RAIPUR, India — Police fighting a Maoist insurgency in the forests of eastern India face a rebel force that knows the terrain far better and is willing to use the local civilian population as camouflage.
As those states most affected by the Maoists prepare a concerted offensive against the left-wing guerrillas, fears have grown for the safety of innocent villagers who may get caught in the crossfire.
In Chhattishgarh state, which has been a Maoist stronghold for over two decades, police chief Vishwa Ranjan readily admits that sorting the Maoists from the civilians presents a major challenge.
"One of the key questions in this operation would be how the forces will identify who is a Maoist and who is not," Ranjan told AFP. "They (the Maoists) are all over the place now."
The danger the offensive poses to civilians, most of them from impoverished tribal groups, has led to calls for its cancellation.
"We feel this will be a democratic and humanitarian disaster," a group of activists and academics, including novelist Arundhati Roy, a winner of the Booker Prize, wrote in an open letter to the prime minister last month.
Human rights groups, while acknowledging India's right to engage the rebels militarily, have also raised concerns over the possibility of civilian casualties.
Ranjan believes his network of informers will help the police to accurately target their operations, but says concern for civilians places his men at a considerable disadvantage.
"Maoists can indulge in mindless violence but we cannot," he said in an interview in the Chhattishgarh state capital, Raipur.
"We are in the middle of a game of chess. Pawns will die on both sides and then the chase for the masters will begin," he added.
The armed Maoist movement, which started as a peasant uprising in 1967, has spread to 20 of India's 29 states. Its cadre strength has been variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000.
The main rebel groups operate out of jungle bases in the so-called "red corridor" that stretches across more than half a dozen states in eastern India.
Until now, state security forces have struggled to curb the rebels' hit-and-run attacks, citing a lack of resources and the Maoists' superior knowledge of local conditions and topography.
"The Maoists are like water. The minute you try to pressurise them, they spread all over," said Longe Kume, a senior police officer in Jagdalpur, a region dotted with rebel training camps.
The planned offensive, scheduled to begin this month with the logistical support of the central government, is aimed at inflicting a knockout blow to an insurgency that has claimed more than 600 lives so far this year.
In an effort to counter the local knowledge of the rebels, Kume said surrendered Maoists were being recruited to help paramilitary forces locate and identify their former comrades.
Some have been appointed Special Police Officers, even those with violent records.
"I was a commander in the Maoist military wing for eight years," said Dodla Kawra, 32, who was made an SPO by the Chhattishgarh police.
"I killed two government officers but after I sexually assaulted a woman comrade, the Maoists demoted me," Kawra said.
The police have always borne the brunt of Maoist violence. More than 2,800 policemen have been killed by the rebels since 2004 and 200 police stations have been attacked -- often in raids to procure guns and ammunition.
In October, the Maoists abducted and beheaded a police officer, saying it was retribution for "police repression."
The government has acknowledged that the Maoist threat cannot be eradicated by brute force alone, and that steps need to be taken to develop the regions where chronic poverty has fuelled the rebels' ability to recruit new members.
The proposed strategy is to clear the ground used as Maoist training camps and bring in developmental agencies to set up pre-fabricated schools and hospitals, as well as police stations.
"The challenge is to sanitise the villages completely before development begins. Leaving even one Maoist behind could be a big mistake," said Kume.
New Delhi says it has earmarked 1.46 billion US dollars for security and infrastructure projects in the affected regions over the next three years.
In a recent interview published in the weekly magazine Open, Maoist leader Mupalla Laxman Rao, better known as Ganapathi, vowed to unleash a "tornado" of violence if the government goes ahead with its offensive.
But Chhattishgarh police chief Ranjan was confident that a concerted operation, with the political will to see it through, would eventually prove decisive.
"Let them rise like a tornado. In the final stage of this chess game, Indian forces will win," he said.
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