chhattisgarhOne of the more controversial arguments doing the rounds is the question of whether you can compare Pakistan's Islamist militants to Maoist insurgents in India. Both claim to champion the cause of social justice and have been able to exploit local grievances against poor governance to win support, and both use violence against the state to try to achieve their aims.

The differences are obvious:  the Islamist militants come from the religious right; the Maoists from the far-left. In Pakistan, the militants have become powerful enough to strike at the heart of the country's major cities. In India, the Maoists remain largely confined to the country's interiors, although their influence is spreading through large parts of its rural hinterland.

In Pakistan, the military initially nurtured Islamist militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan - with U.S. and Saudi support - and later to fight India in Kashmir. In India, the Maoist movement has grown organically from its origins as a local 1967 uprising by communists over a land dispute in the village of  Naxalbari in West Bengal, from where its followers derive their name as Naxalites.

In Pakistan, the question of whether support for Islamist militants is underpinned by local grievances over social injustice is highly contentious.  Many in Pakistan dismiss the Pakistani Taliban as right-wing ideologues, fired up by an alien religious philosophy imported from the Middle East by al Qaeda, and joined by a motley crew of criminals and thugs bent on the pursuit of pursuit of power and money.

bows and arrowsIn India, even those who oppose the Maoists' violent methods acknowledge that poverty and the alienation of its rural poor - especially among the indigenous tribal people - have contributed to their appeal.  (I have rarely been so powerfully struck by the desolation of hunger than on a trip some years ago to Chhattisgarh, the heartland of the Maoist revolt.  It is a state where deep in the forests you find children with the protruding bellies and vacant eyes of the seriously malnourished, whose fathers use bows-and-arrows to catch animals (see pix).  It also has vast mineral resources which villagers hope might one day make them rich, and which Maoists argue will be exploited by international mining companies.)