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In heart of India, a little-known civil war

Villagers are caught between two unforgiving sides: a communist insurgency that's left much of the country ungoverned, and a tough-as-nails 'peace movement.'

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In the hours before dawn on a warm spring morning several weeks ago, Kudiyam Sannu came home to kill his brother.

He and his fellow policemen – some villagers say hundreds of them – knew his brother would be there, and they brought with them at least eight other suspects, bound in handcuffs. None of the villagers from Santoshpur saw what happened next. They were commanded to flee if they wished to save themselves.

But since then, some of the townspeople, who have settled here in an impromptu refugee camp under a nearby mango grove, have heard from relatives who stayed behind: Each was butchered by knives and axes – yet more savagery in a virtually unknown civil war within one of India's remotest jungles.

Sannu's brother, like the other men allegedly killed on that morning, was thought to be in league with the Naxalites – an insurgency determined to bring Mao Zedong's Communist revolution to India. For three decades, Naxalites have spread almost unchecked throughout the rural reaches of 11 of India's 28 states, leaving large swaths of the nation largely ungoverned.

Yet it is here in the southernmost forests of the state of Chhattisgarh that one district has essentially declared all-out war. Under the banner of a "peace movement," the campaign against the Naxalites has taken its most violent – and some say, its most devastating – form.

Instead of uniting the district, the movement, called Salwa Judum, has forced villagers to choose between two unforgiving opposites, unleashing an unprecedented cycle of killing and revenge as citizens bestowed with emergency police powers sweep through the countryside.

For a nation increasingly intent on meeting the Naxalite threat, the war in Dantewada strikes a note of caution. In the wilds of India, far from the eye of government or the media, an admirable idea has descended into wanton brutality, say villagers here as well as activists who have reported on the district.

Salwa Judum "has been very poorly managed," says Ajay Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. "They will have to reinvent this movement, or if it has been too tainted, they will have to start a new mass movement against the Maoists."


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