After the paved roads have ended and the dirt roads have crumbled into winding footpaths, after the last power line has vanished into the forest behind you, a tall, red monument suddenly appears at the edge of a clearing.
It’s 25 feet high and topped by a hammer and sickle, honouring a fallen warrior. White letters scroll across the base: “From the blood of a martyr, new generations will bloom like flowers.”
The monument is a memorial, but also a signpost, a warning that you are entering a ‘Liberated Zone’—a place where Mao is alive and Marx is revered, where an army of leftist guerrillas known as Naxalites control a shadow state amid the dense forests, isolated villages and shattering poverty of central India. Here, the Indian government is just a distant, hated idea.
“The capitalists and other exploiters of the masses feel increasingly vulnerable. And they should,” said a 33-year-old man known only as Ramu, a regional commander of the Naxalites’ People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. He cradled an assault rifle as he sat on the dirt floor of a small farmhouse, temporary base for two dozen fighters, set amid the forests of Chhattisgarh state. “For them, the danger is rising.”
Initially formed in 1967, the Maoist army has taken root over the past decade in places left behind during India’s spectacular financial rise since its economy was opened up in the early 1990s. Outsiders rarely see their strongholds, but a team from The Associated Press was invited last month into a region they control, guided for two days through the forests by a series of intermediaries until reaching a guerrilla camp.
As India has grown wealthier, the Naxalites—officially called the Communist Party of India (Maoist)—have grown larger, feeding off the anger of the country’s poor. There are now 10,000-15,000 fighters in an archipelago of rebel territory scattered across nearly half of the country’s 28 states, security officials say.
For years, the government here paid little attention. That began changing two years ago. Today, Chhattisgarh backs an anti-Naxal militia called the Salwa Judum. And in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalites the single largest threat to the country.
The rebel patchwork reaches from deep inside India to the border with Nepal, where the Naxalites are thought to have informal ties to the Maoists who, after a long insurgency, recently joined in the Kathmandu government.
The Maoist goal in India is nothing less than complete takeover. “There is only one solution to India’s problems: Naxalism,” said Ramu.
More than ever, their once-marginal revolt seems like outright war, particularly in the rebel strongholds of rural Chhattisgarh.
India deals with other insurgencies. But the Naxalites have proven different.
In places like the Dhauli forest, the Naxalites are more than surviving. They are winning. Victory, the Naxals insist, is coming.
That seems unlikely.
Most of the Naxalites’ guns are old or handmade. Their land mines are often made from pressure cookers, and bullets are doled out carefully. Their support in many villages has more to do with fear than genuine belief.
But while there’s little chance they’ll overthrow the government, in this part of India their power is immense. Every day or so, another policeman is killed. Every few months, another politician faces an assassination attempt—sometimes successful, sometimes not.
Inside their self-proclaimed Liberated Zones, the Naxals are, effectively, the government. They collect taxes, control movement, and trade in valuable hardwoods from the ever-thinning jungles. They refuse entry not only to the government but also aid organizations, arguing they are tools of an unjust state.
There is an informal Naxal bank, Naxal schools and Naxal courts to settle village disputes and try suspected informants. For those found guilty of helping police, the punishment is public beheading.
“If they kill us, we also have to kill,” Ramu said. “Innocent people will get hurt in the process. But what can we do?”
Outside, a thunderstorm shook the sky, and rain pelted the straw roof. Inside, a half-dozen fighters sat in the darkness of the mud house, listening silently as Ramu spoke.
Few appeared to know much about the teachings of Marx or Mao, though both men were spoken of reverently. Some fighters believed Mao, who died in 1976, remains China’s leader. Instead, their beliefs are simple: The revolution will bring an idyllic jungle paradise for the tribals.
For now, until paradise comes, people live in mud homes on tiny farms. They grow rice and tobacco and harvest what they can from the forests. Better-off families have Rs480-shortwave radios or Rs1,800-Atlas bicycles.
It is in places like this where the Naxalites’ appeal is most resonant.
“The tribals make a good guerrilla base,” said Meghnad Desai, a scholar at the London School of Economics. They “are really poor, and have a genuine feeling of being taken advantage of... The Naxalites are exploiting that.”
Much of Ramu’s time is spent spreading the rebel message. On a recent afternoon, he summoned hundreds of villagers to a rally to decry the Salwa Judum.
“The Salwa Judum is killing people!” Ramu shouted at the villagers. “We are protecting the rights of the people!”
Many, though, don’t see heroes on either side.
Sanjana Bhaskar, 18, has spent more than a year in a Salwa Judum camp. She fled there with her family after Naxalites slit her father’s throat, while her stepmother watched, because he refused to give them money.
She hates the camp. “There is nothing here,” she said, gesturing to the one-road expanse. “But where else can we go?” AP