A sprawling, yet largely hidden, war is raging in India's rural
countryside, and after years of ignoring it, Delhi is signalling a
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
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
Aiming to bring the fight to cities
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. …