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.
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