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India Prepares Offensive Against Maoist Rebels

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

India is preparing for a big offensive against Maoists. The Maoists are insurgents inspired by the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung. Hundreds of people are killed each year in fighting between the Maoists and Indian forces, but the conflict doesn't usually get much attention. Now, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the impact of the Maoists has been growing.

PHILIP REEVES: They've attacked a security patrol, killing 17 policemen. They've beheaded a police intelligence officer. They've attacked rail and telecommunication links. All this in just over one week. The long-neglected war between the Maoist rebels of rural Indian and the government is now making national TV headlines. It's generating an emotional debate.

Unidentified Woman: An insurgency should not be diverted by the talk of free speech.

Unidentified Man: …but for me, the crimes that they committed in the course of the war (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Free speech is there, inalienable, but this is a threat on our…

Unidentified Man: Nobody dare challenge them.

Unidentified Woman: …fundamental sovereignty.

REEVES: Maoists insurgents are active in about one-third of India, mostly in the forest of the central and eastern parts of the country. Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, says the heavily impacted areas are significantly less than that. Even in those areas, he says, the rebels don't actually control territory. But they can and do prevent the government from functioning. Sahni says nationwide, there's an estimated 20 to 25,000 full-time armed revolutionary cadres.

Dr. AJAI SAHNI (Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management): These are guys who don't do anything else. They're just out training or fighting. More importantly, however, they have a very large number of trained militia. These people are also armed, though usually not armed with very sophisticated weaponry.

REEVES: An even larger number is sympathetic to the Maoists and their battle to defend the poor, from low-caste laborers to tribal farmers against land hungry, mineral seeking government and industry. India's government is getting ready to take on the rebels. It's planning a campaign using police and paramilitary forces to crush the Maoists in the places where they're strongest. Yesterday, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, declared, yet again, that the Maoists represent the greatest internal threat facing India. This time, he said the federal government is preparing to act.

Dr. MANMOHAN SINGH (Prime Minister, India): I sincerely hope that in days and months to come, you will see some of the positive developments in this regard.

REEVES: Professor Brahma Chellaney from the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think-tank, says until now, the federal government has expected India's states to combat the rebels.

Professor BRAHMA CHELLANEY (Strategic Studies, Center for Policy Research): The state governments have been overwhelmed by the growing menace posed by the Maoists, and they've been unable to actually contain this problem. This problem has actually grown in recent years. So what we are seeing now, for the first time in recent days, is the federal government agreeing to get involved in a problem in which it should have been involved some years ago.

REEVES: Will this work? Opinion is divided. Gopalapuram Parthasarathy was once one of the country's senior diplomats and is now an author and commentator. He thinks the government campaign against the Maoists will eventually succeed.

Mr. GOPALAPURAM PARTHASARATHY (Diplomat and Author): Politically, it's come at a time when at grass roots level in the villages, opinion has turned against the Maoists. So, yes, people's support is going to be there. And as long you have good intelligence, I think you can deal with the Maoists.

REEVES: Government officials emphasize that India's army will not be taking part. They're anxious to stop people worrying that Indian soldiers might end up attacking and killing their own people. However, Air Force helicopters will be used to provide air cover and to spot Maoists jungle hideouts. Human rights activists point out that India's air chief marshal has asked for government permission to use machine guns on his helicopters if they're fired on. India's government is urging the Maoists to lay down their arms and to enter a dialogue.

Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management says the rebels aren't interested in negotiations.

Dr. SAHNI: There is no common ground between our constitutional democracy and the outcome the Maoists seek. What we call democracy, they call it the parliamentary pigsty. The only situation in which you can negotiate with the Maoists is when they have been beaten.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.