As the white Tata Indica, that sturdy child of modern Indian enterprise, crosses a small town called Sukma along Chhattisgarh's state Highway 43, the terrain changes.
Perhaps, the nation too. Rows of forlorn electric poles stand without wires, like stitching needles without thread. Occasional stretches of devastated roads ripped apart by land mines in countless ambushes of police and paramilitary patrols rattle your spine and your calm. Children do not run behind the car; instead, they throw you a quick, tense glance, trying to guess which side you are on.
"Saab," the driver, all concentration, tersely says, "We are inside the Liberated Zone."
State of statelessness
This is the gateway to a land unseen by globalising, booming India, yet only an hour's flight northeast of Mumbai. It is a lush land at the country's heart, sprawling across 10 states. Here, the Indian state no longer exists.
It is from this place that the have-nots of an unevenly prospering nation wage a grim war against the government, armed with weapons mostly stolen from "the enemy", India's security forces, and ideology imported from the China of Mao Tse-Tung, from the 1960s.
There is no talk of modern China, the world's fastest-growing nation. Or of the world's second-fastest growing nation, India. Alongside the local sesame, teak and mahua trees, an extreme doctrine has been sending deep roots into the tribal psyche, especially among the warrior tribes of Madias and Kois. The tribals allege that for decades, the government and its business cronies have carried out a multibillion-rupee trade in local tobacco and firewood, without sharing the spoils with them. So, the government has been shunted out. The state is recruiting boys and girls as young as 15 as special police officers. These armed youngsters patrol the roads.
Every government-run primary school, post office and hospital here has been taken over by Naxalites — the local engines of Maoist revolutionary thought who take their name from a 1967 peasant uprising in Naxalbari, West Bengal. Chhattisgarh is now the Liberated Zone's bloodiest battleground, with 134 policemen killed by Maoist terrorists between this January and October, more than in any other state in India.
Pay up or join up
In Maoist territory, a few rusty hand pumps are the only memories of a fugitive government. The schools, the dams, even the tax system, are run by the Naxalites. Villagers pay with money, or with food, shelter, clothes and medicines. Families who cannot even afford that in this desperately poor area where the monthly per capita income is Rs 200 (40 per cent below the national average) give their men and boys to the revolution as tax.
"The Maoists told my family we have a choice: either the men join the movement or pay up Rs 500. We were given three chances to pay, in food grains, if not cash," says 19-year-old Pancham Dhulia (name changed) at Kurti, the second of the five relief camps on the 80-km highway from Sukma to Konta where victims of the Maoists or people disgruntled with them live in constant fear of reprisal. "My family could not pay. They handed me over to the movement as tax."
Dhulia deserted his indoctrinators after a while. But those who have not, ensure that your journey from Jagdalpur, 300-odd km from state capital Raipur, to Pamed, where 11 police personnel were ambushed and killed on November 2, is a 20-hour detour through neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
There is a shorter road through a village called Chintalnar, where security forces have not ventured after 12 policemen, including a highly decorated and admired police officer called Hemant Kumar Singh, were killed on August 29 in an ambush by communist guerrillas on a police station.
This road is heavily littered with Claymore landmines, which first earned their stripes killing thousands in World War II. Relentless sniper fire could make the road even shorter for the casual visitor. Two days after the August 29 ambush, the state DGP's helicopter was fired upon.
The ambushed police station in Bijapur did not particularly want to be the last representative of the Indian state in this area. All other government institutions have withdrawn. "We had asked for its closure," says Rajendar Vij, Inspector-General of Police (Bastar Range). The police station's only link to the outside world was a solar wireless set. There are no telephones here, no cell signal, no electricity. When the Maoists came on November 2, there were desperate requests for help. Armed reinforcements were 200 km away. They were not sent. Officers feared they too would be wiped out.