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Maoist rebels spread across rural India

India plans to deploy paramilitary forces to deal with growing insurgency.

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A sprawling, yet largely hidden, war is raging in India's rural countryside, and after years of ignoring it, Delhi is signalling a military counteroffensive.

India's Maoist insurgents, also called Naxalites, have expanded their area of operations from just four states 10 years ago to half of India's 28 states today. In 165 districts, they claim to run parallel "People's" governments. This year alone, fighting between rebel and government forces has claimed more than 500lives – many civilian.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned heads recently by calling the Naxalites, "The single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country."

To tackle the threat, Delhi is planning to deploy 11 battalions of paramilitary police and is sponsoring opposing vigilante groups who espouse violence. But issues of underdevelopment and poor human rights are the real oxygen of the Maoist insurgency, not local police weakness, argue critics of the new government approach.

"India has failed to rein in the Maoists simply because there are no quick-fix solutions to the problems arising out of [bad governance]," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), Delhi.

Hardest hit in this conflict are poor, tribal residents of rural villages like Ulgara, a hamlet in the rural interior of Jharkhand state. Naxalites pass through often, stopping sometimes to demand food, which villagers quietly admit they give out of fear. Five years ago, in the wee hours of the night, nearly 100 guerrillas attacked the village, torching 19-year-old Rakesh Kumar's house. His father was shot and his family beaten.

"We're stuck in the middle – between the Naxalites and the state," says Mr. Kumar, explaining that it's neither safe to support the Maoists nor turn them away.

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