NEW DELHI — India looks set for a major offensive against Maoist rebels, whose growing influence and increasingly brazen attacks have been branded a national security failure, officials and sources said Friday.
"A new anti Maoist plan has been approved by the cabinet. States hit by this insurgency are instructed to follow the new plan and get their act together," senior home ministry official Kashmir Singh told AFP on Friday.
The cabinet met Thursday just hours before left-wing guerrillas gunned down 17 policemen in western India, the latest in a series of assaults in an increasingly lethal insurgency.
At least 150 Maoists attacked the policemen in a forest village in Maharashtra state, near the border with Chhattisgarh state where the rebels have their stronghold.
Security sources cited by the media said the new strategy was for a large-scale, coordinated offensive involving seven states worst affected by Maoist violence, with support from federal security services.
"Over 35,000 police are on standby. This time we have to flush them all out," a senior police officer in Chhattisgarh said.
The officer refused to disclose precise details of the planned operation, saying only that it involved many "surprise factors".
Just last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rebuked regional police chiefs for failing to stem the insurgency, which he described as the greatest threat to India's internal security.
The Maoist movement started as a peasant uprising in 1967 and has since spread to 20 of India's 29 states.
Maoist-linked violence has already claimed more than 600 lives this year and a series of recent incidents has raised concerns that the insurgency may be moving in alarming new directions.
Just last week, suspected Maoist fighters killed 16 villagers in eastern India in an attack apparently motivated by profit rather than ideology.
Witnesses and police officials said the rebels had been paid as hired guns by a party to a local land dispute.
And there was shock a few days later when Maoists in eastern India beheaded a policeman -- an act seen as a deliberately provocative aping of tactics employed by Islamist extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Maoists to lay down their arms or face the consequences.
"Violence is simply unacceptable in a democracy and republic. As long as (they) do not abjure violence, the security forces will confront them," he said.
The appeal was swiftly rejected by senior Maoist leader, Koteshwar Rao.
"We will not lay down arms. We know the government is trying to bring in the army and air force on us. We are prepared to deal with it," Rao was quoted as saying by The Indian Express newspaper.
The Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of the rural poor, but officials accuse them of using intimidation and extortion to collect money and to control impoverished villagers.
Little is known about the movement's shadowy leadership or its strength. It is said to number between 10,000 and 20,000 followers.
In June, the government slapped a formal ban on the rebels, officially designating them terrorists, and last month began a graphic newspaper advertising campaign to counter the propaganda of the Maoist insurgents.
The government printed photographs of the bodies of people killed by the extremists in national newspapers with the tagline: "These are innocent people -- victims of Naxal (Maoist) violence."
Federal and state authorities have been struggling to come up with a strategy to battle the guerrillas and some experts believe brute force is the wrong choice.
They point instead to the need to improve living conditions in India's impoverished hinterland which has proved fertile soil for Maoist recruitment.
"If Indians killing Indians is the new plan then I must say the government is making a big blunder. Violence is not the right way to end Maoist insurgency," said a professor who has been studying the Maoist movement for over two decades at the Delhi University.