CHANNAI, India — The recent massacre of 80-odd para-military soldiers by the Indian rebel group the Maoists was terrorism in its bloodiest form.

The mayhem occurred in the central state of Chhattisgarh. It is here that the Maoist rebellion is most intense, and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was bang on when he equated this revolt with terror some months ago.

Maoists are also known as Naxalites, after the district of Naxalbari in the eastern state of West Bengal, where they first staged an armed uprising in 1967. The two most important Naxalite leaders, Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal, were brilliantly intellectual, but extremely frustrated with the corrupt state machinery that ignored and humiliated poverty-stricken villagers, especially landless laborers. Mazumdar and Sanyal also attracted young students, disillusioned with the system. Many of them fancied themselves as budding scholars and thinkers, and were inspired by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s teachings. In fact, the Naxalite movement was applauded by China’s People’s Daily at the height of the Cultural Revolution as “as a peal of spring thunder.”

However, the Naxalites were wiped out in the mid-1970s, when the Indian government threw hundreds of them, mostly students and young men, into jails, where they were reportedly tortured and even killed. Mazumdar himself was a prison casualty. He was brutally tortured for 12 days before he succumbed to his injuries. Sanyal later claimed to have broken away from the path of violence. He committed suicide last month.

Naxalism went out of fashion for some years before it re-emerged as several armed factions. The biggest were the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center, and the two merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004. Today, the party has thousands of armed fighters and an equal number of firearms, which are supposedly being supplied by China. Their arms training was allegedly given by Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Maoists never had a problem finding grassroots support. Whether it was West Bengal in the 1960s and the 1970s or now in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, the rebellion has been attracting downtrodden men. They have no clue about Mao’s ideology. They do not care, but they have readily picked up guns to kill in order to try and better their own lives in a society run by inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy and government.

The Maoists admittedly use force and terror, even to recruit cadres, but they are highly disciplined and organized, choosing their areas of operation with great diligence and after detailed study. They identify the pressing grievances of the poor and exploit them.

Let us take the case of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, where paramilitary forces were ambushed and killed by several hundred Maoists. Thickly forested, Dantewada is home to tribals who have been exploited for decades and pushed to the bottom rungs of the society. There are hardly any schools there, nor medical facilities. Most of the tribals are illiterate. They live by selling forest produce, but the markets are far away and the few roads that exist are poor.

The government accuses the Maoists of blocking development. The Maoists retaliate, in this case, by saying that building new roads will merely make it easier for the administration to plunder forest wealth. Ajay Sahni, who works for a Delhi think tank, says that it is a question of “asymmetrical expectations. People expect the state to provide for them, and it is failing; any good coming from the Maoists — social work, land redistribution, a price rise for local produce — brings disproportionate gratitude.”

The only way out of this web of misery and conflict is for the administration to assert effective control through a streamlined police force. But in independent India’s six-odd decades, there has hardly been any police reform. Policemen continue to be poorly paid and hence tend to be corrupt. The profession has lost its appeal: There are just 55 policemen for every 100 square kilometer in India. In Chhattisgarh, there is a paltry force of 17 officers, and nobody wants to police places like Dantewada, where the job is singularly dangerous.

Added to this, is the federal-state discord over security. This is a state subject, and each state chooses to deal with Maoist terrorism in its own way, with the federal government not yet able to formulate a national policy. Days after the federal home minister, Palaniappa Chidambaram, held the West Bengal Chief Minister responsible for the Maoist atrocities there by saying that the “buck stops at the chief minister’s table.” The rebels struck at Dantewada, where federal forces have been in command.

The Maoists have sent their message loud and clear. While they may not yet have the power to demolish the government in New Delhi, they can create havoc in the countryside and throttle development in some of the most backward areas in India. By this, the Maoist rebellion can worsen social inequality and thus strengthen its own cause by attracting more have-nots.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a journalist based in Channai, India.

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