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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Villagers take on India's Maoists
The Indian government is experimenting with new ways of fighting back against Maoist fighters, who now operate in almost half of the country's 28 states. In the past year, the Chhattisgarh state government has introduced new anti-terrorism training for the police - and is backing a civil militia called Salwa Judum.

The BBC's Jill McGivering spent three days travelling with Maoist fighters in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

Villagers train to counter Maoists
Villagers joined the civil militia to defend themselves from Maoists

Driving through Chhattisgarh at dawn, we saw a group of villagers by the road, shouldering sticks as if they were guns and marching up and down doing military drill.

There were about 30 of them, many just young boys who looked about 12 or 13 years old.

Some of the men were middle-aged and looked unfit, with pot bellies.

As we stopped and walked across to talk to them, a group of young women, in brightly coloured saris, crossed too and formed their own marching unit alongside the men.

when I see them, I'll try to eliminate them
Mahendra Kumar Dorgum

The man leading the training session told me his name was Bagil.

He was a former police officer, he said, appointed to train villagers who lived in nearby areas which were hard hit by Maoist or Naxalite violence.

They were part of the Salwa Judum, the civil militia, supported by the state government, which was launched officially one year ago.

Civil militia

I asked him how well these villagers would be able to defend themselves. Many seemed malnourished, I said. Many were under-age. These were, after all, just villagers.

Village women and girls train to counter Maoists
Women have also undergone training to face the Maoist threat

He nodded. "Yes, some of them are malnourished, some of them are under age," he said.

"If they applied to join the police, most of them wouldn't be selected. But what matters is that they're from Naxal-affected areas. They'll go back and help the police there. I need to train them."

I spoke to some of the village volunteers. Mahendra Kumar Dorgum said he was 27.

"I live in a remote area," he said, "and I know a few Naxalites personally. When I get a gun, when I see them, I'll try to eliminate them. That's my purpose."

As we talked a young boy, who had also been training, listened in. He said at first that he was 18 but then he looked much younger, more like 14.

He was shy when I questioned him and gave the standard answer: "I want to eradicate Naxalites from my area."

Once they had had several weeks training, the instructor told us, all these people, men, boys and young women, would be given a gun each and sent back to their villagers to kill Maoists.

Filling the gap

There are clear concerns about this arming of civilians and the lack of accountability of this new civil militia.

Many villagers are provided and trained in arms
Many villagers are concerned about armed Salwa Judum cadres

As I drove around Chhattisgarh, we frequently passed through road blocks controlled by Salwa Judum members, often youngsters, guns slung on their shoulders.

In the relief camps which have sprung up in parts of the state, many villagers told me they had had to flee after Salwa Judum members burned their houses or threatened to kill them.

I put some of these allegations to Madhukar Rao, a former schoolteacher but now a leader of the Salwa Judum.

He said it was understandable that many of those who joined the group wanted to kill local Naxalites.

"Many in the Salwa Judum have personal experience of terror from Naxalites," he said. "They have a feeling of revenge which I think is very good. I think it's a good idea that we should go after them and kill them."

I asked him about the allegations that the Salwa Judum had beaten villagers and force them from their homes.

"That was not true," he said.

"Those allegations were spread by people who were pro-Naxalite."

Actually the Salwa Judum was helping villagers, he went on, by protecting them and keeping them safe from the Maoists.

Some of those who try to justify the civil militia say it is filling a gap left by an inadequate police force, a force that is simply no match for the Maoists.

'Order in disorder'

As well as supporting the civil militia, the state government has just introduced a new intensive training programme for the police in the hope of improving their performance.

Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar
Brig Ponwar is training the police to tackle the Maoists

It is under the command of Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar, a man with extensive experience in the Indian army of fighting insurgencies.

He is now the head of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Chhattisgarh and showed me some of the exercises, from killing a cobra to storming a militant hideaway. His mantra is: fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla.

He told me he saw his role as trying to fill a perception gap, converting the police officers from conventional policing to unconventional warfare.

"If the threat changes, they've got to change," he said.

"They can't just get away by showing their weapons to innocent civilians or firing a shot in the air and saying: Ok, now the police have come, everything will be settled."

I asked him why he thought the number of people being killed in Chhattisgarh in Maoist-related violence had doubled each year in the last few years. Most of the people being killed are civilians.

"Civilians do get into crossfire between the security forces and the terrorists," he said.

"It'll take a little time. When you have to bring order in disorder for the cause of many, some may suffer."

This is the second of a series of three reports.


SEE ALSO
Maoists escape Indian police raid
13 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Maoists 'kill policemen' in India
01 Dec 05 |  South Asia
Indian soldiers help hunt rebels
15 Nov 05 |  South Asia
India plans anti-Maoist strategy
19 Sep 05 |  South Asia
Indian state bans Maoist groups
05 Sep 05 |  South Asia

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