All over the countryside in central India, red monuments topped with hammer and sickle symbols announce that this is Maoist land. And these days, nobody could forget it.
A string of recent attacks by communist rebels points to the comeback of an extreme leftist movement inspired by Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and long seen as outdated. In response, the Indian government has announced plans to deploy more than 70,000 paramilitary and police forces, in a spring offensive that activists criticize as too little, too late.
The communists are tapping into a deep dissatisfaction over the widening gap between rich and poor, particularly in the rural areas where most people live. As breakneck development pushes parts of India far ahead of others, the richest states now have incomes five times higher than the poorest states, according to the World Bank.
"There is frustration and since there is frustration and poverty, many people join the Maoists," said tea house owner Alok Sood, sitting cross-legged on a wooden bench as customers drank sweet tea and coffee.
Sood, a 36-year-old father of two, broke down in tears as he remembered a market attack by the rebels that forced him to close his former store last year. He spent months struggling to eke out a living selling firecrackers and doing odd jobs before a local politician helped him open his roadside cafe.
Communist rebels have ambushed police, destroyed schools and abducted government officials. They blew up a key train track in Jharkand state on Nov. 19. In October, they commandeered a New Delhi-bound express train in West Bengal for several hours and ambushed a police patrol elsewhere, killing at least 17 troops.
The resurgence of the Maoists has led to nationwide soul-searching as critics blame the government for neglecting rural areas for decades, essentially cutting them off from the rapid economic growth that followed the opening of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. Analysts say the Maoists are filling a vacuum left by the failure of the world's largest democracy in vast sections of the nation of 1.2 billion people.
"The (Maoist) infestation of the central part of India has to a large extent been enabled by high levels of exploitation and corruption," said C. Uday Bhaskar, former director of India's Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. "It's inadequate governance, and where governance is being made available it lacks integrity."
More than 2,000 Indian security forces and civilians have been killed in communist rebel violence since 2005, according to statistics compiled by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
The Naxalite movement, which was formed in 1967, began as a network of extremist ideologues and youthful recruits in the village of Naxalbari outside Calcutta. Two of the main factions merged in 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Maoists are now present in 20 of India's 28 states, with the bulk of the estimated 10,000-20,000 fighters concentrated in a so-called "Red Corridor" that runs through the dense, mineral-rich forest belt from the Nepal border to the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Police also allege the group gets support from left-wing sympathizers in Nepal, China and Sri Lanka.
The government has called the Maoists its most serious internal security threat and announced plans to fight back with "Operation Green Hunt," which is expected to begin in March. The plan is to send troops into former no-go zones deep in the forest, rid them of militants, then build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. Newspaper ads show pictures of victims of Maoist violence and urge Indians to turn against them.
"The Maoists are becoming bolder," said Inspector Suresh Dhruva, a 38-year-old police officer in the rebel stronghold of Chhatisgarh. Chhatisgarh's Counterterrorism and Jungle Warfare College near Kanker has put more than 11,000 troops through a rigorous combat training course where they shimmy down ropes and practice firing at targets from the backs of motorcycles.
"They have increased their numbers and so have we," said Dhruva. "Earlier we trained for law and order. Now we are learning how to fight like guerrillas."
But activists warn that civilians are likely to suffer the most in any military action.
"Local people are at risk of being caught in the middle of the fighting _ killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides and then risk retribution," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Few troops other than traffic cops were visible on the streets during a recent visit to Chhatisgarh, where women in colorful saris bathe in ponds and children go without shoes. Many residents lack running water and electricity.
Several locals said they had not heard of the impending offensive. Others expressed fear that civilians would be caught in the crossfire because of the difficulty of distinguishing ordinary villagers from rebel sympathizers. Some elders urged villagers to get ID cards for protection despite government reassurances that was not necessary.
The relationship between the Maoists and residents is complex as villagers face extortion and warnings of violence if they don't support the cause. Rebels have even demanded a share of development money, destroying schools in retaliation for failure to pay.
At one targeted school in Iragaon _ about 10 miles (20 kilometers) down a dirt road in the rebel stronghold of Dantewada district _ schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms collect water from a well and sweep the dirt courtyard after class while police stand guard on the rooftop. The police moved in after the rebels destroyed the main compound, forcing the students to cram into nearby buildings.
In the past, India's central government largely left the fight against the Maoists to individual states, a decision that brought little success. In the last major state push, Chhattisgarh backed an anti-Naxal militia called the Salwa Judum, which was accused of atrocities against tribals _ indigenous people at the bottom of India's rigid social ladder. The militia has since been reined in.
"The only way that this can be addressed is through peace talks," said Nandini Sundar, a member of the Citizens Initiative for Peace in New Delhi. "It has to be addressed by talking about the basic issues that concern people, like malnutrition. You can't address it by sending in the paramilitary _ that's just going to help the Maoists grow."
Officials say the rebels also are increasingly turning to drug sales to finance their operations, indicating a higher level of organization. Police, acting on a tip, recently seized six tons of marijuana hidden under a layer of tumeric and onions in two trucks in the small town of Keshkal. The green bags stuffed with marijuana leaves were piled on the roof of a two-story police station, next to officers sleeping on mats and undershirts strung up to dry.
"For the Maoists this is a battle of survival," said Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. "If they come under further pressure, they will use whatever tactics are necessary to disperse the state forces."