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12-02) 04:00 PST South Bastar, India -- Two years ago, Comrade Sunil spent his days studying in a school classroom and toiling in corn and rice fields in his ancestral village. But life abruptly changed one night after he returned to find his home torched and his older brother shot dead by a state-sponsored civilian militia on the pretext that he had been a rebel sympathizer.
Now, warming his hands by a campfire deep in the mountain jungles of southern Chhattisgarh state, the 18-year-old member of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army promised never to give up the homemade rifle lying on his lap.
"The government does not care at all about the people here, and armed revolution is the only way to change this," said Sunil, who refused to give his real name. The movement "is getting stronger because they know we fight for them."
In the shadow of Bollywood and the info-tech boom, a little-known guerrilla war is being waged in at least 16 states across India by insurgents known as Naxalites. Estimated to have 20,000 fighters backed by a network of tens of thousands of villagers, they control about one-fifth of India's forests and are active in 192 of the nation's 604 administrative districts. Currently, 20 of India's 28 states are affected by separatist conflicts, with Naxalites fighting in about 16 states, according to the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called these rebel armies "the single greatest security challenge ever faced by our country."