In many of India’s poorest areas, especially its forests, the Maoists have established parallel administrations, collecting taxes, running crude court systems and dispensing rough justice, often through the barrel of a gun.
Naxalite guerrillas have been in an almost constant state of war with government police, special army units and official armed vigilantes for over 20 years. Thousands of people have died in those decades and nearly 600 people have been killed in over 1,400 incidents this year alone.
But despite the sustained anti-insurgent campaign by government forces, the Maoist grip on poor, rural India has been growing year-by-year.
They now operate "People’s Governments" in a swathe of territory across central India sometimes called the "Compact Revolutionary Zone" or the "Naxal Belt."
There are somewhat startling estimates with which many officials agree that the Maoists control a much higher percentage of India than the 11 per cent of neighbouring Pakistan said to be controlled by the Taliban.
Last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government is losing the battle against the Maoists.
"I have constantly held that in many ways, left-wing extremism poses perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces," Singh told a conference of police chiefs in New Delhi.
Singh said the Maoists appear to have a growing appeal among many segments of Indian society, especially the rural poor, but also tribal communities and left-leaning urban intelligentsia.
The state of the insurrection rapidly became a South Asian regional issue last week when Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, who is responsible for internal security forces, added that the Maoists have safe havens in neighbouring states and easy access to sophisticated weapons in Southeast Asia.
There were immediate expressions of outrage from neighbouring Nepal, where local Maoists have become part of government after waging a successful civil war.
Chidambaram undoubtedly included Nepal in his comments, but he was also pointing to India’s troubled northeastern region where dozens of separatist groups operate and where many people have close ethnic ties to Tibet, China and Burma.
In many ways the rise of Maoism in India echoes unrest in China where last year there were over 70,000 "mass incidents" involving over 1,000 people.
In both India and China these acts of rebellion are by the legion of the poor who have not benefited from their nations’ economic advances and whose scant resources are being pillaged by those with power.
The difference is that in China the Communist Party has expended every effort to ensure that no nationwide or even regional organization that could marshal and direct the unrest is allowed to come into being.
But India is a democracy with a long tradition of left-wing and communist parties.
The Maoists have purposefully operated outside the broad church of India’s parliamentary politics and in some states they have been declared terrorist organizations.
Maoist leaders deny they are terrorists. "We’re fighting a people’s war," one Naxalite leader told a local journalist recently. "We want the proletariat to rule, not imperialistic governments."
While few analysts believe the Maoists could attract enough support to overthrow the government as they did in Nepal, there are many who see justice in their cause.
Even Singh, during his speech last week, acknowledged that the problem is as much about poverty as it is security.
Writing in a Catholic newspaper last week, Jesuit priest Ambrose Pinto said that at the heart of the problem is a battle between two models of development. Prime Minister Singh and mainstream national and state administrations are pursuing a "neo-liberal" model which encourages foreign investment and welcomes multi-national corporations. This approach, says Pinto, has seen tens of thousands of local and tribal people displaced to make way for such things as steel mills, power plants, mine developments and special economic zones. The global recession has caused havoc with this approach, spurred unemployment, misery and impoverishment, and provided recruits for the Maoists, he said.
"It is this model that the Naxals and Maoists are opposing," wrote Pinto. "They are asking for a local model of development that would not destroy the life and livelihood of the people."
Pinto says the Maoists and Naxalites have a legitimate claim to a share of the profits from the resources of their land.
The first step towards meeting this just cause and ending the insurrection, Pinto says, is to reform the Forest Land Act to give tribal peoples clear ownership of the land on which they live and a real claim to a proper share of profits from enterprises in those areas.
This, he says, should be a prelude to a broader program of land reform that would give local people protection against the looting of their legitimate resources by multinational and influential Indian corporations.
Photo of Fr. Ambrose Pinto, S.J. in yellow