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More than Just Maoists Caught in India's Military Offensive

The Indian government has vowed to unleash a massive offensive on Maoist rebels in five central and eastern Indian states, worst-hit by the insurgency. But there are voices of caution from civil society that an armed confrontation could further hurt the marginalised and largely indigenous populations in the worst affected states.

Presenter: Murali Krishnan, New Delhi. Speakers: Linga, Chhattisgarh resident accused of Maoist links Himanshu Kumar, social activist, Bastar district in Chhattisgarh Ajay Sahni, Indian strategic expert.

(Sounds of crows and farm equipment in open fields)

KRISHNAN: For the last three months, Linga, a tribal from the central state of Chhattisgarh, the epicenter of Maoist violence in the country, has been living in the outskirts of the capital New Delhi working as a farm hand. He's scared to go back to his village fearing that security forces will arrest him again on charges of being a Maoist sympathiser and helping the rebels. He managed to obtain bail after much difficulty in October last year and fled his village to seek temporary shelter. He is unsure when he's going back.

LINGA: (Translation from Hindi) Villagers in my district feel helpless. We are being exploited, our land is being seized and it is not the government that is helping us, but the Maoist cadres. There is no law in place and though the country got independence, 60 years back we were left out. We still have to struggle, and fight for our levy.

KRISHNAN: A massive military offensive to eliminate Maoists was launched recently in the rebel strongholds of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. The operation would involve nearly 20,000 specially trained personnel drawn from the paramilitary and state police forces. Nearly 35,000 troops are already deployed in the states to counter the rebels. The troops have been trained in jungle warfare by the Indian army to take on Maoists guerrillas operating from deep forests. This, in an area that has around 2 million people, over half of whom are tribals.

The line between tribal political activism and Maoist armed struggle is increasingly blurring with Maoists often coming forward to endorse and support tribal causes. The targets of Maoist violence are often those who exploit the tribals or harass them, like landlords, police and moneylenders. Maoists, often known as Naxalites, have steadily fed on rural poverty and deprived tribal populations. Social activists point out that affected Maoist states have failed to address tribal grievances that is propping up the Maoists and their growing influence in the country. However, security forces believe eliminating the Maoists militarily will resolve the problem.

Himanshu Kumar, a social activist who works with tribals in Bastar, a district in Chhattisgarh feels the offensive is not paved with proper intentions.

KUMAR: We don't think that this offensive is honestly aimed at curbing Naxalism. It is more aimed at grabbing tribals land for mining purposes. I don't that this Indian state is very much worried about the security of its tribal folk. It's more interested in mining interests of the corporates for which it has sent so much troops in these areas.

KRISHNAN: There is a feeling that as the anti-Maoist offensive gathers momentum, tribal alienation from the state will also increase. The fight against the Maoist rebels, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has referred to as the country's biggest internal security challenge, is expected to be a long and protracted one. India's foremost strategic expert Ajay Sahni feels that the offensive needs to be better thought out.

SAHNI: I don't think that it is a strategy with significant potential of success in terms of affecting the Maoists' basic capabilities and capacities. If you reduce this to a killing game you might be able to kill a few more Maoists. The point is you cannot really carry your attrition rates beyond the replacement rates.

KRISHNAN: Left wing extremists continue to target vital installations such as communication towers, rail and transport links that has led to the millions of rupees to state governments. Last year alone, Maoist violence accounted for over 1,100 deaths, the largest seen in recent years. The government's decision to reassert authority of civil administration in these rebel strongholds and put down violence will be keenly watched. Murali Krishnan for Connect Asia.

Radio Australia, February 12, 2010