Fri, May 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The hidden war in India's mineral-rich tribal belt

Mineral rights are behind bloody clashes between left-wing guerrillas and state-backed militias across much of the Indian subcontinent

By Randeep Ramesh  /  THE GUARDIAN , BHANUPRATAPUR FOREST, INDIA

Forty young men and women in ill-fitting army fatigues, clutching flintlocks and pistols, stand in the shade of a mango tree. Beside them flaps a red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

In a show of strength, the soldiers creep up on imaginary enemies through long grass. Armed with weapons and the opinions of the doctrinaire left, these guerrillas, or Naxalites as they are known, are part of a hidden war in the middle of India's mineral-rich tribal belt.

The Naxalites are heirs of the revolutionary ideology of Mao Zedong (毛澤東). Unlike their ideological cousins in Nepal, the guerrillas are not prepared to consider exchanging the bullet for the ballot box.

Across a wide swath of India, from Andhra Pradesh in the south to the Nepalese border, there are daily reports of underground armies hijacking trains, mounting audacious jailbreaks and murdering local politicians.

Last month Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the rebels as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." Nowhere is this conflict more acute than in the dense forests of southern Chhattisgarh state, the scene of violent land disputes and social clashes. In the last year the state has armed thousands of villagers with guns, spears and bows and arrows. Child soldiers are often ranged against opponents of similar age. In Chhattisgarh a battalion of Indian paramilitary forces has backed this militia, known as Salva Judum (Peace March), against the Naxalites, turning the forest into a battlefield.

Entire villages have been emptied as tribal communities flee from the burnings, lootings and killings. The civil conflict has left more than 50,000 people camping under tarpaulin sheets without work or food along the roadsides of southern Chhattisgarh.

Campaigners say that the reason why the government has opened a new front in this battle lies beneath Chhattisgarh's fertile soil, which contains some of the country's richest reserves of iron ore, coal, limestone and bauxite. Above live some of India's most impoverished peoples: semi-literate tribes who exist in near destitution.

No idle threat

India's biggest companies have moved stealthily into the forest areas, buying up land and acquiring the rights to extract the buried wealth. Last year the Chhattisgarh government signed deals worth 130 billion rupees (US$3 billion) with industrial companies for steel mills and power stations.

The Naxalites have begun a campaign against such industrialization, which the state sees as necessary to create jobs and provide the raw materials for economic growth.

Watching his "troops" conduct military exercises is Gopanna Markam, company commander in the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, whose rank is denoted by the AK-47 in his hands. He says the "exploitation" needs to be stopped.

"The government is bent upon taking out all the resources from this area and leaving the people nothing," he said.

These are no idle threats. Police estimate there are 4,500 armed left-wing guerrillas in Chhattisgarh. In recent months they have attacked mines, blown up electricity pylons and torched cars used by contractors. They have set up "people's courts" to punish, and in some cases execute, those deemed to be "capitalist collaborators."

The guerrillas' aim is violent revolution. Their political wing, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), operates underground and has an armed presence in almost half of India's 28 states. The cadre fervently believes that India's feudal traditions, ingrained caste hierarchy and skewed land ownership provide fertile ground for rebellion.

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