NEW DELHI — Once you decide to lead a rebellion, there's usually only two ways the story can end: Either you ride into the presidential palace, or you die alone.
So it went for Mallojula Koteshwar Rao, the elusive leader of the Maoist insurgency that has claimed over 10,000 lives over the last decade in India. A media-savvy guerrilla with the nom de guerre "Kishenji," Rao (above, at a press conference in 2009) had repeatedly eluded the best efforts of some 100,000 Indian troops tasked with hunting him down. On Nov. 24, his luck ran out. Acting on an insider tip, the Indian government dropped an entire battalion of elite counterinsurgency forces into a derelict village on the edge of the jungle near the border between West Bengal and Jharkhand provinces, in the country's east. They emerged with the body of the 56-year-old mustachioed general, an outdated hearing aid in his ear and a stolen Kalashnikov by his side.
For the Indian government, Kishenji's body is perhaps the biggest trophy yet collected in a 45-year war against the Maoists -- a war that Kishenji himself had transformed irrevocably. The Naxal, or Naxalite, rebellion had begun in 1967 as an agrarian land revolt in the state of West Bengal. It had mostly petered out by the late 1970s, but never entirely abated, with fratricidal factions continuing to scrap over internecine disputes in the jungles of India's eastern interior. It was Kishenji -- a highly educated son of India's highest social class who had given up his birthright to fight for what he called the "millions of disenfranchised tribals" -- who united the factions in 2004, rebranding the Naxalites as the more respectable-sounding, and deadly, Communist Party of India-Maoist.
The Maoists under Kishenji stormed police stations for weapons and mining sites for explosives, unleashing havoc on unprepared, outgunned local police and killing scores as they turned India's heartland into a war zone. It was a resurgence that would not have happened the way it did but for India's rapidly growing economy and accordingly expanding appetite for natural resources -- much of which are mined in interior states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where the Maoists enjoy the most support. The rebels have often been the only thing standing between the region's desperately poor indigenous residents and a roaring mining boom that has uprooted many of them from their homes, and in some cases leveled entire villages. The Toyota Prius, Beijing high-rises, and even the new Boeing Dreamliner are all made with minerals dug up here, and an estimated $1 trillion in resources is still sitting underground.
If Kishenji's legend was one part Che Guevara, it was also one part Frank Abagnale. Previous Maoist leaders were notoriously camera-shy; Kishenji played up his freedom fighter credentials all over India's 24-hour news channels. His predecessors shunned phones; Kishenji gave the police his cell phone number, daring them to track him. Most of his colleagues wouldn't dare be photographed; Kishenji invited photojournalists a dozen at a time to press conferences in order to brag about his exploits.
Kishenji talked up his frontline credentials, at one point claiming to have killed 100 men himself, but on the night of Nov. 23 he was far from the action, couch surfing in a university student's room about 150 miles due east of Kolkata, in the town of Burishol. The man who thousands have fought to the death for was sold out by one of his own -- for $40,000. Acting on the tip, over 1,000 elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) troops of India's Central Reserve Police Force rushed to Burishol. But by the time they stormed the student's residence the following morning, Kishenji had already fled, leaving his laptop and a stash of personal communications behind.