Few know the potency of the Maoist threat to India as well as Indian Railways, the world’s largest employer. Hardly a week goes by without sections of rail track being blown up, stranding train passengers on arduous journeys crisscrossing India’s interior. Worse, railway officials and police officers are singled out in attacks and executed. Some are beheaded.

The railway network has become the favoured target of a Maoist movement that began four decades ago championing the cause of destitute peasants in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal. The Naxalites, as they are called, have now spread to eight of India’s states. They have mini-government structures, collect levies on road users and run schools.

So great is the threat the military-style revolutionary groups pose to India’s unity that New Delhi at the end of last year launched a paramilitary offensive against its leadership.

Operation Green Hunt is a campaign to retake swathes of territory in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal lost from government control.

In a campaign estimated to take three years, the immediate goal is to capture, or at least talk to, the Maoist leadership.

Thereafter the Congress-led government plans to step up development efforts and the rehabilitation of the police force and local services. So far, invitations to the Communist Party of India (Maoist) to give up violence and come to the negotiating table have been spurned.

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has described Naxalism as the gravest security threat that India faces. His fear is that a heavy-handed military response, similar to previous campaigns in Kashmir and the north-east of the country, will play into the Maoists’ hands.

Many of the areas they hold are some of India’s most isolated, populated by forest-dwelling tribal peoples with their own languages and animist beliefs.

“Our response to leftwing extremism must be calibrated to avoid alienating our people, especially those in the tribal areas,” Mr Singh told his chief ministers at the weekend. “It must also go hand in hand with social and economic development of areas affected by leftwing extremism, bringing them into the mainstream of national progress.”

A fear he shares with others is that a large section of India’s rural population are not sharing the benefits of high economic growth rates and the rising prosperity enjoyed by India’s cities. Economic disparities are especially stark in India’s eastern and central states, where profits from the mining of minerals including iron ore and copper do not reach the rural poor.

The prime minister has emphasised the need for “inclusive growth” and appears determined to devote his second term in office to deepening the kind of assistance offered by the national rural employment guarantee scheme, a welfare system for rural poor.

The threat is viewed as an indigenous one. Unusually for a country that sees Pakistan’s hand in militant activity, Naxalism seems to be locally funded. The only suspected external support is from Nepal Maoists.

Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, says that though operations are local, the groups’ ambitions are national – the overthrow of New Delhi in an organised peasant insurrection. Not only do the Naxalites target the railway lines but they travel along them.

“We arrested a politburo member four or five months ago in Delhi,” said Mr Chidambaram. “He was placed in Delhi to organise urban guerrilla activity. He had burrowed himself into Delhi. It’s quite possible they want to exploit urban grievances also.”

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