At a time when human rights activists are dubbed ‘urban Naxals’ and incarcerated, actual Naxalites remain poorly understood. Many Indians see them as terrorists. Their killing of security forces and politicians make headlines, along with far fewer reports of the state’s counter-violence. This reduces the conflict to just two sides: the government versus the Naxals.
Alpa Shah’s absolutely riveting new book, Nightmarch, shortlisted for the Orwell Prize this year, centres a third group: the Adivasis. As an anthropologist, Shah has spent years living among Adivasi communities, to explain why Naxalism continues to exist in that territory, and to appreciate their deep history – in which the Naxals are only the most recent vehicle of Adivasi defence against the ingress of the governments of the plains.
Her central narrative is a march through deep forests in the dead of night, with security forces on high alert, hoping to ambush the enemy. Danger looms in every chapter. But while the author has left the forest, millions of Indians remain in the precarious circumstances the book describes. People continue to be killed in the armed conflict, and the conditions in which it began remain largely unchanged.
Adivasis have always had differences with the plains cultures of India, with their hierarchies of caste, gender and property ownership. The Adivasis’ alternative, more egalitarian culture has proved a problem for rulers, who rely on those hierarchies to tax and extract resources from Adivasi lands. The idea of Adivasis as primitive and wild has also been used to deny them a share in the profits made from their lands. The deadly events at Sonebhadra are only the very latest example of the consequences of this prejudice against Adivasis.
Many questions answered: and myths busted
Interspersed with descriptions of life among the Naxals are explanations of the deeper processes. How do the Naxals establish themselves in a new village? Where does the money come from, and where does it go? What is the relationship between the Naxals and Adivasis?
This book wipes away lazy illusions, for instance, that Naxals are merely terrorizing the villagers they interact with. Shah argues that the Naxals function like a parallel government, and even enjoy the confidence and support of the people of the lands they control.
To establish themselves as the primary law of the land, Naxals start by attacking police and local elites. Then they ‘tax’ various economic activities. The reason Adivasis seem to prefer this ‘jungle sarkar’ over the Indian state is that new arrangements are to their benefit.
For example, a key source of revenue is the collection and sale of kendu leaves used to make beedis. Earlier, this collection was controlled by upper-caste elites who paid low wages and controlled all the profits. Naxals came, doubled wages, and even awarded some contracts to local Adivasi and other impoverished groups. Some of the ‘tax’ they collected was rerouted to schools, medical camps and clinics in the region.
Economics is only part of the explanation. When Shah asked a friend why the jungle sarkar was viewed as better, he emphasised the little things Naxal leaders did to demonstrate their respect for Adivasis. This deep familiarity, built over years of living and working with the people, translates into legitimacy.
Shah is careful to note where the Naxals and Adivasi communities have their differences. Adivasis appreciate the egalitarianism of Maoism, but have been less keen on its disciplinarian aspects, including the giving up of rice liquor and mahua wine. Most of these differences are driven by residual prejudices in Naxal leadership, who come from upper-caste backgrounds.
Shah also recounts the intersections between the Naxals and the Indian state. Despite the ongoing war, Naxals are deeply involved in networks of development finance that flow from the Indian state as well as international organisations like the World Bank. There have always been contractors and middle-men stealing government funds; in most parts of the country, the loot is controlled by politicians. In Naxalite areas, the armed might of the guerrillas has ensured that they decide who earns what from public funds.
A third nexus exists between big business and the Naxals. Shah mentions that the Essar Group is accused of paying vast sums to the Naxals to stop them from destroying Essar assets.
Deep understanding over easy answers
Shah is careful to complicate simplistic ideas. Adivasis may be largely egalitarian, but they too turn to corruption, exploitation and graft. Naxals may enjoy the confidence of the people, but they also conduct summary executions, and abuse their power. Naxals organise rallies denouncing the state and big corporations, but they are also tied to them. Local people often join the Naxals, but they also join state paramilitary forces.
The Naxals are that rare left-wing movement that avows that gender justice cannot wait, and has to be achieved alongside the revolution. But Shah has brushes with sexism, and presents a critique of Naxalism’s failures in overcoming entrenched patriarchy. In particular, the Naxals fail to appreciate Adivasi gender practices, and instead enforce middle-class Indian ideas, like frowning upon pre-marital sex. Gender is always present in the book, shedding light on an experience so often suppressed or omitted. It is a privilege to have Shah as the investigator in this case, as most male researchers would have failed to raise these questions.
This complexity also extends to the basic question: Who are the Naxal? Some young people she interviews became revolutionaries after trivial arguments with parents. Others are young lovers who signed up because they were forbidden to marry outside the tribes. Some of these stay on and rise up the ranks, but many leave, or even switch status multiple times.
Shah links this to the way Adivasis switch between village life and earning money in the cities doing backbreaking manual labour. For Adivasi youth, the choices are between this kind of labour, which can lead to injury and even death due to terrible work conditions – and life with the Naxals. This has its own dangers, but provides education and exposure, as well as skills in modern medicine and technology. When recruits tire of a life on the run, or are traumatised by the death of close friends in battle, they leave to return to the villages.
I started this review by speaking of the extraordinary dangers recounted in the book, but I end it by observing that Naxals are a constant and ordinary part of the lives of the people. Indeed, Shah first went to the region to study the Adivasis; it is only after realising their ties to the jungle sarkar that she decided to study Naxalism.
All this may feel like a world removed from urban India, but India’s growth has been built on the backs of cheap labour and resources from this region, and our government’s attempts to grab more and more resources to fuel growth for the rest of us.