‘A struggle for tribal autonomy against a repressive state’

Alpa Shah set out on a seven-night march across 250 kilometers of what is known as Naxalite-affected areas in 2010. and it culminated in her book Nightmarch. Ashlin Mathew interviews her

Maoist conference in a forest
Maoist conference in a forest

Ashlin Mathew

It is a commitment and, most often, it lasts a lifetime. Without such dedication, it is not possible to document the lives of Maoists and the Adivasi foot soldiers. Alpa Shah set out on a seven-night march across 250 kilometers of what is known as Naxalite-affected areas in 2010. and it culminated in her book Nightmarch – A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands. The anthropology professor at the London School of Economics says the Maoist movement is a struggle for tribal autonomy against a state that is repressive, brutal and prejudiced. Under the forests in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, lie some of India’s biggest reserves of coal, iron ore, bauxite, copper, manganese, mica and more. Ashlin Mathew interviews Alpa Shah

Why do you think Naxalism survives mostly in the heartlands of India?

The Naxalites have persistently sought to mobilise the most marginalised communities but poor, exploited and oppressed people are found everywhere across India. So, the main reason the movement is based in the forested heartlands of the country today is because of their choice of tactics. In the eighties and nineties, faced with increased state repression in the agricultural plains which offered cover only when the crop was tall, reading Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, the Naxalites went in search of better geographical terrain for guerrilla warfare. They found this in the undulating forest cover of the central and eastern parts of the country. Which is why they focused their energies on trying to build guerrilla bases there and which is why we find them there today.

If the causes they are fighting for can never be realised, then what does it mean for the movement? Is it simply futile?

Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because, as Nightmarch shows, it is indeed a tragic story. I think many of the leaders, who have been underground since the 1970s or 80s, thought that revolution was just around the corner when they first joined; that it would take only a few years, five at the most. But several decades later, they arestill leading an incredibly tough life underground, with almost no possessions or comforts, wanting no recognition or fame, all in the hope of working for the wider common good to bring about a more equal world. Whether or not we agree with their methods and aims, they have provided a rare commitment to an alternative way of life and vision of a future – the idea of a more equal world– fighting against the spirit of individualism, accumulation and competition that prevails everywhere. Nightmarch unveils how these noble goals of the Naxalites are undermined, unravelled and subverted not just by the repression against them but also unwittingly by themselves.

As Nightmarch shows, clearly the Naxalites need to address and rethink many issues – their analysis of the Indian economy, the place of violence, the question of caste and tribe, the patriarchy and corruption within. History, though, is never a straight line.Alongside all the doom, problems and lives lost, there have also been some emancipatory side-effects even if they are not the ones the Naxalites would want. For instance, the Naxalites have expanded the aspirations for real democracy among those who have been left on its margins, stimulating Dalit, Adivasi and women’s’ movements who are fighting their oppression and exploitation, demanding to be treated on equal terms alongside the dominant classes and castes.

What are the chances of them being a part of what is currently known as mainstream?

It depends what one means by ‘mainstream’. If it is to come into mainstream party politics, electoral democracy, there are many former Naxalites, like the character I call Madhusudanji in the book, who are now fighting for seats in electoral politics and this is not only in states like Bihar and Jharkhand but also in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. But at a collective level, when it comes to the CPI (Maoist) as a whole, I think that the recent history of response to them has been so brutal and crushing that itis hard to imagine negotiations ensuring their entry into mainstream party politics.

For instance, towards the end of my stay in the guerrilla zones in 2010, there were some efforts towards a ‘peace process’.But the Naxalite spokesperson appointed to negotiate with the government –Cherukuri Rajkumar, otherwise known as Azad – was killed. The police claimed it was in a forest battle but fact-finding missions probed holes into their story,and the Maoists believe that it was another one of India’s infamous ‘fake encounters’,an extra-judicial murder by the police. Azad’s death then ended any hope of‘peace talks’. What happened to Azad repeats an earlier process of the 2004 peace negotiations in Andhra Pradesh, when the Naxalites argued that the state used the period to get information about their networks and top leaders (many of who came out of the forests for the first time in decades) and then followed with intense targeted state repression to kill them and destroy the movement.

Given this recent history, I don’t see how the Maoists could be convinced that any efforts at negotiations are serious/genuine/trustworthy, until we have a very different approach to them. So it is probably unlikely that the Maoists will change their position on participation in mainstream party politics unless perhaps, for some reason, they think that is the only way to save what little they have left.

Successive governments have criminalised Naxal activities yet they manage to survive. Why?

As long as we have governments that support and exacerbate inequalities (which in India only seem to be growing despite economic growth), rebel movements like that of the Naxalites will find supporters who see their cause as legitimate and moral, who will join them or help them, even if the state considers their actions illicit and criminal and bans them.

Nowadays, anyone questioning the government or supporting human rights causes are being labelled ‘urban naxals’. Do you think it demonises the Naxalite cause?

Funnily, I think it isactually the opposite: This ‘urban naxal’ branding of India’s scholars, human rights activists and lawyers, who question the government or support human right causes, in fact might end up giving the Naxalite cause greater credibility.Some of India’s most respected intellectuals (such as the historian Professor Ramchandra Guha or Dalit scholars Professor Anand Teltumbde and Professor KSatyanarayan) or human rights workers and lawyers (such as Sudha Bhardwaj or Gautam Navlakha) have lost their jobs, had their houses raided or been arrestedas ‘urban naxals’. When people who have worked with integrity, often for the most marginalised communities, and for a more democratic India, are targeted in this manner, then it is hardly surprising that we have seen a public outcry, including tens of thousands of social media users saying ‘#MeTooUrbanNaxal’, in their defence. To me, it seems that the overall effect is that rather than demonising the Naxalite cause, it moves attention away from the forest wars and brings it back to basic questions of democracy, equality, the right to dissent and freedom of speech. Ironically, the effect then is revival of the legitimacy and urgency of the Naxalite ideals at the very moment when the guerrillas in the forests are being choked.

‘A struggle for tribal autonomy against a repressive state’
Alpa Shah

Why do you think there are many adivasis who still join the movement?

One of the central focuses of Nightmarch isthe various reasons why Adivasis join the movement and how the movement impacts them.

The Adivasis were often fighting for very different reasons than the abstract ideals of communism and egalitarianism that drove some of the high-caste middle-class leadership. On a wider level, I have argued that theirs is a struggle for tribal autonomy against a state that they see as repressive, brutal, and prejudiced. But for any individual Adivasi, their reasons for joining the Maoists were often more personal. Take, for example, Kohli, the gentle, sensitive, 16-year-old Adivasi youth with radiant dark skinand a coy smile, whose rifle was nearly as tall as himself, who was assigned as my bodyguard on the 250-kilometre march from Bihar to Jharkhand that frames Nightmarch. He had run away to live with the guerrillas after a trivial fight with his father about a glass of spilled milk while working in his tea shop.

Rather than breaking with their pasts as the upper caste leadership did, the Adivasi youth found in the guerrilla armies a home away from home, and often moved in and out of them as though they were visiting an uncle or aunt. Over time, they may become educated in the movement’s ideology and fight for ‘higher’ ideals but they may also come to have more ordinary dreams – of building a brick house in the city, driving a four-wheel drive vehicle, or sending their children to good English medium private schools. This is what happened to Vikas, the Adivasi platoon commander I marched with, who eventually came to betray the guerrillas by forming a gang to eliminate them.

So, as you see, there are many reasons for Adivasis joining the movement and they also change over time. What interests me, and is the focus of Nightmarch, is how people come together, despite the differences, the contradictions and how these reflect the wider history of the movement and even the history of the country.

Do you think there will ever be an end to this?

It is hard to know and I guess it depends what one means by this question. If you mean if there will be an end to the Naxalites, well, over the last decade or so, the government approach has been so military-centric that it can be counterproductive and generate more sympathisers for the Naxalite cause unless there is a dramatic change insecurity and development policy. Indeed, the Maoists claim that the most tragic counter-insurgency campaigns in Chhattisgarh – which came in the form of Salwa Judum – only served to increase the strength of their guerrilla armies.

Since Salwa Judum, though, clearly the Naxalites have suffered great losses and have been driven into small pockets of forests. In the guerrilla strongholds which are the focus of Nightmarch, when I lived there, the security forces would only dare to climb the hills when they were in a force of 500 or more, and would rarely stay more than a couple of nights. Now, children go to schools against the backdrop of a permanent security barrack at the same place.

What is curious about Indian history, though, is that despite intense state repression in the past – when it was thought that the embers of rebellion have been finally snuffed out – the Naxalites have revived themselves, again and again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

What was your experience of having walked and lived with them?

Ah, but that is what the entire book, Nightmarch, is about! But if you really want me to summarise,‘deeply human and moving.

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