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Page last updated at 14:33 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 15:33 UK
Millions of Indians go to polls



By Chris Morris
BBC News, Raipur

Men carry electronic voting machines in the Indian state of Bihar on 15 April 2009
Troops carry voting machines in Bihar, where the Maoists are also active

As the sun begins to set over the village of Chandi a group of dancers is entertaining the crowd gathered to hear from the local candidate of the Congress party.

This is grass roots politics, a long way from the centre of Indian political power. But here too, it is all about the numbers.

"We think we will win 11 seats," says Dhanendra Sahu, the Congress president in Chhattisgarh. "The people believe in us."

There is another kind of politics at work in this state, though.

Away from the headlines, a low intensity war is being waged across a vast swathe of territory in central and eastern India.

It has become known as the Red Corridor.

Elections may be in full swing, but there is also an army of Maoist rebels preaching revolution in this part of the country. They do not believe in parliamentary democracy.

Anyone caught by the Maoists on election day with ink on their finger - as proof that they have voted - will, the rebels warn, have that finger cut off.

'Difficult fight'

Yes, Maoists - known locally as Naxalites - promising a dictatorship of the proletariat. It may sound like a blast from the past, but in Chhattisgarh alone they have 10,000 armed cadres in vast sparsely populated forest regions.

Map

Hundreds of people are killed in Maoist violence in India every year - at least 25 have been killed in the last few days. There have been pitched battles between the Maoists and the security forces in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Bihar.

The authorities admit that there is now a Maoist presence in nearly one third of all districts across the country. One in 10 districts is seriously affected. And the Naxalites have big plans.

"The Maoist projection is that they will be able to take over the Indian state by 2050," explains Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.

"So that is the kind of projection they are making - they are looking forward 40 years."

The idea that they can pose a national challenge sounds far-fetched. So is it just fantasy?

"I would like to believe that if the Indian state wakes up and begins to address this issue properly it is really fantasy," Ajai Sahni says.

"But if the Maoists are able to establish disruptive capacity as they are currently trying to do, if they're able to do that across the country, the Indian state will be looking at a fight that is going to be very, very difficult."

Police challenge

Already there are plenty of victims. At a small children's home on the outskirts of Raipur, there are more than 20 orphans of the Maoist conflict.

Kishore, who lives in a children's home in Raipur
Kishore came to the children's home after his father was killed

"I'm here to take education," Kishore says. "There were too many problems in my village, they were killing people and my father died in the violence.

"So it's good to be here for the future."

At Chhattisgarh police headquarters, the focus is on the present threat. The authorities here have been heavily criticised for sponsoring vigilante groups who oppose the Maoists.

But the police chief in charge of anti-Maoist operations, Pawan Deo, is unapologetic. He says he knows he has to win over the people. And force alone is not enough.

"Steps need to be taken. I think the government is fully aware of that, and we are making strategies according to that," he says.

"The biggest hindrance to our operations is the inaccessibility of the areas where the Maoists operate. They destroy the roads. They oppose development.

"They also have front organisations," Mr Deo says, "which covertly and overtly support them. So we are tackling them on that."

'Basic needs'

But are they tackling the right people? Every week in Raipur a peaceful protest is held, calling for the release of a well-known local doctor, Binayak Sen.

He has been in custody for nearly two years, accused of collusion with the Maoists. The medical journal The Lancet is among those who have campaigned for his release.

 Rajendra Sail of the People's Union for Civil Liberties
Activist Rajendra Sail says he can understand why the poor are angry

His supporters, like Rajendra Sail of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, say Dr Sen's only crime is working for human rights, and understanding why the poor get so frustrated.

"We don't see any wisdom in using violent means to achieve any ends," Mr Sail insists, "and we are very strong on this.

"But people are not even receiving their basic human needs. And that, coupled with the large scale exploitation of their mineral resources, of the forest and the water, leads people to resort to certain methods."

In the city of Raipur you really would not know there was a war on in parts of this state. Most of the violence is confined to remote rural areas.

But as the world's biggest exercise in democracy gets under way it is worth noting that many of the issues fuelling the Maoist insurgency - poverty and inequality, lack of land and opportunity - are among the biggest challenges facing India in the 21st Century.



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