South Asia

India at war with itself in Chhattisgarh

Coffin of policeman killed by Maoists
Image caption Indian paramilitary forces have been hard hit by the Maoists

"It was the worst example I've ever seen. A fiasco. They didn't stand a chance."

Thus runs retired Brigadier BK Ponwar's brutal assessment of an ambush by Maoist rebels - known locally as Naxalites - which killed 76 paramilitary policemen in Dantewada earlier this year.

A similar attack was staged on Tuesday, when a further 26 policemen were killed in another attack in the same region.

The attack which killed the 76 was the highest loss of life for the security forces in any single attack during the insurgency, which the government calls India's "biggest internal security challenge".

Brig Ponwar runs Chhattisgarh's Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College, which is teaching thousands of police personnel how to fight in the remote forests where the Maoists hold sway.

None of the 76 men who died had been on one of his courses.

But it is the police who are leading the fight against the insurgency.

'Essential'

And over the last few months the government has gone on the offensive against the Maoists.

"Of course there have to be economic and political measures as well," Brig Ponwar says, between bursts of gunfire on a dusty shooting range.

"But military action is also essential," he adds.

"The other side is following the philosophy of 'power flows from the barrel of the gun'. We have to twist [the insurgents'] military arm, and only then will [they] start talking."

After a sudden increase in Maoist counter-attacks in the last few months, there has been pressure to deploy the army or even the air force in this campaign.

For the moment, that pressure has been resisted.

But in the vast forests of central India, there is no doubt that the state is now trying to reassert control by force.

"If they fight against their own people, they will never win," argues Himanshu Kumar, who worked with tribal communities on rural development projects in Dantewada for years.

A few months ago he fled to Delhi, fearing harassment or worse from powerful local officials.

"These areas were always kept neglected, and the tribals faced exploitation. So the Naxalites grew there," he says.

"If there was peace and comfort, no-one would want to fight."

'Made inroads'

But out in the jungles the Maoists are training as well.

They may have as many as 20,000 men and women at arms - not as well equipped as the security forces, but familiar with the terrain, and with the hit-and-run tactics of roadside bombs and ambushes.

Their plan, unlikely as it sounds, is to overthrow the Indian state by 2050.

The Maoists have made inroads in nearly a third of India's 630 districts, but they are at their strongest in six central and eastern states which have been dubbed the "Red Corridor".

They have killed a growing number of civilians in their attacks, but they have also been spreading their message in places where the state has become perilously weak and unpopular.

The authorities have responded by accusing many human rights groups of failing to criticise terrorism.

"Civil society has been exposing the activities of the state," says Rajendra Sail, a prominent lawyer in Chhattisgarh.

"Once you oppose the violations of human rights and the non-fulfilment of promises on even the most basic welfare programmes, you become the enemy of the state."

And for many tribal communities in rural Chhattisgarh the state is either absent, or it is part of the problem.

'Not welcome'

In the village of Dhura the soil is fertile and the crops are good.

Image caption There in no quick solution to the insurgency

Bullocks are pulling handmade wooden ploughs, and children are planting corn seeds.

But this land has been promised to one of India's largest companies, Tata Steel, for a new steel plant.

It is the kind of big development project the government believes can turn the tide in long-neglected regions.

But in Dhuragaon, at least, the attention isn't welcome.

"We don't want to sell our land," says Sree Ram, a village leader.

"We keep saying no, and they just don't listen. What would you do if someone wants to take away something you don't want to give?"

Manisfest failings

The villagers say they will fight within the law, but some protests against the steel plant have turned violent.

Image caption Rural poverty has provided the bedrock of Maoist support

It is exactly the kind of resentment and alienation which the Maoists rely upon to bolster their cause.

At a local tribal market, people are selling vegetables as well as the nuts and berries they have gathered in the forests.

For all its manifest failings the Maoist movement seems to understand what makes many of these people tick.

But the government still believes the right kind of development is the answer.

"The Maoists don't want development to take place, because keeping the people illiterate and underdeveloped suits them," argues India's Home Secretary GK Pillai.

He admits that for years officials in Delhi have been guilty of under-estimating the threat the Maoists pose.

Not any more, he declares.

"They don't believe in parliamentary democracy," he says, "and they want to overthrow the state by force. We have to stand up to that."

So it is a clash of ideologies, in some of this country's poorest places.

The government knows there is no quick fix solution. It will take years to resolve.

"Two to three years to turn the tide," Mr Pillai insists, "and another few years before we can effectively control them."

But many people still question the government's tactics.

And in this land of natural beauty, far from the big cities, India is at war with itself.

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