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

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.

But the boom has bypassed much of rural India, where more than 70 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people live. Though some rural areas, such as the fertile agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana, are doing reasonably well, others -- especially in the central and eastern parts of the country -- are beset by water shortages, poverty and caste discrimination.

Against that backdrop, the death toll from Naxalite violence has jumped from 483 in 2002 to 669 last year, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

In Chhattisgarh, the Naxalite movement has found abundant recruits among adivasis angered by police harassment, dismal or nonexistent government services and collusion between corrupt officials and criminals engaged in illegal logging. According to government data, 165 people died in Naxalite-related violence last year, and the bloodletting has continued: Last month, Naxalite rebels abducted 50 members of a pro-government militia called the Salwa Judum, then murdered 13 of them by slitting their throats, police said.

"They're absolutely ruthless killers," a senior Chhattisgarh security official, B.K.S. Roy, said by telephone from the state capital, Raipur. "I've never seen this kind of brutality in my life before, the way they strike and kill Salwa Judum members. They're hacked to death, heads severed from bodies."

Roy said the Naxalite movement's numbers were growing in Chhattisgarh, where the state last year set up a school to train police in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. "A thousand commandos are already ready for operations," Roy said. "We want a big striking force."

Human rights monitors have also criticized the Naxalites' methods, accusing them of forcible recruitment, extortion and the abduction and killing of "class enemies" and villagers suspected of colluding with the state. At the same time, they have denounced members of the Salwa Judum, which means "Peace Initiative," as vigilantes who rape, torture and kill villagers thought to be sympathetic to the rebels.

Contacted through intermediaries, the Naxalites agreed to meet with a foreign reporter and several Indian journalists in the heavily forested Bastar district, where the rebels maintain a large presence. Youthful Naxalite supporters met the visitors at a prearranged point and guided them into the woods.

Winding through dry, scraggly forests, the route occasionally passed clusters of grass-roofed huts, many with crude animal pens fashioned from tree branches. The hike eventually ended in the rebels' camp, which was littered with weapons, sleeping rolls and solar panels for charging batteries. Fighters greeted their guests with a handshake and a "red salute" -- a clenched fist raised to the temple.

They were under the command of Comrade Kosa, a swashbuckling figure with a warm, if wary, manner and a folding-stock Kalashnikov assault rifle. Members of the group asked to be identified only by first names.

Kosa, 48, was the only fighter in civilian dress, which he accented with a Calvin Klein baseball cap adorned with a red metal star. He said he had been with the movement since 1977, when he dropped out of a technical institute where he had been studying in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. He has been fighting in Chhattisgarh for 26 years, he said, and now commands a force of about 700 guerrillas, nearly half of them women, supported by several thousand tribal militiamen.

Kosa holds a political title, secretary of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, a state-level body that answers to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the Naxalites' banned political affiliate.

In honor of their guests, the rebels had erected a small bamboo enclosure decorated with hand-painted slogans such as "Down With Salwa Judum" and "Stop Corrupting Adivasi Culture to Make it Market Culture Under the Guise of Tourism." Uniformed cadres sang a song that included the line "America and Japan are big exploiters of this country."

Despite their isolation in the woods, Kosa and his aides keep abreast of current events by listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. Sanjeev, 35, a university dropout who has been with the movement since 1987, asked reporters for advice on how to "upload" Naxalite propaganda onto the Internet, to which he said he had occasional access. The visitors were provided with CDs purporting to contain evidence of Salwa Judum atrocities.

The rank and file was made up mostly of adivasis, several of whom said they joined the movement out of anger toward local authorities.

"I've never seen a hospital in any of these villages," said Nirmala, a slender, short-haired woman in her twenties who joined the movement four years ago and now serves as one of Kosa's bodyguards. "There are schools, but there are no teachers. The government says the adivasis, my people, have no rights over the forests."

Another adivasi rebel, Neela, said she was radicalized at the age of 12, when police arrested her father for illegally clearing a small patch of land and imprisoned him for three years.

A broad-faced woman with a ready smile, the 25-year-old Naxalite said she spoke only her local tribal dialect when she joined the movement a decade ago. Fellow cadres taught her how to read and speak Hindi, she said, and eventually she joined the movement's military wing. A member of a nine-person squad who carries a walkie-talkie and a single-shot rifle, Neela said proudly that she had taken part in 10 military operations, including one in which a mine was detonated beneath a vehicle carrying paramilitary troops. Four of them died, she said.

"They come into villages, beat up men, rape women," she said of the paramilitaries. "I don't feel bad at all about killing them."

Comrade M, the university graduate and a squad leader, said the rebels typically laid ambushes for "our friends in khaki uniform" using mines triggered by camera-flash devices.

Military operations aside, the Naxalite rebels also engage in small-scale development projects, such as digging wells and small reservoirs and training villagers in rudimentary health care, according to Kosa and his aides. They maintain an active political and propaganda wing, publishing a newsletter and holding rallies.

At the massive forest gathering, women from a Naxalite cultural troupe swayed and sang. Then Kosa and several other speakers addressed the crowd over a makeshift public address system powered by car batteries. Watching from the sidelines, Neela, the Naxalite foot soldier, said she had "complete confidence" that the revolution would one day succeed.

"I don't know about a guaranteed time frame," she said, "but I know it will happen."

Special correspondent Muneeza Naqvi contributed to this report.

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