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As I write, police in the Indian state of Orissa are searching for the bodies of their comrades in a mountain reservoir. The dead are among 37 members of an elite counter-insurgency unit missing after Maoist rebels strafed and sank a police launch. Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops supported by helicopters are now combing the surrounding forests for the guerillas who carried out the attack. It could be a scene from any one of a dozen films set during the Vietnam or Algerian wars. But it is a slice of real life in a large swathe of India that little resembles the shining, modernising, booming, English-speaking entity celebrated by magazine cover stories and books with titles such as Planet India and Think India.

India has battled separatist insurgencies ever since independence in 1947, with parts of the country’s periphery under some form of military occupation on an almost continuous basis. Only rarely have these savage little conflicts, with their cruel cycle of rebellion and repression, made international headlines or affected the benign image of India so skilfully burnished by the post-independence elite. But the Maoist insurgency may represent something different and much more dangerous to the republic.

Unlike the long-running rebellions in north-eastern states such as Assam and Nagaland, it is not confined to a border area or limited to a particular, ethnically distinct group. On the contrary, the Maoists have a significant presence in 14 out of India’s 28 states. Moreover, the insurgency has grown without the benefit of sanctuaries or training camps in neighbouring countries, and its successes cannot plausibly be attributed to the secret agents of Pakistan or any other foreign hand. And though India’s democracy has long proved its resilience, even in the face of appalling terrorist attacks and political assassinations, it is possible that the Maoist revolt could genuinely threaten the economic basis of the new India.

The sinking of the police launch in Orissa is the first major attack by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) – formerly the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre – since their comrades in Nepal achieved an electoral triumph this spring. It’s arguably their most daring operation since December, when Maoist guerillas broke 300 prisoners out of jail in the state of Chhattisgarh. It may be the most successful since March 2007, when uniformed and well-armed cadres stormed a police post in the same state, killing 55 members of the security forces, at no loss to themselves. In recent years there have been many smaller outrages including successful assaults on a police training academy near the state capital of Orissa, the assassination of a federal MP at a football match and the seizure of a passenger train for 12 hours in Jharkhand.

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Uncle B
September 3rd, 2008
8:09 PM
If mankind had a common enemy they would have a common goal! Even in India where hunger is prevalent, people find time and reason to do destructive things. Not evengod can help us from ourselves, sick sick animals that we are!

August 6th, 2008
4:08 PM
Given the new and more or lessomnipresent conventional wisdom--American hegemony is dead because the US economy is doomed to be left in the dust by China and India--this piece very usefully reminds us that China and India have staggering problems of their own,generally much worse ones than the Americans face. It is interesting to speculate about which alleged challenger has worse (and generally underreported) problems: China, with its relative absence of effective law, kleptocratic elites, ecological catastrophes, looming demographic crisis and probable legitimacy crisis, or India, with its multiple nationalities and languages, simmering rebellions and radical inequality. My sense is that other than the first problem, which is not one China shares to anything like the same degree, India has the edge, with more rule of law, at least some elite political accountability, and a working federal system. And who knows how much underreported disorder occurs in China? The anecdotal evidence can be startling...Maybe Standpoint could run recurring features on the underreported bad news from both India and China. This was a fine piece of reporting.

August 1st, 2008
2:08 AM
There has never been a moment in India's history where some crisis has not been rumbling: famine, secessionist, environmental or sectarian. India has weathered them all. And India's democracy is not a gloss. It has a higher voter turn-out than the US, with the poor more likely to vote than the middle-class. The Maoists are not fighting for the poor - they are happy to exterminate them. A country with such levels of poverty and illiteracy will always be vulnerable to ideologues and messianic politics. But this insurgency, like the others, will end as the rebels terrorize and alienate the very population they gain their support from, who will themselves be given a greater stake in the Indian polity. The Maoists offer the people nothing - only a primeval existence with a marxist narrative. Only the govt can provide development, which in time it will. India's problems, like everything in India are immense - but resolvable.

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