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India Leaders Name Growing Maoist Insurgency Top Security Threat

In India, lack of rural development and failed peace initiatives appear to be giving strength to the country's 40-year-old Maoist rebellion. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is calling the Maoist threat the single-biggest security challenge India has faced since independence.

Maoist sympathizer and singer, Gaddar, has brought this revolutionary song to scores of villages in Andhra Pradesh state for years. The words speak of fire bred in a hungry belly and aims to garner support for the movement born in the 1960s to fight for landless peasants.

Gaddar, a virtual legend in Andhra Pradesh, says the message of the Maoists is growing louder and stronger in rural India.

"As long as suppression is going on, revolutionary movement is also developing," he said. "As long as there is a problem there will be revolution… revolution cannot die, cannot be eradicated, [though it] can be suppressed for some time."

The Indian government acknowledges there has been a dramatic increase in support for the Maoists in the last decade. About 10 years ago the rebels were active in just four states. Now security experts say they are entrenched in a vast eastern and central belt that stretches across nearly half of India's 28 states up to country's border with Nepal. Known as the "red corridor," it includes India's poorest regions, where ethnic tribes and poor people live in intense poverty.

The boom in Maoist support appears to have been boosted by the successes of the nearly 10-year-old Maoist rebellion in Nepal.

Here in Andhra Pradesh, support for local Maoists also seems to have taken an upturn since a 2004 peace initiative failed.

K.G. Kannabiran played a key role in a citizens committee that spearheaded that initiative between the local government and the guerrillas. He blames the state officials for the failure, saying they never demonstrated sincerity in trying to address the basic issues that sustain the movement, lack of development in rural areas.

"If really you try to introduce social changes at every level, such movements may not stay," he said. "Their staying capacity deteriorates as you improve the conditions of the people. Such movements will be festering, so long as you do not tackle politically the economic and social issues."

What was once treated as a ragtag force trying to lead a peasant revolution, is a 20,000 strong guerrilla group staging attacks that demonstrate its growing influence.

In recent months, a train hijacking and a daring jailbreak are among the more spectacular attacks blamed on the guerrillas - who regularly plant landmines, blow up rail tracks and attack police vehicles.

They operate in areas where security forces are thinly spread, and sustain themselves on food given by villagers.

At a meeting of officials from Maoist affected states last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh identified the Maoist rebellion as the single-biggest security threat facing India.

Security experts agree, and say that the Maoist threat could turn out to be a bigger worry than Islamic militancy in Kashmir, on which New Delhi has trained most of its attention and resources since 1990.

Worried authorities in New Delhi are asking state governments to get tougher with the guerrillas, who are known as Naxalites after the Naxalbari district where the movement was born.

Andhra Pradesh, police chief, Swaranjit Sen, says they are heeding the message. He says the Naxalites, or Naxals as he calls them, struck out with vengeance after the failed peace initiative, but are now on the defensive.

"[In] 2005 it [the number of attacks] suddenly shot up, because the Naxals were well armed, they had various projects in mind and they just went on attacking people and police, and we retaliated," he said. "But [in] 2006, we have gained the upper hand. For the first time you see in the statistics more Naxals would have been shot down than police officers and civilians, which means police has an upper hand."

Other affected states have begun beefing up and modernizing their police forces to cope with the problem. In some places, the government is encouraging the formation of village-defense forces to hunt down the Maoists.

But critics say government officials are making a mistake to treat the Maoists as a law and order problem. Citizen peace committee member Kannabiran says the rebellion thrives on the support of those impacted by continuing underdevelopment.

"That is the understanding of the police - if you kill people, the movement will die," he explained. "The chemistry of this movement has not been understood by the police and they are not the persons who are to solve it. It is unfortunate it has been handed over to the police."

The federal government is also urging the states to deliver social justice and development to their poorest regions. But analysts say the growing strength of the Maoists indicates the message has not penetrated.