This story appears in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The gunman at the jungle’s edge lived and died by different names. Some knew him as Prashant, others as Paramjeet. Occasionally he called himself Gopalji, trading the alias with another insurgent leader to further confuse the Indian authorities trying to hunt him down.
When I met him, he was fresh from killing, and called himself by yet another name. “Comrade Manas,” he said as he stepped from the shadows beneath a huge walnut tree, machine gun in hand, a slight figure, his frame and features burned out and cadaverous with the depredations of malaria and typhoid, war and jungle.
The day was already old and the sun low. The silhouettes of a dozen or so other gunmen lurked in the deepening green of the nearby paddy fields, watchful and waiting. Manas and his men were on the move and had little time to talk.
In India they are known by a single word, Naxalites: Maoist insurgents at the heart of the nation’s longest running and most deeply entrenched internal conflict. Their decades-long war, which costs India more lives today than the embers of the conflict in Kashmir, has been described by former premier Manmohan Singh as India’s “greatest internal security threat.”
In the spate of violence 24 hours before our rendezvous, Manas, just 27 years old, and his men had killed six policemen and wounded eight more in an ambush across the range of low hills at whose base we now met.
The attack had put the Naxalites back on the front pages of India’s newspapers, and security forces were on the move in angry response. Patrols and helicopters circled the area, sweeping through villages and probing into the jungle.
By rights, the Naxalites should have been relics of history, rather than fighting and killing in the name of Mao long after the Chinese communist leader’s death, in a country he had never even visited—a nuclear power at that. Yet their war, fought in the back blast of India’s energy boom, had been thrown a lifeline by the demands of development and the globalized economy, as mineral exploitation and land rights became catalysts of a revitalized struggle.
In this way India’s energy needs and industry’s hunger for raw materials linked the angry killers in the jungle to coal, steel, and power production, welding the Naxalites to some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country—the Adivasis, India’s original tribal dwellers. Rather than becoming an anomaly from the past, the Naxalite insurgency—fueled by intimidation, extortion, and violence—has come to symbolize a conflict prophetic of the future. It pits development against tradition, with India’s most mineral-rich states at the epicenter.
Indeed Manas, already a Naxalite “zone commander” despite his youth, seemed certain that the social grievances of the poor would eventually ensure victory for his cause. He regarded the overthrow of the Delhi government as an inevitability.
“An adult tiger grows old and dies,” he assured me, his eyes glowing with the luminosity of radicals the world over, “just as the government we are trying to oust is old, decaying, and ready to die. Our revolution is young and bound to grow. These are the laws of the universe. In a battle between politicians and a new society run by the people, the people are bound to win.”
He spoke until the last of the sun had dipped beneath the tree line, and then he slipped off into the shadows with his men. The security forces were getting closer, and they had no wish to become encircled.
The next time I saw his face, Manas was dead. It stared at me from a roadside shrine in the impoverished village where he had been born. Local people told me that he had been slain in a gun battle not long after our meeting. Only by reading the inscription on the stone did I learn the real identity of the insurgent with many names: Lalesh.
The Naxalites’ war always began where the road ended. Everyone said so. Manas boasted to me that it had been six years since he had seen a paved road. The police, the political officers, the paramilitaries, the Adivasi tribes, the poorest local farmers, and the Naxalites themselves: It was the one thing they agreed upon.
There always came a point out there in those jungles of India’s infamous Red Corridor—foremost among them in the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—where the road began to give up the struggle against the thrust of vegetation, against the rain and the heat, where the last heavily fortified police station marked the farthest reach of central and state authority in a heave of tangled razor wire and bunkers. Then it stopped.
After the end of the road? Then you were into another world, undeveloped India, Naxalite territory: a land of parallel authority, communism, people’s courts, armed cadres, and IEDs.
The Naxalites took their name from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal where in May 1967 an abortive peasant uprising against landowners took place and a police inspector died in a hail of arrows. The bloodshed christened an amorphous, fragmented movement, loosely inspired by the Maoist model of agrarian revolution. From then on, Maoist militants were known as Naxalites.
Their sanctuary became the 35,600-square-mile forest of Dandakaranya, which loosely translates from Sanskrit as Jungle of Punishment. Straddling parts of several states, including Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, Dandakaranya afforded the Naxalites a citadel of sorts: Abujmarh, a jungle within a jungle, one of the last of India’s uncharted territories. Beneath the area’s dense canopy of vegetation, rugged hills and valleys are bisected by streams that rage as torrents during the rainy season, forbidding terrain for any unwelcome stranger.
Death came in many ways in that jungle. The Naxalites killed police and paramilitaries with roadside bombs and ambushes. The police killed the Naxalites in “encounters,” the vernacular encompassing both firefights and targeted killings. Suspected government informers were tried in people’s courts and killed with axes or knives, leading to a surge in the homicide rate not reflected in the conflict’s official casualty count of more than 12,000 dead across two decades.
The first Maoists, middle-class communist radicals from the state of Andhra Pradesh, arrived in Abujmarh in 1989, fleeing a crackdown by local authorities. The movement might have died out altogether then, its ideology withering in the sweaty heat. Yet Abujmarh proved an elixir to the Maoist revolutionaries. Here in the depths of the jungle, they found a natural new constituency among the Adivasi tribes.
The term Adivasi means “aboriginal” or “original settler” in Sanskrit, and the Adivasis are officially classified as members of Scheduled Tribes, defined by the Indian Constitution as indigenous groups given some form of recognition under national legislation. They number 84 million—6.8 percent of India’s population—and are concentrated most heavily in and around Dandakaranya.
It would be simplistic to describe the Naxalite movement as solely Adivasi. Its organization’s cadres include not just members of India’s Scheduled Tribes but also middle-class students, as well as Dalits—the so-called Untouchables of the lowest caste—and a large number of fighters from the country’s socially disadvantaged, described in the constitution as Backward Classes.
Unworldly and vulnerable, the Adivasis in Abujmarh proved natural hosts to the fugitives among them, and after years of exposure to Maoist ideology, many became Naxalite recruits.
It was hardly surprising in a nation where nearly 180 million people survived on less than two dollars a day—and where a round of drinks among the urban elite in a Delhi bar could exceed a farmer’s monthly wages several times over—that militant communism would thrive in neglected areas beyond the writ of local authority. The glitz and glamour of central business districts were a universe away from vast, impoverished tracts of rural India.
What made the Naxalite insurgency so peculiarly ironic, however, and gave it such an impact on the country’s future was that its epicenter was in the very heart of India’s immense mineral wealth. This is the natural inheritance so central to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy to regenerate India’s moribund economy and provide electricity to the one-third of the country’s households—some 300 million people—that still live in the dark.
It was no coincidence that the cockpit of the war was in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Those states are among the country’s richest in terms of mineral wealth, containing more than 40 percent of India’s coal reserves. Their subterranean treasure trove also includes trillions of dollars’ worth of iron ore, limestone, dolomite, and bauxite reserves. The coal fuels the power plants that light up India’s distant metropolises. The steel makes the modern buildings, the gleaming tech complexes, the vehicles and engineering projects so integral to Modi’s vision.
Yet these two states have the worst record of Naxalite violence and some of the worst poverty rates in India. In 2010 one multidimensional analysis of poverty, drawn up with support from the United Nations Development Programme, said that eight Indian states, including Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, accounted for more poor people than the 26 poorest African nations combined.
Rather than reduce the imbalance between rich and poor, mineral wealth has exacerbated the divide, adding pollution, violence, and displacement to the daily struggle of those whose livelihood is locked up in the land. The Karanpura Valley of northern Jharkhand epitomizes the situation. Once famous for its tigers and a major migration route of elephants, the area today is home to open coal pits, where massive quantities of the carbon rock are mined. Originally mapped in the 1800s, coalfields there were acquired by Central Coalfields Limited (CCL), a local subsidiary of state-owned Coal India Limited (CIL), in the mid-1980s.
Across the decades, CCL had offered all sorts of compensation to the locals—jobs, money, resettlement, alternative housing—in return for their land and their departure. Many accepted payment, gave up their land, and left. For others, farming people whose sense of soul and livelihood was inextricably linked to the soil, the lure of money held little attraction. Pockets of them hung on, as their dust-covered houses crumbled and cracked around them with the shock waves of pit blasting hammering up through the soles of their feet and smearing the horizon with a haze of smoke.
The Naxalites were already long established in the area, feeding off the sense of division and abandonment. A month before my first visit there, a large group of armed Maoists had attacked the valley’s Ashoka mine, burning dump trucks and company jeeps before being driven off in a running gun battle with local police.
“Our land is everything to us,” explained a young local activist in the village of Henjda, as another pit blast rent the air. “Seventy-five percent of our village are refusing to give up their land to CCL. They offer us money as compensation. They offer us jobs in the coalfields: one job for every two acres of land. But none of it is enough. Money goes. Jobs end. Besides, some families have nine people depending on ten acres of farmland. So we aren’t moving.”
As in so many other rural coal-mining areas, local communities have been divided between those clinging to their homes and resisting the encroachment of the mines and those who signed on as land agents for CCL, tasked with persuading other people to sell their land. It was easy for the Maoists to exploit the situation. Fights already had broken out between the split communities, and the graffiti on the cracked walls boded further ill.
“Agents of CCL, take our land and give your heads to us,” one ominous threat read. Many moved just to escape the poisoned relationships within their villages. When I went back to Jharkhand two years later and asked about the young activist I’d met, I learned that he had abandoned his activism, worn out by death threats and police harassment. His friends said that he had a new job too—with CCL.
The Maoists were no slouches at exploiting minerals either. As my travels lengthened through Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, one thing became clear: Mining and mineral exploitation had antagonized the Adivasis and the disadvantaged rural poor, making them aware of being the have-nots in a land of potential have-a-lots. But the Naxalites did nothing to oppose mineral exploitation. They thrived on it.
Comrade Manas had never tried to duck the subject when I quizzed him on Naxalite mining policy. He told me that most Maoist units, on hearing that mineral surveys were taking place, far from seeking to attack and drive off mining companies in defense of local land rights, asked a simple question: “What will be paid to the party as taxes?”
Revenue was critical to the Naxalites’ survival. Like any insurgency, theirs needed funds, and the potential levy on mining—alongside the protection rackets, kickbacks, and access to industrial explosives that came with it—far exceeded anything the Maoists’ annual tax on tendu leaves (used since the 17th century to roll cigarettes) or rice could come up with. When mines were attacked, it was often only because their owners had not paid the protection money or had held back giving the Naxalites a cut of the profits.
“In many parts of India today, Maoism is not ideology driven but levy driven,” warned Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for rural affairs before his National Congress party (INC) government fell to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 elections. Ramesh was so concerned about the symbiosis between the Naxalites and the mining industry that he had publicly demanded a moratorium on all mining in the areas worst affected by the insurgents.
“Where there is mining, there is Maoism, because where there is mining, there is more revenue, and where there is more revenue, there is more extortion,” he added. “Some of the best-known names in Indian industry are running businesses in the Maoist areas by paying off the Maoists. I don’t want to name names, but these are the biggest names in Indian industry.”
I was allowed a glimpse of the operation firsthand one October day in Jharkhand. A series of coded calls led to a meeting with a stranger in a rural marketplace. In turn, he guided me to a deserted stretch of track beside the jungle—the rendezvous point for a Naxalite commander, alias Comrade Ranjit, who in addition to his many other tasks oversaw an insurgent-controlled coking plant.
The plant lay in open fields beside the jungle just a few miles from Jharkhand’s thermal power station at Bokaro, built in 1986.
The coking operation he next showed me was entirely professional—and entirely Naxalite run. The plant had been built without a license and relied on local coal mined illegally by local villagers, who chipped away in a multitude of nearby mines. The Naxalites protected the site and made money from it. The police took a cut of the profits too, or so Comrade Ranjit insisted as we walked around the plant. He claimed that the Naxalites paid officials a hundred thousand rupees (about $2,000) a month to stay away from the site. He also explained a simple system of bribery involving corrupt officials who were paid a fee to issue documents legitimizing each 25-ton truckload of Naxalite coke so that it could flow into the legal convoy chain. For their part, the Naxalites took the equivalent of a thousand dollars a day in levies from the operation.
“We’re not the enemy of mining,” Comrade Ranjit said, smiling, puzzled at my frown of dim comprehension. “It can be our friend.”
Multiply the figure of a thousand dollars a day across the thousands of illegal coking plants and coal mines that lie within Naxalite areas. Add to it what top-ranking mining companies pay the Maoists each year for protection—an amount described conservatively by Jairam Ramesh as “millions and millions” of dollars. Mix into that equation known mineral reserves, the hungers of globalized industry, social grievances, and the schisms in a developing society caused by ill-distributed coal-boom profits, and the Naxalites stop looking like museum-piece ideological artifacts and start looking more like an immensely well funded and complex insurgency that links European economies with a roadside IED planted for a police vehicle approaching an Adivasi village in Chhattisgarh. They look like a phenomenon of the globalized present rather than the Maoist past.
If the jungle gave the Naxalites sanctuary and mineral wealth gave them money, it was land acquisition and displacement that gave them a well of recruits and formed the forefront of the government’s response to the insurgency.
Ever since it became law in 1894, the Land Acquisition Act—an archaic piece of colonial legislation created expressly to allow the government to seize land for public purpose under the principle of eminent domain—had been the source of bitter contention throughout India. It had displaced millions of people from their homes for mining and hydroelectricity, road and rail projects. By the time the act was overhauled in 2014 to include meaningful reparation and rehabilitation clauses for the dispossessed, the damage had been done. In the years since India’s independence alone, the right of eminent domain had been used to displace an estimated 60 million Indians, including about 24 million Adivasis.
The hardship has been especially severe for the Adivasis, many of whom have not been properly resettled. Given that 90 percent of India’s coal, more than 50 percent of mineral reserves, and most of the desirable hydropower dam sites are in Adivasi areas, land acquisition has thus become the de facto fault line between the needs of traditional hunter-gatherer societies and the requirements of a rapidly industrializing economy with a ravenous appetite for better infrastructure.
Yet today, even the new act of 2014 is in difficulties. Originally drafted by Ramesh and passed by the outgoing INC administration, it established a benchmark of compensation and resettlement among the displaced, intending to pull the teeth of their anger and undermine the Naxalites. Yet under pressure from industry and mining interests, Modi’s BJP government is already eyeing the act as the target of possible revision, and land rights seem set to remain a source of anger and dispute for the indefinite future.
However much they drew strength from legitimate social grievance, there was still no doubting the terror the Naxalites could inspire. The brutality of their war revealed itself one spring morning in Chhattisgarh. I had driven deep into the south of the state near the town of Bijapur, following up on a vague police report about a Maoist attack on an Adivasi village. Stopping in Kutru, a village in the foothills of Abujmarh, I stared out into the press of jungle toward the point where the road, already not much more than a rutted track, finally thinned and divided, petering out into a half dozen trails before vanishing into a kaleidoscope of smashing green.
It may have looked beautiful from the outside, but few Adivasi adults in that forest had a balanced diet, and malnutrition was rife among their children. Anemia and pulmonary tuberculosis were common, and in the more remote areas, infant mortality could take three out of five children. Almost every statistic about the Adivasis placed them at the bottom of India’s social scale. They had the lowest life expectancy and literacy rate. Seventy-five percent lived below the official poverty line. Every year, monsoons brought death to thousands, from diseases such as gastroenteritis and malaria. Polio and blindness rates were high. The potential benefits of development and a fair distribution of mineral wealth should have brought immense improvements to the quality of life—had they not been so catastrophically mismanaged.
Put aside the Adivasis’ sense of inequality, even abandonment, by the state, and it was clear that few of them wanted their traditional hunter-gatherer life, an existence without an alphabet, schools, electricity, roads, in which many babies and mothers died in childbirth and the village shaman treated every affliction, from cerebral malaria to cholera. The Naxalites offered them no better alternative, only a hazy notion of protection and an archaic ideology long abandoned by the rest of the world.
As I looked at that green landscape in the warm early morning, it seemed impossible to imagine what harm lay ahead. Neither a whisper of man nor a hint of malice came from those crowded trees, the jostle of mahua leaves, tamarind, and kusum. Instead the air vibrated gently with the thrum of insects and the hoots of unseen birds.
Then, from among the low tribal huts on one side of the road’s end, the sound of a woman’s weeping rent the stillness. Her sobbing lasted barely a minute, yet it carried an inconsolable grief. The Adivasis I encountered were supremely self-possessed and enduring, and it was rare to see them express any such extreme emotion.
The village men brought her over to me. Sarita was her name. Her face was waxen with sadness and shock, but she was proud and stared me directly in the face when she spoke. She was just 19, an Adivasi girl from the Maria tribe. She wore a light tribal dress and carried herself with the same straight-backed, sure-footed poise I always saw in the Adivasi villages.
She had arrived in Kutru the previous night along with 30 others, most of them extended family members. They lived in Kerpe, a village deeper in the jungle, but had fled their home as fugitives from a Maoist ultimatum. The Naxalites had emerged from the jungle and occupied their village the previous week, Sarita told me, cutting it off from the outside world. She said there were more than a hundred fighters in all, men and women dressed in olive fatigues and heavily armed, and that they were commanded by a large woman known as Ranjita.
The Naxalite armed cadres usually appeared in the area in April, emerging from Abujmarh and traveling from village to village along the jungle fringes extracting a levy from the tribes on the sale of their tendu leaves. On this occasion, though, the Maoists had more than levy on their minds. Sarita’s relatives had made a fateful mistake. An educated family, three months earlier they had collected signatures from locals as part of a petition to the state authorities requesting that a police station be established in Kerpe. The attendant benefits of a police presence in the village included a road.
The militants seized Sarita’s father, her brother, and a cousin from their home. Next Ranjita and her cadres summoned the village to witness a Jan Adalat, today’s incarnation of the infamous People’s Courts established by Mao in the 1950s as a way for Chinese peasants to put landlords on trial.
First Ranjita read out the charges against Sarita’s family. Next three alleged government collaborators, bound and blindfolded, were beaten with clubs and fists before the silent crowd. “Then it suddenly finished,” Sarita said. “Ranjita addressed us one last time. She told the village that anyone with relatives in the police or local government had one week to leave their homes or be killed. Then she walked up to me and said I would find my father and brother ‘sleeping’ on the path home. The Naxalites made us chant Maoist slogans a few times, and then they disappeared.”
Sarita did find her father and brother on the trail home. They lay beside her abducted cousin. The men’s hands were tied, and they had been beaten to death with the flat edge of axheads. Her brother’s eyelids had been cut away with a knife.
I left her standing at a point near where the jungle fell upon the edge of the village. She had stopped crying by then and looked about with the cool, practical regard of a newly anointed refugee assessing the rules of necessity, weighing the prospects of life on each side of the road’s end.