AXALISM, OR ITS current variant, Maoism, is back in the news with a bang. On its first coming, forty years ago, it expressed a radical utopian impulse that rapidly captured the imagination of a generation of the most brilliant students across the country. It started as a peasant revolt in 1967 in a small area of northern West Bengal but while the initial revolt was rapidly crushed by the governments of the day, the metaphor called Naxalbari and its anglicised derivative “Naxalite” took the political world by storm. Naxalism was a radical critique of the existing state of affairs — the corruption of the parliamentary democratic system, the political parties; the rot in the educational system; rampant joblessness, famines and food shortages and other contemporary issues of the late 1960s. Naxalism became what contemporary social theorists would call a “floating signifier” — a wide range of meanings could be put into that term. That Naxalbari was a trigger for a radical cultural-political critique of the stranglehold of landlordism and caste power in rural India is also evident from the wide range of films, theatre and literary products that emerged in the decade immediately following. This first round of Naxalism was therefore widely studied and written about by scholars of different persuasions and we have a fairly rich documentation of that history. The subsequent two phases of the movement have hardly been studied. The second phase, that of silent regrouping and reorganisation, was long drawn out and unspectacular, compared to its first phase. But that is where the foundations of the present movement were laid. The present phase, where the term “Naxalism” has been replaced by the more specific “Maoism” (referring to only one powerful strand of the movement) has been the least studied and understood. Sudeep Chakravarti’s book is a timely and fascinating account of Maoism in the last decade or so. Written in the form of a journalistic travelogue, it gives a fascinating picture of the various elements that go into the making of this phenomenon. Chakravarti’s specific focus is on the current flashpoint, namely Chhattisgarh, where he traveled and met a range of different people. Chhattisgarh is also important because it is currently the site of the most vicious and violent counter-insurgency operation unleashed by the state — the Salwa Judum which pits one section of tribals into a civil war with others.
RED SUN —TRAVELS INNAXALITE COUNTRYSudeep ChakravartiPenguin Viking352 pp; Rs 495
Chakravarti’s account provides readers an opportunity to form their own judgement as we are brought face to face with officials directly handling the insurgency on the one hand, and others who are involved in developmental activity (including Gandhians, now branded as crypto-Naxals by the administration) to give a glimpse of life in this embattled land. Chhattisgarh today is only a notch below (or maybe not) the directly Army-ruled states (thanks to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) of the North-East and Kashmir, for example. With its own draconian Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, it is run today as a police state and Chakravarti’s account brings out the situation there quite vividly. However, despite its specific focus on Chhattisgarh, the author does not restrict himself to it and provides us with a fairly well-informed account of the larger picture of the movement, its current state, its different major tendencies and its general spread in different parts of the country. And he does it with interviews with a range of participants — including the legendary Kanu Sanyal — as well as with observers in the corporate sector or the media. These accounts are garnished with snippets of the Maoist movement in neighbouring Nepal, providing an excellent introduction for the lay reader.Chakravarti’s account should also serve as an eye-opener to the powers-that-be, for their myopic responses to Naxalism betray an utter lack of understanding of the challenges posed by it. It is time to recognise that Naxalism is a response, however perverse, to years of looting of public resources and dispossession of peoplefrom their lands by state and corporate elites. This is a curious omission from the Chhattisgarh story in the book. It is, after all, clear by now that the state-sponsored Salwa Judum and anti-Naxal operations are but the smokescreen behind which large-scale corporate robbery of tribal lands is carried out. This is a story that remains to be told.