Mirtur Forest Area, India:
Comrade Vijay, a lean, mustachioed man in his late 20s leaned towards a beat-up radio set inside his tent, rifle by his side, and tuned in to the BBC’s Hindi service.
The broadcast relayed news of a villager killed by Naxalites, or Maoist rebels, in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district. He cocked his eyebrow. “Mukhbir,” he said, reckoning that the man killed was a police informer. “Our men don’t kill without a good reason.”
As the deputy commander of a Maoist rebel squad in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, Comrade Vijay is well versed in revolutionary rhetoric. “You cannot end the world’s injustices without stirring a revolution,” he said. “No revolution happens without bloodying your hands. We are fighting a people’s war – a protracted people’s war.”
The commander and his comrades had woken after a rain-soaked night in a jungle clearing on top of a hill to the soothing sounds of birdsong and soft beams of sunlight filtering through the trees.
Nearly a dozen men and women, some as young as 15, moved in and out of three yellow tents cobbled together from plastic sheets. Some were in lungis, lengths of cloth wrapped around their waists, and T-shirts, others in dirty green commando fatigues. Enfield rifles were slung over their shoulders, with bandoleers of polished bullets draped around their waists.
Before the Indian government’s planned counteroffensive against the Naxalites, The National travelled to this rebel hideout in the dense jungles of southern Chhattisgarh, one of the deadliest theatres of the Maoist insurgency in India.
The journey into the rebel’s heartland involved a 70km hike, winding through thick jungle over the mineral-rich Bailadila Hills and on through a number of rebel-controlled villages. The Maoists call them “liberated villages”.
In China today, as in much of the capitalist world, the name Mao Zedong holds little meaning. But in this remote and rugged jungle, Mao’s ideology is still the guiding principle. Naxalites adhere to his doctrine of creating a classless society by stirring an armed peasant revolution to overthrow the state.
Much of this war is invisible, raging in the Indian countryside. With toeholds in 22 of India’s 28 states, the rebels control nearly one-third of India’s land mass.
India’s torrid economic growth in recent years has made it an emerging global superpower, but also created a yawning gap between the rich and the poor. The Naxalites, observers say, are a sign of India’s growing social inequalities.
Much of the rebel-held territory, though largely impoverished tribal areas, is rich in minerals and natural resources, which the country, hungry for economic growth, is eager to exploit.
The rebels, who claim to represent India’s dispossessed, accuse the government of trying to push people from their land.
Across India’s cities and urban centres, Naxalites have long been viewed largely as a ragtag rural militia with modest military capabilities. But in recent years, they have been viewed as a serious threat. Their expanding “red corridor” has generated fears that the growing Maoist presence could hobble India’s economic growth.
“If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected,” Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said this year.
In this sprawling forested region of southern Chhattisgarh, which accounts for a fifth of all the iron ore deposits in India, rebels accuse the state government of “selling out” to cash-rich steel-producing corporations such as Essar Steel and Tata Steel, who are keen to mine the mineral to feed their upcoming steel plants in the region.
In June last year, Maoist guerrillas raided Essar Steel’s iron ore plant in Dantewada district, damaging technical equipment, sabotaging a 270km-long underground pipeline that transfers slurry to the Bay of Bengal and setting 19 lorries ablaze. “We won’t let them usurp our lands,” said Comrade Vijay, who claims his fellow rebels were involved in the operation.
Inside his tent, Comrade Vijay tapped at a steel lunch box, the contents of which he said was “one of our main military strengths”. There was enough explosive inside to make a five kilogram improvised explosive device. “It’s enough to blow up a Jeep,” he said. “With 40 kilos, we’ve blown up mine-resistant vehicles.”
In the past half decade, the rebels have detonated more than 1,000 of these devices in Chhattisgarh. More Indian policemen lose their lives through such bobby traps than through open combat with the rebels. They are also armed with an inventory of sophisticated weapons, including AK-47s and Indian National Small Arms Systems assault rifles.
At the camp, a group of rebels gathered around a wood fire, sipping doodh chai, or milk tea, from stainless steel tumblers.
The rebels boasted that some of their rifles had been grabbed after raiding local police stations. Their ammunition carried telltale signs of snatch-and-run. A bullet cartridge of one of the rebels carried the seal of “Ammunition Factory Khadki”, an ordnance that supplies ammunition to India’s defence forces.
Many of the rebels, most of them under the age of 18, seemed well indoctrinated in Maoism’s violent creed.
Some, such as Comrade Mohan, a diminutive 16-year-old, evinced a kind of resigned fatalism that breeds a fanatical fervour to wage war against the state, which he believes has wronged his people.
From a village in Bastar district, he joined the ranks of the Naxalites when he was 12 after his village was burnt down by Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored anti-Naxal vigilante militia. His family – comprising his peasant father, mother and brother – escaped unscathed, but he was too angry to keep down. He joined Bal Sangham, the children’s wing of the Naxalites. Like other rebels, he was offered no salary, only the promise of liberation. He spent three months at a Maoist camp. By the fourth month, he was ready to embrace the gun and die for the movement. “My father says, ‘if I lose you in battle, I’ll send my other son to fight’,” he said, smiling. “I am ready to face the bullet for my people.”
There were many others like him at the jungle hideout. Some of the rebels sat in the open on a plastic sheet around Comrade Rehmati, listening intensely as she read from a printed booklet with a red hammer and sickle emblazoned on the cover. It contained the tales of valour of dozens of rebels who had lost their lives in battle.
“This is a battle of gun and politics,” said Comrade Rehmati, the commander of the squad’s military wing. “We have to teach our comrades about our leaders’ sacrifices. That’ll encourage them to endure this life of hardship in the jungle.”
The rebels seemed to display a level of organisation and discipline and rotated cooking, cleaning and sentry duty.
As the night closed in on the jungle, Comrade Vijay sent out word that cooking must be finished before darkness falls as a fire might give away their location.
He appointed two rebels to guard each of the six posts around the camp in rotation. While one sits, the other stands. If approached by the “enemy”, one of the comrades stands and fires while the other swiftly informs the rest of the group. As he walked around the camp to do these chores, Comrade Vijay said reports about the military assault had unsettled neither the villagers nor his men.
Earlier in the day, a long row of people from neighbouring “liberated villages” walked into the camp, and were ushered into a tent. It was impossible to verify if they were there out of their own free will or had been hauled up for forced indoctrination sessions. Until late into the night, Comrade Vijja, the soft-spoken, reticent commander of the squad, who only spoke the local Gondhi dialect, sat in a conference with them.
His deputy, Comrade Vijay said the villagers were being taught “self defence” tactics ahead of the military operation. The villagers ought to learn how to chase away military forces “the way you chase away a pack of elephants” – attack and run, guerrilla style, with bows and arrows, machetes, and those who can, with guns.
Some of them would be taught how to plant improvised explosives to fend off the “invading forces”. Tribal people were illiterate, he said, but they are capable of fighting the might of the Indian forces.
“In the past, they [the Indian government] have sent several contingents of elite military forces. They burnt down villages and killed innocent civilians, but they could not stamp us out,” he said. “What makes them think they will succeed this time?”