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Rebel on the Mic: India's Maoist Dissident


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

They call themselves the People's Army and India's Prime Minister has described them as the most serious internal threat to his country's security. Thousands of Maoist insurgents are scattered through the country's jungles, staging attacks that have led to the deaths of hundreds of people so far this year. There have been gun battles and assassinations and also deadly counterattacks by shady paramilitary groups.

But the battle is not being fought with weapons alone, as NPR's Philip Reeves found out during a trip to the southern city of Hyderabad.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Behind a desk in a shabby, hot, backstreet office sits a bearded man. He's short, rotund and pushing 60. He's quick to smile and even quicker to burst into song.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. GUMMADI VITTAL RAO (Telugu Baladeer): As long as a leading (unintelligible) suffers little break then every living being will reward (unintelligible) the system.

REEVES: The real name of this revolutionary minstrel is Gummadi Vittal Rao, but he calls himself Gaddar after a group that fought against British rule before India's independence. It's a nom de guerre that journalist Mia Ayub Ali Khan(ph) says is now known to a multitude of Indians.

Mr. MIA AYU BALI KHAN (Journalist): Gaddar is a balladeer. He is a man of the common man. He is a presence that belates folk.

Mr. RAO The problem is that I'm a communicator.

(Singing in foreign language)

So green and everything, but everyone is driving unemployment problem, poverty problem, Kashmir problem.

(Singing in foreign language)

You listen.

Mr. KHAN: It is very interesting to see him dancing and telling you the stories of atrocities of the government agencies and the difficulties of the (unintelligible) classes. He is a very interesting character who has left a great mark on the Leftist Movement that sets here.

Mr. RAO: (Singing in foreign language)

Soon my mother can breathe. So beautiful, but because everybody is in poverty. Unemployment problem is not solved, the land problem is not solved. Everybody is suffering. Everybody is suffering. What is the problem?

REEVES: Gaddar can barely finish a sentence without breaking into one of his hundreds of songs. He's almost as keen to show off his wounds. These he acquired a few years back during an attempt to assassinate him.

Mr. RAO This is one shot and this is the first shot they shot me at. This is the shot. So it went from here then second shot, third shot, fourth, until it is in spinal cord still. It is there.

REEVES: Gaddar says he was attacked by an undercover group called the Green Tigers that he says was sponsored by the Indian security services. He and other say that secret, state-backed paramilitary organizations continue to be used against Maoists and less sympathizers. Police officials deny this.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Gaddar has, of course, written a song about the attempt on his life. He eagerly thrusts a cassette into his tape recorder.

Mr. RAO: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. ANU RADDER REDDY(ph) (Hyderabad resident, Gaddar supporter): He presents what he thinks is happening around him and in the populations that he sees in a very magical and musical way. That make it easy for the common man to identify with.

REEVES: That's Anu Radder Reddy. Her family has lived here in Hyderabad for generations. Gaddar's support base is in south India's forests and villages, but he also lives here. Maoism (unintelligible) within a showcase of Indian capitalism.

(Soundbite of protests)

REEVES: In the last few years, multinational software companies, pharmaceutical giants and call centers have flooded in. Glittering citadels of glass and concrete rise up on Hyderabad's skyline from a district now called Cyberabad.

Reddy says too little attention's paid to the many who are still desperately poor and this is one reason for Gaddar's popularity.

Ms. REDDY: I think he's representing some of the aspirations of people who are not seen and who are not heard in the normal political system. Our elected representatives are not addressing these issues.

REEVES: Across town, Swaranjit Sen sits in his large and lavishly upholstered office. He's Chief of Police for the state of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh is at the southern end of a belt of territory, running down from India's northern border with Nepal in which thousands of Maoist insurgents operate, an area known as the red corridor.

Sen's an expert on the Maoist issue and he knows all about Gaddar's music.

Mr. SWARANJIT SEN (Chief of Police, Andhra Pradesh): It's okay. It's fine. But I don't get motivated by it. It's okay. His reasoning is very, very rustic, you know, and it appeals to the rustic people. Now what needs to be done is to counter all this with aggressive publicity.

REEVES: So said Sen, the security forces have their own minstrels, secretly funded groups dispatched to the forests.

Mr. SEN: It's absolutely covert. It's like, you know, you do have people moving from villages to villages performing some acrobats, some drama, some things like that. So similarly these groups also go. We use music, we use theatre, we use pamphlets, we use all sorts of things. Yes, we do.

REEVES: Gaddar and the police chief don't agree on much, but they do both believe in the power of music. Gaddar says the Maoists also have troupes of music makers, a so-called cultural army that's proving popular in the forests.

Mr. RAO Because through music you can catch and they will form and they will go and they will arm the people with the music and those things. And they will dance. They will perform.

(Singing in foreign language)

They welcome the cultural army.

(Singing in foreign language)

They definitely will come, but they will come under the (unintelligible). And then they will see that song.

REEVES: As Gaddar dreams of revolution, Sen, the police chief, dreams of shutting him up. It's not easy. You can't be arrested just for singing. Sen says the police can't do anything without hard proof that Gaddar's music is directly causing lawlessness.

Mr. SEN: If we can connect the two things up, then we can go after him. But unfortunately, we don't have that hard evidence. There's no point, you know, arresting him and giving him such a huge publicity. What you get the end of it? So that's one of the problems.

Mr. RAO: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: So for now, Gaddar the balladeer will warble on and on.

Mr. RAO: It's a beautiful song.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.