By JASON OVERDORF
Thursday, June 8, 2006 Page A16
Special to The Globe and Mail
DORNAPAL, INDIA -- Madkam Devi, a pretty 19-year-old in a sari printed with pink flowers, shifted the thin-limbed infant on her hip and gazed into space as she described how she narrowly escaped being hacked to death by Maoist revolutionaries a month ago.
She and 51 other villagers of Manikonta, a village in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, had returned to their homes from a government relief camp on April 25 to collect cooking pots, plastic buckets and other household items they had left behind when they made their hurried departure for police protection from the guerrillas. Finding the village deserted, they quickly gathered their belongings and started back to the relief camp. They didn't get far before the Maoists ambushed them.
"Some people panicked and tried to run, but some of the Maoists were wearing uniforms and shouted to us that they were the police, and we shouldn't be afraid," Ms. Devi said.
The Maoists, including about 50 gunmen in uniforms and another 150 irregulars armed with axes and wooden staves, killed two villagers and captured the others, Ms. Devi said. Some were badly beaten, a taste of the treatment the prisoners would receive over the next four days. But the worst was to come. As an example of the fate that awaits villagers who participate in a government-aided people's movement against their rebellion, the Maoists executed 13 of the villagers.
The Maoists -- sometimes called Naxalites, in reference to an armed uprising in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, from which the movement began in 1967 -- have maintained a low-level insurrection in India for nearly 40 years, organizing uprisings among landless workers, hijacking trains, mounting frequent attacks on police posts and industrial facilities, and murdering their political opponents. Their rebellion is gaining ground, expanding across 14 eastern and central Indian states, running all the way from the Nepal border in the north to the southern coast, and becoming a major Communist force intent on winning control of the Indian state through military means.
And the war is growing ever more deadly. More than 700 people, 500 of them civilians, were killed in raids, land-mine blasts and other incidents in 2005. Provisional data from the past four months suggest the death toll will be higher in 2006.
The rapid increase in violence has prompted some experts, such as Ajai Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, to warn that the Naxalite insurrection has surpassed separatist terrorists in Kashmir as the largest internal threat to India's ability to govern its vast territory.
India's national and state governments have long refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, because of what it says about their administrations, Mr. Sahni said. "Unlike the Kashmir issue, which we could blame on somebody else, this was entirely indigenous. It pointed to state failures."
The Maoist movement is rooted in the deep impoverishment of rural India. Although India's economy is growing at close to 8 per cent a year, nearly three-quarters of its people live in rural areas that continue to lag far behind the cities, especially in the problem states of north and central India. Just 20 per cent of rural people have access to basic amenities such as running water, compared with 70 per cent in urban areas. And poor nutrition and lack of health care mean that the infant-mortality rate for rural India is nearly 40 per cent higher than in urban areas.
In Chhattisgarh, the lack of local economic progress is obvious despite a huge influx of investment to develop the state's mineral resources. "Mining has been going on for three decades, but the only industry to flourish in the area is prostitution," a spokesman for the Maoists recently told local reporters.
In recent months, the rebel attacks have become more daring. In November, hundreds of Maoists stormed a jail in Bihar, freeing a captured Maoist leader and about half of the facility's 650 inmates. In February, the rebels raided a state-owned mining company in Chhattisgarh, stealing tonnes of explosives for the manufacture of crude bombs.
The violent attack on the villagers of Manikonta signalled a shift in strategy by the guerrillas, who previously had focused attacks on organs of the state. By brutalizing ordinary villagers, the Maoists are taking a dangerous gamble. Historically, they have embraced local causes and won respect, and sometimes support, through hard work and a dogged battle against social injustice and government corruption.
In Chhattisgarh, local observers say that years ago the Maoists forced contractors to pay tribal labourers the wages mandated by the state, rather than skimming from the payroll. They thrashed corrupt officials of the forest department, and forced truant government teachers to show up for their classes in the deep jungle, instead of merely drawing their salaries.
However, Chhattisgarh officials now say that the Maoists more often work to stop projects that would benefit the local poor.
"Contrary to what they [the Maoists] say, Naxalism is not growing, because there is no development in the state," said Chhattisgarh Home Secretary B. K. S. Ray. "Basically, this is a terrorist movement to gain political power through violence. Initially, they may have wanted land reform and equality, but now it's a gang of extortionists, gangsters and killers."
The tribal people of rural India need roads, schools and jobs. But the Maoists are committed to a full-scale Communist upheaval and radical redistribution of wealth, and believe that these incremental gains will never erase the gross inequalities of what they term India's "bourgeois comprador democracy."
"There is no dilution in the ideology," said Mr. Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management. "There is absolutely no set of economic initiatives on the horizon that can give prosperity, dignity et cetera to 810 million people in rural India."