he won't be returning to his life as a farmer anytime soon.
"I am prepared to stay out here and fight like this for the rest of my life," he said, while a dozen other guerrillas nodded in agreement.