Tapping his fingernails on a tiny stainless steel lunch box, Comrade Vijay, a mustachioed rebel commander, made a startling assertion: There was enough bomb material inside to blow up a jeep. With 90 pounds of such explosives, he claimed, his comrades in the Indian Maoist rebel army had blown up land-mine-resistant armored vehicles the Indian government imported from South Africa. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the "main strength" of the rebels, he told me, as he sat under a makeshift tarpaulin tent, rifle at his side.
Last October, on assignment for Abu Dhabi's National newspaper, I hiked more than 40 miles through the damp, malarial jungles of Bastar in central India, the deadliest theater of the country's decades-long Maoist insurgency, winding through mineral-rich hills and a spate of rebel-controlled villages to Comrade Vijay's hideout in a patch of forest clearing atop a hill. I had traveled all that way to ask the rebel commander whether there was any chance of a truce between his forces and the Indian government -- a possibility he and his men vehemently denied. As we spoke, Vijay's fellow comrades -- about 20 communist guerrillas, mostly teenaged boys and girls in olive green commando fatigues -- milled around the clearing, antiquated Enfield rifles slung on their shoulders, many of them snatched in raids on police stations.
Just after my trip, the Indian government launched Operation Green Hunt, a 100,000-troop-strong counteroffensive designed to stamp out the Maoist insurgents (also called Naxalites) who are active in nearly a third of India's landmass. So far, the operation has not gone according to plan. Just last month, in a patch of jungle not far from where I met Comrade Vijay, a mob of rebels attacked a police convoy at dawn. The rebels opened fire indiscriminately, lobbed grenades, and set off IEDs, killing 76 policemen and hacking off the limbs of any who survived the initial blast. It was the deadliest Maoist attack in recent memory.
But the challenges of Operation Green Hunt should have been a surprise to no one -- and after interviewing the Naxalites, I can't say they were a surprise to me. Focused purely on conventional military techniques and brute force, without much thought to the social problems that originally fed the Naxalites and the close relationship they've built with local populations, the Indian government's initiative is unlikely to succeed over the long term.
Four hours into my trek to the rebel camp, as I rolled up my trousers to cross a shallow stream that twisted between boulders through the jungle, I noticed a boy, about 6 or 7 years old, barefoot and barely clad, standing on the other side of the creek and watching us with a stony gaze. My guides greeted him in Gondi, the local dialect. He knew them and trusted them, but he couldn't take his eyes off me, the conspicuous outsider. A minute later, when I turned around, he had disappeared. Six miles ahead, we were waylaid by a clutch of armed rebels, who were well aware that I was coming.
The Maoists got their start in 1967 as a peasant revolution against rich, exploitative landlords, and the movement has germinated in rural areas stalked by poverty, misery, and disease ever since. In 2004, when the rebels were present in nine states, India's Home Ministry put the movement at an estimated 9,300 hard-core underground members. Since then, they have spread into 22 of India's 35 states and territories, and their numbers have increased by several thousand, prompting the Indian government to declare them the country's biggest internal enemy. Currently, some estimate that the movement is made up of 40,000 permanent members and 100,000 additional militia members.
Over the years, Naxalites have developed a symbiotic relationship with the indigenous tribal people, adivasis, or "tribals," living in remote parts of India, who find common cause with the Maoists in accusing multinational companies and the Indian government of trying to usurp their mineral-rich lands. To date, more than 40 million tribals have been displaced by dams, industries, and power projects since independence in 1947. As I saw myself, the tribals are used as human couriers, serving as a rudimentary intelligence and communications network in areas of the jungle where cell phones don't work. Comrade Vijay was wrong: It's not IEDs that are the rebels' greatest strength -- it's their relationship with the tribals.
For the tribals, Naxalism, with its emphasis on Mao Zedong's doctrine of armed peasant revolution, doesn't seem out of date. Naxalism has taken root in villages that have been completely ignored by the government. In the rebel-controlled villages, as in most tribal Indian villages, life hasn't changed for decades. There is no electricity, schools, or hospitals. People die of snake bites and treatable diseases like malaria and tetanus. Villages are full of naked, chronically malnourished children with distended bellies. Gaunt men clad in dirty loincloths toil in scorched farms, while women in frayed saris look after the goat and cow barns outside mud-and-clay huts, worried about the next meal. Many tribals survive on leaves and berries.