India's Maoists took up arms in 1967 to protest against what they perceived to be government neglect of the country's poor, particularly in rural areas, but have stepped up their insurgency in recent years. According to a home ministry report released last year, about 22,000 Maoist rebels are active in 20 of India's 29 states, and along with the party's political wing effectively control about a third of the country's territory.
In many areas, the report said, they even run their own governments parallel to the state, and they are now spreading beyond rural areas into the cities. The Maoists predominately engage in guerrilla warfare, waged mostly from the forests of central and eastern India, rather than risking direct confrontation with government forces. At least 735 people, including civilians and security personnel, were killed in Maoist violence in India last year, up from a total of 640 in 2008. Tens of thousands of people have also been displaced by the fighting.
The Maoists, also known as Naxalites, have been singled out as India's "biggest internal security threat" by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The Maoists' party, the Communist Party of India, which calls for the creation of a communist state and denounces capitalism and globalisation as a war on the poor, was banned by the government last June under the Unlawful Activities Act. In many states, private armies and vigilante groups, often government-sponsored, have sprung up to counter the Maoists. These have also forcibly recruited villagers, who are thus caught between the two.
The Indian government launched operation Green Hunt in November to try and wipe out the Maoist insurgency. * With additional reporting by Reuters