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Home > 2021 > Will Red Star Shine Over India? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Will Red Star Shine Over India? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 14 May 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

Night March: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands

by Alpa Shah

HarperCollins Publishers India; Pages: 327; Price: Rs 499

SHE lived for four and a half years as an anthropologist amidst India’s Adivasi people, with one long spell outside Naxalite strongholds and yet another within. But even Alpa Shah would not have imagined that her academic study will turn out to be a classic on Indian Maoists who spearhead the world’s longest-running armed revolutionary movement. Indeed, Night March, based mainly on a seven-night trek with a Naxalite platoon in 2010 done under the cover of darkness, covering 250 km from one part of India to another, will be rated as probably the finest book yet on Indian Maoists.

Shah, who lives in London, is no blind follower of Naxalites. Indeed, she has a lot to criticize them for what they do – and what they don’t. Yet, she emerges as a sincere and honest observer, one whose heart bleeds for the tribal people who inhabit, amid poverty, vast tracts of mineral-rich central and eastern India which Naxalites have made their home, taking repeated potshots at security forces. One can find fault with the Naxalites, but Shah says it “is also clear they are no ‘anti-nationals’, no ‘desh-virodhi’ people.”

Shah based herself in a part of Jharkhand where there was no provision of electricity or running water, healthcare or sanitation in any of the villages where she lived although it was a time when the world was marveling at India’s economic growth. Her neighbours for two and a half years were Munda Adivasi tribals and their mud houses. Despite being the third most prolific terrorist group in the world by total attacks in 2016, by when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had declared the Naxalites the most serious internal security threat, Western intellectuals and students were largely unaware of the Indian Maoists. Shah wanted to know, first hand, why.

Gyanji, one of the senior leaders of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), admits to Shah that when he and his comrades took to the jungles decades earlier, “we all thought that the revolution was just around the corner”. The man confessed they would not see the fruits of their struggle in their own lifetime. He expected for himself a brutal end – like many of his younger colleagues who were picked up in the cities, tortured for information, and then killed extra-judiciously in one of India’s infamous ‘fake encounters’.

Yes, the Naxalites are violent, at times brutally. But senior Maoist leaders insist they don’t condone terrorism. “Look at the everyday violence inflicted on the people here by the ruling elites,” one says. People’s land and forests are looted, they have no sanitation, no electricity, no running water, and they are reduced to living like animals.

After seeing them from close quarters, Shah says that although the Naxalites have not yet formed guerrilla bases anywhere in the country, they regularly cross from one stronghold to another zone. They would cover long distances – often several hundred kilometers – walking continuously and carefully over nights, for even weeks, to get to ‘safe’ zones or where they had been deputed. Of course this was not possible without people’s covert support. Shah explains in detail why Adivasis whose distrust of the outsider goes deep warmed up to Naxalites although many of its top leaders came from the upper crust Hindus.

The much deeper appeal of the Naxalites stemmed from the respect and dignity with which they treated the Adivasis, Shah says. In attracting Adivasis to their armies, the humaneness of the rebels was perhaps more important than the material grievances they addressed. In the process, Adivasi youth moved freely in and out of the guerrilla armies, almost like they were visiting an uncle or an aunt. But the same bonds eventually also came to undermine rebel support.

All the senior Maoist leaders Shah met had some chronic health problem. Gyanji suffered from severe gastritis and a bad ankle. Parasji had spondylitis. Another, hit on the forehead by a test explosion, was gradually losing his vision in both eyes. Others lived with chronic back aches, bad knees and diabetes. But they soldiered on, convinced that they were on the right path and their fight for the poor was just. Of course there were rotten apples too – young men who lined their own pockets and, if needed, stabbed their colleagues in the back.

The Naxalites did hold rallies against multinationals behind the mining operations in tribal areas. But curiously they did not destroy the mining work. An easy target could have been the 267-km Essar pipeline transporting iron ore slurry. It was left largely untouched. Clearly, some rich companies were paying off the Maoists.

Shah is scathing in her criticism of the Indian system. The Advisasis, she says, are some of the world’s most marginalized people who are being displaced, dispossessed and discarded by the dramatic inequalities generated by economic growth. The escalated counter-insurgency efforts were often brutal and the rest of the world seemed to have little concern with the events unfolding in the remote hills and forests of central and eastern India. The more the security forces intensify their operations, the more difficult it becomes for the Maoists to do politics in areas of their influence. Finally, the Naxalites are left with only their military strategy – an invitation to disaster.

Shah accuses the current Indian regime of a lethal mix of authoritarianism and neo-liberal reforms which benefit big business but brutally curtail many people’s freedoms, dispossess them of their livelihoods and sharply escalate inequalities. In the villages where she lived, everyone had tales of police torture which included electric shock treatment, branding with hot iron roads, and thrashings while hanging upside down with hands and legs tied. Critical voices had been suppressed. Some Maoists disappeared and were presented later in some forests as killed in an ‘encounter’. “Crimes are being committed which neither time nor history will forgive.”

Shah’s gripping masterpiece – a rare quality for an academic study — must be read by every student of Indian politics and even those from the security apparatus. If you want to know why Indian Maoists have gone on and on, this book will help clear many cobwebs.

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