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A trip into India’s rebel-held territory

Posted by Admin on October 24, 2009

Women collect water outside of the village of Maliguda, (about 60km from Koraput) on Monday, September 21, 2009.  Many of these women are members of India's tribal community and are living in a forest village whose ancient lands were ceded by government to an aluminum mine. Development on nearby land threatens the villagers access to water.

Women collect water outside of the village of Maliguda, (about 60km from Koraput) on Monday, September 21, 2009. Many of these women are members of India's tribal community and are living in a forest village whose ancient lands were ceded by government to an aluminum mine. Development on nearby land threatens the villagers access to water.

Stephanie Nolen

Narayanpatna, India — From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 5:31PM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009 1:30AM EDT

Some of the flags are emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, but most are plain. The raggedy scrap of red, knotted on a bamboo pole and stuck in the middle of a rice paddy, is enough to send the message: This land has been occupied. Redistributed. Or reclaimed, depending on who is talking.

The terms matter little. The banners in the paddies that sprawl for miles proclaim the rule of a new authority.

“The government has bowed down before them,” says Lokman Purusiti, looking haggard and distraught, “because their strength is much greater.”

Mr. Purusiti has title to five acres outside the village of Bikrampur, land he says his family has farmed for 200 years. But a few weeks ago, men with red scarves tied around their heads appeared, planted a flag in his paddy and began to plow the land.

The mob smashed up a few houses in Bikrampur and made sure everyone knew that a farmer in the next village who got in their way had wound up dead. Now, Mr. Purusiti and his neighbours mostly keep to their houses. “If anyone goes to the police to complain, he is killed.”

Over the past three months, an insurgency has erupted in Narayanpatna, a region in the eastern Indian state of Orissa that includes Bikrampur and a hundred other small villages. In this particular operation, a few thousand hectares have been occupied, a few thousand people displaced and a half-dozen killed.

But the region is part of a vast tract that cuts a diagonal swath across India, from the state of Bihar in the east through Chhattisgarh to Maharashtra in the west. It covers one-third of the country’s land mass, and the Indian government estimates that, within it, at least 40,000 square kilometres of land rich in forests and minerals are now under the control of Maoists.

Yes, Maoists.

“Outside India, people are still surprised you can have something called left-wing extremism – it’s almost quaint,” says Ajai Sahni, who heads the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and one of the few serious efforts to track the insurgency.

“The Soviet Union collapsed, China has abandoned … communism, and it is very difficult for an outsider to comprehend the power that left-wing ideologies have in a country with such entrenched inequality and absolute deprivation.”

In the wake of last year’s terrorist attack in Mumbai, the government has addressed the Maoist issue with new urgency; last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called left-wing extremism “the gravest internal threat to India’s security.”

But the area under Maoist control lies mostly in the belt of land designated for the adivasis , or tribals, India’s incredibly poor aboriginal population, for whom the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, created huge forest enclaves much like Canada’s native reserves. Because the conflict has had little impact outside the tribal regions, those in India’s big cities, its political elite and its growing middle class have not taken the insurgency too seriously.

Yet the fight is anything but “quaint.” A few kilometres from here lies the charred carcass of a police truck that was blown up in July, killing nine officers whose limbs were strewn over the jade hillside. That was about the last time the state tried to send personnel through here.

Roads across southern Orissa are lined with huge trees that the Maoists fell and, in their signature move, surround with homemade land mines, cutting off traffic for months. And bodies of local people who are suspected of being dissidents or of acting as police informants are dumped in villages whose terrified residents arrange hasty burials, saying nothing.

Last week, 18 police in Maharashtra were killed by a land mine, while the body of an officer abducted in Jharkhand was dumped a few hundred metres from his severed head.

And there are firefights. As the fields of Bikrampur were being occupied, an elite paramilitary force in nearby Chhattisgarh was locked in battle with the insurgents deep in the jungle. The commandos supposedly had satellite intelligence and a foolproof plan, yet 14 of them were killed.


India’s failure to stem the Maoist rise is an ugly flip side to the face of rapid progress that the country prefers to show the world. And it has grave implications: The success of the insurgency shows clearly that, despite a roaring economy and growing international power (Prime Minister Stephen Harper is due here next month to bolster Canada’s ever-cozier relationship with India), the government cannot maintain law and order in large parts of the country, including those eyed most hungrily by its trade partners.

The roots of this conflict are older than modern India. A Communist movement emerged here in the late 1940s, around the time of independence, and there were streams of the party that supported, variously, the ideologies of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The movement split when some groups decided to begin contesting elections, and the Communist Party today forms the government in some of India’s best-run states.

Others, however, insisted that parliamentary politics would never liberate the poor, and took up arms. Since 1967, the hard-liners also have been known as Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal where tribal people rose up against high-caste landlords. The Naxal movement was once very popular with intellectuals and those with leftist sympathies, but it has alienated many people in recent years by resorting to terrorist tactics; beheaded police officers make front-page news across the nation.

The Naxals finance their movement by extorting from landlords, government, mining companies and anyone else who tries to work in the areas they control; they arm themselves by stealing explosives from the mines and pillaging police stations.

Their strategy is classic Mao: Create what Mr. Sahni, the terrorism expert, calls “disruptive dominance” by gradually driving out the state and encircling urban centres before launching the revolution to establish a people’s commune. Only hard-core sympathizers now think this very likely; meanwhile, havoc is being wrought.

Today, the Home Ministry says the insurgency is active in 22 of India’s 28 states, and admits it has no real idea how big the Naxal movement is. A rough estimate among terrorism experts is 10,000 highly trained fighters and 40,000 other rank-and-file members, many of them women, plus tens of thousands of villagers who may have little choice but to support them. Despite having a fairly small fighting force, the Naxals have staged some high-profile attacks in recent years: Two chief ministers (India’s equivalent of provincial premiers) narrowly escaped assassination, and in July, the Maoists in this district briefly overran Asia’s largest bauxite mine, taking 150 hostages and making off with immense quantities of explosives.

The death toll is escalating steadily, from 482 in 2002 to 721 last year, a figure that excludes the hundreds of Naxal fighters and supporters killed by police. This year’s total, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, hit 580 by August, far more casualties than in the higher-profile conflict with Islamist extremists in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the past week, the government has announced plans for a huge, co-ordinated assault on the Maoist regions – but also made one more plea for the insurgents to negotiate. It’s easy to see why the state prefers this route: Even as Prime Minister Singh was warning of the Maoist threat last month, he acknowledged that his government is losing the fight.


Narayanpatna is eerily still. The thickly forested hills, the village lanes that twist between whitewashed houses and the streams where women beat laundry on rocks are at once beautiful and somehow sinister. Few vehicles pass along the rutted roads; drivers of those that do keep their windows down and lean out to make their civilian identities clear, because Naxal sentries on every hilltop watch for potential roadside-bomb targets.

In Bikrampur, the poor people who lost land cower in their houses just a few hun-dred metres from the even poorer people who seized it. A hundred half-naked men from the Gond tribe, wearing only tattered sarongs in the 50-degree heat, squat in the paddies, doing the tedious, painful work of thinning the rice plants. Their leader, Promod Taring, watches them, and for any hint of insurrection, from the shade of a battered black umbrella. Sent by the local revolutionary committee to supervise the occupation, he speaks of his mission in the urgent language of a zealot.

“Generations before us have been deceived by non-tribals,” he says. “For liquor and small amounts of money, the land was captured from our forefathers. Now that we have got a small education, we understand that we lost our land unethically, hence this move-

ment to take back our land. You can’t say it’s by force – it is the finding of lost land. It was snatched from us and we took it back.”

A 1995 Supreme Court judgment said tribal people had rights to land, he adds, yet none of the tribals in this region were given any, so they had no choice but to seize it.

Mr. Taring rails about his people’s historic oppression in terms laced with choice words from Chairman Mao – land, he says, must go to the tiller, and that land must be seized because the landlord will never give it up voluntarily.

Yet, in Bikrampur, the fight clearly is about more than the tyranny of the landlord. The haggard Mr. Purusiti, for example, while technically a landlord, was hardly prosperous. His five children and 10 grandchildren lived off his five acres; their house has two rooms and a dirt floor.

At the start of the occupation, the mob attacked the house of his neighbour, Kumari Hiyal, and beat her husband badly. “They say they are with the poor,” she says of the Maoists. “But they are not with us.” The couple earned $30 a month selling brooms.

In fact, the fight in Bikrampur has as much to do with caste as it does with land. Mr. Purusiti and the other villagers, although not high-caste themselves, hired the even lower-caste tribals to work their land, collect dung and sweep the laneways. “We were being tortured by a section of society,” Mr. Taring says defiantly, his gold-flecked eyes trained on the village.

And when his leaders went looking for people to seize the land, they did not have to go far. Men working in the paddy say landowners in Bikrampur were paying them 60 or 70 cents a day – below the legal minimum wage – and would not even let them use the same wells as higher-caste residents, one of a dozen daily humiliations. Now, they finally have land. And revenge.

Inevitably, Mr. Taring observes, some poor people will suffer in the fight for justice, as Marx predicted; casualties are unavoidable.

“Personally, I feel for them,” he says of the villagers, “but as a part of the movement, I am forced not to feel for them.”

This is a typical Naxal tactic, to use local conflicts as an entrée into a community. The Indian government also boosts their cause: “Even 62 years after independence, there are areas where roads are not there, schools are not there, hospitals are not there,” says Deepak Kumar, the district police chief. “People in some of these areas, from the time they’re born, they don’t know what government is. They only know government as police or the tax collector.

“For them, the Maoists are like Robin Hood.”

In a rapidly changing India, the Maoist message is, for some people, becoming ever more relevant. The state government cannot find these villages to install drinking water systems or to post paramedics, but it has managed to draw up precise surveys of land and population for major international mining companies that want access to the bauxite that coats the hilltops.

Sukanunder Taring (no relation to his leader) helped to seize the fields in Bikrampur and says that he and his four brothers share two acres of land in nearby Bari. That made them far better off than most tribals until six months ago, when a mining company arrived, saying it had permission to stake a claim.

Mr. Taring says people in his village asked the regional administration to protect their fields and forest resources, but no one would even meet with them. This came as no surprise, he adds, since they need to pay a bribe even to collect a pension. “We feared we would soon lose our land to the mine,” he says. “This new land, it isn’t much, but with it we will have a better life.”

In this district, 29 mining companies have been licensed in the past three years. One Gond village has waged a six-year struggle to keep out an aluminum mine. When the people blockaded bulldozers last year, local leader Arjun Khilo says, their member of Parliament angrily told them: “Whether you want it or not, this mine will happen.”

The only offer of help has come from the Maoists, a scenario repeated in locations across the region, according to K. Balagopal, the late head of the Human Rights Forum, which tracks police excesses in the fight against the rebels.

In an interview conducted just before his recent fatal heart attack, Mr. Balagopal explained that India’s business-friendly policies “have alienated the poor so much that the scope for a genuine radical movement is, in fact, greater today than it was …when the Maoist movement started.”


Even as the government appears to drive people to embrace the Naxals, its own engagement with the rebels has been disastrous. The first problem is a lack of will: Prime Minister Singh began to fret about the insurgence in 2005, only to be continually contradicted by his own home minister (recently replaced by a hawk), who considered the Naxals “wayward children.”

New Delhi is now focused on the threat, but many states have mixed feelings. Those run by Communists have clear leftist sympathies, while others seem to feel the fight would only cost them votes, says Mr. Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.

An audit conducted last year found the police unprepared for the fight. Governments had redirected or sat on money meant to upgrade the forces, and failed to procure vehicles, weapons, ammunition and better communications equipment. With insurgents operating freely in two-thirds of its territory, Orissa had 1,000 police stations in sensitive areas with no transport; 1,250 vehicles had been purchased and then diverted to VIP service.

However, one state has fought back effectively. Located directly south of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh was long the intellectual base of the Maoists, who by the late 1980s operated there with impunity. Then it created an elite commando force, the Greyhounds, with a big budget for intelligence, and sent it into the jungle to hunt the Naxals.

Inspector-General Anjani Kumar, who now heads the force, explained in a rare interview that, in addition to the commandos, the state beefed up policing as a whole and implemented a tempting surrender policy, offering employment training and cash to defecting Naxals. All the while, he stresses, the government pushed to roll out development initiatives in the most Naxal-affected areas to lower the rebels’ appeal.

Mr. Sahni calls the hearts-and-minds aspect nonsense and says the skilled policing simply made the cost of operating too high for the Naxals, who promptly decamped over the border, into Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

Other states have yet to match Andhra Pradesh’s success. The United Nations recommends having 222 police officers for 100,000 residents; at the end of 2007, Orissa had 125 – a deficit that extends into every department that might respond to the insurgency.

The gap is similar in every Naxal-affected state. But the country is in no position to go on a hiring binge: With fewer than nine per cent of Indians educated past high school, Mr. Sanhi calls the skills deficit “monstrous.” Orissa agreed last year to hire more police, only to discover it had no-one qualified to train the officers.

The forces today are just big enough for the occasional major operation, like the disastrous commando raid in Chhattisgarh, which does little more than make headlines. The central government is offering to help, but “pumping in central or paramilitary forces will not work – and it’s what the Maoists want, because there will be killing of civilians and this will influence opinion,” says Insp. Kumar, whose own elite force has a poor human-rights record.

Mr. Balagopal, the human-rights advocate, bemoaned the fact that the Greyhounds’ success in Andhra Pradesh inspired copycat forces in other states: “Okay, in the end, they have succeeded in pushing the Maoists to the wall, but they have been completely brutal and entirely illegal.”

Torture is now a routine part of interrogations, he said, and no one questions why Maoist suspects rarely survive “encounters” with the police.

Like many, he argued that only a political solution will resolve the problem. Varavara Rao, a teacher and poet in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, has represented the rebels in negotiations with government, and says they are still willing to talk, if the government removes its forces from the forests and allows tribal people free movement.

“It’s not that the Maoist party has asked you [in government] to give away power to them or to accept the Maoist philosophy or even their proposition of land to the tiller,” he says. “They are asking you to implement your own land-reform acts. … They are asking you to implement your principles of state policy and the fundamental rights.”

But Mr. Balagopal predicted that there will be no talks. “How does government explain to the people why land reforms have failed in this country, why minimum wage is not paid and … no actions are taken by the government? They do not have an answer to that so they prefer to make policing the central job.”

Instead, Mr. Sahni says, the insurgency will continue to spread – never to the point of seriously threatening government or seizing power, as Maoists did a few years ago in neighbouring Nepal – but still undermining development efforts in India’s poorest areas.


In Bikrampur, the families who lost their land are staying put, for now. Mr. Purusiti estimates that his family can survive for about a year on its savings. “When what we have is exhausted, we will leave. We don’t know where we will go.”

Camps have sprung up around police stations and government buildings across the tribal belt to accommodate the thousands of people displaced by the violence.

Mr. Purusiti wonders how long they can co-exist beside the occupiers and whether banners and a few smashed houses will be the end of the violence. “We live in fear every night that we will have to leave in the morning. We have the hope that in the next year the administration will come up with some solution.”

The same administration that has yet to send anyone to investigate the seizure of Narayanpatna?

He sighs heavily. “We don’t have any confidence in the administration. But there isn’t anyone else to listen to us.”


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