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India's Undeclared War
State-backed militias versus communist Naxalites

Forty years after Maoists began a rebellion, there are suspicions that India’s national and state governments are clearing land of indigenous peoples to hand it over to mining and metal companies, ready for massive industrialisation

Cedric Gouverneur • December 2007

The fort of Rani Bodli is deep in the jungle in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Its machine guns are always trained on the dark trees, from which hundreds of Maoist guerrillas launched a dawn raid on 15 March this year. The garrison was overwhelmed and by the time reinforcements arrived, 55 policemen and auxiliaries were dead, and the 12 who survived were wounded.

Rani Bodli is symbolic of the Indian government’s helplessness against this insurrection by Maoists, known as Naxals or Naxalites. In 2006, 749 people were killed in conflict with the Indian state; 483 more died between January and September this year (1).

A few weeks after the massacre, NCO Essaryado told me that he doubted his troops could be much use at Rani Bodli. They are mostly Special Police Officers, young auxiliaries unused to combat. His police station was built in 2005 as part of New Delhi’s effort to regain control of jungles that the communist resistance had held since the 1980s. But that control is nominal: the officers here rarely leave their base for fear of ambush. “When we do go into town, we take the bus like everyone else. It’s safer,” Essaryado said.

The Naxalite movement began 40 years ago, in March 1967, when villagers in Naxalbari, in west Bengal, seized rice belonging to a landowner. After that, armed Maoist groups sprang up in the jungle and remote countryside. Their military activities were sporadic until September 2004 when the two main movements – the People’s War Group in central India and the Maoist Communist Centre of India, which is active in Bihar – joined forces to create a single, banned, Maoist party, the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Since then Naxalites have spread to 16 of 28 states. By this August they were active in 192 administrative districts out of 602, along a red corridor of 92,000km2 from the Nepalese border to India’s southwest coast (2). New Delhi fears that guerrilla warfare will soon spread to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir. The guerrillas also seem ready to take their struggle to the big cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Ahmedabad (3).

Unlike separatists in Kashmir or the northeast, the Naxalite movement’s objective is to win control of the whole of India, and their revolutionary aims make a negotiated settlement improbable. Naxalism is “the biggest internal security threat India has ever had to face”, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party in a speech to heads of state governments in April 2006.

A long-term strategy

My request to meet the Naxalites on their own territory was refused as they feared infiltration and reprisals by the authorities. Instead I met Patel (not his real name), a highly-placed member of the Naxalite movement, in an Indian city. In his view, the prime minister’s speech represented an admission of failure and revealed the panic among the elite. “Our aim,” Patel told me, “is to take control of the countryside, where the state is weak, and then gradually extend our power to the cities. It’s a long-term strategy, but globalisation and its consequences, inequality and poverty, are speeding things up.”

Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, explained the Maoists’ methods: “They study the social conditions in a given area. Through sympathetic organisations they mobilise the masses around specific causes and raise their political consciousness. Then they identify the most highly motivated people and turn them into fighters. When the violence begins, it’s already too late for the state to do anything.” Seven front organisations have recently been banned in Orissa, but according to Sahni the secret services have consistently failed to infiltrate them.

Naxalite fighters are estimated to number between 10,000 and 20,000. They receive logistical support from 40,000 more. Guerrillas are alleged to have received training, especially in handling explosives, from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Patel denied any such involvement, but confirmed another of the Indian government’s suspicions: though some of their arms are stolen from murdered policemen, others are made by artisans and small-scale manufacturers. “All over the country there are workshops making triggers, others making rifle butts and so on,” he said. “And they are all assembled in a safe place.” This claim is borne out by the discovery in Andhra Pradesh in September 2006 of a cache of 875 rockets manufactured in secret workshops in Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil Nadu.

The Maoists finance their activities through a “revolutionary tax” demanded from businesses and shops in the regions where they are active. “Everyone has to pay a tax amounting to 12% of his income,” said PV Ramana of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Those who refuse can see their livelihoods go up in smoke. Or worse.” Though they deny it, big business also pays its share. “Some of them are based in the rebel zone, but strangely have never been attacked,” according to a Chhattisgarh journalist. Ramana estimates that an annual budget of the CPI-Maoists of 2.5bn rupees is “a minimum, given the level of their activities”.

I asked Patel if he imagined he would ever win. “No one would ever have imagined a Maoist government in Nepal,” he said. Yet India is the biggest democracy in the world, not a small despotic state. The Naxalites are convinced that their armed struggle is legitimate and that New Delhi’s authority is not. Through Patel, I was able to obtain written answers from Muppala Laxman Rao, also known as Ganapathi, the general secretary of the banned Communist Party: “Indian parliamentarians are just puppets in the hands of lobbyists. How can you talk about democracy when votes are bought for cash or alcohol, and when those in power boast of their ethnic, religious or caste loyalties?”

Votes for sale

Buying votes is common in India and politicians stir up inter-communal tensions to retain power. Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist BJP, chief minister of state in Gujarat, was in part responsible for the anti-Muslim riots in February 2002, but was re-elected because of his Islamophobia. Caste also retains a tragic potency: in December 2006 46 people accused of burning seven Dalits (untouchables) alive in the village of Kambalapalli in Karnataka were acquitted. The Naxalites have called on India’s 125 million Dalits to join their ranks.

The activities of the left in power have lent credence to the rebels’ belief that the parliamentary system corrupts former revolutionaries. On 14 March at Nandigram in West Bengal, 14 peasants demonstrating against the seizure of their land for a special economic zone were brutally killed. The authorities were assisted by armed militants from the Communist Party, which has been in power in this state for 30 years.

Ganapathi also pointed to India’s limited success in dealing with globalisation (it currently has an economic growth rate of 9.4%): “Many products which used to be luxuries are now considered necessities. And the list of necessities is getting longer as consumer goods proliferate and the market promotes consumerism. All this fuels a growing sense of frustration.”

While shopping centres mushroom in Indian cities, and car and mobile phone ownership increases, India is 126th in the index of human development (out of 186; China is 81st): 400 million Indians survive on a dollar a day, and half of all children are undernourished (4).

Chhattisgarh is in the middle of the red corridor. Here 3,000 rebels control some 25,000km2. The population in the south of the state is 80% Adivasi (5), poor, mainly illiterate “tribals” whose only contact with the state has been the arbitrary power of corrupt civil servants. The Naxalites filled the void. “The plight of the exploited and dispossessed Adivasis provides a classic situation to spark off a communist revolution,” according to a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights on 17 March 2006.

Adivasi peasants and hunter-gatherers, who had suffered extortion at the hands of the police, forest rangers and moneylenders, were grateful to the Naxalites for ridding them of their tormentors, sometimes with punishment. The Naxalites also get them a better price for the leaves they gather from tendu trees, to make bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes). Villagers in Naxalite-controlled areas say the state has never done anything for them. Before the Naxalites, the police used to rob them.

Dry out the pond

The guerrillas are constantly on the move. A squad had stopped in Chhattisgarh a couple of days before my visit to “invite” locals to a meeting. A teacher told me that 20-30% of adolescents join their ranks from choice or under duress. The school and the few official buildings lie in ruins since the guerrillas bombed them to prevent them being used as barracks. The Naxalites’ main focus is military, which means they pay scant attention to the immediate needs of the people they claim to represent. Villagers told me they gave a girl from the village some medical training, but she couldn’t stay to take care of them. She had to go off into the forest. Whether they want to or not, the Adivasis have had to get used to the rebels’ presence. In 1993 guerrillas killed 70 of them in retaliation for a rebellion.

For the past two years Chhattisgarh has experimented with a policy reminiscent of the US strategy in Vietnam: the government has been developing anti-guerrilla militias and concentrating the civilian population in a limited number of centres by force. The depopulated countryside then cannot feed the insurgents, clearing the way for commando operations. Mao Zedong said that guerrillas had to be among the people like fish in water. According to a high-ranking policeman in Chhattisgarh, the policy for destroying the guerrillas is to “dry out the pond and suffocate the fish”, a classic counter-insurgency tactic from Latin America to Asia. As a result of this, the state of Chhattisgarh accounts for half the victims of the entire conflict. There are tens of thousands of refugees and human rights violations are common, as state and rebels vie for control.

The Salwa Judum militia, created in June 2005, is described by the Chhattisgarh authorities as the spontaneous reaction of villagers who are tired of having to feed the rebels and want them gone from their land. The Naxalites view it as a paramilitary militia, directed by the BJP and Mahendra Karma, the leader of the opposition Congress Party. Even the militia’s name causes confusion: in the Gondi language, it can be translated either as peace mission or purification hunt. The Salwa Judum have become a de facto instrument of state terror.

The head of the administration in the Dantewada district in the south of Chhattisgarh, KR Pisda, said: “The district has a population of 700,000 who used to live in 1,153 villages. Today 644 villages are deserted and their 53,000 inhabitants are in 27 camps. Before the advent of the Salwa Judum, many people supported the Naxalites. Now they are with the government. And without the support of the local population, the rebels are easier to fight.”

The camps – strategic centres – are ringed with barbed wire and protected by machine gun nests to prevent them becoming a target for the Naxalites, who want to force the people to remain in their villages. In July 2006 rebels attacked the Errabore relief camp, killing 31 people, including civilians. These camps are not just temporary shelters: the government wants the population to stay within their solidly built walls permanently. And behind the smiles in the camps there is a police state atmosphere: glances and conversations reveal widespread mistrust; refugees fall silent or change their stories when they fear they can be overheard.

Deplorable conditions

I spoke to some villagers in the Dornapal camp who had the resigned look of refugees. A child with a stomach bloated through malnutrition disproved Pisda’s claims that “living conditions are getting better” in the camps. These conditions have long been condemned by Indian and international NGOs. “Some families in our village were with the Salwa Judum,” an elder explained. The guerrillas had been regular visitors to the village since the 1980s and didn’t seem to have been unwelcome. But things changed after the Salwa Judum was created: “The rebels accused us of supporting the Salwa Judum and we had to flee. We left all our belongings behind. Here we have nothing. The government gave other refugees 12,000 rupees to build a house. But when we got here they said we were too late and the money had run out.” Far from their fields and forests, these men have no option but to surface roads for the equivalent of $1.60 a day.

Travelling between refugee camps, I saw abandoned villages, sometimes still smouldering, fields lying waste, and the carcasses of cattle. The roadside had been cleared of vegetation to reduce the risk of ambush. In a small town reduced to ashes, an old woman lay dying with no one to tend to her. A man who had come back to look for some of his belongings pointed to the burnt houses: “We didn’t want to go to the camps but the Salwa Judum accused us of being Maoists and set fire to our homes.”

Further south, in the Errabore camp, Soyam Bhima, a local Salwa Judum leader, explained that the villagers could not go back to their homes because “the rebels would kill them”. Behind him stood a bodyguard in dark glasses bearing an enormous rifle. Nearby I met Jave, a young girl in fatigues who stood to attention as we spoke. She claimed she was 20 but looked barely 15. As a special police officer (SPO) she earned 1,500 rupees a month. She was impatient to go and “fight the terrorists”.

In the past two years the authorities have recruited around 4,000 refugees as police auxiliaries. They are poorly equipped and hastily trained cannon fodder: the massacre at Rani Bodli showed how little chance SPOs have when faced with battle-hardened insurgents. NGOs have established that a number of these auxiliaries, enticed by a job and unaware of the risks, are minors. Some are as young as 13 and lied about their age to enlist. India employs child soldiers (6). But the district police chief, Thakur Praful, brushed this concern aside: “Their birth certificates prove that they are at least 18 years old.” He claimed he was unaware that false birth certificates could be bought for a few rupees. The Naxalites take on guerrillas as young as 16. The Asian Centre for Human Rights has found cases of families in which one son is forced to join the guerrillas, while his brother is forced to become an SPO.

’They behave suspiciously’

Arming civilians to root out rebels is like using lynching to keep law and order. In the village of Bijalpur, young SPOs admitted openly that they had killed people. I asked them how they could tell if someone was a supporter of the Naxalites: “They behave suspiciously. So we arrest them and interrogate them.”

In nearby Santoshpur the bodies of seven men were exhumed in May. They had been accused of being Naxalites and were killed by the authorities and the Salwa Judum. Witnesses to the killings told me: “We didn’t want to go to the camps. So they took those men away and struck them with axes.” The autopsies bore this out. “Salwa Judum decides who has to go to the camps. They think we support the Naxalites, so we don’t get any aid.”

There have been other abuses: Amnesty International has also denounced the harassment of defenders of human rights – such workers have been accused of being Naxalite supporters, a preposterous charge given that these NGOs have also denounced atrocities committed by the guerrillas. A law passed in 2005, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Bill, was brought in to silence critics, in violation of Article 19 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. In spite of such abuses, in the neighbouring states of Jharkland and Andhra Pradesh there are plans to set up militias modelled on the Salwa Judum.

Several local journalists and commentators believe that the Chhattisgarh government’s policy of clearing the countryside goes beyond defeating the Naxalites: it also favours large-scale industrial projects. The population of the state may be poor, but under the ground lie riches. A fifth of India’s iron ore reserves are in this region, but the Adivasis know from experience that they will not benefit from industrialisation. The Bailadilla mines, which contain 1.2bn tonnes of ore, won’t employ Adivasis as they say they are under-qualified. Since India gained independence in 1947, millions of “tribals” have been displaced to make way for developments which have brought them no benefit.

In Kalinga Nagar in the neighbouring state of Orissa, the Adivasis blocked a road for a year to prevent the sale of their land to the Indian industrial group Tata. On 2 January 2006 13 protesters were killed in a confrontation with the police. “We made uncultivated land fertile,” said the protesters’ spokesman, Ravinda Jarekar. “No amount of compensation will make up for that, and we know that Tata will not give us jobs.” According to financial analysts CLSA, investments worth $30bn are expected as Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkland industrialise, but throughout these states peasants are refusing to give up their land.

In June 2005, as Salwa Judum’s campaign of enforced resettlement began, Chhattisgarh signed agreements allowing the Tata and Essar industrial groups to set up mines and steel plants, and an undertaking to make land available to them. The agreements contained a confidentiality clause which the government has refused to show to the opposition, in violation of Indian law. And in September 2006 the villagers of Dhurli were forced by the police to hand over their land to Essar in return for meagre compensation in the presence of the Salwa Judum’s leader, Mahendra Karma.

These plans for rapid industrialisation would explain why the authorities have been so willing to spend money on costly refugee camps, which are rapidly becoming real towns. The Adivasis of Chhattisgarh will be victims of enforced mass resettlement. When they have found their feet in these not-so-temporary camps, there is little doubt that they will be more inclined to give up their abandoned, “terrorist-infested” land. Based as it is on the service sector and hampered by a stagnant rural economy, Indian economic growth needs industrialisation. But industrialisation, for which ordinary people pay the price, can also cause fear. And injustice fuels the Naxalites’ cause, as the prime minister acknowledged (7). The best response to rebellion is a well-run state which observes the rule of law. A counter-terrorism policy that is undemocratic and morally dubious merely plays into the rebels’ hands.


Translated by George Miller


(1) Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), New Delhi, 27 September 2007.

(2) ICM, August 2007.

(3) “Left-wing extremism in India”, ICM, October 2006.

(4) According to Unicef, 47% of Indian children under five are moderately or seriously underweight (1996-2005); The State of the World’s Children 2006.

(5) India has an Adivasi population of 60 to 70 million, the largest indigenous population on earth. Many Adivasi eke out a living from the forest and are among the poorest of India’s poor. See “India’s affirmative action”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2007.

(6) Unicef defines a child soldier as any combatant under the age of 18.

(7) “Exploitation, low salaries, iniquitous socio-political circumstances – All of these contribute significantly to the growth of the Naxalite movement.” Manmohan Singh, 13 April 2006, in a speech to heads of India’s state governments.




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