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Indian Maoists are Different from Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka

Many of the Naxalite leaders were also upper-caste and they came from well-to-do middle class backgrounds but as part of joining the movement, they tried to cut all ties with their past, and sought to “decaste” and “declass” themselves.

by Windya  Gamlath 

(December 3, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) “I think the situation is quite different in relation to the Indian Maoists. I didn’t come across anyone – let alone children – being forced by the Naxalites to join them," Alpa Shah, the author of newly released non-fiction, “Nightmarch: Among India's Revolutionary Guerrillas” said in an interview with Windya Gamlath of Sri Lanka Guardian.

While responding to a question about Kohli, a kid who has voluntarily joined the Naxalite movement, the author asserts, “the leader was reluctant to have Kohli because he knew Kohli’s father would be upset as his son was needed at home to work in the family tea shop. But, like many other Adivasi youth, Kohli ran away from home to spend time with the Naxalite armies as, over the years”

Alpa Shah was raised in Nairobi, studied at Cambridge and completed her PhD at the LSE, where she now teaches anthropology. She is the author of In the Shadows of the State and a co-author of Ground Down by Growth. She presented the radio documentary ‘India’s Red Belt’ for BBC Radio 4’s 'Crossing Continents'.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question (Q): Maoist (Naxalite) guerrillas and their lives with real-life characters like Kohli and Gyanji. Other than that, you also discuss social discrimination in India. It reads not just like a novel or a memo, but it is also the analysis of academic scholarship. How did you do that as a researcher and a writer?

Answer (A): Thanks for your appreciation of my writing. I did not want the stories of the people I met, and the unexpected insights that I discovered through them, to be confined to the ivory towers of the university. It felt important to make my research accessible to a wide audience but without simplifying the analysis or dumbing down the scholarship.

[caption id="attachment_54465" align="alignleft" width="200"] Alpa Shah[/caption]

I thought that if I turned the writing of my intellectual insights into an art, into an aesthetic appearance that could be accessible to all, it might reach many more people. So I decided to convey the research through the narrative frame of a 250 kilometre ‘Nightmarch’ that I undertook over seven nights, walking more than thirty kilometres a night in single file with a guerrilla platoon without the light of a torch. I used that march to focus on the relationship between a few central characters I met along the way, each of who represented different facets of the movement, its past and its future. I hoped that this journey and the characters would bring a deep human touch to my research that readers from different backgrounds might be able to relate to and that together they would urge the reader to keep turning the pages of the book.

The need to reach a larger audience seemed very important given that the people I lived with were considered ‘terrorists’, the ‘greatest single internal security threat faced by India’, and because there was so much misinformation and so many partial accounts about what was going on in the heart of the subcontinent. People were being shown to be joining the rebels because they were forced to, or because they were gaining some kind of utilitarian benefits, or because the insurgents addressed their grievance. But I found the reality to be much more complicated than such simple models and it was those nuances and contradictions that I wanted to draw attention to in Nightmarch.

Q: In your book Nightmarch your bodyguard Kohli was only 16 years old at the time.

“Kohli was small for a sixteen-year-old. The rucksack on his back loomed wider than him and the butt of the INSAS rifle, slung across his left shoulder, came all the way down to his calves. The rifle was lighter and better than the one Gyanji carried, but how quickly could Kohlimanoeuvre it in battle.’’

As Sri Lankans, we saw LTTE using children as soldiers (“child soldiers”) in the north. The war went on for about 30 years. Most of the time those child soldiers had to join the war when they didn’t have any choice. If they got caught, the LTTE asked them to kill themselves using cyanide. How is this different from youth like Kohli?

A: I think the situation is quite different in relation to the Indian Maoists. I didn’t come across anyone – let alone children – being forced by the Naxalites to join them. In fact, youth like Kohliare interesting not only because he himself asked to join the guerrillas but also because the Naxalite Zonal Commander of the area initially did not accept him. The leader was reluctant to have Kohli because he knew Kohli’s father would be upset as his sonwas needed at home to work in the family tea shop. But, like many other Adivasi youth, Kohli ran away from home to spend time with the Naxalite armies as, over the years, they had become like another home for the Adivasis. His elder cousin was already with the guerrillas, his sister and younger cousin followed. If there was a problem at home, youth often sought refuge with the insurgents. Many youth learned to read and write in the guerrilla armies, they learned how to operate technology – mobile phones, cameras, guns – and they learned about a world beyond the confines of their village lives. In some parts of the country – such as in the Dandakaranya region of Chhattisgarh – when the vigilante groups burned down the houses of villagers, many Adivasis did not have a choice but to either go to resettlement camps which were like prison compounds or to the guerrilla armies. But as far as I know, the Naxalites never coerced people to join by force.

Q: As Sri Lankans, we have heard about the method of participant observation from the book “Sri Lankawe Yachakaya” (The Beggar in Sri Lanka) by Prof. Nandasena Rathnepala who lived with beggars for his research. He too published his research as a book.

You lived for four and half years with Adivasis and walked 250 km from one part of India to another with a Naxal guerrilla platoon. You were only the woman and the only person not carrying a gun. How does that experience affect your career and your personal life?

[caption id="attachment_54603" align="alignleft" width="200"] Nightmarch: Among India's Revolutionary Guerrillas[/caption]

A: Oh, that is such a BIG QUESTION and I don’t know if I have the answers. When you become a part of other people’s lives to the extent that we do as anthropologists, you develop new family, new homes; you basically have an entirely new life. Sowhen you go back to your original home, it is often very hard to fit in again. When I returned to London after my research, I found my heart and mind always back in Jharkhand. Whether I was cycling, cooking or even dreaming, I was thinking of Kohli, talking to Somwari, wondering about Vikas. And then I’d read on the news that Prashanth was killed, Gyanji was arrested, Vikas had formed a gang. But I couldn’t call anyone, get firsthand news because of the counterinsurgency operations that were going on. SoI felt very alone and it was emotionally very tough.

But I am lucky because my family are very understanding and patient. Most of them had visited me in Jharkhand at some point so they had some idea of my life there. My husband gave me a lot of space, strength and listened to my stories and also visited me in Jharkhand many times. Also, I am lucky because I work amongst a community of scholars many of who have undertaken participant observation – that deep immersion in other people’s lives – and many have experienced some degree of the alienation that I faced when I returned to London. So people around me could understand me and help me think about my experiences in India and where I found myself after the research.

My own solution to adjusting back to life in London was to go deep into my academic writing, churn out one analysis after another, one paper after another, try to make sense of what was happening in the forests of India. I was perhaps more productive than I had ever beenbecauseit was as though I needed to go deep into my work, abstract everything into academic theories, in order to be able to live again. It was only after that that I was able to move away from abstract academics and writeNightmarch, a deeply human story, and try to touch the hearts of people who read the book in the way that the people I had met had touched mine.

Q: When I went through your book, I didn’t feel that this is just research. How did you manage to mention all that historical information, life experience and human interest stories, all at the same time without disturbing the rhythm of the book?

A: Thanks so much for your compliments. I agree that a lot of research is written in dry academic language, and sometimes the very purpose of writing seems mystification above anything else. But I felt a strong moral compulsion emerging from the stories of the lives I had been lucky to share to reach beyond the academy.

In anthropology, there are some good examples of people who have written books that try to make their scholarship accessible – Philip Bourgois, Sidney Mintz, Ruth Behar, even Levi Strauss. But on the whole, I had to rework almost everything I had learned in academic writing. I found realist novelists, those who base their books on deep research or experience,inspiring – for instance Emile Zola’s Germinal or Primo Levi’s Periodic Table. Perhaps one of my greatest influences was George Orwell and some of his political writings - Road to Wigan Pier or Homage to Catalonia, for example- which were based on in-depth research, reportage. Orwell said, that for him, the initial motivation was to get a hearing because there were lies to expose, facts to draw attention to, but he also wanted to make that process into an aesthetic experience. I was driven by a similar spirit and wanted to highlight the best of what anthropology and participant observation had to offer; its ability to make the strange seem normal and the familiar appear strange, its ability to reveal unexpected insights that you couldn’t have foreseen without the research.

I had the idea of framing the book around the 250km march in the dark with the guerrilla platoon but that journey, apart from helping one understand everyday life in a guerrilla army, is primarily a narrative device to take you into the stories of the very different people I met, why they came together to take up arms to fight for a better world,and also how their dreams fell apart. I focus on archetypal characters in the movement. So there is the high-caste intellectual ideologue (Gyanji), the Adivasi footsoldier (Kohli), the commander who turns into ‘frankenstein’s monster’ (Vikas), the woman who comes to resent the guerrillas (Somwari).Nightmarch therefore became an allegorical nonfictional book about these different people; the hopes and tragedies of the Maoist present, past and future;but also the conflict and tensions of inequality, oppression and injustice right at the heart of contemporary India.

Q: You mentioned social discrimination in the Indian caste system and that castes like Dalits also joined the Naxalites- especially in Prashant’s story. You show that people from different castes, areas, education background and family background joined the Naxal movement. How did the caste system affect the movement?

A: As you say, the Naxalites have historically attracted some of India’s most marginalized people. In the plains, it was the Dalit groups (those who were previously called‘untouchable’). And in the hills and forests, it is now the Adivasis, India’s tribal populations. They attracted those who had been discriminated because the Naxalites actively sought to fight against caste and tribe oppression and exploitation. In many villages of the plains, Dalits were not allowed to take water from the wells used by upper-castes as they were thought to pollute everything they touched. They were not allowed to cross the upper-caste parts of the village without removing their shoes, or even look an upper-caste person in the eye. Some were treated like agricultural slaves over generations. The Adivasis were considered jungli – wild, savage and barbaric – and for centuries their forests and lands were forcibly taken away from them by the colonial state and upper-caste outsiders.

Many of the Naxalite leaders were also upper-caste and they came from well-to-do middle class backgrounds but as part of joining the movement, they tried to cut all ties with their past, and sought to “decaste” and “declass” themselves. Their aim was to create a casteless and classless society. So in the Naxalite armies you would find actions that it was hard to find anywhere else in India. For example high-caste and low-caste people shared rice from the same plate, something which would be considered polluting for the high-castes anywhere else. But despite all these active measures to get rid of caste and class, it was difficult to remove all the baggage of their past.

Q: You mentioned that good practices based on Gender Equality exist in Adivasi society more than in the so-called higher-caste societies and that it mayeven surpass gender equality in the west. I would like to know your experience regarding that further?

A: Well, my personal experience is quite telling. I went to live among the Adivasis by chance. But later I realized how lucky I had been because as single woman I had the freedom to move and do research that I could not have done in most other parts of India. I regularly travelled from village to village by myself including at night – riding my bicycle, moped or on a public jeep. I often lived alone. I talked to men and women alike, both alone and in groups. And in all the time that I was amongst Adivasis, I never felt threatened or afraid of men. But as soon as I left the Adivasi areas, I was very aware of my gender and consequently very careful about my movements.

Indian society generally is very patriarchal and in most homes, apart from perhaps the super-elite, there are a whole set of norms about what women can and should do. In the plains of Bihar, neighbouring the Adivasi forest villages of Jharkhand where I lived, most women veiled themselves in front of men, did not go out to work in the better-off households, did not have the freedom to move out of their domestic confines and had little financial autonomy as men controlled the purse.

In contrast, in Adivasi villages patriarchy was much more muted and women were treated much more equally. This is not to say that Adivasi society was egalitarian but that in comparison to the caste societies of the plains, it was much more equal. Adivasi women worked alongside men, did not veil themselves, and even drunk home-made alcohol alongside men (something that was unheard of in other parts of India). Premarital and postmarital affairs for men and women were not reprimanded in the way they were in other parts of Indian society and, if a woman wanted was unhappy in marriage, she could leave a husband without becoming socially ostracized. Women were not as trapped within patriarchal family structures as they were elsewhere in India and that meant that they were treated with much more respect, dignity and equality than the women of the caste societies of the plains.

Q: Most of the Maoists women joined with the movement because of their troubles among the family, other than that did they have any reasons? They can’t even have babies?

And we can’t just ignore a woman like Anuradha, She believed “Women need revolution and revolution needs women’’?

A: Women came to the guerrillas for all kinds of reasons. Some were running away from a fight they had in their families, others had fallen in love with fighters in the guerrilla armies, still others wanted to experience a different world. But yes, within the movement, there were strict norms about marriage and children. If there was any sign of an amorous relationship, a couple was married off. But having children was not allowed in the Naxalite armies. Their argument was that during the course of the war, it was not possible for the guerrillas to look after children. This meant that when women got pregnant, they usually left the guerrilla armies as very few wanted to give their child up to hostels or to other people to look after. I also argue in Nightmarch that although the Maoists consider themselves to be egalitarian, patriarchal attitudes were rife within their armies. Senior women leaders like AnuradhaGhandy, who is now dead, therefore used to argue that it is important to fight the patriarchy from within the movement as ‘Women need revolution and the revolution needs women’. But when I realized that the Naxalite armies were more patriarchal than the surrounding Adivasis society, I ended up questioning whether Adivasi women needed the Naxalites to liberate them.

Q: I would like to know your experience regarding culture among Naxalites, especially songs, books and their Gods (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao), eating habits, dresses, entertainment, hierarchy, symbols respect to each other. How they share their knowledge continuously with the new comers also?

A: Oh gosh, this is such a big question as it is about everything! All I can say is ‘please read the book’. But to entice the reader, I will perhaps share with just one recipe; “Bomb Chutney.” This was the invention of a Naxalite leader for the times when they had nothing to eat but rice.To me it was revolutionary because it made even the most bland food taste delicious. So here is how you make it:

On an open fire, roast some garlic with skin on. Peel the skin off and grind the roasted garlic with some green chilies. Heat up some mustard oil (or any kind of oil). When the oil is piping hot, add some cumin seeds and then the paste of roasted garlic and green chilies. Et voila, you have a splendid chutney that makes everything yum!

Q: You described how you dressed as a Naxalite. ‘’Olive-green shirt and trousers, too large for my waist, were held a belt. Would Bimalji approve of this attire that drowned my femininity? I tucked my hair into a green guerrilla cap. Moving with an all–male platoon, Prashant said, I would draw less attention and be safer if I could pass as a man.’’ How was that experience and feeling of becoming like a Naxalite?

A: Well, at the time it just felt that that was what I needed to do. As anthropologists, we are used to deep immersion among the people we are studying. We learn their language, follow their rituals, dance and sing with them, do most things they do. So dressing up like my informants was no big deal – it was the same as what we always did as anthropologists. When we follow our informants so closely we never ‘become’ them but are trying to experience what life might be like for them as far as we can. So even though I dressed as a Naxalite, I was still always just the anthropologist amidst the guerrillas.

Q: Nightmarch reveals that those who join the Naxal movement are not just radical young people but they also see ordinary people’s struggle, so that’s why they join with Naxal movement. Even real-life characters like Gyanji went to slums and he saw those people’s lives in his own eyes.

You mentioned that as,

“They fought for basic human rights and equality, and wanted to mark themselves apart from the general middle-class apathy, insensitivity and willful blindness to the poor."

You try to keep those as research findings and at the same time depict those as human interest stories in the book? What kind of challenges that you faced through that writing process?

Q: As I said, the greatest challenge for me was how not to present my research in a dry academic language, to write as though it were an art. In creative writing, there is a common saying ‘show, not tell’ which I found useful. At the same time I was not writing a novel so I could not just embrace the creative imagination of a fiction writer; I wanted to stay true to my research and let itsmulti-layered analysis appear with all its nuance through the stories of the people I met and the Nightmarch itself.

Q: At one point you have questioned whether there is any continuity between the figure of the communist revolutionary and renunciation for liberation of the individual in India? You brought out characters like Hindu, Buddhist or Jain monks and characters like Gandhi and Gyanji to prove it too, Let us know about it?

A: Well I really began thinking about the continuities between these different forms of liberation when I met some of the upper-caste middle-class Naxalite leaders. They seemed to live in the jungles almost like ascetics or sadhus. They had given up everything – all their personal belongings and their families – for the cause of liberation. In some ways, they were very similar to Hindu renouncers or Jain monks. In fact, whenGyanji was young he used to go to the banks of the Ganges and meditate in the hope of one day reaching Nirvana. He was so religious that he could not step on an ant without chanting Hindu mantras. It was only when he went to university and met like-minded teachers and students that he realized he was on the wrong path of renunciation and joined them to distribute pamphlets on the ‘Death of God’ and become a communist revolutionary. The big difference of course is that whereas the religious renouncer seeks liberation only for himself or herself and wants to go to another world of equality, the communist revolutionary is seeking liberation for the whole of society and trying to create an egalitarian world in the present.

Q: You didn’t forget government approach towards this movement and also how the black money came? When it came to ‘Operation green hunt’ even the government gets advantages as you mentioned. I would like to know more about the government role within this movement.

A: Well, I am afraid that on the whole the government has had a very detrimental role in this conflict. For decades Adivasis have been neglected by the government (in the villages where I lived there was no running water, no electricity, no sanitation and this is despite seventy years of independence and the fact that the number of dollar billionaires in India were rising rapidly to more than a hundred). Then suddenly, in the new millennium, there was a big interest in their forests and lands and the government began treating the Naxalites and the Adivasis who they lived amidst as ‘terrorists’ and therefore as a security threat to be eliminated.

[caption id="attachment_54467" align="alignleft" width="600"] Maoists activists in India ( Photo courtesy: www.mustafaquraishi.com )[/caption]

Brutal counterinsurgency measures were begun from 2010 and hundreds of thousands of security forces were sent to surround the guerrilla strongholds. They came with their bulletproof vehicles and tanks and were trained in jungle warfare to fight the guerrillas with their own tactics. In Chhattisgarh, a state-sponsored vigilante group called the “SalwaJudum”, literally meaning “purification hunt” in the local Gondi language, went about burning villages. Many people were killed, women raped and some say more than 350,000 people displaced. Today the prisons of central and eastern India are full of Adivasi prisoners charged as Naxals who will probably languish in jail for years, grow old there, as no one will fight their cases. Their trials, if they take place at all, will take years. In Jharkhand alone, the state where I lived, more than 4000 Adivasis are in prison as alleged Naxalites.

Human rights activists say that behind these security operations is the aim of clearing the region of people for the easy extraction of mineral resources. Under the Adivasi forests of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telengana, Orissa, north Andhra Pradesh, lie some of India’s most lucrative mineral reserves and mining companies have been promised entry. The problem is that historic laws which the Adivasis fought for in colonial times make it difficult for the land to be taken from them. So you can see why some argue that the security operations are in fact a way to remove people forcibly from their land.

It’s a very dangerous situation as now a lot of money is being pumped into defence and counterinsurgency and those who are benefiting from that will continue to want those resources even if the Naxalites don’t present much of a threat. Meanwhile, life for the Adivasis in the hills and forests of central and eastern India has become brutally unpleasant. It does feel like a slow purging of the people, a slow clearing of the ground. The tragedy is at many levels and in some ways, it is a global tragedy as we are also witnessing the destruction of the lives and cultures of the Adivasis from whom people all over the world have a lot to learn.

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