Thursday, May 11, 2006

India steps up drive against Maoists

By David Loyn
BBC News

Around 50,000 people have now been moved from their homes in India as part of a new government campaign against a Maoist insurgency.

The Maoist insurgency has continued for more than 20 years
The removals, in the new state of Chhattisgarh, have been conducted as part of what is called the Salva Judum - literally "purification hunt" in the local language.

The policy was begun by the leader of the Congress opposition in the State Assembly, Mahendra Karma. "Terrorists and so-called revolutionary groups can only be countered by a peace movement like ours," he said.

But many of those resettled have said that this was not a peace movement at all. They say they were forced to leave their homes. Some even claim that those too old or too frail to move were shot dead by government forces and their houses burnt down behind them.

No-go zones

India has been facing an insurgency by these rebels, called "Naxalites" here, for more than 20 years. But it is only in the last year that this has become the country's most pressing security concern, and certainly the one with the highest death toll.

The Naxalites have close links with the Maoists who now control most of Nepal, and they believe that a revolution in India is a historic inevitability.

Their heartland is the remote forest areas bordering West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maddhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Across large parts of this region, they have established virtual no-go zones, which government forces cannot enter unless invited by the Naxalites.

The support of the poorest is demanded by the Naxalites, who work to keep it by insisting on better prices for forest products, like the large leaves from the tendu tree, which are sold to make the outer binding of bidi cigarettes.

Teachers and health staff are forced to come and work in remote locations by the guerrillas who insist on education and training for themselves and the villages under their "protection".

Village protection

When I travelled in the region under Naxalite control two years ago, I saw how they could move easily, living off villages where they stay, and providing them with protection in return.

The rebels shelter in remote forest areas

I witnessed a rally of several thousand people who they invited to a jungle clearing. The dancing went on all night, around hundreds of camp fires made of teak branches they cut down from the forest.

This was a major display, both of the Naxalites' ability to mobilise supporters, and the relative safety with which they operate. When I asked people whether they supported the Naxalites or the government, they said simply: "We see these people, but we don't see the government."

But on the fringes of the "no-go zone", I met landowners' families, terrorised out of their homes and deprived of their lands.

Several hundred members of the security forces have been killed, and this year the Naxalites have become even more daring, seizing police posts overnight and robbing weapons, holding a train hostage, and recently seizing 20 tonnes of high explosive from a mining concern.

This was not a situation that could be allowed to continue. But the response of the state, arming anti-Naxalite vigilantes and moving people from their homes, has raised serious human rights concerns.


The rural areas of Chhattisgarh are becoming militarised zones. The Border Roads Organisation - set up to manage India's frontier areas - is now pushing through new roads, giving the security forces access to areas which up to now have been controlled by the Naxalites.

Nearly 50,000 people are living in government-run camps

Those removed from their homes now live in squalid camps dotted along the sides of these roads. Many claim that promised aid has not arrived, and they have few opportunities to earn a living. They have lost their cattle and their land, so they have not been able to plant crops to support themselves.

Other than working as day-labourers, they can only harvest the fruits of the forest, such as Marhua, the blossoms of trees that flower at this time of year, which are distilled to make an alcoholic drink.

One of the camps has been put up in a former construction yard. I saw stagnant water where mosquitoes are breeding, and children playing close to toxic waste from tar barrels, leaching out in the high heat of the summer.

Many people lie listlessly in these camps, unable to comprehend the loss of their ancestral lands, although some are now beginning to build houses along the roadside, as instructed by the government.

A social worker Himanshu Kumar, who has worked in the area for many years, says that half of the villages in his area have been cleared. He says people are scared. "The people used to live very freely. Now they are living like cattle in these camps. They are driven by the forces," he said. "It's really very pathetic.'


We walked for several kilometres into the jungle to the village of Kotra Pal. More than 20 houses were burnt to the ground here. Some of the men have begun to return during the day, although they fear staying here at night, in case the Naxalites think that they are government supporters.

India is changing its policing of the rebel areas

One of the consequences of the new government policy has been to force people to take sides. The paramilitary police who moved the people of Kotra Pal from their homes believed that they were harbouring Naxalites, but now the villagers fear that they would be seen as government supporters since they live in the camps by the new road.

I met a woman who still carries a bullet lodged in her stomach since the night of the attack by government forces last summer, and a man told me that his father and two uncles were shot dead since they could not move out fast enough. In scenes reminiscent of Darfur, I saw several burnt houses, and the villagers said that more than 20 had been burnt in all.

In a camp by the new road, one of the Salva Judum vigilantes told me that he had been part of the attack. "We went there with the police and destroyed all their houses," he said.

The Salva Judum is now under review by the government, while a far more specialised police force is being trained. Brigadier BK Ponwar, a veteran counter-insurgency expert, has moved his Jungle Warfare Training College from the northeast state of Mizoram to train Chhattisgarh's police.

The police, including women officers, go through intensive combat training, sleeping under canvas, and learning to eat forest fruits and even snakes to survive. At the climax of their course they carry out shooting exercises firing live rounds at targets placed close by each other, an exercise designed to build confidence under fire.

Brig Ponwar, a flamboyant character, rides around the area he has carved from the jungle on horseback, leading from the front.

"The police have to change from conventional policing to unconventional policing, get out of police station into the jungle, fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla," he said. "The time has come to go into combat.'

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