Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

Battling the Maoists in Jharkhand

By Salman Ravi
BBC Hindi service, Jharkhand

Indian troops in Jharkhand
The government has launched a major offensive against the rebels

It is a difficult terrain enveloped in dense forest cover and spread over several square kilometres.

East Singbhum district in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has been considered the heartland of the Maoist insurgency for more than two decades now.

"Either walk or ride a motorbike," I am advised by Faiyaz who is heading a group of paramilitary troops from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

We are in the forests of Derabasa in Ghatsila sub-district and Faiyaz tells me that the road is littered with landmines.

"Venturing in this terrain on a four-wheeler can be risky," he says.

Recently, a massive anti-Maoist operation was launched in the area by the federal home ministry and the Jharkhand state government.

Battle lines

Thousands of paramilitary troops, including the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (Cobra) - the special force raised to tackle the Maoist insurgency in India - have been deployed in the operation.

Battle lines are drawn as the security forces take position to "liberate the forests" from the armed Maoist guerrillas.

The region has seen several violent incidents, including the killing of a member of parliament, Sunil Mahato of the state's governing Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party.

Last August, the insurgents killed 11 security personnel in the Burudih area in a powerful landmine explosion.

The rebels also blew up railway tracks derailing the prestigious Rajdhani Express train.

Tribal villagers in Jharkhand
Villagers say they are caught in the crossfire

"This is a crucial operation," says senior police official Anup Birtharay.

The operation is focused on the northern side of the district which shares its borders with Lalgarh forests in neighbouring West Bengal state.

In the south, the district borders the state of Orissa, another hotbed of Maoist insurgency.

"The geographical outlay of this region is such that it has always been an easy haven for the Maoist guerrillas. Carrying out a major offensive against the police or the civilians, the guerrillas move easily to the bordering states. This make the task before security forces much more difficult," Mr Birtharay says.

'Unnerving journey'

It is 7.30pm and the task before the security forces is to "dominate" the ravines of Derabasa, some 20km (12 miles) north of Ghatsila.

I am told this is the first time the police have ventured into the thick forest cover here.

Combat forces gear up to march.

It is an unnerving journey along the muddy tracts that lead to Derabasa village. The hills surrounding Derabasa are said to provide a safe shelter to the Maoists who not only take refuge here but also hold their training camps.

The Maoist guerrillas often seek food in the nearby villages and locals say they are caught in the middle.

"The Maoists come asking for food. They ask us to cook for them and feed them. The police ask us not to give them even a grain. Police are here today. But what will happen tomorrow? We will be at the mercy of the Maoist armed squads. Who is going to protect us then?" asks a villager who doesn't want to be named.

I hear the same complaint in several villages.

The police have picked up about 50 villagers from the area accusing them of being Maoist sympathisers.

From Derabasa, police say they have recovered household material looted by the rebels from a nearby village.

Troops hunting for Maoist rebels in Jharkhand
Combat forces have to cope with dense forest Photo: Mahadeo Sen

Mr Birtharay says they did not take any action against the villagers because they were compelled by the Maoists to work as porters to carry the stolen goods back to the village and help organise a feast.

The security forces have dominated the area for the first time in many years, setting up camps in the forests.

For the first time, the forces have established control in as many as eight hills in remote areas like Kesarpur, Pulgoda, Hedelbera, Charinda Jhatijharna and Badajudi.

Troops have now been deployed along the streams and ponds in the forest while guards are keeping an eye on the local grocery stores in the remote villages which rebels rely on.

"Once the supply line is cut, it would force the Maoists to come out of the forests and surrender," said a trooper involved in the operations.

But what is worrying the locals is that the security forces have also told the tribals not to venture into the forests.

"For tribals forests are home. They depend on the forest produce for livelihood. They collect leaves to make small plates that they sell in the market as well as twigs that are used to brush teeth in rural India," says my local guide, Dharishchandra Singh.

However, almost a fortnight into the biggest operation against the Maoists so far, the security forces have not made any significant breakthrough.

No weapons have been recovered, nor any big Maoist leader been caught. And no one knows how long this will go on.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed, waiting for the day when this all ends. We have not been to the forests and there is no other source of income for us. We pray that normal life returns soon," says a villager in Jhatijharna.

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