The news came crackling over the radio, the voice fading in and out as the sound waves bounced through the wooded hills and valleys of central India to the camp where the militants and a TIME photographer and myself lay down to sleep. Earlier that day in May, a raiding gang of some 300 Maoist insurgents had attacked a plant belonging to Indian steel giant Essar, the radio news program declared. More than 50 trucks and pieces of heavy machinery had been destroyed. The commander of the unit in the camp that night, Deva, a boyish-looking man of just 24 or 25 (he wasn't quite sure), allowed a smile to spread across his face for a moment. His comrades-in-arms against the government of India and the companies that drive its booming economy had struck again. That, he said, should answer my question about whether the Maoist insurgents went easy on some mining companies in the area so as to force them to pay protection money and bribes instead. "If the public wants to teach a lesson to Essar, then we'll teach them a lesson," said Deva.
You've heard of rich India and poor India, a land of high-tech workers and slum dwellers alike. This is a story about a third India that exists at the nexus of the two, which feeds off the excesses of the country's new wealth and preys on its most vulnerable. It is the story of the Naxalites, a Maoist insurgency that has grown from the margins four decades ago to become, in the words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." It is a tale of ideology and mafia-like thuggery, a conflict born in a vacuum of government inaction, and fueled by official mismanagement and corruption. And it is the story of the millions caught in between.
A Turn to the Left India is no stranger to violent rebellion, as the decades-long struggle in Kashmir attests. But the separatist conflict there and low-level insurgencies in the country's remote northeast grind on at the periphery, driven by groups agitating to break away. The Maoists, like their ideological brothers in Nepal who recently took power through elections, are different. They want to overthrow the government in New Delhi and install a new one, and they have taken their fight to the geographic heart of the country, to the scrubby woodland and remote, poor villages that blanket a huge chunk of central India. The would-be revolutionaries trace their roots back to 1967, when a group of activists split away from India's mainstream Communist Party and initiated a peasant uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari. The Naxalite movement grew quickly and attracted landless laborers and student intellectuals, but a government crackdown in the 1970s broke the group into myriad feuding factions. By the 1990s, as India began to liberalize its economy and economic growth took off, violent revolution seemed more quaint relic than threat.
No longer. The Naxalite resurgence began in 2004 when the two biggest splinters of the original movement one Marxist and one Maoist set aside their differences and joined to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The combined force which Indian government security officials and independent analysts now estimate at between 10,000 and 20,000 armed fighters plus at least 50,000 active supporters has quickly consolidated power across great swathes of India's poorest regions. The central government, which lists the Naxalites as a banned terrorist group, says that 11 of India's 28 states are now affected in one way or another by the insurgency. Nongovernment organizations put the number of affected states even higher. The rebels tax local villagers, extort payments from businesses, abduct and kill "class enemies" such as government officials and police officers, and stop aid getting through to people caught in the cross fire.
The militia's strikes have grown more daring. In March last year, some 400 Naxalites surrounded a police camp in southern Chhattisgarh, lit the camp up using powerful lights and generators and lobbed grenades and petrol bombs for more than three hours, killing 55 people. Last December, in the same area, a single Maoist overpowered a jail guard and set free 294 inmates, including 15 senior Naxalite fighters. In February this year, more than 100 insurgents laid siege to three police stations, a police outpost, a police training school and a government armory in the state of Orissa, killing 13 policemen and a bystander and hauling off hundreds of rifles, semiautomatics, light machine guns, pistols and ammunition. Not a single Maoist was killed. Include government security forces, civilians and the Naxalites themselves, and the conflict killed 837 people in 2007, enough to make it deadlier than the Kashmir conflict for the first time ever. "It's absolutely a growing threat," says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and a keen observer of the re-emergence of the Naxalites. "You can't escape that fact."
Ripe for Revolution A recent and extremely rare trip into a Naxalite zone in the state of Chhattisgarh shows just how much control the Maoists have in India's neglected heartland. After weeks of negotiating, I received word from a senior commander there that cadres from the area would escort a photographer and me into the field to meet a rebel unit. After an early morning, two-hour motorbike ride along dirt roads south of the town of Dantewada, across rivers where women beat their clothes against rocks and through villages full of thatched and terracotta-roofed huts, scrawny chickens and children with distended bellies (a classic sign of malnutrition), we set off by foot deep into the forested hills.
The people there don't just live on the edge of Indian society they live beyond it, in a void that successive governments in New Delhi have neglected for decades. In this part of the country, far removed from the famed call centers of modern India, there are no roads, no power, no running water, no telephones and no officials to answer pleas for help.
The inhabitants of these villages are known as Adivasis, or "original dwellers." Most Indians call them tribals, a category that doesn't even register in India's complicated caste pecking order but stands outside it. The British colonial rulers treated Adivasis as encroachers on the very land they had occupied for generations, a legal absurdity that India's current government has only recently corrected. Adivasis are entitled to reserved places in universities and government jobs but they remain among India's poorest and most marginalized. In village after village on our journey, the only visible sign of a government presence was an occasional well with metal hand pump.
Born in the hills he now fights from, Deva he gave just one name is an Adavasi like most of the insurgency's foot soldiers. Naxalite commanders have historically come from the movement's educated ranks and often speak English. Deva speaks only Gondi, a local tongue. If he has a second language it is the strange, religious-like discipline of Maoism. Our conversations were punctuated with long silences as he turned questions over in his head before answering them, often with a slogan or a long monologue that sounded torn from the small collection of books and newspapers that his unit read and reread and then teach to local villagers. He began learning Maoism at eight, he said. Two of his five siblings are also Maoist fighters. They had a good childhood, helping their father farm rice and hunt in the forests. There was no school in his village and so he and his siblings attended classes given by rebel soldiers who had moved into the area. What they taught made perfect sense to him. "For thousands of years we have been here but we don't have rights and the government does nothing for us: no health, no education, no services. They don't come here," Deva said. "At the same time they don't respect us. They say they can give out rights to this land to mining companies and they have the power to do that. We say, No."
There's no denying the insurgency has prospered in areas of official neglect. In a paper he presented to Parliament two years ago, Home Minister Shivraj Patil said that "Naxalites operate in [a] vacuum created by [an] absence of administrative and political institutions." The Naxalites, Patil said, "take advantage of the disenchantment prevalent among the exploited segments of the population" to "offer an alternative system of governance which promises emancipation ... through the barrel of a gun."