CHHATTISGARH STATE, India -- It was 4 p.m. one March afternoon in 2008. The victims were living in a relief camp in a village called Matwada. Two dozen members of a government-backed civilian militia, accompanied by at least one police officer, burst into their homes. They dragged four men out onto the street, across from a paramilitary office, and began to beat them with sticks. They paused to pour water over the Matwada men, waking them when they fainted out of pain and fear. When their wives flung themselves across their husbands' weakened bodies, they were beaten too. Then the men were dragged from sight, into the forest. One managed to escape. The next day the remaining three were found buried next to a stream, stabbed in the eyes and the neck and finished off with a knife stab to the head. The men were suspected of being informants, of aiding the nascent Maoist insurgency in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The survivor and three widows filed a criminal case against the state, and a court decided recently that the State of Chhattisgarh would compensate them for the wrongful attacks.
Fifteen months later, a village leader named Vimal Meshram was gunned down by Maoists in a market in Bastar, in a district adjoining Matwada. Meshram was an outspoken supporter of a Tata Steel plant that the multinational--one of India's largest industrial companies--has been trying to build for the past five years. Meshram was one of at least 1,700 villagers, all police or police-supported vigilantes, who've been killed by Maoists in this district alone. In the bloodiest attack, at least 80 paramilitary troops were gunned down in early April as they tried to flush Maoist rebels from the Dantewada forests in Chhattisgarh. A little more than a month later, the rebels attacked again, this time placing a landmine on a national highway in Bastar, killing eight paramilitary troops when they ran it over in their truck. Less than two weeks later the Maoists blew up a bus in the same district, killing at least 50 civilians.
There is a proxy war underway in India's interior--a bloody conflict raging over that rare and valuable commodity in this too crowded country: land. On one side, powerful rebel groups claim to be fighting for the poor--farmers and small agrarian tribes in particular. On the other side, the government is locking up land and the resources buried beneath it (particularly coal and bauxite) for some of India's biggest private companies. In its attempts to exterminate the Maoists, India's military and police forces have killed at least 1,300 insurgents since 2004. Trapped in the crossfire, some 2,900 villagers have also died; at least 100,000 have been displaced. The clash includes some of the most powerful industrial empires in India: Jindal Steel & Power and Tata Steel.
What began 43 years ago as a small but violent peasant insurrection in Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal, is now a full-fledged conflict and ideological movement. In 2004, the Maoists went so far as to form a political party--the Communist Party of India (Maoists). Though it was banned last year, and its entire senior leadership has since been arrested or gone into hiding, the Maoists have only grown stronger. In 2001, they were active in 56 districts in a small corner of the country. Today, they hold sway in 223 districts, boast an armed cadre of some 10,000 revolutionaries and can field a militia of at least 100,000, according to Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank. The government has declared the Maoist rebels--also known as Naxalites--the greatest threat India faces from within. It is not surprising that the same decade that witnessed the rise of this violent Maoist insurgency also saw India's best economic performance in history.
"India's boom period has coincided with maximum dissent and dissatisfaction in rural India," Sahni says. Over the past two decades, the Indian government has been trying to lock up land for public projects like power plants and, more recently, private enterprises like Tara Steel. Often this means evicting farmers from the small, privately held farms their families have worked for generations. The biggest problem, Sahni says, is that the national government is abysmal at resettling people who have been stripped of their land, home and income.
In regions with dense tribal populations like Chhattisgarh, non-indigenous individuals and companies are prohibited from buying land owned by tribal members directly. But the law allows the government to acquire this land, then sell it...