India's Ragtag Band of Maoists Takes Root Among Rural Poor

A senior Naxalite commander known as Comrade Kosa addresses about 2,000 tribal militiamen and supporters at an April rally near Bastar, India. Kosa said of Maoism's failure in China,
A senior Naxalite commander known as Comrade Kosa addresses about 2,000 tribal militiamen and supporters at an April rally near Bastar, India. Kosa said of Maoism's failure in China, "Every movement has its ups and downs." (Photos By John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

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By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 13, 2006

BASTAR FOREST, India -- He's 30 years old, speaks English and is conversant in the language of e-mail and the Internet. Friendly and self-confident, he could be a manager in a call center, or perhaps a software engineer on one of India's gleaming high-tech campuses. But "Comrade M," as he asks to be called, prefers a different line of work: waging war on the Indian state.

Armed with a battered Lee-Enfield rifle that he laughingly describes as "senior to me," the university graduate in an olive-drab uniform with a red star on the breast was one of about 30 Maoist guerrillas encountered recently in this remote forest in east-central India.

Drawing recruits and support from indigenous tribespeople known as adivasis , the ragtag band of young men and women is part of a larger revolutionary movement whose audacious, if anachronistic, goal is to replace India's parliamentary democracy with a communist system straight out of Chairman Mao Zedong's Little Red Book.

Once dismissed as little more than an irritant, the Maoist movement is gaining ground in this country of more than 1 billion people, feeding off anti-government hostility in some rural areas and highlighting the uneven nature of India's unprecedented economic boom. Analysts say the movement consists of about 10,000 regular fighters, with several hundred thousand supporters. The rebels are known as Naxalites, after the eastern town of Naxalbari where the movement began in 1967.

During the recent encounter with the rebels in the state of Chhattisgarh, a visitor witnessed a rally of at least 2,000 tribal supporters, many armed with axes and bows and arrows, gathered next to a concrete plinth topped with a hammer and sickle. The rally took place in a stand of tall trees about six hours' walk from the nearest paved road.

The Maoist commander in the area, who goes by the name Kosa, said the movement had not been deterred by the triumph of capitalism in China and other formerly communist countries.

"When a scientist doesn't get the desired results from an experiment, he doesn't just abandon the experiment," he said. "Every movement has its ups and downs. There are defeats as well as victories. We should learn from the failure of Maoism in China and move ahead."

Following a long period of relative quiet, the Naxalites in the past several years have expanded their presence to 13 of India's 28 states, according to official estimates, spurring talk of a "red corridor" extending from Nepal, which is battling a Maoist insurgency of its own, down through the wooded heartland of central and southern India. The Maoist rebels in India and Nepal have acknowledged ideological ties, and security officials suspect logistical collaboration as well.

Equipped with homemade bombs and rifles looted from police stations, the Indian rebels have staged increasingly bold attacks, such as seizing a passenger train for 12 hours in the eastern state of Jharkhand in March. They function in some remote districts as a parallel government, complete with makeshift courts and police. Their violent tactics have turned parts of Chhattisgarh, among other states, into virtual no-go areas for the government, thwarting plans for corporate mining operations in forests that many adivasis regard as their own.

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalite movement as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country" -- no small claim in a nation with many insurgencies, including the long-running Islamic rebellion in Kashmir.

Singh said the rebels draw strength from "deprived and alienated sections of the population" and "are trying to establish 'liberation zones' in core areas where they are dispensing, or claiming to be dispensing, basic state functions." He called for redoubled efforts to promote development and better governance, as well as better intelligence-sharing among Naxalite-afflicted states and improved training and equipment for police and paramilitary forces.

The Naxalites are proliferating despite the rapid growth of affluence in the country. Driven by industries such as software and outsourcing, the boom has helped expand the middle class, its aspirations reflected in such entertainment fare as "Who Wants to Be a Crorepati ?" -- India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" The streets of major cities are clogged with new cars, and developers are gobbling up surrounding fields for shopping malls and housing developments.


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