Saturday, February 2, 2008

Looking down Mao’s barrel

Significant areas of rural India are under the control of people who call themselves Maoist revolutionaries. This simple fact is often forgotten or deliberately ignored amidst the urban Indian hysteria over the Sensex or the Nano or the latest IPO.

And this is not for want of publicity. In April 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared with disarming honesty that “the problem of Naxalism is the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”.

He went on to describe, even more tellingly, how “exploitation, artificially depressed wages, iniquitous sociopolitical circumstances, inadequate employment opportunities, lack of access to resources, under-developed agriculture, geographical isolation, lack of land reforms—all contribute significantly to the growth of the Naxalite movement”.

But it is as if the rest of the country does not want to hear about poverty. And the states (16 of them, according to the Government) that are forced to deal directly with the Naxalites have each responded with different strategies, few of which address the economic roots of insurgency.

The most controversial strategy is that of Chhattisgarh, where the bipartisan BJP-Congress policy has driven villagers and forest-dwellers out of their homes, forced them to take up arms against the Maoists and arrested the state’s leading civil liberties campaigner.

The middle ground has been destroyed. The Maoists, their reputation previously damaged by overconfidence, bullying and extortion, have regained some of their popularity in the face of the thuggery and destruction carried out by the state-backed anti-Maoist militia, Salwa Judum.

Most of the early chapters of Sudeep Chakravarti’s book deal with the situation in Chhattisgarh, particularly the southern Bastar region. Red Sun is deliberately impressionistic, not a history, but a travelogue, a largely successful attempt to “portray the everydayness of Maoism and the reactions to it”.

Chakravarti, a novelist and former journalist, is even-handed: “The climate is poisoned in Bastar, and the times vicious. For deterrence and revenge, people have been raped, beaten, murdered by the state, their homes reduced to ruin, food stock destroyed for even a tiny hint of collaboration—ready or forced—with Maoist rebels.

The Maoists too have done their dance, hacking to death suspected informants, blowing up both police personnel and members of Salwa Judum, as well as innocents who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.” He describes how local journalists and NGO workers are trapped in the conflict and are forced to take sides. Only foreign journalists can visit Maoist camps and escape victimisation by the authorities.

This excellent book does have some minor problems—Asansol, not Siliguri, is easily the second biggest “urban sprawl” in West Bengal, and Mera joota hai japaani is from Shree 420, not Mera Naam Joker.

There is, incomprehensibly, no index; and the second half of Red Sun lurches and lunges about in a way that suggests the author did not know how to edit the huge amount of material that he had accumulated. There are large chunks lifted from Maoist propaganda, balanced by an execrable 30-line poem by a senior bureaucrat. There are too many names, too much detail, as Chakravarti follows the Naxalite trail in almost every part of the country and across the border into Nepal.

However, Red Sun is an important book, not only because it warns of the grave situation in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, but because Chakravarti manages to humanise the conflict.

Rather than the tactics of guerrilla warfare or the euphemisms of the defence specialist, ordinary people, largely caught up in events over which they have no control, are at the heart of this book. It is ultimately an alarming picture, of an insurgency ignored by the urban elite because the violence has not come to the cities yet. It may still do so, if the economic and social roots of discontent are not tackled. Trickle-down is not working quickly enough

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