Review/Interview about New Book on India’s Maoist Movement

PLGA (People's Liberation Guerilla Army) in training

‘ddddReviewed by M.R. Narayan Swamy

This is undoubtedly India’s answer to ‘Red Star Over China’, the epoch-making story of what the then obscure Mao was up to in China’s rural areas at the head of a nascent Communist party that eventually took power in 1949. When American Edgar Snow came out with the classic of a book, the world sat up and took notice.

The Indian Maoists of Bastar are of course not an unknown commodity. Yet there has been no account of what they are doing in the huge, forested land of poverty amid plenty known as Bastar, a story as exhaustive and moving as this racy eye-opener of a book.

Unlike most books on Indian Maoism, this one does not dabble in ideology, party documents and polemics. Like Snow did decades ago, Satnam, a committed Leftwing writer-activist from Punjab, focuses on the impoverished people and the revolutionaries he meets in Bastar. He spent two months in the forests, living with his subjects to study why Maoists are on the ascendency in the mineral-rich region where governments have existed only in the form of greedy contractors and corrupt policemen, leaving the mass of tribals to wallow in poverty, disease and illiteracy while outsiders strip away Bastar’s minerals.

The book was originally published in Punjabi early this decade . What has been published now is an excellent English translation by Vishav Bharti. But readers need not worry. The story that unfolds may have been written yesterday, so vivid is the harshness of jungle life; and those jungles are still the same. If anything, some of what the guerrillas said about their plans for the future seems to be coming true.

Bastar is where cadres from the former People’s War Group (PWG), after facing reverses in adjoining Andhra Pradesh, first set up base in the 1980s. Those were hard times. Few tribals were ready to embrace outsiders. That was then. Today this is where the Communist Party of India-Maoist rules supreme, keeping at bay an Indian state determined to bring Bastar to the ‘mainstream’. After reading this book, few people will buy the cliche that Naxalites are India’s biggest internal security threat. They may be a threat to multinationals and others eager to exploit Bastar’s wealth but they are certainly no threat to the region’s tribal population.

Who are the tribals who form the backbone of the Maoists? ‘They are neither Hindus nor Muslims nor Christians. They have never heard of Ram, Mohammad or Christ. They eat cow’s meat, hunt pigs and eat insects too! Even today, many go without wearing clothes. Sin, charity, pity, cruelty, wickedness and psychological disorders have no place in their lives.’ Although they live on territory that is India’s most mineral-rich, they have been ‘herded like animals, and used for clearing the forests or digging the earth’ and their women abducted. ‘The tribals languish in the same miserable existence of hunger, disease, death and helplessness.’ Few cross the age of 50.

Who are the Maoists?

Satnam meets a mixed band of young men and women committed to the cause of revolution. There are plenty of Gond tribals; there are those who speak Telugu, Bengali and Hindi. There is also a scientist and a doctor. The guerrillas he meets are always in uniform, perennially armed, ever alert. When the guerrillas enter a village, the entire village turns up to welcome them and plies them with rice, vegetables and water. ‘When they set up camp, villagers take turns to carry out chores and take responsibilities.’ But ‘each guerrilla has only one set of uniform, which has to be washed, dried, and worn again’. They don’t camp in one spot more than one night. They drink water from the river. Diseases are a constant threat. They eat the tribal food. More than half the fighters are young women. ‘They love life, but they don’t care about death.’

Why are the Maoists popular among the ordinary folks?

For one, their entry into Bastar has ended the reign of contractors who loot and cheat, and policemen who abuse. Today tribal women can walk in the forests alone. Starvation deaths do not take place in Maoist areas. Prostitution is passe; so are human sacrifices. The Maoists have helped tribals construct dams to store rain water; set up mango, guava and lime orchards; rice mills in several villages where grain can be husked at nominal rates. Tribals are provided basic education, and medicines that they have never got from the government.

So are the guerrillas on the road to victory?

The CPI-Maoist knows its strength and weaknesses. A party leader admits ‘the revolutionary movement has had little, or no, success in influencing the country’s politics’. Also, building the party in cities has proved to be difficult – and dangerous. Maoist organizations are proving difficult to run. There is a serious dearth of activists – and weapons. But the guerrillas are confident. ‘Even though we have started off at a slow pace, we will soon gain momentum.’ Another Maoist says: ‘Our battle can’t be fought only in Bastar; it has to spread to the entire country.’

(26.04.2010 – M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan.swamy@ians.in)

Below is an interview with Satnam, the author of Jangalnama:

Activist and writer Satnam’s book Jangalnama openly sides with the Maoist cause, firing salvo after another at the powers that be

“In Bastar, different kinds of fires burn – the fire in the empty belly, the fire of the jungle and the fire of the revolution ¦ the fire in the stomach is like a pyre on which one is burnt alive. The fire of teak, bamboo and other forest produce keeps houses of contractors and traders warm but destroys Bastar. As you go through this book you will feel the warmth of the third kind of fire.” ” Inside the Guerrilla Camp, Jangalnama

Braving safety concerns, author Satnam decided to spend two months with Maoist guerrillas and adivasis, in Bastar in eastern India. The result was Jangalnama, which takes a compellingly humane look at those who are demonised by the fourth estate and outlawed by the state and in the process manages to convey their side of the story. Chandigarh-based journalist Vishav Bharti has translated this book into English.

Why and how did you decide to make this visit? How long were you in the jungles of Bastar?

It was sometime in October 2001, where the political climate was different. The World Trade Centre attacks had just happened and America hadn’t mounted their onslaught on Afghanistan. They were aware that I was a political writer and activist so they sent me a letter asking me to visit their camp. At that time I didn’t think I’d write a novel. I was keen to understand their existence. I didn’t have any friends or contacts there. Of course, I made friends later.

Has the situation changed considerably since then?

Yes. When I first reached, things were very peaceful. It was not a war-like situation as it is now. They seemed peaceful and happy. In fact, it wasn’t a very thick forest. A lot of trees were cut, illegally and the forest was thinning out. This may have stopped now; the forests are probably denser.

Would you agree that your book has a tone of contempt towards city dwellers and the educated middle and upper class? What made you arrive at this belief?

Actually no. I have no contempt for the city or city dwellers or even civilisation. It’s the people who call themselves civilised but don’t care for the uneducated and downtrodden who are the ones I’m against. Tribals aren’t aware about the Kyoto Protocol but live in harmony with nature. They don’t worship it. They don’t destroy it, but live with it, peacefully.

You are vocal in your opinions of the government and the treatment meted out to tribals. Aren’t you concerned that it might rub authorities the wrong way?

I think it needs to be said in public. Steel plants are set up nearby and yet none of the benefits of the so-called development reach the tribals. Travel into the interiors, just four kilometres from Bhilai to discover that there are no schools, no hospitals, not even a hand pump for water. They will unload mountains of iron from the area but are unwilling to pay them back a bit? Development needs to be people oriented. If it isn’t for the people, what’s the purpose of development? What happens if someone comes to your home and demands to extract iron ore from your land? Aap toh ujhad gaye na?

Have you consciously taken sides in the book? By doing so aren’t you oversimplifying a complicated issue?

(Pauses) Why don’t you see the place for yourself? Government iron ore bech ke khazana baniti hai, but these tribals, they have nothing. You are mining iron and bauxite and the entire cluster of villages don’t even have one blacksmith. Is this development? People don’t betray their countries. It’s the government that is anti people. Peasants are forced to commit suicide, people are displaced but the powers choose to ignore. The system needs to be changed and that can only happen through a revolution.

Jangalnama: Travels in a Maoist Guerilla Zone, Satnam, Penguin India, Rs 250, 206 pages. Available at leading bookstores

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