Armed Maoist insurgency spreading across India

New Delhi - A Maoist rebellion spreading across India has seen an upsurge of violence with the insurgents challenging state authority, targeting national elections, "liberating" regions and carrying out massacres of policemen. The rebels have orchestrated a wave of attacks, blowing up railway stations and mobile phone towers, holding train passengers hostage and shutting down states to hurt the economy.
Indian leaders describe the insurgency as the gravest internal security threat. The challenge has only become more daunting as growing economic disparities help fuel the militancy. Maoists are known as Naxals in India after the Naxalbari village in eastern West Bengal state where a violent peasant uprising took place in 1967. The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of the rural poor, tribal and indigenous people, and usually target security personnel and government installations. The government has promoted mining, steel and industrial projects in those regions, triggering violent protests by villagers who say their rights and interests have been trampled. "Through the past years, discontent has been brewing in the hinterland because the projects have displaced people from their lands and robbed them of their livelihood. They feel marginalized and discriminated against. There is bound to be a rebellion," said Bratindi Jena, a tribal rights activist with ActionAid. Citing uneven development and linking economic inequality with security, Premier Manmohan Singh admitted the rebels were recruiting cadres from the disaffected regions. According to official data, Maoist militancy has spread from 13 to 20 of India's 28 states in recent years, concentrated in a corridor stretching from the Nepal border to Andhra Pradesh state in the south. Nearly 1,000 people, civilians, security personnel and rebels were killed in 2009, against 720 deaths last year. Many of the deadly attacks have been reported from central Chhattisgarh, western Maharashtra, eastern Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa states. The general elections this year were marred by violence, including a train hijacking and other attacks and bombings that killed 35 people. In June, Maoists and their tribal supporters expelled police and administrators from the Lalgarh region near the Kolkata metropolis and declared it a "liberated zone." That provoked an army offensive in the area which is continuing. The following month, rebels gunned down 29 policemen across Chhattisgarh in a single day. In October, Naxal guerrillas beheaded a police officer in Jharkhand and killed 18 other policemen in Maharashtra. The insurgency unleashed a series of attacks, blowing up schools, derailing trains and torching trucks to stop transport. Underground Maoist leaders started coming out in the open, giving interviews, and parading an abducted police officer as a "prisoner of war" prior to releasing him before national television. Later in November, images of "supreme" Maoist leader Ganapati, in hiding for over 25 years, were shown on television. The government is now gearing up for a showdown, pitting 60,000 soldiers and police against an estimated 10,000 armed rebels. Although smaller armed operations have begun, media reports said the government is positioning troops in the affected areas to launch a nationwide offensive by March 2010. "There is a multi-pronged strategy that will target top leaders, win those alienated by supporting people-centric development and offer cadres a surrender-and-rehabilitation policy," a Home Ministry official said. Federal Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram says the government is willing to hold talks with the rebels but wants them to cease violence first. That is unacceptable to the Maoists who believe in armed struggle. It is turning out to be a vicious circle as Singh says sustained development in tribal areas cannot take place in the shadow of the gun. The solution is complex as Maoists have not presented a set of demands to address the problems of those they claim to represent. "How does one negotiate?" said Suhas Chakma, director of the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. "There cannot be a military solution. The government has to devolve powers to empower tribals for meaningful development. You have to give indigenous people a stake in economic development and help them access their resources," tribal rights activist Jena said.