The undulating hills and thick vegetation of Dandakaranya Forest nearly 50,000 sq km of jungle straddling parts of central-Indian states Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh have for decades been a forsaken, off-the-map region frequented only by corporate India looking to make a killing from the iron-ore reserves of the land. Indeed, for close to 10 years now, the area has remained off limits for the Indian government and its agencies, including the police and military. It is one of the few pockets of India that has not been topographically surveyed. No good maps exist of the region. The only "government" the tribal people of these forests are acquainted with is provided by a fearsome band of insurgents: "Janatana Sarkar," the people's government run by the guerrillas of the Communist Party of India-Maoists (CPI-Maoists), for whom most of the forest is a de facto military headquarters.
But just weeks ago, New Delhi decided to challenge the rebels who carry Mao Zedong's name and who are waging the bloodiest insurgency India has ever seen. The government announced that 50,000 paramilitary troops would be part of Operation Greenhunt, with tough-talking Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram promising to "wipe off the Maoist movement in the next two [to] three years." As part of this campaign, police and paramilitary forces last week engaged in a four-day "area domination" exercise near the village of Dantewada in the Dandakaranya Forest. But the Maoists were not about to let this incursion into their territory pass with impunity.
The 80 members of the government's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were taking a break on April 6 at around 6 a.m. after traveling all night, when they were ambushed by what some officials estimate to be 400 Maoists positioned on a neighboring hilltop. The Maoists executed their attack with fierce precision, giving the soldiers no chance to react. They blew up an anti-land-mine vehicle and then began firing indiscriminately. The shocked and exhausted soldiers, who had not been able to follow standard procedures like checking the road for land mines ahead of time, were massacred within minutes. The guerrillas both men and women then took away AK-47 and Insas rifles, mortars, magazines of ammunition and bulletproof jackets from their victims. Of the 80 Indian troops on exercise, 76 were killed.
While admitting that it lost eight fighters in the three-hour attack, a Maoist spokesman justified the massacre in a three-page faxed statement, saying, "The CRPF battalion deployed in [Chhattisgarh] were killing innocent people, burning villages, raping women and displacing ... people. We also wanted to take revenge of the killing of our top leaders."
It was the most significant government setback in the undeclared war between the two Indias. The Maoists thrive in the "other" India the one that is impoverished and left behind as one-fifth of the country's populace has begun to thrive, while the other 800 million suffer with growing resentment from chronic poverty and live without electricity, roads, hospitals, proper sanitation or clean water the classic breeding ground for left-wing extremist violence. As Mao himself prescribed in 1927, "It's necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area ... To right a wrong it is necessary to exceed the proper limit." Naxalism, as Indian Maoism is also called after a village named Naxalbari at the movement's origins has rapidly outstripped the insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and northeast India. Maoists have a presence in at least 16 of India's 28 states, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described Naxalism as the "biggest internal security challenge" that faces the country.
India is groping for answers on how to respond to the Maoist attack. Chidambaram's strategy had appeared to be working. Many top Maoist leaders, including Politburo members, were arrested, and the Maoists offered to negotiate. Their chief military officer, Kishanji the nom de guerre of Mallojula Koteswara Rao even gave out his cell-phone number to Chidambaram to facilitate talks. "But actually they were retreating so that they can regroup. This is how the Maoists always operate. But still we have not learned anything," says K.P.S. Gill, formerly one of India's top police officers, who advised the Chhattisgarh government in a previous anti-Maoist operation.
Privately, many senior leaders in the ruling Congress party had complained to their party president, Sonia Gandhi, that Chidambaram used unnecessarily provocative language when talking about the Maoists. But Singh refused to accept Chidambaram's offer to resign after the massacre. With the central government still debating how to deal with the Maoists, there is confusion on the ground about how to tackle the insurgency. Gill says it's time to rethink the entire strategy and criticizes Chidambaram for giving the go-ahead to a "flawed operation."
Those in India who perceive Chidambaram to be a warmonger say the growing social disparities caused by India's economic growth have been a major factor behind the rebels' expansion. They say the government needs to provide a more equitable distribution of its growing wealth. "Let's not forget the killing of more than a hundred tribal villagers by the security forces since June 2009 ... It's time the nation starts to work towards cease-fire and cessation of hostilities so as to help initiate dialogue with the Maoists, and to address the real issues affecting the people like forced corporate or state acquisition of land, displacement, tribal rights and the lack of governance," says Dr. Ranabir Samaddar, director of Calcutta Research Group.
Meanwhile, India's armed forces are not anxious to join the fight. The new Indian army chief, General V.K. Singh, has blamed the lack of training and tactics in jungle warfare as well as command and control for the loss of the 76 troopers. He ruled out any role of the military that is, the security forces of India's federal government in the ongoing operation. "The Naxalite problem is a law and order problem, which is a state subject. It stems from certain issues on the ground, be it of governance, be it of administration, be it of socioeconomic factors. And since it is not a secessionist movement, I think our polity is astute and wise enough to know the implications of using the army against their own people." Likewise, the chief of the Indian air force, Air Marshal P V Naik, expressed an unwillingness to use the air force and its unmanned drones in ongoing anti-Maoist operations. "Unless we are 120% sure that the Naxals are the country's enemies, it will not be fair to use the air force within our borders."
Chhattisgarh's director general of police, Vishwa Ranjan, admits that "the [paramilitary] forces need to be trained specifically for this, which unfortunately we don't do. It's time all of us sit up and act." Still, he insists that he is "prepared to take casualties." He tells TIME, "We are in a war. And no war is won without people dying."