Nandini Sundar’s meticulously researched The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar is a searing indictment of how the government and the Maoists fail to deliver constitutional rights.
What strikes you about this remarkable book is how true Nandini Sundar has been to her twin callings. Sundar is a sociologist who first went to tribal-dominated Bastar in 1990 to work on her PhD thesis. Maoist groups had preceded her arrival here by a decade, crossing over from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, but they were, in the belt where she lived, a distant presence. “The war had already begun,” she writes, “though I did not know it.”
Fifteen years later, the war had turned into a civil war and Sundar’s engagement with Bastar was to acquire a dramatic new dimension. The government-sponsored vigilante movement, Salwa Judum, unleashed an orgy of violence in the hinterland in 2005 in an effort to wipe out Maoist influence over large swathes of Bastar, killing, raping, looting, setting fire to villages in repeated raids and driving thousands of villagers into camps, or across the border into Andhra Pradesh. Sundar became one of a minuscule number of metropolitan Indians who responded by joining fact-finding missions and citizens’ initiatives, eventually filing, with others, a petition in 2007 in the Supreme Court on state-sponsored vigilantism and human rights violations in Bastar.
A struggle for justice, far from over
This book is, at one level, a searing account of that struggle for justice, which is far from over. Despite a Supreme Court verdict in 2011 that directed the state government to disband its vigilante squads and prosecute human rights abuses, not a single victim has been compensated and no perpetrators have been punished. Meanwhile, the fighting continues. “This book is written because, in the absence of justice, at least the truth must be on record,” Sundar writes in her preface. Almost a third of the book is an astoundingly well-researched report on atrocities, gathered from village after blighted village, conveying in spare prose a sense of suffering on an epic scale. As rape and murder begin to appear quotidian, the smaller details become painfully evocative: broken handpumps, burnt rice, cattle turned feral, fields grown hard, money hidden in the ground to save it from the marauders that turned mildewed.
This investigation is contained within a veritable treatise on the civil war in Bastar and its underlying contexts. Sundar documents how the Salwa Judum operation was planned as a classic counter-insurgency operation by the state, one that shared the international language and grammar of counter-insurgency. The goal was reclaiming sovereignty and gaining access to mineral rich hills for mining companies. She asks us to think about why strategies like fencing villagers into camps are especially used against tribals. This book makes tribal society real and palpable, as much through its lyrical evocations of the rhythms of day to day life in tribal villages, as its arguments. It is a passionate plea for recognising its fragility in the face of immigration and neo-liberal economic policies. “Future historians will note the passing of a civilisation that understood the forest, and the rise of a society of middle men, contractors, paramilitary force, and of divisions induced by religious and political parties,” Sundar says, almost despairingly.
Detailing the complexity of internal conflict
In a difficult landscape, Sundar is a trustworthy narrator because she does not sacrifice complexity at the altar of advocacy. A good example is the way she deals with the role of Maoism in Bastar. She presents a richly textured portrait of the Maoist ‘state’, concluding that it is a bulwark against state oppression. “Citizens of the Maoist state,” she says, “now look one in the eye and shake hands compared to the evasive glance with which adivasis greeted strangers.” She scoffs at the perception among security officers that the Maoists and “the people” are hermetically sealed off categories. However, she also warns against easy judgements that ignore the “moral complexity of multiple affiliations”, pointing that even Maoist supporters yearn for peace and for the welfare funds from the state that are denied to them under Maoist rule. It is a strikingly more sober portrait than the best known account, to date, of the life under Bastar’s Maoists – the gloriously celebratory one in Arundhati Roy’s essay, ‘Gandhi, but with Guns‘.
But this book is about much more than Bastar. Using Bastar as a prism, it is a razor sharp critique of the institutions that make India feel good about itself – its parliamentary democracy, its judiciary, its free press, its vibrant civil society. It really is one that should be read by all Indians for its wise, clear-eyed deconstruction of the weaknesses, prejudices and structural limitations that led most of these institutions to be indifferent to the fate of helpless citizens driven to destitution. It is worse when this happens in a democracy, Sundar notes, because these institutions have greater legitimacy in a democracy than, say, a military regime.
Record keeper of our shame and our ideals
The roll call of shame grows longer and longer, as Sundar narrates how pleas for intervention were received. Senior police officers knew what was going on but were “indifferent and careerist, archetypes of what Hanna Arendt famously called the ‘banality of evil'”. The two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, were on the same side on this issue. The book has a hair-raisingly scandalous account of a sham investigation by the National Commission for Human Rights’ team, composed entirely of police officers. The Supreme Court’s judgement was a ray of light in the darkness, even if the Ambani brothers’ case gained precedence over theirs for several weeks. A CBI report on attacks that took place in 2011 is yet to see the light of day.
There is also a thoughtful critique here of the human rights community’s growing propensity to run campaigns for celebrity victims over faceless ones. In particular, Sundar mentions the media and human rights campaigns for Binayak Sen and Soni Sori, the latter not known for any human rights or political work before she was arrested (though she did become active later). When she points out that future historians may well imagine, on the basis of Google searches, that Sen and Sori led the fight against Salwa Judum, rather than leaders like Manish Kunjam, who have done stellar work locally, but barely figure on the internet, it is an “aha” moment – you feel a renewed respect for this book as a record keeper.
Despite her critique, what shines through the discussion is Sundar’s idealism – her insistence on holding institutions to higher standards than they have for themselves. She is the quintessential liberal who believes in a democracy that is “never achieved but never abandoned”. Even Maoists, she says, in one of her ironic asides, curse the constitution yet invoke its principles while criticising extra-judicial killings or the arrest of their leaders. In so doing, they reflect the main premise of Sanjib Baruah’s India Against Itself, which argued, in the Assamese context, that the forces (politicians, administration, military) created by the constitution, were fighting against people asking for the rights enshrined in that same constitution.
Democracy failed in Bastar, Sundar says, but it was also rescued – by the many on the ground who kept their sanity and showed great courage in the face of unbearable intimidation. “When the state falters,” she says, ” it is citizens who intervene to prop up the state idea, demanding accountability and the rule of law, if only as a sign of hope that flourishes despite the anomie and despair.” Nandini Sundar, who went to great lengths to record the truth and bring us this book, undaunted by several attempts by security forces to intimidate and harass her, is surely one of those citizens.
Anjali Puri is a senior journalist
Note: Nandini Sundar is the wife of one of the founding editors of The Wire