India’s poorest stuck between Maoists militants and big business

In India, activities by Maoist militants have become increasingly deadly after a massive security operation was launched against them. Thousands have died since the insurgency began its fight for communist rule in 1967.

Earlier this month the Indian Minister for Home Affairs set out a road map to initiate peace talks with the group. However, little has been done to ease the threat posed to locals.

Deep in central India, armed guerrillas hold sway over the remote regions. In the district of Dantewada, the Maoist movement has existed for decades. However, what was once a low-level insurgency has steadily become more violent. The Maoists claim to represent the interests of tribal groups who rank among the poorest in the nation.

“This government is corrupt, and looting the people. Under them, no poor person gets fair treatment and respect. We will attack the national flag anywhere we see it,” declares Maoist leader Bhaskar in front of his guerillas.

The Maoists aim to overthrow the Indian state through an armed campaign. They have established a so-called “Red Corridor” in rural areas where government authority is almost non-existent. There they dispense rough justice through kangaroo courts.

Although the insurgents are not a strategic threat to such a large country, their activities worry investors, and they highlight India's deep inequalities. Dantewada has not seen development for 40 years, but is rich in minerals.

“There are large business houses trying to throw us off our land, because they want to dig for minerals. But we don’t want to leave our land. The Maoists help us,” said Saju, a local villager.

The rebels have stepped up attacks in recent months in response to a government security offensive against them. Villagers are now getting caught in the crossfire, with the Maoists changing tactics and attacking civilians out of desperation. They believe that by ratcheting up the headcount, the government will back off. However, it may have the opposite effect, and the Maoists could start losing the public’s support.

“The Maoists came from there and fired at us. We hid and managed to escape. But they burnt our huts down,” said Lachchu Kumar.

“We don’t know what to do. If we support the security forces, we are shot by the Maoists; if we support the Maoists, we will be rounded up by the police. It is better we call a village meeting and commit mass suicide,” said another local resident Rajesh Kumar.

With 600 people killed last year, locals are getting restless. Some are openly refusing to help the Maoists and have formed an armed militia to fight the Maoists.

“The Maoists are a terror organization whose sole purpose is to commit crimes, to extort money and food from poor villagers, and to stop development,” says Suresh Yadav from the anti-Maoist militia. “The local Maoist supporters made demands from me and my family, but we are capable of dealing with them. I am determined to fight them, and will never bow before these criminals.”

The tribes say they support the Maoists because of the lack of development, but the government claims that it is the high level of violence that stops it from bringing in development in the first place. As such, this vicious cycle has now become India’s biggest internal security threat.