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Maoist Rebels Kill Dozens In India


U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is in India to promote trade and investment. It's a good time to go. India is the world's most populous democracy. It's opening up its markets. It's in a strategically important region that includes China. And the U.S. sees India as a natural ally.

But there's another side to the Indian story and that came to the fore today with the death of 75 Indian paramilitary police. They were killed by Maoist rebels purportedly fighting in the name of India's poor.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Maoist insurgents have been carrying out attacks in India since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. The conflicts mostly simmered away in the background, overshadowed by bigger regional wars and by India's rise as an economic power. Not anymore.

Maoists now operate in all but eight of India's 28 states. India's government sees them as the greatest internal threat to the country's security. Today's attack was the deadliest assault on India's security forces by Maoist rebels in more than 40 years.

The insurgents attacked inside their own heartland, in a forest in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. They targeted paramilitary police who'd gone into the jungle on orders to flush them out.

India's home minister, P. Chidambaram, sounded stunned by news of the assault.

Mr. P. CHIDAMBARAM (Home Affairs Minister, India): Something has gone very wrong. They seem to have walked into a camp or a trap. Casualties are quite high and I'm deeply shocked.

REEVES: Hundreds of Maoists took part. They reportedly first targeted a patrol. When more troops arrived to recover the dead and wounded, they attacked them too.

There are an estimated 10 to 20,000 armed Maoists in India. They claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor who are gaining nothing from India's booming economy. They champion India's tribal people who are losing land and livelihoods to mineral mining companies or other big industries.

Dr. Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi studies India's Maoists. He condemns their tactics but says the grievances that fuel their insurgency are real.

Dr. AJAI SAHNI (Founding Member and Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management): If you go into tribal or the rural areas in India, you will see, and even in parts of urban areas, you will see extreme poverty which is really susceptible to political and violent political mobilization by virtually any ideology.

REEVES: India's government is fighting back. State and federal paramilitary forces have, for some months, been conducting counterinsurgency operations against the Maoists in certain areas. Some observers believe this is counterproductive as it's alienating locals who allege government forces are committing widespread atrocities.

So far, India's army has been reluctant to get involved in this conflict that's burning within their own land. Dr. Sahni agrees the military is not the answer.

Dr. SAHNI: What is needed is a far better equipped, far better trained, far better oriented police force. State police forces have to be brought to a capability where they can fight this because what is required is local forces fighting a local insurgency.

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.