Fear Reigns in India's Maoist-Run Countryside

Late one night recently, my phone rang. It was my sister, and her voice was trembling. A member of India's nominally Maoist insurgency had just called her husband, demanding a protection payment of more than $1,000. The caller said someone would be sent to their home to collect the payment. Don't call the police, the caller warned. There was no danger of that. For years the Maoists have practically owned the impoverished eastern state of Jharkhand, where my sister and her husband live in a rented house on the outskirts of a small, dusty town. The terrified local cops seldom venture outside their station houses.

My sister didn't know what to do. The extortionists wanted roughly five full months' pay from my brother-in-law's midlevel government job. Even if the two could scrape up so much money, they didn't expect it to solve anything. When a protection victim pays off, the Maoists come back for more. But refusing is no option. My sister's husband, a soft-spoken, bighearted man, has traveled around the state as a literacy worker. In remote villages he's seen men who defaulted on small payments to the Maoists. Some were missing an arm. Others had their ears or their nose cut off. Running away wouldn't help, either. How would the family live if my brother-in-law left his job?

After a sleepless night I boarded a long-distance train from New Delhi. I wanted to see my sister and her husband, and I hoped to find someone who could help them. I grew up in Jharkhand. Now it's part of what India's Maoists call "the liberated zone," although most of the area's desperately poor inhabitants are anything but free. Of India's estimated 1.1 billion people, 836 million live on less than 45 cents a day, according to the state-run National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector. The states where self-described Maoists operate are home to nearly 80 percent of those 836 million. In Jharkhand, one of the worst-affected states, guerrillas routinely attack police stations, assassinate "class enemies," blow up government buildings and laugh at state authorities. The campaign of violence has intensified recently; the Maoists have tried with only slight success to impose a boycott against India's monthlong parliamentary elections. The group has blown up a couple of railway stations, hijacked an entire passenger train, torched trucks on the highways and killed five civilians on suspicion of being police informers or defying Maoist rule.

It was a hot, bright morning when I got off the train in Jharkhand with a vague plan to get in touch with the rebels. I knew some of the state's original Maoist leaders about 40 years ago. The group was outlawed after it began killing landlords, moneylenders and tough cops, and it petered out entirely in the late 1970s. A new generation of Mao-spouting armed rebels appeared in the 1990s. Their so-called people's war has been spreading across India ever since. There's little direct connection between the two movements other than their joint appropriation of Mao's name, but I thought if I could find any of the old leaders, maybe they could relay a message for me.

While I waited, I set out to find an extortion victim who could tell me about dealing with the Maoists. Jharkhand is full of businessmen, private doctors and shopkeepers who pay "taxes" to the shakedown artists, but most of them prefer not to talk about it. Finally, Sanjiv, a construction man in his early 40s, agreed to talk if I didn't mention his full name and location. Last year he had a government contract to build a stretch of road, and the Maoists heard about it. They sent a man to tell him they wanted a 30 percent share of his total contract in cash before they would let him start work. Sanjiv showed up the next day with the money. He was blindfolded and escorted deep into the forest, where a man counted it as masked gunmen stood by. Since then the Maoists have come back twice for more money. Another local contractor took too long paying. He arrived at the site one morning and found his road roller destroyed by fire, Sanjiv says.

I got further background on the Maoists from a local journalist. Deepak Ambastha is the editor of Prabhat Khabar, a Hindi daily newspaper. "There is no trace of ideological purity among the Maoists these days," he told me at his office on the outskirts of Dhanbad. "They are into extortion, kidnapping and even commit rape. The state's writ runs only within city limits." When the Maoists call a general strike, railways cancel trains, truckers get off the streets and people in many parts of the state stay indoors. Ambastha and a group of fellow journalists were robbed on a highway once by a gang of armed Maoists. He and his friends fled the scene and begged for help at a local police station, he says. The cops refused to open their gate. Ambastha warned me not to leave town after dark.

Still, I hadn't seen the Jharkhand countryside in years, so I hired a car. The driver agreed to take me out of town on one condition: he had to be home before sunset. We headed out into the countryside, where the Maoists rule. Many villages are miles off the narrow, potholed main road, accessible only by dirt trails. We stopped at Muraldih, a village of 500. About 100 young men and women live there, but only one has a permanent job in town. Others make money any way they can—pick-and-shovel work, subsistence farming, selling wood and fruits from the forest. They have no electricity, no health care and only one well for drinking water. I wanted to check out a rural police station, but my driver kept reminding me of my promise. We didn't see one police patrol all day.

The Maoists finally got word that I wanted to talk. It was well past midnight when my mobile phone rang. The caller gave no name and spoke in a local Hindi dialect that I understand and speak well. He gave a little speech about "establishing a classless society." Before he could hang up, I asked him why the Maoists terrorize ordinary people. He denied harassing "the poor and the powerless." End of phone call.

It would have been nice if he had conveyed that message to the gang of Maoists who raided the house of a former village headman a few days earlier near Gaya, in the neighboring state of Bihar. The man and his son happened to be away from home when it happened, visiting a nearby village. Someone rushed to warn them that a company of Maoists had been spotted heading for their home village, and the son called the police immediately. The Maoists rolled into the village unchallenged and looted the house. Then they ordered the women out, dynamited the place to rubble and melted back into the countryside. The district police chief later claimed that a team of police was sent to the scene. Villagers said the cops showed up nearly 15 hours after the raiders left.

A few days later, nearly 100 Maoists swarmed into a village near the Jharkhand town of Hazaribagh in the dead of night. They seized a schoolteacher and dragged him away despite his wife's entreaties, accusing him of being a police informer. They tied him to a tree and tortured him to death.

The more horror stories I heard, the harder it was to understand how any government could tolerate such atrocities against its people. I decided to call on the deputy commissioner of Dhanbad district. A computer-science graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Ajay Kumar Singh is the man in charge of both district development and law and order in Dhanbad. He's an earnest young man who lives in a well-guarded bungalow with a manicured lawn in the heart of the city. Singh blames the state's crushing poverty for the Maoists' influence. "It is a Catch-22 situation," he says. "There are no roads, so there is hardly any development. And when we go to build roads, the Maoists attack and destroy all efforts, because roads will expose their hideouts." Besides, he says, the state's officials don't live in the impoverished villages and therefore they have no stake in developing the backcountry areas.

For a senior government functionary, Singh is unusually candid. He's convinced that the Maoists couldn't prevent development if the politicians considered it important. "Human beings have built tunnels under the sea," he says. "Obviously we can build roads into remote villages." It's not as if the Maoist leaders were committed revolutionaries, he says; many of them are only hoodlums who use villagers as hostages and human shields. They keep the ill-paid local cops terrorized by attacking them with overwhelming force and no warning.

I asked Singh what happens when people get extortion threats. Most pay up, he said. The state can't provide armed guards for everyone who needs one. I didn't have the stomach to ask about people who don't pay. It was getting dark outside the bungalow. I asked Singh if I'd be OK driving to Giridih, about 40 miles away through some desolate stretches of forest. Wait until morning, he said. I walked out of Singh's bungalow into the dark streets. Until India's government gets serious about stopping the Maoists, I have no answer for my sister and her husband.