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Is India's campaign against Maoist rebels going too far?

Analysis: Human rights activists say India is using arbitrary arrests to quash criticism of a brutal war.

An Indian policeman stands guard at Lalgarh Police Station, in Midnapore district, some 130 kilometers west of Kolkata, June 22, 2009, around when India deployed troops to tackle an upsurge in Maoist violence. Thousands of villagers in Lalgarh have ransacked and torched police camps and houses belonging to Marxist leaders. (Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — When Indian state police swept in to arrest 10 alleged Maoist rebels in a lightning raid last month, the officer at the helm of the operation trumpeted its success as the culmination of a two-year investigation.

He claimed to have recovered seditious literature, CDs, a pen drive and about $20,000 in cash in the busts, and to have dealt a serious setback to the local branch of a Marxist force that can now lay claim to sovereignty over thousands of miles of forest land — a “Red Corridor” that stretches across nine states.

But local human rights activists saw a different picture.

“It's an attempt to silence all dissent,” said Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “People need to be aware of what's going on, and how dangerous it is for a democratic society.”

Along with eight other suspected Maoists, police from the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh arrested two grassroots workers — Seema Srivastava and her husband, Vishwavijay Azad. Both are affiliated with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a respected national human rights organization.

Officials from PUCL's national chapter and other prominent activists swiftly condemned the rights workers' arrests as the latest example of how the forces of government are using threats, harassment and arbitrary arrests to try to silence opposition to Operation Green Hunt — a paramilitary surge to root out Maoist rebels from their jungle hideouts.

“It [the campaign against so-called sympathizers] means that ultimately the government will continue with this Operation Green Hunt, which is rapidly becoming a war against tribals rather than a war against Maoists,” said Bhushan.

The simmering civil war between the Maoist revolutionaries and the state is indeed brutal on both sides. Terrorist attacks on police stations and other government installations are a near daily occurrence. Reports of the Maoist slaughter of villagers who turn informer have grown commonplace, as have tales of abuses by police forces and the government-sponsored militia known as the Salwa Judum.

According to the website of the Ministry of Home Affairs – which did not respond to queries in time to meet GlobalPost's deadline – at least 2,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2004, along with more than 800 security personnel and about 1,000 Maoists.

"We have a long bloody war ahead. It is going to be a long haul and I see violence going to go up,” Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai told a press conference Friday. "The way I see it, in another two to three years, the tide will turn in India's favor and it will probably take another seven to 10 years before we take complete control.”

The government's hardest struggle may be for the hearts and minds of the people who witness corruption and the direst sort of poverty in every facet of their lives.

“Even if my guys go to the Maoist-affected areas to collect information, they come back convinced that the Maoists have a point,” a member of one of the state intelligence agencies told a veteran journalist in confidence.