Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Book review: Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country

Following is a slightly abridged review of the book Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country by Sudeep Chakravarti (Penguin/Viking) from the Communist Party of India (Maoist) Information Bulletin (no. 2, 10 May 2008). Editor’s added clarifications are in brackets.

The Maoist movement in India is one of the oldest and longest-sustained revolutionary movements in the contemporary world. Spanning four decades beginning with the first earth-shaking volcanic eruption in a tiny village in Naxalbari, it has become part of folklore in some regions in the country. It had risen, phoenix-like, every time the political pundits had confidently pronounced its certain demise. Top political and police brass had time and again boasted that they had "finished off" the revolution, which, they claimed, had been "imported from abroad". They asserted that Maoist revolution is something alien to the conditions in Gandhi's India where, they claim, people are not prone to violent ways. The latest in this long list of liars, wishful thinkers and vicious propagandists is Mahendra Karma [Congress Party leader in the state of Orissa], who declared amidst much fanfare in June 2005 that he would decimate the Maoists within a year through his state-sponsored terrorist campaign christened salwa judum (peace campaign). When his armed gangsters and the state's khaki-clad goons took a beating in the hands of the Maoists, this scab of the imperialist- big business-feudal combine kept on barking over the past two years that he would finish off the Maoists within a short time. However, nailing all these lies and disgusting boasts by the mediocre politicians and police officials ruling the country, the resilience and growth of the Maoist movement had surprised many sceptics who see the Indian state as an almighty behemoth that can snuff out any armed resistance.

Surprisingly, given the great international significance of revolution in a vast country like India – the second most populous in the world – very few scholars have attempted any serious research into this social phenomenon and books dealing with this protracted insurgency are very few. But of late, several research scholars belonging to various persuasions and particularly so-called independent agencies have suddenly jumped into the fray. There is very less objectivity and realistic analysis in most of these writings. Many of these have begun to paint a scary picture of a rapidly growing “Red Terror” which is supposed to undermine development measures undertaken by the government. They talk of the Maoist movement spreading at an alarming speed to the majority of the states in India.

In Red Sun, published by Penguin (Viking) Books India in early 2008, the author, Sudeep Chakravarti, makes an attempt to understand and present the phenomenon of the Maoist movement in India. It is not, as the writer himself claims, a history of the Maoist movement, but a travelogue that tries to understand the Other India, as he christens it. The positive side of the book is the writer's attempt to present the conditions of the vast majority of the common people – their grinding poverty, excruciating indebtedness, horrific tales of their destitution and displacement by so-called development – leading to extreme helplessness and heart-rending suicides. The writer tries to focus on the aspirations of the majority in India that have been left out of every development scheme and model touted as great boons for the poor by the Indian ruling classes. Overall, the writer has been able to present in a lucid manner the explosive socio-economic milieu that gave rise to, and continues to nurture, the Maoist movement in India. And as a travelogue, this aspect often comes forcefully through conversations with people from various walks of life. He logically anticipates the inevitable spread of the Maoist movement to the urban areas, since similar conditions had pushed the vast majority of the urban poor into utter wretchedness.

Good exposure of state-sponsored terror campaign in Dandakaranya

The exposure of the state-sponsored terrorist campaign in Dandakaranya through the so-called salwa judum comes out forcefully in the book. It is here that the writer is seen at his best and he boldly exposes the havoc created by the state-sponsored vigilante gangs combined with the state and central [Delhi] forces. There is some amount of depth in the writer’s presentation of the movement in one of the crucial regions of the Maoists. He vividly describes the war theatre, the explosive situation and the strategies and plans of the state. As far as the writer’s description of the Maoist movement goes this is the best part in the entire book. After this, the presentation of the movement elsewhere is shallow and based more on hearsay.

None of the movements in other regions such as Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, or Andhra Pradesh are given any in-depth analysis. This reflects a lack of real interaction with the actual players. Even the conversations with such an eminent personality in the revolutionary camp like VV [prominent Andhra Pradesh intellectual Varavara Rao, accused of connections with CPI(M)] lack punch and analysis. The principal weakness of the travelogue is that the writer travelled more along the periphery of the war zone and had hardly any interaction with the Maoist fighters and leaders in any of these regions. Whether this is deliberately done, or the writer found no opportunity to meet the Maoist revolutionaries in the battlefield, is not clear. With the right contacts – and the writer claims to have many such contacts – it is, of course, not difficult to meet CPI (Maoist) underground cadre.

The excerpts from the Fact Finding Report by a team of democratic intellectuals released to

the media in December 2005 and from the Report of April 2006 entitled "When the State Makes War on Its Own People" [see AWTWNS 18 December 2006], Mahendra Karma's statement on the aim of salwa judum ("Unless you cut off the source of the disease, the disease will remain. The source is the people, the villagers.") , the presentation of the full text of Bijapur SP D.L. Manhar's instructions on the wireless to his men which was taped by the Maoists, the story of local journalist Kamlesh Paika, conversations with K.R. Pisda, Collector of Dantewara, the abuse of journalists in the most filthy and uncivilized manner by Alok Awasthi, additional director in Chattisgarh' s Directorate of Public Relations, etc., are well brought out. The aim of the salwa judum as admitted by the government in the official document is also quoted exhaustively.

The most chilling story of the evacuation and setting afire of the village of Darzo in Mizoram by the Indian Army during the early 1970s as part of the sordid plan of resettlement of the villages is very much relevant in the context of the salwa judum campaign and the planned resettlement of the tribals in Dantewara. The comparison with the Mizoram of the 1970s is a commendable job.

At several places in the book, during conversations with the revolutionaries, bureaucrats and police officials, the activities and viewpoints of the two opposing forces in this class conflict are brought into sharp contrast. Some of the remarks by top political and police brass make interesting, and at times, disgusting, reading. For instance, the health minister of Jharkhand, Bhanu Pratap Shahi, says in an interview: "One vasectomy in a Naxalite dominated village means that many potential comrades less… when you have too many mouths to feed and too little food to eat, you may turn into a Naxalite. All I want is to minimize the number of mouths."

The cynical revelation by an officer of the military intelligence of how he and his team had hacked off the heads of six militants just to petrify their Islamic colleagues and to serve as a spiritual insult makes chilling reading. "Then we heard these human rights chaps were coming. So we put the heads back on somehow, crudely stitched them up. We didn't bother with matching head and body." That cynical laughter of the officer while narrating this ghastly incident shows the general sadistic mindset of the police and security establishment, whether it is in Kashmir, the North East, Dandakaranya, Jharkhand, Andra Pradesh or elsewhere. Their proposed solution to the Naxalite issue is outright murder and fascist suppression, despite their occasional declarations to the contrary, meant only to please and appease civil rights activists and liberal-minded intellectuals.

Chattisgarh' s DGP OP Rathor (who died of heart attack on Anti-Terrorist Day) bursts out venom against the Naxals: "Bloody nuisance. There's not a socio-economic one, rather than a law and order problem. Khadi and Khaki bandits are all one and the same with regard to this. Marxism, Leninism or Maoism about them. When I was young I at least sensed some ideology about the Naxalites. But these chaps (now) are nothing but thugs and extortionists. " The Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Government of Chattisgarh, BKS Ray, shows the same abysmally crude attitude and approach towards the Naxalite movement. "These people are just thugs and extortionists. That's why in Chattisgarh you have a spontaneous popular movement against them – these tribals are fed up of the Naxals", he says. Why the tribals were not fed up with the Naxals for 25 years and why all of a sudden they became restive is something this arrogant bureaucrat will never be able to grasp or explain. And why will the tribals be angry with Naxals, even if one accepts the allegations of the rulers that they are extortionists, since the tribals have nothing to lose and everything to gain? Is it not only the big contractors, bureaucrats, traders and industrialists who have big property amassed through primitive methods of exploitation of tribals and loot and plunder of the entire region that actually fear the Maoists and try to snuff them out with all means at their disposal? No wonder, this bureaucrat with a police mind set can only think of exterminating the Maoists as the solution.

It has become a fashion for every police officer and political bigwig to express nostalgic feelings about the Naxals of yesteryears as if they really believed Naxals were sincere in the bygone times and had become a nuisance now. They say they were an educated lot in earlier times but now have lumpen elements in dominance. The fact is today Naxals have the real oppressed classes behind them, which is why it is becoming increasingly difficult for the reactionary ruling classes to suppress them. The change in the composition of the Naxalite movement shows the maturity and grass-roots strength of the movement.

Ideological biases

As is natural in a class-divided society, the presentation in the book, and the conclusions drawn, are subject to the limitations set by the class [outlook] of the writer, in addition to the inescapable influence of oft-repeated verdicts on the movement by earlier writers of various hues. It is not easy to wriggle oneself out of the shackles of ruling ideology, culture and long-inculcated values that continue to reinforce upon one's mind ever since one's childhood. Some of the remarks of the writer bring home this point. For instance, referring to VV's speech at the Tehelka summit in November 2006 in Delhi, the writer says: "Democracy, with all its ills, allows him this public space. I hope he realizes the irony that dogma and undemocratic institutions have no space for others, tolerate no dissent. Mao didn't. The bloom of a Hundred Flowers turned into deepest tragedy. Maybe when the Maoists talk about New India, they really need to talk about gentler Maoism – possibly an oxymoron – as their counterparts have done for Nepal's fragile peace." (p. 292)

The author also cites some instances of punishment given to informers in Dandakaranya, Jharkhand, Orissa by the "dreaded Jan Adalat, or People's Court, which is little more than kangaroo court" and concludes that "These acts are as gruesome, and gratuitous, as what the Maoists accuse state security of."

Another comment or rather conclusion of the author without any analysis runs thus: "In Dantewada, democracy is quite dead, on both sides of the battle line." Surprisingly, he cites the game of chor-police (cops and robbers) played by tribal children to arrive at such an obviously biased conclusion! The author's ideological biases can be seen also from his bland statements regarding the future postrevolutionary society and about Maoist China. He says: "What would it be like if ever revolution were to succeed in India, enough to impose its imprint beyond tribal and caste-roiled areas? Most probably, instant justice, dogmatic and Puritanical life, Soviet-style post-revolutionary rot, vast May Day parades." And he goes on: "Perhaps even brutal China-style state control and a repeat of the Cultural revolution of Mao himself, that ended up killing and damning millions of unbelievers. " He concludes: "From available historical evidence, a Maoist state might do little else but backslide all of India's hard-won victories despite the mire of grand corruption and the utter small-mindedness of administration. "

Needless to say, this writer, as any other writer without living links with the lives of the oppressed masses and the movement, has also become a victim to the almost inescapable influence of the imperialist and ruling class ideological biases as regards comrade Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, post-revolutionary societies, and so on. From the opinions expressed by the writer such as the above one cannot but come to the conclusion that he prefers the status quo in place of a new revolutionary order where, he imagines, freedom will be the first casualty. He forgets that Maoists are also learning from the socialist experiments of the past and will certainly imbibe the positive aspects while rejecting the negative ones.

Some factual errors

There are a few minor factual errors in the book, which could have been avoided with a little more diligence and care by the writer [here the review cites a number of mistakes regarding the identification of individuals, organisational matters and historical questions].

Another problem with the presentation is that several allegations are made regarding the activities of the Maoists by some police officials and political leaders, while no opportunity is available to the former to refute these allegations. When an author quotes these officials it will also be the bounden duty to get the response from the Maoists. Or else, it would mislead the people and amounts to gross injustice to the other side in the ongoing war. For instance, the superintendent of police of Dantewada district, Prabir Kumar Das, alleges that Maoists are against development and do not allow bore-wells to be sunk in their stronghold villages. He is quoted as saying: "When we entered an area 50 kilometres from here, deep inside, we found they had broken hand pumps. Initially, we thought it was to deny police water. Later, when we went to areas we hadn't been to before, there too the pumps were broken. Villagers told us that they were asked by the Maoists to drink only from wells and other natural water sources." The rationale of the Maoists, behind this move, is attributed to their perception of bore-wells as a sign of oppression (!!) "Hand pumps were provided by the state or NGOs with state funding; they were a sign of oppression, and therefore taboo" says this gentleman.

Nothing could be farther from truth. This even goes against common sense, which the top police brains in India pitifully lack. How can the Maoists (the police can at least get their own mineral bottles), survive if they break the hand-pumps? If the author had verified the facts by touring the areas deep inside it would have been really useful in exposing the deliberate concoctions of the police chief. And all this is only to justify the brutal state-sponsored terror campaign in the name of salwa judum with the pretext that the villagers are fed up with Maoist attempts to block development schemes and such trash.

The writer comes to the conclusion that the Maoist movement will soon encompass the urban areas and mobilize the vast masses of the have-nots living in the most distressing conditions in the slums and factories. He rightly says that all the material conditions for the spread of Maoists to the urban areas exist there. He includes entire sections from the document of the CPI(Maoist), "Perspective of Urban Areas", as an appendix and quotes extensively from this document to prove how the Maoists will emerge as a strong urban force too.

The author also tries to place his own theories of In-Land, Out-Land, City States, etc., which he says will characterize the country’s social scenario in the future. Or in other words, that India will increasingly be divided into two: one inhabited by the haves and the other by have-nots, with continuous friction between the two. Although the essence of his thesis will be the unfolding reality – the pointers to this division are already emerging with the fast multiplying expressways, multiplexes, shopping malls, super fast trains, amusement parks, high cost of education, housing and health, drastic cuts in social welfare schemes, and so on – the emerging scenario will be one of acute class struggle with the vast majority of the Indian population locked up in bitter struggles, armed and unarmed, against the exploitative set-up, and fascist state dictatorship becoming the norm. In this cruel, bitter class war the Maoist movement is certain to gain ground and advance towards the goal of liberation of our country from the clutches of the imperialist marauders, decadent feudal forces and comprador big business sharks.

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