By Bappa Majumdar
LALGARH, India (Reuters) - Babulal Mahato hides in paddy fields each night in an eastern Indian village as security forces carry out search operations for Maoist supporters.
Along with dozens of villagers in West Bengal state, 85-year-old Mahato does the same when the Maoists come to the village.
"I am too old, so I hide," said Mahato, his eyes weary after spending many sleepless nights outside.
"Many villagers have already left their homes and fled, fearing getting caught between the Maoists and police."
In Lalgarh, a cluster of 150 villages, daily rebel ambushes, police raids and civilians caught in the middle may be a sign of things to come as the government prepares an offensive against Maoist insurgents.
Federal and state police in armoured vehicles scour nearby jungles, a signal of the start of India's bid to stem a growing decades-long insurgency.
After a resounding general election win in May, the Congress party-led government, no longer dependent on communist parties in its coalition, has decided to take on an estimated 22,000 Maoist rebels who hold sway over swathes of countryside.
Operation "Green Hunt" reflects growing concerns in India that Maoists were becoming too strong after a decades-long insurgency. India's strong economic growth of the last few years did little to bring millions of poor villagers and tribals out of the poverty that helps act as the backbone of Maoist support.
In recent months, brazen attacks on passenger trains, attacks on mining companies and the beheading of a policeman have sparked national soul searching.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has warned Maoist violence was a drain on resources.
India's politicians and rights activists now debate the planned offensive. Will it stem Maoist influence, or will it just inflame tensions as villagers get caught in the crossfire?
"Local people are at risk of being caught in the middle of the fighting, killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides, and then risk retribution," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Six months ago, Maoists, who say they fight for poor farmers, took control of Lalgarh, a four-hour drive from east India's biggest city of Kolkata. They drove away government staff, destroyed buildings and forced police to retreat.
It was a takeover seen across hundreds of rural districts across a "red corridor" in central and eastern India.
"It is not a question of patrolling anymore. It is a question of engaging them, arresting them and killing them if fired upon," Kuldiep Singh, a senior police official in West Bengal, said.
It will be a risky task. In Lalgarh, rebels are playing cat and mouse, firing at police camps in surprise attacks.
"The people are with us, we are not backing out and the government of India will learn a huge lesson if they continue their offensive," Koteshwar Rao, Maoist military commander, said in a rare telephone interview from an undisclosed location.
The Maoists started their armed struggle in West Bengal's Naxalbari town in 1967, and have expanded their support among villagers by tapping into resentment at the government's recent pro-industry push.
The Maoist insurgency has spread to 20 of India's 29 states. While mainly confined to remote rural areas, it has hurt potential business worth billions of dollars in the mining industries in much of mineral-rich central and eastern India.
A partially constructed wall is all that remains of India's third largest steel producer's plans to build a $7-billion (4.2 billion pound) JSW Steel steel plant in Salboni, near Lalgarh.
"We are not far from the area, so we are very worried and closely watching the situation," Biswadip Gupta, chief executive officer of JSW Steel's West Bengal operations, said.
The Maoists attack railways and factories, hitting supplies of coal and iron ore exports. Steel projects in the state of Chhattisgarh by Tata Steel and Essar have been delayed.
In Lalgarh, police say they have arrested more than a 100 trained Maoists, but villagers say at least another hundred innocents have been detained, their huts destroyed.
"There is no development work in our area, while our women and children are being tortured by the police ... so we have decided to fight the police with bows and arrows," Sidhu Soren, a tribal leader of the Sidhu-Kanu People's Militia, said.
Experts say the Maoists always look for such opportunities.
"The Maoists are hoping the fence sitters will now move over to the Maoist mould," said Ashis Chakrabarti, senior political editor of the Telegraph newspaper.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sugita Katyal)