Bastar, India – At dawn, the makeshift camp stirs to life. Amid rooster calls and the grunts of pigs searching for last night’s leftovers, the policemen put on their shirts and check their weapons. There are more than 200 of them, heavily armed, spread across this sleepy tribal hamlet. This is the sixth morning of their patrol in India’s Maoist heartland.
On September 21, 2004, two left-wing rebel groups merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist), triggering the escalation of a long simmering insurgency. In the decade since, the Maoist rebellion has spread across seven states. More than 100,000 police and paramilitary personnel have been deployed to combat the rebels.
The heavily forested tribal region of Bastar in central India’s Chhattisgarh state is the epicentre of the insurgency. Here, a game of hide and seek has been going on for the past few years, with the two warring sides rarely coming face to face.
At their overnight camp near Konjed village, the commander of a police unit admitted as much, saying his forces rarely encountered the armed fighters. Instead, it is the local tribal population that has borne the brunt of the violence.
It follows then that in the current phase of the insurgency, both the rebels and the security forces claim to be on a mission to win the hearts and minds of the people. At his camp, the police commander describes his efforts to win over the population: He has been distributing clothes to local villagers.
As the security personnel march onwards, the Maoists follow in their footsteps, reappearing as soon as the police leave, reclaiming territory and people. The Maoist fighters have been taking a survey of excesses committed by the police – two chickens, three pigeons, 28 eggs, a packet of salt, half a bottle of alcohol, and four kilos of fish stolen from villages along the patrol route.
At the forefront of the Maoist attempt to win hearts and minds is their cultural troupe, the Chetna Natya Manch (CNM). During the annual Martyrs Day celebrations at Polampalli village, the CNM takes to the stage with a series of plays, songs and dances, portraying the state as a brutal aggressor and urging villagers to fight back.
While efforts to win over the people continue, a nearby village is a stark reminder of why they may not succeed. On the night of June 28, 2012, in Sarkeguda, 17 villagers were gunned down by the police as suspected Maoists. Two years on, survivors wait for justice, which the rebels cannot give and the government has been unwilling to provide.