The jungle training ground of an army the world forgot

One of the biggest security problems facing India during this general election year comes from deep in Andhra Pradesh, where the mysterious Naxalite army has its hideouts
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Just as India is making its most determined attempt yet to join the global economy, it is facing a renewed challenge from an unlikely source. Maoist rebels, often armed with only bows and arrows and homemade flintlock rifles, have come close to killing a high-profile politician, Chandrababu Naidu, tipped to be prime minister one day, who counts President George Bush and Tony Blair among his friends. He is India's most relentlessly globalising politician, competing to turn his state capital, Hyderabad, into the call-centre hub of India, yet he is threatened by rebels armed with antique weapons, and unreconstructed communist opinions.

Just as India is making its most determined attempt yet to join the global economy, it is facing a renewed challenge from an unlikely source. Maoist rebels, often armed with only bows and arrows and homemade flintlock rifles, have come close to killing a high-profile politician, Chandrababu Naidu, tipped to be prime minister one day, who counts President George Bush and Tony Blair among his friends. He is India's most relentlessly globalising politician, competing to turn his state capital, Hyderabad, into the call-centre hub of India, yet he is threatened by rebels armed with antique weapons, and unreconstructed communist opinions.

Women form the backbone of this army which has strong support among the poorest people in India in remote forest areas where there is no electricity let alone computers.

In attacks every night the Maoist "Naxalites" are picking off remote police posts, and are threatening election candidates and agents as India gears up for a general election. Their aim is violent revolution in India, and their leaders remain unperturbed by the failure of communism elsewhere. Apart from Mao, their heroes are Stalin and even Pol Pot, although one of their leaders conceded "he may have made a few mistakes".

They have a distrust of Western media which they accuse of corrupting Indian youth, but I gained unique access, spending several days travelling with them in the remote teak forests where they draw their support, on the borders of five states, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa. They were in a confident mood after one of their most audacious attacks to date, holding a small town, Koraput, for a night while they seized 268 AK47 assault rifles and 17,000 rounds of ammunition from a police arsenal.

This was a big addition to their firepower. In makeshift arsenals in the forest, they make their own ammunition and guns. And the bows and arrows are not just for show. They are used to kill police, and more often to keep discipline in the villages. Suspected police informers are dealt with ruthlessly.

The Naxalites get their name from the uprising in Naxalbari, West Bengal, in 1967. After several years of the usual Marxist disagreements over doctrine they have recently reunited under the name "People's War". They help to train the Maoist insurgents in Nepal, and claim links to other rebels groups across India, including in Kashmir. The army may have as many as 2,000 frontline fighters, but there are many more uniformed supporters who provide a network across large areas of the forest where Indian government forces cannot easily go.

The tribal people who live here are as poor as any in India, and the Naxalites have won their support by expelling landlords, redistributing their land, and ensuring good prices at gunpoint for one of the only cash harvests from the forest, large leaves of the tendu tree, which are used to wrap bidi cigarettes. The Naxalites raise money by "taxing" the tendu leaf trucks for the right to enter the forest. In their minds they are acting as armed social workers, sometimes keeping schools open at gunpoint, and forcing reluctant teachers to work in remote areas.

The women who are drawn to the cause see its progressive message as a way out of poverty. A woman commander called Phulbati says: "If you look at capitalist and feudalist society women are just treated as objects. If you want to sell anything now you put a woman's picture on it. That's why I joined the party. Now I go into villages, and tell women the whole story of how women are exploited."

Travelling with her I saw how her uniform and independence were seen as positive role models by women in villages. Recruits are given education as they move through the forest. Joining the army is a way out of the Stone Age. One woman, wrapped only in a single piece of cloth, as she shook lentils by hand, told me simply that she liked the Naxalites because she sees them. 'I do not see the government.'

Their soldiers were willing to show their faces and appear on television, since, to them, joining People's War is a one-way street. They expect the revolution to be successful or they will die in the attempt. It is rather like a monastic vocation. But some wore disguise on camera, since they need to travel outside the forest.

Commander Kosa, a senior officer, denied government claims that they are criminals whose only aim is extortion. "That's like a thief calling a policeman a thief," he said. "Vajpayee [India's Prime Minister] is a very big criminal himself. We have come to this backward region to unite people, and our goal is to get to Delhi from here. That's why we have come here. Not for money."

The biggest problem for the authorities is to get to the poorest people in the hills who in the main support the Naxalites. The police have little freedom to move, and the Naxalites have a complex bush telegraph. The event which they invited me to witness was a rally of more than 5,000 people in a forest clearing, an impressive mobilisation of support. Most people who came to the rally had a weapon of some sort. Villagers were summoned to the event by drums which beat across the landscape, and some people walked for days to get there.

The rally started with a ritual denunciation of British imperialism, as the Naxalites tried to invoke the memory of protesters of the past with a procession to a peepul tree where the British are said to have killed tribal insurgents in 1910. There were a series of dance performances opposing the evils of the modern world, including America and television, which they said was polluting and corrupting Indian youth. As night fell, a thousand teak fires filled the area and there was a huge party, aided by bottles of fermented tree resin, which tasted like a sweet, fortified wine.

The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, has had to increase his security protection since Naxalites blew up his car in October. Despite the glittering façade which he shows off to visitors such as Mr Blair, the People's War presents a growing challenge. His critics accuse him of having no tactics to deal with the problem other than to kill more people.

About 200 people are shot every year by the police as suspected Naxalites. There is growing disquiet among human rights activists at this high toll, since there are no questions asked about who the targets are. K G Kannabiran, a lawyer, says this arbitrary use of police power will only make things worse. He blames "free market fundamentalism" for increasing the divide between rich and poor. He says: "Chandrababu Naidu predicted that Marx is dead. He does not understand that there is a tremendous effort for his second coming."

But Mr Naidu denies that he treats this only as a law-and-order problem. He derides people who join People's War. "In extremist activity they are all disgruntled," he says. "They have lost their base and their ideology. They are all innocent people. They don't know what Marx is. They are having personal problems. So they join up." He reels off lists of figures, detailing development initiatives which he says will make a difference. A new battleground has opened up over road-building. The Naxalites oppose roads coming into the forest because they diminish their freedom of action. They have few friends among development NGOs because they oppose almost any development which they do not undertake themselves.

At enormous cost in security, a 12-kilometre access road has been built by local volunteers to connect the tiny village of Gangapur. It used to take them more than a day to walk to the main road. Now a bus comes to the village twice a day. The police cleverly exploited a disagreement between the village and the Naxalites, and persuaded the villagers that it was safe to build the road.

Chandrashekar, an engineer who oversaw his fellow villagers, speaks in glowing terms about what difference it has made. "The road takes you to the outside world," he says. "You can see how much development there is outside. We were in the dark before the opening of this road and the road is very much needed for development."

But this is not a sustainable model for the rest of the region. Without constant armed guards, this road would be closed again. By the time I was ready to leave it was almost dark. My police escort insisted I took the bus out, since they could not guarantee that a car would not be attacked. Even in this "safe" area the Naxalites controlled the night. Without radical new initiatives, this war is not going to be won easily by either side.

David Loyn is the BBC's Developing World Correspondent. His report on the Naxalites is on 'Newsnight', on BBC2 at 10.30 tonight

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