Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country draws on numerous trips to Bastar over 100 months across the last decade, and on his unfortunate responsibility of recording over 200 deaths during this period. Reading it takes a sledgehammer to our liberal delusions regarding the Indian state, leaving behind a landscape littered with perfidies, betrayals, and the blackened, bloated corpses of innocent people.
In other hands, the conjuring of corpse after mutilated corpse may have seemed excessive or extractive, but Bhardwaj has earned his stripes as a journalist. Repeatedly, it is the relatives of the dead who beg him to take photographs of their loved one’s naked bodies in the hope that it will lead to some kind of justice. The very first time this request is made of him, he declines:
Two years later, before an enquiry commission in July 2014, you state the reason for not being able to take the photographs. ‘I was petrified by the sight of a heap of corpses,’ you state under oath, ‘and found it inhuman to store the naked bodies of children’—among the deceased was a twelve-year-old girl—‘in my laptop merely to secure some evidence and make the report appear more authentic.’
But this very discretion leads to his report being dismissed by the State. Bhardwaj learns from this, writing, ‘Such doubts did not affect you in the future, and you never flinched before taking photographs of the corpses.’
A book marked by trauma
This particular betrayal sits so heavily with Bhardwaj that he mentions it a second time a few pages later. The repetition feels unintentional—the very words are repeated—but it signals the trauma endured by ‘death reporters’ in this region, the kind of trauma that keeps welling up over and over again.
The book is marked by this trauma in its very structure, which is deeply fragmented.
The bulk of the book is composed of diary entries written by Bhardwaj, entries that are not organised chronologically, and which are placed under repeating titles that feel interchangeable. No real narrative thread can be found. The fluctuations in form extend to the voice used by the author, which often departs from the third-person voice of a report or the first-person voice of testimony.
It is telling that particularly painful passages, like the one quoted above, seem to cause dissociation, with the author referring to himself as ‘you’. Sometimes, even the voices of the dead are imagined and ventriloquized, leading to this arresting opening passage:
“My Madam. That’s what I called her. I wanted to have a baby with her. I’m a dead man now. Whom will she have a baby with, I don’t know. My name was Korsa Joga. It still is. Your name doesn’t change after you’ve been murdered.”
Instead, through these fragments shored up against his ruins, Bhardwaj shows us just how much of a chakravyuh the war in Bastar is, where everyone—and their ghosts—wander about in a daze. Reading the book can conjure the feeling of being lost in these deep forests, without landmarks or signposts. It reminds me of Deviprasad Mishra’s lines:
Dimaag ke jungle
Kucch saaf hue
Dono hatheliyon par
Ghaas ug aayi
(‘The jungles of my mind were cleared somewhat, but look, grass has begun to grow on my palms.’)
After you put the book down, you walk about for days with the feeling of grass on your palms.
No narrative does justice
While this (dis)organisation can be distracting, it feels necessary in the book, because it acts as an antidote to a violence done too often when it comes to this subject: the creation of simplistic narratives. By keeping these incidents in their fragmented form, Bhardwaj is demanding that we give each episode and fact its due.
The narrative of the Indian State, of a war against a form of anti-national terrorism, is constantly dismantled by the numbers of innocent people shot and retroactively designated ‘Naxals’, a procedure so common as to be banal.
The hidden hand of Indian corporations is also repeatedly shown: Bhardwaj marks the coincidence of the unspeakable atrocities of the Salwa Judum being launched a day after a new Tata Steel plant is announced, and also notes Essar’s payment of protection money to the Naxals. The BJP, too, for all its talk of ‘urban Naxals’, does not hesitate to ally with the Maoists to win local elections, though this particular marriage of ideological enemies dissolves murderously soon after.
But other narratives, too, are challenged. Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch pointed out the gaps between Adivasis and the Maoist cadres, with many Maoist efforts seeming like ‘civilising’ efforts that forcibly intrude upon Adivasi lives. Bhardwaj, too, points out the irony of cadres from Andhra Pradesh embroiling Adivasis in a revolutionary war in Bastar. Then there are the mentions of mob justice imposed by Maoists, where villagers are forced to stone a youth to death because he is suspected of being a police informer.
The reality of Adivasis being crushed in this conflict is shown through the treatment of dead bodies: the State has an established procedure where dead soldiers are returned to their families; an organisation led by relatives of Maoists killed in police encounters makes strenuous efforts to restore the bodies of slain cadres to their families in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But the Adivasi dead in Bastar are not accorded the same dignity: they ‘remain unidentified and are summarily cremated by the police.’
While the book as a whole is damning to the police, Bhardwaj is careful to note that many a station officer deliberately backs reporters, providing them with the internet connections and facilities they need to file reports damning the police themselves. Occasionally, a judicial commission is able to provide a pale imitation of justice on the basis of such reports, long after the fact.
Similarly complicated are narratives about controversial figures like Mahendra Karma. The Salwa Judum leader’s brutality is well-known, but Bhardwaj makes it impossible to paint him as a simple villain; instead, we hear undeniable details, like the murder of over ninety-five members of the Karma family in the war. Bhardwaj writes,
“Karma wanted to free Dantewada from the Maoists, but he also hobnobbed with mining companies and crushed a large number of his adivasi brethren during the Judum. Yet, when one looks at the memory stones of the Karma family … it appears almost like the battle of a chieftain with outsiders over control of the jungle…After all, who would stake his life, and the lives of his entire family, on this? Not a businessman or a politician. A man with commercial or political ambitions cannot possibly lead a life that entails the possibility of witnessing his entire clan meeting a gory death, one by one.”
Of course, Karma would go on to be brutally murdered by the Maoists in revenge for the rapes, tortures, and summary killings of Maoists and Adivasis in the Judum. The number of wounds on Karma’s body, received both before and after death, remains the highest number Bhardwaj has seen on a post-mortem report.
A war without end
The conflict has now entered its sixth decade. How is there no exhaustion with all this death? One set of details shows how the Maoists desensitise themselves to their violence: by filming and then watching, over and over again, ‘ambush videos’ of battles with the police. ‘Their eyes gleam with an animal thrill as they watch their comrades humbling the corpses of policemen onscreen.’
But the conflict is also intensified by police brutality and the negligence of the state. After all, many of the stories of how recruits came to join the Naxals begins with one or the other instance of such assaults on the innocent.
Meanwhile, even the most basic measures of outreach have not been made by the State. It took the Maoists to start publishing textbooks in Gondi instead of the Hindi textbooks doled out by the state that make no sense to Adivasi children. The region is so shorn of development that Bhardwaj recounts conversations where Bastar’s Maoist cadres have never known electricity or telephones. They can’t believe people in cities use gas for cooking, or ask about fans: ‘I have heard there is something in the cities for summer. How does it work?’
Work is meagre, with many relying on MGNREGA or working as daily wage labourers. Healthcare is even harder to find. When Bhardwaj asks one of the men what they do if someone needs urgent medical attention, the person replies: ‘Usually, we accept that their time is up and let the person die here. But sometimes, if we feel that it is important to save them, we arrange for a cot and a healthy goat…We lay the patient down on the cot and tug the goat along. We reach Bhopalpatnam after walking for a day. A healthy goat fetches around 5,000 rupees. It pays for the treatment.’
Many don’t survive the journey to healthcare.
All this begins from widespread political failure, where even a month-long wage agitation by Adivasi cooks for the government’s midday meal scheme is ignored by both politicians and the press. Bhardwaj claims that even more than the lack of development, it is this political vacuum that allows for the flourishing of Naxalism. Noting Naxal failures in north-west Jharkhand, Bhardwaj writes, ‘…remote areas had no electricity, but politicians were aplenty. People had an easy window for grievance redressal—a politician next door…When social angst finds a vent in the political space and politicians tour their constituencies to secure voters, space for revolution fades away.’
While military adventurism will increase and the might of the Indian state may well result in a final conflagration, continuing injustices suggest revolutionary sentiments will persist. In a moving section, Bhardwaj recounts this realisation of relentlessness through the anguish of a surrendered senior Maoist, Sukhdev, who does not hesitate to speak of his doubts over his surrender even in the presence of his police minders:
“A person like me … I was extremely happy in the forest. If I say that I’m happy now, I’d be betraying myself … I now have a shelter, three meals a day, but it’s only for me. When I look at my surroundings, it [poverty and inequality] disturbs me. My worldly happiness troubles me…’ His voice faltered, his eyes gleamed behind his spectacles. ‘I have lost my identity as an individual. It won’t be a smooth life for me in the city’.”
Even the Maoists who are continuing the fight know that they will not see the ‘red flag on the Red Fort’ in their lifetimes. But, in the face of ongoing exploitation, they see no alternative to the struggle.
As you read on, the many threads in the book start to form knots of betrayal and revenge, of injustice and rage, knots that will ensure that the death script will continue to play out. By the end of the book, you realise the knots have found a home in your throat. No amount of swallowing can undo them.