WEB DESK: Growing up in a remote tribal hamlet, Rupa Hembrom used to be terrified of the wild boars that roamed nearby. Now her biggest fear is the Maoist guerillas who prowl the jungles of India’s ‘Red Corridor’.
The left-wing extremists have been fighting to overthrow the government for decades, but the conflict has taken on a new intensity since right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election last year.
A rise in abductions of civilians and execution-style killings mean they are now regarded as India’s number one security challenge, striking fear into security forces and locals alike.
While operating mainly underground, the Maoists often descend on villages to demand everything from protection money to livestock as well as enticing young men and women to join their ranks.
“Just looking at them makes me so scared. They have machine-guns and they look so powerful,” said 24-year-old Hembrom as she narrated her encounters with heavily-armed Maoist patrols in Jharkhand state.
Hembrom’s village of lush paddy fields and sparkling streams falls in the so-called “Red Corridor” straddling swathes of central and eastern India.
Hembrom belongs to one of India’s many indigenous tribes collectively known as Adivasis, who live in abject poverty — fertile recruiting ground for the Maoists, also known as Naxals, hiding out in surrounding areas.
‘We have no life’
“We have no running water, no electricity, nothing. We have no life here,” said Hembrom, who uses firewood for cooking and kerosene lamps to light her dingy hut.
The tribal people’s plight is a major challenge to the development narrative of Modi who has pledged to raise living standards at every level of society.
The insurgency started in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal four decades ago when peasant farmers rose up against feudal landlords. Some 10,000 people have been killed since.
While other Indian insurgencies, such as in Kashmir or Nagaland, have subsided in the last decade, Maoist attacks have intensified — inspired by the success of their fellow revolutionaries in neighbouring Nepal.
A total of 2,866 people have been killed since 2010, including 786 members of the security forces, says India’s home ministry.
The civilian death toll stands at 2,080, including 921 who were executed after being branded police informers.
Four policemen were shot dead last month and their bodies dumped on the road after being hauled off a bus in the central state of Chhattisgarh.
Modi was left red-faced in May when the Maoists briefly took 250 villagers hostage on the eve of a visit by the premier to Chhattisgarh.
Tribal people have grown deeply wary of successive governments, having gained little from sell-offs of mineral-rich land to make room for giant refineries and steel plants.
Such projects are central to Modi’s plans of reviving the economy and his aim of providing electricity to every community.
Jharkhand’s Saranda forest alone contains 25 percent of India’s iron ore deposits and around a dozen companies are running at least 50 mining projects in the area.
The Maoists began building a following in Jharkhand in 2000 by promising to protect the Adivasis who had seen their land taken away and rivers polluted by mining activity.
Most estimates put the number of guerrillas at around 20,000, although details are hard to pin down as the movement shuns contact with the media. Membership of the movement, which is classified as a terrorist organisation, carries a lengthy prison sentence.
But in a recent internal memo that appeared in Indian newspapers, party general secretary Comrade Ganapathy wrote of the new challenges under Modi’s “neo-liberal” government.
“The aggressive promotion of Modi’s ‘development’ agenda will result in displacement on an unprecedented scale,” he wrote.
“We will have to resolutely confront and defeat this attack by uniting with all the sections that will be adversely affected.”
Hearts and minds
The heavy-handed tactics of the authorities towards anyone identified as having far-left sympathies have played into the Maoists’ hands over the years.
Jeetan Marandi, a Jharkand-based activist and writer, spent five years on death row after being convicted of murder before being cleared by a judge.
“I was critical of the government and paid a heavy price,” he told AFP.
Marandi said the Maoists have earned the gratitude of locals who were sick of being exploited at every turn.
“The Maoist leaders gave back land to the people… so the tribal communities began to rally behind them,” he said.
Authorities say they have become more sensitive to the tribal people’s problems, aware that winning hearts and minds is key to defeating the Maoists.
“We frequently visit them,” said Kunal, an additional police superintendent in Jharkand’s Giridih district, ahead of a patrol in a Maoist stronghold.
“It is the tribals who are the support base of the Naxals (Maoists) so we have to understand their problems,” added Kunal, who uses one name.
But for soldiers tasked with pursuing the Maoists, recent attacks have put them on edge in an environment that offers plenty of cover for guerrillas.
“We are not fighting an enemy. We are fighting our own people,” said paramilitary officer Ajit Kumar, speaking behind a barricade of barbed wire at a base in Giridih. “It is not easy, it takes so much out of you.”