NEW DELHI - The Indian government, locked in a deadly struggle with Maoist rebels, should stop supporting an anti-insurgency militia whose members have intimidated, beaten, raped and killed civilians while authorities look the other way, the group Human Rights Watch says in a new report.
The rights group accused the Salwa Judum militia of abusing poor villagers in Chattisgarh state, thousands of whom have fled or been uprooted from their homes and ancestral lands because of the armed conflict pitting government forces and the militia against the Maoists, known as Naxalites.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Naxalites, whose insurgency covers a large part of eastern India, the No. 1 internal security threat facing the country.
Members of the Salwa Judum, sometimes in collusion with police, have burned hamlets to force residents to evacuate, extorted money to fund their activities, stolen food, sexually assaulted women, carried out summary executions and recruited children into their ranks, according to the report.
The organization blamed the Naxalites for committing similar abuses in their 41-year battle against the state. The two sides have fostered an us-or-them atmosphere that has escalated the bloodletting, putting residents under threat from all directions, the report said.
"People were forced to take sides. Neutrality was not even an option," said Meenakshi Ganguly, one of the researchers for the 182-page report, which is based on dozens of eyewitness accounts collected late last year and early this year in Chattisgarh.
The violence has triggered a wave of internal refugees. As many as 100,000 people have been displaced, winding up in squalid roadside Salwa Judum camps or seeking refuge in neighboring states.
Most are poor rural folk who belong to historically marginalized communities such as tribal groups and those previously known as "untouchables" under the ancient caste system.
The Naxalites claim to be fighting on behalf of the downtrodden and are strong in the dirt-poor but mineral-rich states in the east. Government officials and multinational corporations are eager to exploit the states' natural resources to keep India's economy booming. Plenty of critics, not just the Naxalites, contend that residents have received few of the benefits of such ventures and that the environment has been despoiled by large-scale mining.
Government forces have found themselves outmaneuvered by guerrillas, who use the thick forests to their advantage. In one of the biggest attacks in recent memory, hundreds of rebels laid siege last year to a police outpost in southern Chattisgarh, killing more than 50 officers and Salwa Judum members in a hail of gunfire, grenades and gasoline bombs.
On Wednesday, at least 20 police commandos were killed when their vehicle struck a land mine planted by rebels, officers said. The commandos were on their way to the site of an earlier attack when they were ambushed, said Gopal Nanda, the police chief in Orrisa state. The rebels blocked the road, forcing the vehicle to take a detour that was mined. The rebels opened fire and a gunbattle ensued at the site, about 370 miles south of Bhubaneshwar, the state capital, Nanda said.
The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung, have been fighting for more than three decades in several Indian states, demanding land and jobs for agricultural laborers and the poor.
Called Naxalites after Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal state where the movement was born in 1967, the Maoists have frequently targeted police and government officials.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in the insurgency.
The Salwa Judum sprang up in 2005 as what supporters insist was a spontaneous grass-roots response to Naxalite violence. But critics say the state has encouraged and helped turn the group into a vigilante force that operates with impunity against people and villages merely suspected of harboring Maoist sympathies.
"The government actually arms them," said Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Center for Human Rights in New Delhi. "There is full involvement by the state. The Salwa Judum camps are maintained by the government."
Residents who refused to join the militia or to move to Salwa Judum camps have found themselves the victims of brutal reprisals.
In the Salwa Judum camps, Chattisgarh state police recruited teenagers as auxiliary police officers, the report said. While the state government says that all minors have been removed from police ranks, it has not introduced any systematic way of identifying the youths and demobilizing them.
The Naxalites, too, are accused of pressing children into service, putting children as young as 6 through indoctrination classes and assigning some to armed squads when they are older.
So far, the state government has resisted calls to rein in the Salwa Judum.
"This is a people's movement against the Naxalites," said Ramvichar Netam, the state's home minister, by telephone from Chattisgarh. "The choice is between supporting the Naxalites or opposing them, and very naturally we oppose the Naxalites and support all those who are against the Naxalites."
Nonetheless, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the National Human Rights Commission in April to investigate allegations of abuses by the militia.
There are signs that some officials might be rethinking their support of the militia. Its chief patron, state legislator Mahendra Karma, recently acknowledged that the group had become difficult to control.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.