Living with India's 'Red Menace'

MARKAPAR — In a rural Maoist stronghold in central India, off limits to the police and government officials, people are queuing for photos they hope might save their lives.

Indian security forces are set to launch a major offensive against Maoist rebels whose insurgency has escalated across the country, posing a challenge to the authority of the state led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Stuck in the middle of the conflict zones are thousands of villagers from indigenous tribes -- some embittered by years of government neglect, others brutalised by the rebels and many who simply want to be left alone.

The queue in Markapur, 186 miles from the capital of Chhattisgarh state in central India, is for photos to be used on makeshift identification cards that can be brandished if the long-forecast offensive begins.

"We decided to get an identity card. I could flash it to prove that I am neither a Maoist nor an anti-Maoist," said Bukti Mai, 36, a member of the Gonde tribe who lives in small mud house hidden deep in the forests.

Bukti stood with other tribal men and women outside the studio to get the first photograph of her life, which will be used on an ID card that is stamped by the village head but of no official value.

"People are scared. They are making the cards on their own, just to be on a safe side when the war begins," explained Ramesh Ghondal, a government officer in Dantewada, about an hour's drive from Markapur.

Tribal groups such as the adivasis in Chhattisgarh have been left behind by economic development elsewhere in India and their poverty and discontent with local government corruption is seen as a major source of Maoist support.

They sit at the bottom of society, eking out a meagre living by growing vegetables, collecting honey, making hand-rolled cigarettes and distilling liquor. Most are illiterate and unable to count or use money.

"The Maoists sold us a dream. A dream of a better tomorrow and convinced us that it was our duty to kill the rich who exploit the poor," said Huda Sukhnath, a former rebel who lives in another Maoist-dominated village near Markapur.

In the past two decades, Maoists have trained thousands of tribal men and women as foot soldiers, teaching them and their children to fight, lay landmines and make remote-control detonators for explosives.

Those who pledged allegiance to the Maoists and vacated their ancestral land to set up training camps were rewarded, handed guns and indoctrinated in the ideology of fighting government rule and landlords.

But the impoverished rural masses, on whose behalf the Maoists claim they are fighting, are subject to the vagaries of rebel power, with its summary justice, intimidation and ideological strictures.

Sukhnath was expelled by the group after he refused to kill a landowner in 2007 and he now lives in fear of being gunned down by the Maoists or the police.

"It's a hostage-like situation," says Hardain Ram, a father of three in Markapar who collects wood and honey to sell in the local market.

"All orders have to be obeyed here. Members can get married but pledge to never start a family."

According to the Maoist guidelines, all members should refrain from having children as a family could make the "comrade" emotional and hinder his or her ultimate mission of waging a war against the state.

They also have to undergo compulsory military training and refrain from meeting family and friends who are not Maoists.

Hardain is one of few brave enough to speak out in an area where suspicion of the media runs deep and talking to a government official can lead to execution for being an informer.

The rebels also set strict rules governing villagers in their areas. Women, for example, are obliged to prepare food for visiting "comrades."

Hardain says his 12-year-old son was recently rebuked by a local leader and punished after he was found guilty of dancing to a Bollywood film song in the training camp.

"It is our land, our forest. The Maoists and the government have no business to interfere in our lives," Hardain said.

State police documents reveal at least 1,700 people have been killed in Dantewada by the Maoists in the last five years.

Other villagers are exasperated by the government's inaction for so many years and are full of foreboding ahead of the upcoming offensive, dubbed "Operation Green Hunt" and tipped to start this month.

"The government should have launched the offensive a decade ago," said Wandri Dhuva, a naturopath physician working in the Dantewada region.

"It is too late now, the Maoists have gathered a lot of money and arms when the government was sleeping.

"The operation is a waste of time. There will be blood all over the forest land."

India's Maoist insurgency has spread to 20 of the country's 29 provinces, according to the government, and police officials say the majority of the tribal population in Maoist areas has never had contact with the government.

If living on a battleground between the Indian state and the Maoists was not bad enough already, the tribal population must also contend with another force in the forests that acts as a deadly counterweight to the rebels.

The government-backed paramilitary defence movement called the Salwa Judum (People's Army) has recruited some of the villagers who objected to the rigorous military training and the Maoist brainwashing.

In 2008, India's top court expressed its disapproval of state backing of Salwa Judum, which stands accused of gross human rights violations, including arming children to fight the so-called "Red Menace."