India’s Failing Counterinsurgency Campaign
A rare visit to a Maoist rebel camp deep in the jungle shows why New Delhi's clumsy attempts to stamp out its most dangerous internal revolt have been so disastrous.
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.
With little to no government machinery present, the rebels have stepped in to create a mini-state within a state. To settle local disputes, villagers travel to the nearby jungle to attend jan adalats, the rebels’ kangaroo courts. Justice is delivered instantaneously, unlike in India’s sluggish legal system, often from the barrel of a gun. Gun-toting rebels saunter around villages in battle fatigues for their monthly meetings and swoop in from the nearby jungles for nightly rests and daytime meals. The Naxalites fund their insurgency by extorting "taxes" — to the tune of 14 billion Indian rupees each year — from local businessmen, contractors, and landowners.
The government justifies ignoring development in what the rebels call "liberated villages" as punishment for supporting Maoists. But India had been neglecting those villages long before the rebels showed up.
Now the neglect is coming back to haunt India’s security forces. "We scarcely get credible information from tribals," admitted Brig. Basant Kumar Ponwar, director of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College located in north Bastar, the only school in India that trains policemen in tactics of jungle warfare. "That’s what I emphasize to my men: Don’t antagonize the local population, or you will go back from here in coffins."
But instead of starting with development, the plan laid out in Operation Green Hunt is to neutralize the rebels, capture their territory, and only then enact the development projects that have failed to materialize for so long. This is likely to backfire. Operation Green Hunt promises to be a bloody, drawn-out war, with a high risk of civilian casualties due to the fact that the government doesn’t discriminate between tribal and Naxalite. Despite their rudimentary military capabilities, the Naxalites have long run circles around government forces, killing two policemen for every dead rebel since 2007. The government is using armored vehicles, laser-guided weaponry, and mine-sweeping equipment, and it is even considering importing U.S.-made unmanned surveillance drones to track down the rebels in the jungles. But the fighting will push the tribals even closer to the rebels. To wean tribals away from Naxalites, the government needs to send in food and medicine, not soldiers.
It should be possible to separate the tribals from the Naxalites because the Naxalites don’t actually care about protecting the tribals — they just care about capturing power. During our conversation, I probed Comrade Vijay and his men: If the state stopped multinational companies from coming here, would you end your resistance? What if the government made tribals stakeholders in mining projects? What if they gave tribals veto power over mining companies? If that happened, would you negotiate with the government? He completely avoided my questions.
A road contractor I met on the outskirts of Bastar told me that the rebels abducted him last year, even though he had paid them about 30 percent of the revenue he would earn from building a road that would connect some interior villages to the district’s main towns. He was blindfolded and held captive inside the jungle for days, and released only after he promised to withdraw from the project. "Naxalites don’t want development in their areas," said the contractor, who requested anonymity. "If you build a road, poor tribals will be more exposed to city life. They’ll be more informed and less gullible."
But until the government changes its tactics, the violence will not stop. The Naxalite rebels make use of brainwashing to attract child soldiers for Bal Sangham, their children’s corps. They pluck them from the villages at an early age, indoctrinate them in Maoism’s violent creed, and train them to plant IED detonators in the ground. The young members of Bal Sangham I met in Comrade Vijay’s hideout seemed thoroughly indoctrinated. The state has gravely wronged them, they said. Some had been convinced that the specialized forces involved in Operation Green Hunt were known to resort to cannibalism. They feel morally obligated to fight — and die fighting, if they have to. If only the Indian government weren’t giving them so many easy opportunities.