Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bastar tribals and Indian Maoists in Satnam's Jangalnama

Deep inside the forests of Bastar in southern Chattisgarh live a mass of Indian citizens – tribals – who speak a tongue that bears no resemblance to the major Indian languages; subsist on broken rice, salt, dried fish and roots; have no gods or religion in the sense that has now become normative, and have no comprehension either of many basic axioms of democratic politics and market economics. As soon as we look at them, we begin to misunderstand and patronise them: their minds are almost impossibly foreign, and in popular discourse they are mostly referred to in a pejorative way. They occupy territories rich in mineral and forest resources, and yet are themselves desperately poor.

In and around these tribals, there exists in these jungles a shadowy but substantial force of guerrillas, the Maoists, including both men and women, non-tribals and tribals. The Maoists, or Naxals, seethe at the neglect of the Gonds by the Indian state, believe that the rapacity of capitalism is inimical to the forests and the tribal way of life and advocate "an alternative mode of production", think that Indian democracy is a sham, and are seriously committed to the idea of an armed revolution that will overthrow the Indian state. They have seized control of much of the forest in Chattisgarh, and now run a parallel government of sorts there with the support – sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced – of the tribals.

Finally, alongside these two presences in the jungle, there is a significant absence: that of the Indian state – spoken of internationally as a rising superpower, but present locally only in a severely attentuated and debilitated form, and uninterested in implementing its own legislation on matters like tribal community rights over forest resources, such as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006. It has none of the attributes of efficiency, accessibility, neutrality and trustworthiness that are minimally to be expected of it, and has over time, by its own dreadful avarice and callousness, lost its moral claim to the allegiance of those in its domain. The fascinating story of these three forces is told in the greatest detail, from a point of view sympathetic to the first two and hostile to the third, by the Punjabi writer Satnam in Jangalnama, his lacerating memoir of a few months in the forest in 2002.

It is the squads of the Maoist militia who control and defend the jungle, and is through them that Satnam gains access to the tribals. Much of the time in Jangalnama, the writer is seen walking, sometimes two or three days at a time, accompanying squads of young Maoists who are always on the move, carrying messages or supplies. Some guerrillas are tribals, some are not; but there is not between them the division and hierarchy that is characteristic of these interactions in other spheres of Indian social, political and economic life. Whatever may be said of the Maoists, they at least see the tribals as human beings, and grant them a dignity that the machinery of government has not. By walking in their wake, Satnam is able to to personally experience the enormous physical hardship and sacrifice of their lives, as also their sense of community and fraternity, and the ardour of both their hate and love.

But it is in the depiction of the day-to-day life of the Gonds that Jangalnama touches its greatest heights. Satnam marvellously opens up for us the peculiar innocence, fragility and unworldliness of these people. Many Gonds, he reports, cannot count beyond the number twenty; after they reach this limit they start all over again from one, and finally add up the twenties. How then are they to imagine that around them lie mineral resources worth thousands of crores in the world market, or even to hold their own in small transactions with shopkeepers and moneylenders? Because of their indigence and ignorance, most Gonds do not live beyond the age of fifty, yet they are not particularly exerted by questions of life and death, and do not have extended rituals of mourning for those who pass away. Their sense of time is not of minutes and hours, but rather of day and night, of the coming and going of the seasons. Many have never seen a bus or a train, or any of the wonderful machines which are forged from the iron ore that is extracted from sites beneath their own feet. They love to sing and to dance, but never individually. Theirs is still to a large extent a pre-modern “collective culture” that is, on the one hand, seen by "civilised society" (this phrase almost always appears in ironical quote marks in Jangalnama) as subhuman, and on the other, is now caught up with the very different, highly theorised and ideological, collective culture of the guerillas.

For the tribals, writes Satnam, Delhi does not evoke the same scenes and suggestions that it might for someone in the city. "Dilli is only a word associated with government, and to them, government means greedy contractors, repressive police, displacement and harassment." In one of the most scathing passages in the book, he charges:
The jungle is rich in medicinal plants and herbs, but the medicines made from these never reach the inhabitants of the jungle. ...The inhabitant of the jungle is not part of the market because he does not have money. If the ailing people do not have money, their only cure is death. ... The establishment isn't concerned with human life; it is there to sell contracts – contracts for exploiting jungles, for mining, building roads and hospitals, promoting private education. In fact, it doesn't even shy away from giving out government on contract: whichever faction bids the highest for dishonesty will capture power.
In contrast, the Maoists have at least built some basic infrastructure, set up rudimentary health facilities, offered assistance with farming and irrigation, and defended, even if with a gun, the tribal rights over "jal, jangal aur zameen" (water, the forest, and land). Satnam's portraits of some of the Maoists he meets are very vivid, humanising: Lachakka, a young female guerrilla who ran away from an oppressive marriage; Narang, an elderly revolutionary who wants first of all to improve the material life of tribals by setting up new systems of agriculture and fishery. When he writes of the radicalisation of Basanti, a tribal girl, that "from life experience she has gained a simple and clear understanding of what justice is, how power corrupts it, and the nexus between injustice and power", we recognise this anger because we know ourselves the truth of the world around us.

But as a group, can the Maoists really be trusted in the long run? How can one repose more than a limited, skeptical faith in a formation which self-consciously applies a vocabulary and a jargon of a Chinese communist, making reference, as Rohini Hensman points out in a recent essay, to classes of people and social conditions which often have no real relevance to Indian life? What about the history of successful civil resistance movements worldwide, especially in the twentieth century, running parallel to the bloody battles of communism? Satnam writes that the guerrillas devote some time each day to reading and studying, and that "almost every guerrilla has a pen in his pocket." But much as they may venerate the Lal Salaam and the Little Red Book, one feels that these warriors for a more just world might also do well to have a look at The Black Book of Communism.

In one incident, Satnam describes a massive political rally in the jungle organised by the Maoists:
Dressed in colourful attires, decked with horns of nilgai and peacock feathers on their heads, the people gathered on the grounds to the steady beat of a drum. ...Carrying banners, flags, and placards, the long column began marching peacefully through the jungle to the sound of drums. A guerrilla squad was accompanying them. There was no claos, no clamour. No government officials, no police, no bystanders. Journalists and press reporters, some with cameras, sound system technicians, and a few teachers had come from the town. ...In those jungles of Bastar alone, more anti-American protests must have been raised that in all of India...
An anti-American rally in the heart of the forest! As an example of a growing political awareness among the tribals, a wish to understand the processes at work in the wider world, this would be an impressive and warming spectacle. But, as Satnam tells us at another point, "I found out that most inhabitants of the jungle had only recently heard, for the first time, the names of Bush, Vajpayee, Musharraf and Afghanistan. The war had introduced these names to them as well as put them in the 'league of traitors.'" But what kind of perception of villainy is this? Can it really be respected? The tribals seem to be puppets moved by the doctrinal fervour of the Maoists, repeating the names they are given. When asked at the rally to come forward and utter words of support for a resolution condemning the American invasion of Afghanistan, "many refused to get up from their places, some spoke up from their own seats, others just shook their heads and tried to hide themselves in the darkness." Satnam's report on the tacit alliance between the Maoists and tribals yields some strange and anachronistic scenes, testimony to a new kind of skewed power relations and an ideological zeal gone overboard.

As with any work of passionate advocacy, there are certain things that Jangalnama leaves out. There is always a guerrilla squad accompanying Satnam, so it is likely that he cannot see very much more than what he is shown. Otherwise, he would have some sense that the guerrillas themselves are guilty of more excesses, whether it is violence against dissenting tribals or compromises with contractors and businesses, than his book allows; these charges are not just establishment counter-propaganda. Again, it is not just the guerrillas, but also many individuals and organisationals in Indian civil society, who are agitating for a more just treatment of the tribals. So, no matter what his problems with "civil society", it is an insult to many within it to treat it as one homogenous, lackadaisical, and ideologically slavish group. Rather, it is Satnam who, perhaps for good reasons of his own, appears to have lost faith in the possibilities of democratic protest. At one point he writes that if the anti-Tehri and anti-Narmada Dam protest movements had taken up arms like the Maoists have, these battles would not have been lost in the maze of complicity and corruption comprising the legislature, the executive, and even the judiciary.

Yet, if the first principle of a democracy is that citizens should understand the needs and realities of those who are most different from them, then this is a book that, even though it rejects Indian democracy, genuinely opens up such an extended passage of engagement. "Is there no option except to pick up the gun?" Satnam asks a Maoist. "Had there been one," he answers, "there would have been no need to pick it up." That these are the last words of the book, when the placement of this exchange would have been more logical almost anywhere else, gives Jangalnama a sense not of a resolution but a lingering ambivalence, as if there is more thinking left to be done. There is an sound in Jangalnama that is neither the desperation and puzzlement of the tribal nor the wrath and ideological obstinacy of the guerrilla, but something else: a sad, disillusioned, morally lucid and disquieting anger that any reader would do well to experience, even if finally reject.

And some links to other essays: "Social Banditry" by Ramachandra Guha; "Bastar, Maoism and Salwa Judum" by Nandini Sundar; Arundhati Roy's recent "Walking With The Comrades", to my mind a much more cloying and less persuasive piece of embedded journalism than Satnam's, worth studying for such curiosities as the repeated and romanticising use of the word "beautiful" ("We walk through some beautiful villages. Every village has a family of tamarind trees watching over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent, gods. Sweet, Bastar tamarind. By 11, the sun is high, and walking is less fun. We stop at a village for lunch. Chandu seems to know the people in the house. A beautiful young girl flirts with him.He looks a little shy, maybe because I’m around. Lunch is raw papaya with masoor dal, and red rice. And red chilli powder. We’re going to wait for the sun to lose some of its vehemence before we start walking again. We take a nap in the gazebo. There is a spare beauty about the place."); "Heading For a Bloodbath" by Rohini Hensman; "Targeting Naxalism", a special issue of the magazine Pragati; "Winning By Out-Governing" by Michael Spacek; "The Real Solution For Naxalism" by Abheek Barman; "How Many Deaths Before Too Many Die" and "Death On The Margins" by Shoma Chaudhury.

Update, May 24: And the fresh outbursts of Naxal violence in the last week, in which civilians were targeted for the first time because they happened to be travelling with special police officers or SPOs, some more reactions: "Breaking The Mistrust in Chhatisgarh" by Nandini Sundar, "The Dangers of Playing Footsie with Maoists" and "Bleeding Heart Cynics" by K Subrahmanyam ("In states where the sections of the political class feel that in order to sustain their votebanks and siphon off development funds disturbed conditions are to their advantage, it will be difficult to eliminate Maoism without addressing misgovernance and its offshoot, bureaucratic corruption"), and "No military solutions for Maoism" by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar.


Not- said...

I am yet to understand fully why Maoism is a "problem" that has to be "solved". By what criteria is "Maoism" a greater evil than other venerable '-isms' like capitalism, or socialism, or democratism? Who is to say that these -isms have caused less bloodshed than Maoism? I have empirically found Maoism to be no worse than other -isms and so don't see why we must selectively exorcise India of Maoism while retaining other ideologies and practices.

Gandhi often implied that the idea that all peoples of India must live by one text written in between 1947 and 1950 without their direct consent is also a form of totalitarianism. And any approach that forgets the totalitarianism of liberal democracies in theory and praxis is, in my view, as much a "problem" as Maoist violence.

Also, I do not think tribals are pre-modern, waiting like hapless children, to be modernized by either the Indian government, or CPI (Mao), or neither-this-nor-that activists/writers/journalists (for instance, as far as S Anklesaria Aiyar is concerned, the rise in village GDP is adequate proof that people are better off under GoI than under Maoists.. as if people can have no other vision of a good life than an ever increasing GDP).

The tribals can at least self-criticise, which no modern system of thought can. For instance, there is no criticism of Marxism within Marxism; Or economists will only criticize how GDP or poverty is measured and never envision an economics minus the GDP.

Simply put, the tribals of central India are outside the parameters of modernity and its organization of time into pre- and post-modern eras, and they don't seem the worse for it.

Chandrahas said...

Not - Contrary to what you say, there is plenty of evidence available to show that Maoism is a greater evil than capitalism, socialism, or democratism (which I take to mean the argument for more democratisation, and not democracy per se). All these systems of thought do indeed allow for criticisms to be made of them by individuals and groups, even if these voices sometimes go unheard or are suppressed by powerful forces.

Briefly, a party that is also the state must almost by necessity suck up all of society into it, and the primary identity of every person becomes a function of his or her relationship to the party. You only need to look at the dissidents and intellectuals jailed by the Chinese or Soviet regimes for real or alleged thought crimes to be able to tell the difference between communist and capitalist regimes. We sometimes forget how free we actually are.

Even if your argument about the "totalitarianism" of liberal democracies was proved (and I feel very strongly that you are using the wrong word), then the very fact that you are able to make it in an open forum disproves it. Although your alias might suggest someone speaking from the depths of the underground in a police state, you don't really need it to be saying the things you are.

It is impractical, not to say foolish, to express every citizen to personally ratify the constitution just because it was produced before they were born, any more than one should decide at the age of eighteen whether one's parents should really be one's parents. A constitution cannot be a matter of private preference, like cinema or cuisine. Something that lays out a vision of the law does not become "totalitarian" merely by being so. One must prove that it is repressive or unjust in some way before one can make this argument.

What is striking, rather, is that our constitution is a forward-looking document. Our society is still struggling, sixty years on, to actualise the liberating energies and vision contained in it. We let down the constitution in our everyday thought and practice far more than it stifles us. If Maoists themselves have a legitimate criticism of Indian government or other centres of power in business and civil society, this might be with reference to the Indian constitution itself.

In this sense, our constitution, more than any individual or group, is a watch on our government and civil society. No Maoist "constitution" would ever allow a smidgen of the freedoms allowed by our present constitution. Where it might score over the present document might be in the ugliness of its jargon and its hostility towards particular classes of people.

Gandhi passed away in 1948, so there is something wrong in the way you have set your sentence about him. Lastly, I meant "pre-modern" with respect to the tribals in a descriptive and not a normative way. Yet I don't think that, as citizens of a nation-state, they can avoid some engagement with modernity. Let us not overestimate, either, the beauty and self-sufficiency of tribal ways of life. There are many good things about modernity too. Indeed, one might argue that it is not so much modernity as a kind of pervasive Indian feudalism - a deeply entrenched master-slave mentality - that has led to the unhappy state of tribal peoples in India today. The history of Maoism shows that it is usually nothing but totalitarianism - this time in the real sense - wrapped up in the guise of a freedom struggle and a hunger for economic justice.

Moulding defragmentation said...

Very well argued, Chandrahas!After the Dantewada massacre, it's become even more important for the Indian state to tackle Maoism as a serious security threat (as well the challenge of bringing development and equity to the tribals), and not merely gun for "intellectuals" labelled by the state and media as Maoist sympathisers. The latter are merely a soft target; India is after all a free country, and people, "intellectuals" or not, are entitled to express their sympathies with whosoever they want to.

Not- said...

Thanks for the reply. I almost entirely disagree with you. :)

In terms of murder and blood shed, South Asian Maoism pales in comparison to the USA. South Asian Maoism has not killed even half as many people as have the liberal European powers in Africa, South and South East Asia, South America, etc. Closer home, the forces occupying large swathes of India are an instruments of democratic power. Thus, I do not think there is much evidence to suggest that Maoism is more prone to violence than other -isms.

Democracy need not soak up the entire collective. In practice, all one needs to do to occupy the kursi is gain a majority among the voting numbers of the collective. Rarely do we a see voting turn out over 60% (national average). This statistic falls considerably for Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. You can infer what legitimacy this statistic lends to the ruling coalition.

Even if voter turn out went over 90%, it would still not make the elected state less total. This is because in 1947, a totalitarian state was imposed on peoples who had not asked for it. Totalitarian state is one which regulates or surveills most relationships. A totalitarian state can also be an authoritarian state but it need not be. So I do think I am using the right term for my purpose. Today, from opening an account, to purchasing salt .. state institutions are either mediating or regulating or surveilling all actions. An illustration:

Some years back, in a school nearby, there was a popular teacher by the name of V. Now, V was much loved and respected by her students. The parents wanted V in the school. The principal wanted V in the school. But, V did not have a B.Ed. So the education officer of the district informed the school that it could not employ her at regular teacher pay scales. Everyone scratched their heads and realized that a protracted legal battle which would lead to changing some rules in Mumbai and Pune would be required to keep V in the school. V left the school.

Despite all "stake holders" wanting V, she could not be kept because of certain rules that were themselves not open to any change except after significant expenditure of time and money.

About the constitution. Have you even read the constitution? I have found it very difficult to get through one page of the constitution and find nothing emancipatory in its tedious sentences.

Secondly, was the constituent assembly democratically elected? No.

Thirdly, was the idea of having one constitution binding over all peoples of India ever put to vote? No.

So what do we have here? A text written by an unelected body, in a language that only about 10% of Indians can comprehend, imposed without consent. A text whose incomprehensible provisions if one were to violate, one would find oneself in trouble from batons and guns wielding forces. A text which does not speak for a majority of people. And you expect people to live by this text!

Lastly, Gandhi believed in small collectives of humans and non-humans negotiating their own swaraj with themselves and with God, and it is this basic building block of swaraj, that is withheld by the constitution.

Thus far I have defended my notion that Indian democracy is total, and that the constitution, however grand, has been imposed on most peoples of India. I also believe that therefore, the solution to the grievances of the peoples of central India lies outside of the current setup. I believe if instead of the current setup, we'd have all taken Gandhi's gram swaraj seriously, we would perhaps be in a country with maximum swaraj (to be distinguished from freedom) with minimum conflict.

When today biotechnologists can speak of self-organizing genes, when distributed cognition theorists can speak of cognition emerging through the interactions of humans and non-humans, I think we're finally catching up with the Mahatma. I think its time to re-open fundamental questions of constructing a collective closed once and for all by the constitution. It is time for anarchism Gandhi style.