Mineral rights are behind clashes between leftwing guerrillas and state-backed militias
Randeep Ramesh in Bhanupratapur forest, Tuesday May 9, 2006, The Guardian
Forty young men and women in ill-fitting army fatigues, clutching flintlocks and pistols, stand in the shade of a mango tree. Beside them flaps a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.
In a show of strength, the soldiers creep up on imaginary enemies through long grass. Armed with weapons and the opinions of the doctrinaire left, these guerrillas, or Naxalites as they are known, are part of a hidden war in the middle of India's mineral-rich tribal belt.
The Naxalites are heirs of the revolutionary ideology of Mao Zedong. Unlike their ideological cousins in Nepal, the guerrillas are not prepared to consider exchanging the bullet for the ballot box. Across a wide swath of India, from Andhra Pradesh in the south to the Nepalese border, there are daily reports of underground armies hijacking trains, mounting audacious jailbreaks and murdering local politicians.
Last month the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described the rebels as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country". Nowhere is this conflict more acute than in the dense forests of southern Chhattisgarh state, the scene of violent land disputes and social clashes. In the past year the state has armed thousands of villagers with guns, spears and bows and arrows. Child soldiers are often ranged against opponents of similar age. In Chhattisgarh a battalion of Indian paramilitary forces has backed this militia, known as Salva Judum (Peace March), against the Naxalites, turning the forest into a battlefield.
Entire villages have been emptied as tribal communities flee from the burnings, lootings and killings. The civil conflict has left more than 50,000 people camping under tarpaulin sheets without work or food along the roadsides of southern Chhattisgarh.
Campaigners say that the reason why the government has opened a new front in this battle lies beneath Chhattisgarh's fertile soil, which contains some of the country's richest reserves of iron ore, coal, limestone and bauxite. Above live some of India's most impoverished people: semi-literate tribes who exist in near destitution.
India's biggest companies have moved stealthily into the forest areas, buying up land and acquiring the rights to extract the buried wealth. Last year the Chhattisgarh government signed deals worth 130bn Indian rupees (£1.6bn) with industrial companies for steel mills and power stations.
The Naxalites have begun a campaign against such industrialisation, which the state sees as necessary to create jobs and provide the raw materials for economic growth.
Watching his "troops" conduct military exercises is Gopanna Markam, company commander in the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, whose rank is denoted by the AK-47 in his hands. He says the "exploitation" needs to be stopped. "The government is bent upon taking out all the resources from this area and leaving the people nothing."
These are no idle threats. Police estimate there are 4,500 armed leftwing guerrillas in Chhattisgarh. In recent months they have attacked mines, blown up electricity pylons and torched cars used by contractors. They have set up "people's courts" to punish, and in some cases execute, those deemed to be capitalist collaborators.
The guerrillas' aim is violent revolution. Their political wing, the Communist party of India (Maoist), operates underground and has an armed presence in almost half of India's 28 states. The cadre fervently believes that India's feudal traditions, ingrained caste hierarchy and skewed land ownership provide fertile ground for rebellion. "The path ahead will become more difficult for us but we know history is with us," said Commander Markam.
The Naxalites argue that they have brought order if not law to the area – banishing corrupt officials, expelling landlords and raising prices at gunpoint for harvests of tendu leaves, used to wrap bidi cigarettes. They finance their operations by levying "taxes" of around 12% on contractors and traders.
In the tribal areas, officials estimate half the population supports the Naxalites, through choice or coercion. Two-thirds of the forests have been off-limits to government staff. In many districts 40% of police posts are unfilled and a quarter of doctors' positions are vacant.
Mahendra Karma, a state politician of tribal heritage, said the Naxalites have "collapsed the social, economic and traditional administrative structure" and tribes now are "backward people who want to go forward with industry".
Although Salva Judum is widely seen as his brainchild, Mr Karma says the movement was a result of "spontaneous anger bursting through".
The first signs of this anger were seen last June, when thousands of villagers marched with police in the village of Kortapal, where the Naxalites had abducted several government supporters. A fierce gun battle followed, with many running for cover in the forest. The village today is deserted and many of the houses have been vandalised.
This policy of emptying villages where there is support for Naxalites has been implemented across southern Chhattisgarh, with the attacks becoming bolder and bloodier. The response has been equally devastating. In February the Naxalites blew up a truck carrying Salva Judum workers back from a rally, killing more than 50 people.
In March a series of lightning raids led to tit-for-tat disappearances, beheadings and shootings. Ten days ago the bodies of 13 villagers who had protested against the guerrillas were found dead. Human rights groups say the conflict has claimed more than 150 lives this year.
"[Naxalites] have developed sophisticated strategies. We have recovered rocket launchers, mortar shells and machine guns recently," said the state police intelligence chief, Sant Kumar Paswan.
In the areas controlled by the Salva Judum, teenagers with bows and arrows guard roadblocks and Indian paramilitary forces patrol the refugee camps.
While the soldiers say villagers come seeking refuge from the violence, the tribals tell a different story. They claim that the camps are, in reality, prisons.
The guards in Bhairamgarh camp brought out captured Naxalite political agents, known as Sangam, for the Guardian to interview. Each told a story of state-backed terror. A mob of government supporters invaded their village backed by armed soldiers who opened fire on "Naxalite houses". A battle ensued and the guerrillas, outgunned, fled.
Once an area has been "cleansed", the homes of those used by leftwing guerrillas are destroyed and their owners brought to the camps.
"I was a Sangam. People were getting shot and homes burnt every day. I had no choice but to come here," said Buddram, who used to farm around Kortapal.
In the camps, fear stalks the inhabitants. The men have to report daily to the police station. Twice a day they queue up for a roll call and a drill.
Families are supposed to build their own makeshift houses. Without the state providing food or medicine, the displaced villagers say, anyone who can work is forced to do so for 50 rupees a day digging roads through the forest.
Caught in the crossfire are thousands of innocent villagers. Clutching her baby to her chest, Jamli recounts how the Salva Judum militia kidnapped her and seven friends as they travelled to a market. "We were told we had to come to the police station. Once we reached there we were kept overnight and driven to this camp where we were told if you leave you will be killed," she said. "I was alone until my husband arrived a w
eek later and he is trapped here too. We are not Naxalites. We have no homes here, just these tents."
A third of Chhattisgarh's 21 million people are aboriginals, mostly from the Gond tribe. Experts say that the situation is in danger of turning into an "African-style" conflict over minerals, with refugees herded from one camp to another, dying of illness, hunger and thirst.
Pradeep Prabhu, a tribal campaigner, said the basic problem was one of land rights. In India everything below the ground belongs to the state, not the people who live above it.
"States like Chhattisgarh are seething with anger over this issue. The issue came up in parts of Africa where it has caused so much mess."
The Naxalites, a name taken from Naxalbari district in West Bengal where the movement began in 1967, have spread to 160 of India's 604 administrative districts. In the 1960s they won the approval of Beijing, but China has since denounced the guerrillas.
The Naxalites functioned outside the parliamentary system, organising uprisings among landless workers in West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. They spread to the mineral-rich areas of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The two armed wings, People's War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre, combined 18 months ago to form one front: Communist party of India (Maoist).
With a force of 15,000 soldiers, it controls an estimated fifth of India's forests. The eventual aim is to capture the Indian state.