JEHANABAD, BIHAR--"So, how do you find Jehanabad?" asked the police superintendent, grinning. "Did you expect everyone would be shooting and killing in the streets? Have you been kidnapped? The intellectuals and the press must do a better job of projecting our district. As you can see, it's not so bad."
It was true. On a sunny December afternoon, Jehanabad can feel as normal as any other Indian town where bowls of severed goat heads sell in the bazaar next to wild mohawked boars grazing on mountains of trash. "It seems very normal to me," I agreed, returning the grin.
But Jehanabad ain't normal. After just a few days reading the local press it was clear the gang lords, militias, Maoists and bandits reign in much of this part of Bihar, India's poorest, most backward state. Kidnapping is a growth industry, offering less risk and higher return than Bihar's main business of rice, wheat and corn. And it was here, right outside the superintendent's office, that last month Maoist guerrillas launched an offensive that shut down the city of Jehanabad for two hours, reconfirming central Bihar as the closest thing to an Indian Sunni Triangle.
At nine o'clock on the night of November 13, an army of 600 Maoists entered this provincial capital in military formation. They fanned out in cells, ordering residents to stay indoors through the same antiquated megaphones that Jehanabad's movie theater uses to advertise Hindi potboilers from the back of bicycle rickshaws. The Naxalites, as the native Maoists are known, cut the city's power and detonated a series of crude diversionary bombs. They then surrounded and ambushed the Jehanabad administrative complex, including the court, collector's office, police garrison and prison. Squads of Naxals kept the off-balance Bihari police line busy with cracks of AK fire, while another group scaled the prison's rear wall with a rope ladder, killed the guards, freed 369 inmates, and walked right out the front gate, all but whistling "Chairman Mao Forever."
The Naxals left behind a few revolutionary posters slapped up with blood, plus one seriously wounded comrade who had mishandled one of the homemade bombs. Before dying at a local hospital, the stranded guerrilla told police that the jailbreak had been rehearsed with hundreds of new recruits in the Gurap forest south of the city. This was possibly the same jungle the Naxals melted back into with 136 of their newly liberated brothers, including their notorious leader, Ajay Kanu.
The Naxals scored big that night in another way: by killing two prisoners who were also leaders of the local Ranvir Sena militia, a paramilitary outfit aligned with Bihar's landowning castes. More than a jailbreak, the operation was the ballsiest revenge killing yet in more than two decades of caste warfare between groups representing the landless "backward castes," and the dominant landowning castes, led by the Buhimars.
One of the Ranvir Sena leaders was shot on the spot in the prison; the other was later found two miles east of Jehanabad with most of his brain missing. They must have had a reason for wanting to play with him first.
The next day, the Ranvir Sena was promising the inevitable revenge against its leftist nemesis. "We will teach them a lesson in their own language. And such will be the befitting reply, that they will remember it for life long!" one militia leader roared to a local reporter. If history is any guide, the "lesson" could involve razed villages and piles of dead Dalit (Untouchable) women and children.
The same loop has been gaining ferocity since the 1980s, when the conflict between Maoist groups and the landowner militias began bringing India some of its most sustained and brutal violence since the partition bloodbaths of 1947. Like the religious riots that sporadically engulf the country, the violence in Bihar has been Balkan in its fury. Entire villages on both sides have been wiped out with torches and rusty scythes. An estimated 5,000 people have been killed.