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Story Publication logo November 22, 2007

Guerilla War in the Shadow of Bollywood


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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Captain Rajesh Pawar, a seasoned veteran of counter-insurgency operations, points out where a Naxalite landmine killed three of his men, Dantewada district.

SOUTH BASTAR, India — Two years ago, Comrade Sunil used his given name and spent half the day at school, 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, purportedly shot by state-sponsored civilian militia on the pretext of being a Maoist sympathizer.

Warming by a campfire deep in the mountain jungles of southern Chhattisgarh state, the 18-year-old member of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army vowed 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. "[Our movement] is getting stronger because they know we fight for them."

In the shadow of Bollywood and the high-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 160 of 604 administrative districts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Naxalites the "single greatest security challenge ever faced by our country."

Not yet an existential threat to the government, the Naxalite rebellion is still responsible for a wide swathe of violence. Last month guerrillas in Jharkhand state gunned down 19 persons 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.

This comes at a time the U.S. government is working hard to forge closer ties with India in areas of security and commerce as a counterweight to China, viewed as its greatest potential military rival.

But 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 lag further behind.

It is no coincidence the Naxalites' strength is concentrated in India's poorest states — Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and select rural parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra — where poverty and high illiteracy rates among tribal and lower-caste groups offer fertile ground for recruiting.

These areas are also rich in resources, making the capacity for Naxalite groups to disrupt the Indian economic miracle very real.

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 Indian manufacturing. But Naxalite activity and local protests have stalled the project for nearly four years.

In another instance, a two-day Naxalite blockade called in late June shut down key rail links, coal and mining operations, leading to losses of about $37.5 million to the Jharkhand state economy alone, according to state officials.

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 to threaten major cities from.

So far this is limited to remote swathes inside the dense forest belt — sometimes referred to as the "red corridor" — that runs north through neighboring 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."

A new report by the Asian Center for Human Rights, a think tank based in New Delhi that monitors insurgent groups, said that out of a total 384 conflict-related deaths — civilians, security forces and insurgents — between January and September, Chhattisgarh accounted for 208, or 54 percent.

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 Mr. Sahni, who attributes the states' weakness to a number of factors.

At present, 20 of the 29 Indian states are affected by armed conflicts, notably in Kashmir, so the government has gotten used to "firefighting" and is therefore slow to recognize more urgent patters and form long-term strategies against them; Naxalites tend to operate in geographically prohibitive areas; and security policy is the responsibility of each state in India, not the central government, which has led to lethal inconsistencies.

In March, a pre-dawn raid on a police outpost in Rani Bodli left 55 security officers dead in a hail of gunfire and gas bombs. Capt. Rajesh Pawar, a veteran of counterinsurgency operations in Chhattisgarh, underscored the lack of manpower and munitions, saying at least twice as many men were needed to secure the region. More importantly, he stressed, they must be trained to fight like the enemy fights, mobile and stealth-like.

"This is guerrilla warfare," he said, standing by a roadside depression where a Naxalite land mine killed three of his men earlier this year. "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 as part of a campaign called Salwa Judum ("peace movement") has opened the door to 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 name Salwa Judum was adopted and the concept expanded by politicians.

The creation of "Special Police Officers" (SPOs) — often no more than rifle-toting teenagers — to enforce security has opened the door to rape and extrajudicial killings, according to a July report by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal People's Network, an alliance of rights organizations based in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, Raman Singh, Chhattisgarh's chief minister, calls it a "success story," a "nonviolent movement against exploitation," insisting it is the Naxalites who extort and harass those who refuse to cooperate with them.

Saryam Boja, 22, says he was repeatedly beaten by guerrillas until he agreed to act as a village lookout. He eventually helped rig explosive devices before surrendering to police, opting to become a militia member "to get revenge."

On an otherwise scenic drive along one of Bastar's main roadways, Salwa Judum's work is clearly visible: fields lie fallow amid scores of abandoned homes 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 and SPOs 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.

Their name comes 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).

An effort at peace talks was made that same year by the government in Andhra Pradesh state, a traditional leftist stronghold, but they quickly collapsed due to the states" precondition that all fighters disarm for negotiations to proceed and ongoing "combing operations" by security forces, said Srinivas Reddy, a noted specialist on the Naxalites based in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh and an information technology hub.

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, and today, Mr. Reddy said, Salwa Judum and aggressive multinational companies give them motive.

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.

And to widen their ideological support base in urban centers, the CPI-Maoist is also setting up new offices and pro-Naxalite Web sites to attract young and disaffected members of the middle class.

"There is an increasing focus on mass mobilization to vast new areas ... to create political and armed corridors," said Mr. Sahni, the security analyst who also edits the South Asia Intelligence Review.

CPI-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," he added.

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 belted 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 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."

Back at the rebel camp, Comrade Sunil said 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, to the nod of a dozen other guerillas. "And so are all the comrades of the People"s Liberation Guerrilla Army."


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