India's Scourge

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Photograph by Brian Sokol for TIME

Lost Villager Jimme Midiyami says her home was destroyed by security forces when they were hunting for Naxals

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The people of Dantewada seem deeply skeptical, however, about whether the other India, the official India, can offer them anything better. In Gumiyapal, Maoist propaganda is directed at a new Tata Steel plant planned for the area. The state government plans to acquire 139 hectares of land, including 14.8 hectares in Gumiyapal, which would then be leased to the company. "[The Naxals] are telling us, 'Don't sell your land to the government,'" Kunjam says. "'That development is not for you.'"

The message resonates because of the evidence from other villages nearby. In Kadampal, for example, all 800 residents were displaced by an expansion of the National Mineral Development Corp.'s iron-ore mine, but only a dozen got steady jobs. The rest get only daily wages moving baskets of muddy mining residue in a tailing pond, on the land where they once grew their own food. Donda Ram, the village chief, says that he is grateful for the houses built by the mine, as well as the electricity supply, but what they really need is better jobs. When the Naxals hold their meetings, "I go because I fear for my life," he says. "But what they're saying is true."

This suspicion of what the rest of India calls development extends beyond the mines. I asked Ram Kunjam why he didn't just find work in Jagdalpur, the nearest city. "There, it's a struggle to find enough work just to earn enough to eat every day," he said. "At least in the village, we can get our food from the land."

His attitude makes a certain sense. The best years of India's recent economic boom have created enormous wealth, yet have failed to create jobs for the vast population of rural poor. Between 2005 and 2008, annual economic growth ranged from 7.4% to 9.2%. That growth came, however, from sectors — services and manufacturing — with high productivity but relatively low employment, says Himanshu, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. As a result, employment grew by only 0.17% a year, the lowest rate of jobs growth in three decades. The jobs that were created (4.4 million) between 2005 and 2008 were in the cities, not rural areas, where most Indians live and where employment actually fell by 2 million. Reversing this trend is crucial; unless jobs and incomes rise in the villages, India will never produce the billion-strong consumer class that the rest of the world has been waiting for.

The Democracy Paradox
Perhaps the greatest irony about the Maoists is that a movement predicated on the idea of a one-party state, which recruits children for combat and has no tribals among its top leaders, has managed to position itself as a defender of pluralism and democracy. In a January interview given to the Swedish writer Jan Myrdal and the Indian civil-liberties activist Gautam Navlakha, the general secretary of the Maoists, Mupalla Laxman Rao, asserted that his party could "unify all revolutionary, democratic, progressive, patriotic forces and all oppressed communities."

Here too India seems to have relinquished the moral high ground. This vibrant, multiparty democracy with a proud culture of open debate has become something else in its fight against the Maoists. The Committee to Protect Journalists warned in May that in Chhattisgarh "local reporters are regularly accused by police of being Maoists and by insurgents of being traitors." The few remaining NGOs operating in Dantewada say they too are accused of being Maoist sympathizers. Himanshu Kumar, a well-regarded Gandhian activist who lived in Dantewada for 18 years, fled in January when, he says, his closest associates started to be arrested: "It had become quite impossible to continue to work there." (Police official Mishra says one of Kumar's colleagues was arrested but that "there was no pressure on [Kumar] to leave the place.") Manish Kunjam, a tribal leader in Sukhma village, says the atmosphere in Dantewada is stifling: "The Maoists are on this side, the state on this side, and in between there is absolutely no space for any kind of democratic movement."

India's first obligation is to do what it does best by finding a place in its cacophonous politics for the Maoists, despite their stated aversion to mainstream parliamentary democracy. Jaffrelot believes this is the only long-term solution: "If you want to defuse this threat, you have to either give them some space and look at them as doing some legitimate work, or you need to develop the place for defusing their propaganda."

Rammohan, the retired Indian Police Service commander, has fought most of India's insurgent groups, and he too believes the only solution to the Maoist threat is political. But the Naxals, he says, will be harder to co-opt than militants elsewhere. Other insurgencies are defined by their demands — once you fulfill them, they are neutralized. The Naxals appear to have no specific agenda other than enforcing existing laws on land reform, and the right to food, health and education for the poor. India's failure to meet those promises, with or without the Naxals, is its great tragedy. "Our democracy is not a healthy democracy," Rammohan says. "It's a very sick democracy." To defeat the Naxals, India needs to figure out how to make itself well.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue TIME Asia.

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