Racy eye-opener of a book on the Maoist movement

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

Book: “Jangalnama: Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone”; Author: Satnam; Penguin Books, pp 206; Price: Rs.250

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Why Bastar’s tribals harbour Maoists?

This is undoubtedly India’s answer to “Red Star Over China”, the epoch-making story of what the then obscure Mao was up to in China’s rural areas at the head of a nascent Communist party that eventually took power in 1949. When American Edgar Snow came out with the classic of a book, the world sat up and took notice.

The Indian Maoists of Bastar are of course not an unknown commodity. Yet there has been no account of what they are doing in the huge, forested land of poverty amid plenty known as Bastar, a story as exhaustive and moving as this racy eye-opener of a book.

Unlike most books on Indian Maoism, this one does not dabble in ideology, party documents and polemics. Like Snow did decades ago, Satnam, a committed Leftwing writer-activist from Punjab, focuses on the impoverished people and the revolutionaries he meets in Bastar. He spent two months in the forests, living with his subjects to study why Maoists are on the ascendency in the mineral-rich region where governments have existed only in the form of greedy contractors and corrupt policemen, leaving the mass of tribals to wallow in poverty, disease and illiteracy while outsiders strip away Bastar’s minerals.

The book was originally published in Punjabi early this decade . What has been published now is an excellent English translation by Vishav Bharti. But readers need not worry. The story that unfolds may have been written yesterday, so vivid is the harshness of jungle life; and those jungles are still the same. If anything, some of what the guerrillas said about their plans for the future seems to be coming true.

Bastar is where cadres from the former People’s War Group (PWG), after facing reverses in adjoining Andhra Pradesh, first set up base in the 1980s. Those were hard times. Few tribals were ready to embrace outsiders. That was then. Today this is where the Communist Party of India-Maoist rules supreme, keeping at bay an Indian state determined to bring Bastar to the “mainstream”. After reading this book, few people will buy the cliché that Naxalites are India’s biggest internal security threat. They may be a threat to multinationals and others eager to exploit Bastar’s wealth but they are certainly no threat to the region’s tribal population.

Who are the tribals who form the backbone of the Maoists? “They are neither Hindus nor Muslims nor Christians. They have never heard of Ram, Mohammad or Christ. They eat cow’s meat, hunt pigs and eat insects too! Even today, many go without wearing clothes. Sin, charity, pity, cruelty, wickedness and psychological disorders have no place in their lives.” Although they live on territory that is India’s most mineral-rich, they have been “herded like animals, and used for clearing the forests or digging the earth” and their women abducted. “The tribals languish in the same miserable existence of hunger, disease, death and helplessness.” Few cross the age of 50.

Who are the Maoists?

Satnam meets a mixed band of young men and women committed to the cause of revolution. There are plenty of Gond tribals; there are those who speak Telugu, Bengali and Hindi. There is also a scientist and a doctor. The guerrillas he meets are always in uniform, perennially armed, ever alert. When the guerrillas enter a village, the entire village turns up to welcome them and plies them with rice, vegetables and water. “When they set up camp, villagers take turns to carry out chores and take responsibilities.” But “each guerrilla has only one set of uniform, which has to be washed, dried, and worn again”. They don’t camp in one spot more than one night. They drink water from the river. Diseases are a constant threat. They eat the tribal food. More than half the fighters are young women. “They love life, but they don’t care about death.”

Why are the Maoists popular among the ordinary folks?

For one, their entry into Bastar has ended the reign of contractors who loot and cheat, and policemen who abuse. Today tribal women can walk in the forests alone. Starvation deaths do not take place in Maoist areas. Prostitution is passé; so are human sacrifices. The Maoists have helped tribals construct dams to store rain water; set up mango, guava and lime orchards; rice mills in several villages where grain can be husked at nominal rates. Tribals are provided basic education, and medicines that they have never got from the government.

So are the guerrillas on the road to victory?

The CPI-Maoist knows its strength and weaknesses. A party leader admits “the revolutionary movement has had little, or no, success in influencing the country’s politics”. Also, building the party in cities has proved to be difficult – and dangerous. Maoist organizations are proving difficult to run. There is a serious dearth of activists – and weapons. But the guerrillas are confident. “Even though we have started off at a slow pace, we will soon gain momentum.” Another Maoist says: “Our battle can’t be fought only in Bastar; it has to spread to the entire country.”

(26.04.2010 – M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at [email protected])