Deep in the remote hills of Jharkhand, in a region rich with minerals, a sprawling forest is the money-spinning treasury and operational headquarters of India’s Naxalite movement.
It is the seemingly unending natural wealth of the 86,000-hectare Saranda Forest that is funding much of the insurgency — tens of crores of rupees are charged in “levy” every year from companies and traders making money here from iron ore, precious minerals and timbre, police say.
The forest is also home to cadres, training bases and the rebels’ operational command, according to police and arrested rebels.
“Forests mean minerals, minerals mean money, money means guns, guns mean power,” arrested Naxalite ideologue Sushil Roy, the highest ranking Naxalite leader in custody, told his interrogators.
Roy, a 66-year-old former engineer, is a member of the Politburo, the core body of the rebels and a contemporary of Naxal movement founders like Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal.
Yet, even though large parts of Naxalite-held territory in India have slipped out of government control, Roy added: “If we had to walk 1,000 km, we have walked only eight.”
It is a journey that began on May 25, 1967 with a peasant uprising in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal, which gave the movement its name.
For decades, several communist militant groups, mainly the Maoist Communist Centre of India and People’s War, continued operations in different areas.
In a major turning point for the insurgency, the groups united in September 2004 in the Saranda Forest, followed by a three-month medley of conferences also attended by members of other communist groups from several other countries members of the Revolutionary International Movement, a worldwide communist conglomerate.
Government assessments of Naxal influence vary from 60 districts, according to the rural development ministry, to 160, according to the Home Ministry. India has 600-plus districts.
“The state is unable to solve the problems of its own citizens and socio-economic problems are dealt as issues of law and order. Why do you expect the common man to have faith in the state?” popular Maoist ideologue Gadar told the Hindustan Times.
“Only Maoists are fighting for the poor.” Their bureaucracy includes a nine-man Central Military Commission, a four-member Committee for International Affairs which included Roy and publishing and editorial committees.
Investigators say the Naxalites began making Saranda their base in 2000, recently bringing in sophisticated weapons and satellite phones and setting up massive generators to use laptops in the dense forest where villagers fear wild elephants as much as the police and rebels.
It helped the rebels that there was widespread squalor. “The youth cut wood or pluck fruits or dig sweet potatoes. There is so much anger about unemployment,” said teacher Menson Gladson Topno, 37, who grew up in Saranda but now lives in the nearby Manoharpur town.
There is no electricity in any village, here, and many people sleep on machans on trees, fearing wild animals. “The Naxals promised the youth up to Rs 3,000 a month. So everyone joined them,” Topno said.
Soon, the rebels began earning big money from deep-pocketed industrialists. “On the conservative side, the Naxalites are raising up to Rs 60 crore a year from Jharkhand in levies,” said Gouri Shankar Rath, Jharkhand’s additional director-general of police.
Most of it is believed to be from Saranda. Roy, the arrested leader, said: “Most of the money received from levies is kept by local and regional committees, and only 20 per cent is sent to the Central Committee.”
Down the hierarchy, there are regional bureaus one covering three states and state and area committees. But unification has had its logistical troubles. While the top leadership functions in unison, it has been slightly difficult for the rebels to unit cadres at local levels. Problems of discipline are becoming common. Several zonal commanders amassed wealth from levies and fled. Breakaway groups have also been formed.
“We are aware of some members of the organisation departing from Mao’s teachings and oppressing people, sexually exploiting women, and killing innocents,” Roy said. “We are trying to stop this.”
Next, the Naxalites want to seek supporters in the middle class. “We see that the growing frustration in large sections of the middle class is forcing them to take to streets for their demands,” said senior Naxalite leader Ganapathy.