Kandhamal, Orissa: For close to four decades, armed rebels have been gathering deep in the Dandakaranya forest that sprawls over parts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa to plot strategies to promote their cause of violent revolution.

Spearheaded today by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), an underground political party with no representatives in the world’s largest democracy, the movement has grown from a peasant uprising of the 1960s in the small town of Naxalbari in West Bengal into a deadly conflict spread over several Indian states.

Troubled times:Inmates at Lakshmananda’s ashram. Naxal leader Sabhyasachi Panda owned responsibility for his killing. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

Sinha served for three years in Gajapati, an Orissa district where Maoists are active and which borders Kandhamal, the site of anti-Christian violence in recent months.

While its geography and demographics have the usual features of a Maoist haven—thick jungles, mountains, dilapidated roads, angry and unemployed youth—Orissa’s complex mix of religion and caste and tribal loyalties are forcing the rebels to rewrite their playbook.

Once upon a time, for example, the Maoist doctrine dismissed religion as “the opium of the masses" and steered clear of religious leanings or alliances.

But investigators of the 23 August murder of Hindu monk Swami Lakshmananda, a vocal opponent of conversions to Christianity, say they are sure the Maoists played a role in the killing that sparked the attacks on Christians that left at least 35 people dead.

“We know that they supplied guns and bullets to the men who killed the swami. We know that they helped execute the plan as well," says a police officer who is close to the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

If they were indeed involved in the killing of Lakshmananda, it would be the first Maoist attack in Kandhamal district and their first ever on a religious leader.

P. Govindam Kutty, editor of the People’s March, a Kerala-based pro-Maoist magazine, says he would not be surprised if the rebels were involved in the murder of Swami Lakshmananda, and “as such, they have already claimed responsiblity on television for it. I don’t see any reason to doubt that."

Earlier this month, the Maoists’ Orissa leader, Sabhyasachi Panda, a mathematics graduate who had once aspired to contest state elections, appeared on the news channel NDTV. With a towel draped on his face, he owned responsibility for the attack on Lakshmananda. It was not possible to contact him for comment.

Intelligence officials say the Maoists have 15,000–20,000 recruits in India. Comprised largely of tribals and villagers from the country’s most backward regions, these rebels believe they are fighting imperialism, feudalism and capitalism. In largely hit-and-run attacks, they raid police stations, state armouries and security convoys, blow up rail tracks, kill government officials, attack mining industries for explosives and intimidate villagers who refuse to give them shelter and money. They have a foothold in half of the country’s 28 states including West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh that border Orissa.

Those familiar with the region say a strategic motive rests behind the attack. So far, the Maoists, who have established a presence in half of Orissa’s 30 districts, have failed to make inroads in Kandhamal.

Here, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Swami Lakshmananda acted as unexpected buffers between the rebels and tribals, says Sujeet Kumar, who runs Kalinga Kusum Foundation, a non-governmental organization that is trying to nurture young rural entreprenuers in Kalahandi, one of Orissa’s most backward districts, neighbouring Kandhamal.

The Hindu nationalist RSS has been working with the Kandha tribal majority here—setting up vanvasi kalyan or tribal welfare ashrams, schools and medical centres— to prevent tribals from converting to Christianity.

In the process, it achieved an unintended result and became a barrier to Maoist entry in the area. “When you work for the tribals, they trust you and bond with you," says Kumar.

And while the non-religious Maoists are an anti-establishment group waging a violent war against the Indian state, “the RSS is a solidly establishment organization rooted in Hinduism". “It is the ideological opposite of the Maoists. And this is the organization that the tribals here are close to. The Maoists are not able to bond with tribals because of this affiliation," adds Kumar.

Lakshimananda had a formidable following among the tribals, said Krishnan Kumar, the collector of Kandhamal.

The murder of Lakshimananda, locals say, helped remove the Maoists’ main obstacle between them and the tribals. It also consolidated their popularity with the largely Christian Pano community.

“We are not sure what the Maoists plan to do next," said a government official in Kandhamal, on condition of anonymity. “Normally, they exploit social faultlines and generate a sense of relative deprivation. I think they plan to do that in Kandhamal."

Officials privately admit that Kandhamal risks turning into a Maoist stronghold.

“We have not discussed these issues and all these questions need to be deeply thought about. There is no point speculating, but understanding this change is becoming very important," said Sinha, the deputy commissioner of police in Cuttack.

Also Read previous coverage of Kandhamal

The third and final part of the series will be on how mining policy has hamstrung economic development in Orissa.

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