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THE BURNING FOREST: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar. Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016.

IN what appears a scene straight out of Franz Kafka’s novels, Delhi University Professor Nandini Sundar and associates – Archana Prasad of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Vineet Tiwari (CPI), Sanjay Parate (CPI-M) and others along with unnamed Maoists – were charged for the murder of a villager, Shamnath Baghel, in the insurgency-hit Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. Following a complaint lodged by his wife, all the accused were booked under sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 and 149 of the IPC. In a statement, S.R.P. Kalluri, Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range) announced that the ‘strongest possible police action will be taken against those guilty after investigation.’ Further, he went on to accuse ‘Delhi based’ activists of not understanding the ‘reality’ of Bastar, arguing that their interventions only served to weaken the fight against anti-national insurgents and worsen the situation on the ground. It appears that the ‘learned’ police officer was unaware of Nandini Sundar’s long association and involvement with the region. Beginning with field work for her doctoral dissertation in the early nineties, Nandini has over the years published highly regarded research monographs, as also (in collaboration with others) human rights reports about the situation of Bastar tribals. To paint her as a gadfly or parachute interventionist, as Kalluri suggests, is a bit thick.

It is worth remembering that just a few weeks prior to these charges being levied on the accused, members of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) had burnt effigies of Sundar and her associates, threatening them with dire consequences for their continuing role in exposing the ‘illegal’ actions of the security forces in combating the Maoist-led insurgency in mineral resource rich tribal areas of Bastar. This ‘remarkable’ protest by policemen was a result of severe strictures passed by the judiciary, recommending a CBI enquiry into the conduct of the security forces.

In itself, none of this is unexpected or new. The law and order machinery in Chhattisgarh, as in many other conflict zones, routinely oversteps the bounds of law and the Constitution in an effort to control the situation, in this case described by our political masters as ‘the biggest security threat to the country.’ Aware of their frailty, as also the fact that as frontline foot soldiers in a ‘dirty war’ they may well be ‘hung out to dry’ in case matters get out of hand and attract ‘unwelcome attention’, there is often a heavy-handed, paranoid reaction to any effort at exposure. Unsurprisingly, Nandini Sundar and her associates are today only the latest in a long series of individuals and organizations singled out by the administration for standing up and attempting to hold the state to account. Be it journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and researchers or common citizens demanding to be recognized and treated as such – all face the wrath of the officialdom. The fact that one is well known or well connected may elicit slightly better behaviour; it is no guarantee of civility or protection from a hostile administration. Let us not forget that Binayak Sen, notwithstanding his many awards for humanitarian medical work and support from dozens of Nobel laureates, had to spend many months in jail before being granted bail. The cases against him still continue.

The tribal region of Bastar has, at different times, occupied different registers in the national imaginary – as the Dandakaranya of the Ramayana, the ‘natural’ and ‘unspoilt’ world of Verrier Elwin where tribal peoples lived in relative harmony with nature and, in more recent years, as a mineral rich land marked by violent conflict between Maoist guerrillas and the security forces. It is likely that were it not for the presence of minerals, seen as critical to India’s development, the tribal districts of Bastar may have been permitted to exist/survive in relative neglect. Enjoying some protection as a designated Schedule V region, for a long period there was limited interaction with the outside world, a mixed blessing. If exploitation by outsiders, mainly for minor forest resources and timber, was limited, so too was the welfare intervention by the state. Roads, schools, hospitals were few and generally indifferently run. Even as the local population away from the towns was deprived of many facilities we today take for granted, it could with some effort make do, with the forest providing many resources for survival.

The escalated demand for the region’s mineral resources changed everything. As fresh contracts for new mines were handed out for the first time mainly to private industry, the people in the area came to be seen as an irritant, a potential hinderance to the smooth functioning of industry and so needed to be shifted out. Much of what we have witnessed in the last two decades post the opening out of the region is an outcome of a continuing, unresolved conflict over mineral resources – who will have control and on what terms. Alongside questions of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of those displaced are also crucial issues of citizenship – do ordinary people have the right to have a say in deciding what is being proposed for their habitat, or is it that national interest and needs of development, as defined by political elites, trumps local rights?

Of course, there is much more to the conflict. There are the Maoist groups who initially moved into the area, seeking a safe haven after facing persecution in neighbouring Andhra and, having over time familiarized themselves with the local situation, successfully positioned themselves as protectors of the tribals – from rapacious forest officials, contractors, traders and petty corrupt officialdom. Then there are the security forces – police and paramilitary – brought in to sanitize the area and secure it for ‘development’. There is the Salwa Judum, a non-official but state supported militia, tasked with taking on the Maoists. And finally, there are the tribal villagers, trapped in between opposing forces – displaced and brutalized. Playing sideline roles in the ongoing drama are a variety of civil society actors – NGOs, lawyers, civil rights activists, members of political parties – and the non-security institutions of the state. Presiding over all this are the state and central governments.

Nandini’s book provides a rich and layered account of a legal battle against the state government’s policy of subcontracting its counter-insurgency operations to a ‘non-state’ entity – Salwa Judum, in an attempt to shield itself from the excesses and extra-legal actions intrinsic to the operations – incidentally, a strategy common to counter-insurgency actions across the world. It makes for both a depressing and instructive reading about how a ‘democratic’ state deals with both its most marginal and vulnerable citizens and those who resist/question its policies and actions. Instructive, because we have in the book a compelling account of the realpolitik of ‘democratic nation building’ and depressing, because of the widespread amnesia marking our elites about the manner in which the officialdom routinely disregards constitutional niceties, ostensibly in the pursuit of a greater good, in this case development.

The decision to file a case in the Supreme Court by Nandini Sundar and others followed the ‘relative failure’ of many earlier attempts by affected parties to secure a fair hearing and a change in state policy – numerous petitions, demonstrations, media coverage, human rights reports. After years of litigation, the Supreme Court directed the state government to disband the citizen’s militia, Salwa Judum. It also instructed the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the alleged excesses. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the NHRC probe went nowhere. Equally unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to set up a proper probe mechanism or suggest an institutional arrangement to look into issues of compensation and rehabilitation of the affected tribals. None of this is likely to enhance our confidence in the functioning of our many institutions, more so when they have to serve the poor. The end result is that despite an exposé of the state’s culpability and even (in part) a ‘favourable’ judgement from the Supreme Court, little has changed on the ground. After a brief interregnum, the members of the Salwa Judum have now been absorbed into the state rolls as Special Police Officers and the ‘killings’ go on, as does the dislocation.

While in broad agreement with much of Nandini Sundar’s account, I have some unease with her understanding of the role of the Maoists. As indicated earlier, both the Maoist leadership and cadre have worked hard to win the confidence of the tribals. Both by resisting a rapacious official machinery and a brutal security apparatus, as also initiating a range of development initiatives, they have come to be seen by many tribals as protectors. Simultaneously, they are also feared, since not fully buying into their vision of ‘resistance’ and ‘non-cooperation’ with the government, or boycotting elections, often invites severe retribution. Unfortunately, particularly after the opening up of the region to mining, some of the local leaders have emerged as entrepreneur middlemen and mediators – intervening in the granting of contracts, influencing elections, and so on, be it in the pursuit of an ideological objective or private gain. Often, this has led to clashes between different groups and factions over the ‘spoils’ of insurgency. All this has resulted in a far more fluid and complex picture than Nandini provides. Nevertheless, her account substantially differs from the one painted by Arundhati Roy in her essay ‘Walking with the Comrades’ and cannot be read as constituting justification, far less legitimizing Maoist behaviour and actions.

Equally confusing is the role of different civil society actors – journalists, lawyers, political and social activists, NGOs – both local and national. There are sharp differences between groups/organizations over strategy and tactics, the degree to which one must collaborate with or oppose the government, or work alongside political parties, and so on. Most important, over how to deal with official propaganda which paints all opposition and protest, even when legal and non-violent, as Maoist and anti-national. It is ironic that those individuals and groups whom the government reaches out to for negotiating the release of officials abducted by the Maoists, precisely because they are seen as ‘independent’ and thus in a position to act as honest mediators, are (sometimes) accused by the same government of being in cahoots with anti-national groups. Clearly dammed if they collaborate and dammed if they do not. This, incidentally, is one of the most thoughtful sections of the book which all activists would do well to read.

None of this implies any equivalence between state forces and the Maoists. Whatever the provocation by the Maoists, and there are many, the state is legally and constitutionally bound to operate within designated limits; otherwise it loses legitimacy. This is also why the allegations, both by the state and large sections of the media, that human rights groups focus (far) more on exposing the excesses of the state forces than the ‘violence and terror’ unleashed by the Maoists, are not just mistaken, they in fact fail to understand the role of civil rights groups. It must, however, be admitted that in all such situations, each side gets brutalized, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Flawed heroes and villains rarely make for neat resolutions, particularly when all actors are convinced about the righteousness of their cause, and that their actions serve a goal larger rather than self-interest. Ideologues armed with ‘truth’ consistently disregard the costs their actions impose on those who do not share their vision.

The Burning Forest is more than an expose of an undeclared war in India’s heartland. A searing account of the human tragedy that invariably accompanies protracted conflict, it is equally a story of institutional failure, in particular of our law and justice system. Above all, it forces us to face up to the limitations of both the institutions and practices of our liberal democracy. Even if one does not fully buy into Nandini Sundar’s claim to have recorded the ‘truth’ of Bastar, one can unhesitatingly agree with the blurb on the cover: ‘a very important and disturbing book which should be widely read.’

Harsh Sethi

Consulting Editor, Seminar


RUPTURE, LOSS AND LIVING: Minority Women Speak About Post-Conflict Life by K. Lalita and D. Dhanraj. Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2016.

THIS is a subtle book. On first glance one expects to read tragic stories of victims of conflict, narratives by Muslim women in riot-hit Gujarat, Mumbai and Hyderabad. One soon realizes they are more stories of resilience, told by women who have gone through heart-wrenching trauma at the hands of savage strangers and even more brutal neighbours – women who have survived and coped with an indifferent or hostile government apparatus, with Hindu friends who did not wish to know them anymore, with Muslim leadership that was unhelpful, and with their own men broken by mass violence.

As one delves deeper, other subtle but clear messages emerge. A government that should protect and give succour was aiding the aggressors, and often even initiating violence. The voices of a handful of these Muslim women remind one of the incredible suffering Indian leaders have meted out to women of other powerless minorities – the tribals in Chhattisgarh and of the North East, Irom Sharmila of Manipur, countless Dalit women in nearby villages stoically facing the oppressors’ wrongs.

The book drives home the painful fact that the horror does not cease after a single night of riot, rape and murder. It is the long aftermath of trauma, never ending in memorized agony, of humiliations, of the tearing down of a woman’s dignity and her sense of self-worth, which are the cruelest legacies of mob violence. And yet, most readers would know of some woman or girl who has suffered violence or worse at the hands of some man, and how her friends and relatives try to brush the incident under the carpet and advice her to forget it and get on with life. Reading the narratives in this book teaches us all that psychological scars are very deep and that women ‘victims’ need patient nurturing to help them survive.

Despite the memory of such horror, we see these women of Gujarat not only resurrecting their self-respect but even taking charge of their shattered communities. The voices we hear in this book are unique. Some international reports dryly relate the surprising strength African women have shown after the horrendous bloodbaths of Rwanda, but none that lets us hear their inner voices. Perhaps, this book when read could encourage African women to tell their stories.

In the book, Indian Muslim women, sternly suppressing a surging anger against the establishment, take the lead in negotiating with it to build a future for their children, since many of their men are unable to do so. In the last fifty years of the Irish Civil Rights movement, Irish women had similarly faced up to their hated old enemy of the British Army, but few accounts let us see the agonies that turned girls into amazons. In the book we see how desperately our women have searched for their missing men. The last wretched decades have seen thousands of men go ‘missing’ in Chile, Guatemala, Argentina. These Indian voices speak for all their orphaned families. The Gujarat riots left some women without any support, even forcing a few into the sex trade to keep their children alive. Their lives throw a shadowy light on what some Jewish women must have endured in Nazi concentration camps. Many other women in this book made other compromises, perhaps less degrading but very difficult all the same, to sit down and negotiate with their violators. They had no other option. French women ‘collaborating with Germans’ during World War II were heartlessly humiliated by Resistance fighters. Did those women have an option? We do not know, for none recorded their voices.

When we read about the harsh denial of justice in this book, it is not just these Muslim women who come to mind, but also videos of young African-American youths shot dead by white policemen, and the bland statements of Australian authorities that the ‘killing’ of an Indian student was not an incident of racial hatred. The narratives clearly lay bare the trail of events that lead to a catastrophic riot – an accretion of casual humiliations, threats presented as jokes, firm social exclusion, discrimination in public places. These many experiences reinforce social knowledge that the Muslim, the Dalit, the tribal are second class citizens, if citizens at all, allowed to exist for the moment by general sufferance till patience should run out, as it did for Hitler against the Jewish people, or it does for white supremacists against blacks in America, or for the National Front hooligans against the South Asians of Southall in London.

The book is not just about the suffering of a few Muslim women. It is about human suffering and the thoughtless cruelty we heap on others living in our shadow. Even though this reviewer had shared the same time-space as the authors, he was unaware of the delicacy with which women could unravel the tragic aspects of the human condition through the living narratives of other women.

Vithal Rajan

Writer and playwright, Hyderabad


CULTURE, VERNACULAR POLITICS AND THE PEASANTS: India, 1889-1950, an edited translation of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s MERA JIVAN SANGHARSH (My Life Struggle), translated and edited by Walter Hauser with Kailash Chandra Jha. Manohar, New Delhi, 2015.

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (1889-1950), a leading personality of twentieth century Indian peasant activism, is an unjustly neglected figure of India’s nationalist era. No historian was better qualified than Professor Walter Hauser of the University of Virginia to make up for this disregard. The book under review is an outcome of his six decades of engagement with the history of the Bihar peasantry of the past century. His path breaking Chicago doctoral dissertation on the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (1961) and numerous subsequent publications, along with his teaching, have inspired generations of students of modern agrarian India and especially Bihar.

Sahajanand’s 570 page-long Mera Jivan Sangharsh (My Life Struggle) was originally published in 1952, two years after his death, by his ashram at Bihta in Patna district. Although Hauser’s interest in this important text evidently dates back from the time of his doctoral researches (as the Swami was the founder and leader of the Bihar Kisan Sabha), his project of translating and editing the memoir in full only took serious shape in the late 1990s, a work which he carried out in close association with Kailash Chandra Jha.

This memoir is in no way a researched autobiography. Sahajanand wrote (most of) it in the Hazaribagh Central Jail in 1940, and necessarily had to rely heavily on memory to recount his fascinating life journey from childhood in a small eastern UP village to his early conversion to asceticism and thence to nationalist politics and peasant activism. His prose, as a result, is eminently readable, at times near conversational in style, and delivers from beginning to end a sense of compelling freshness. Born in 1889 to a modest uneducated Ghazipur peasant family, he worked brilliantly at school up to the matriculation level, then decided in 1907, aged nineteen, to take the vows of sannyas and lead a life of renunciation and ascetic wandering, against the will of his parents. After some time, he shifted to a more settled way of life and dedicated himself to the intensive study of the Dharmashastras. Several years later, he turned to caste activism and took up the cause of social reform among the Bhumihar Brahmans, an absorbing public task to which he devoted eight more years.

It was a decisive meeting with Gandhi in December 1920, shortly before the Nagpur Congress session, which persuaded him to plunge into active nationalist politics, thus realizing, he felt, ‘the true meaning of service as a sannyasi’ (196). Although initially a devout Gandhian and faithful Congress worker, his dissatisfaction with the morality and character of many Gandhian workers, the internal bickerings of nationalist politics and what he felt as the hypocrisies of part of the movement’s top leadership, gradually gained substance during the 1920s. He increasingly identified the service of the nation with the defence of the interests of the kisans of Bihar against their zamindar oppressors (regardless of the fact that this placed him in overt opposition to the powerful landed elite of his Bhumihar community whose interests he had formerly defended).

By the time when Sahajanand founded the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha in 1929, he had become a forceful and charismatic rural agitator in the garb of a sannyasi carrying his strong bamboo danda (he was a Dandi Swami of the Dasnami order), and was from then on a principal figure of the Indian peasant movement. He broke with Gandhi and his compromising idealism in 1934 and moved to the left through contacts with the newborn Congress Socialist Party, which did not share the Mahatma’s inhibitions about social struggles and supported the Kisan Sabha’s anti-big zamindar thrust and its focus on issues like reduction in land revenue and rents, cancellation of rural debt, tenancy reform and remunerative agricultural prices. He then served repeatedly as president or general secretary of the militant All-India Kisan Sabha, which was founded in 1936 along the lines of his Bihar movement as peasant agitation was spreading across the country.

His popularity peaked in the late 1930s, at the time of the sharp confrontations between the peasant movement and the Congress provincial governments of 1937-39. This was the time when the AIKS adopted the red flag as its banner, and Sahajanand in his ochre robe exalted the danda as a weapon of self-defence against the zamindars, while peasant marches and local agrarian struggles multiplied. But the Swami’s credit waned in the early ’40s, after the Congress high command had forcibly denounced the violent ‘class war’ waged by kisan and labour unions, and the Kisan Sabha movement had passed under predominantly communist influence.

After Hitler’s June 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, which thus became an ally of Great Britain, the CPI was under orders to remain aloof from anti-British militancy, and was thereafter branded as anti-national and charged of treachery by much of mainstream nationalist public opinion. Thus the Kisan Sabha movement largely lost its popular base. Due to the failure of all efforts at left-wing unity, the advocates of radical social change were cowed down and political independence was attained by a Congress professing at best an ideology of reformist class conciliation. Sahajanand (who had been expelled from Congress in 1939) was consequently marginalized, as were other such leading radicals, and eventually toppled into near oblivion. Yet zamindari abolition, which occurred in the 1950s shortly after his death, was to an appreciable extent a legacy of his unflinching, lifelong commitment to the cause of justice and dignity for the kisans of India.

A most refreshing aspect of this memoir is that it is, as Hauser writes, ‘a history of peasant struggle from the perspective of the peasants themselves’ (xxxi). Sahajanand, for sure, was not of strictly poor peasant origin (although his family was of distinctly modest means), and he was highly literate. But no single peasant is the archetypal peasant and he spent his life militating among peasants and acting as their recognized spokesman. His candid narrative of complex lived experience literally explodes the essentialist theorizing of ‘peasant consciousness’ which has held sway in the historiography of the subject over the last decades. He was both a sannyasi and a modern rationalist, a forceful defender of the material class interests of the kisans and a strict observer of the purity/pollution ritual code in daily life. His ambivalent identity reminds us that history cannot validly claim to be a model-building discipline, as it is a science of the particular.

Sahajanand’s text is supplemented by useful chapter introductions and by illuminating, closely-knit and often extensive endnotes which, if put end to end, would easily amount to a book within the book. There Hauser provides the reader with a wealth of invaluable contextual information and clarifications, and with precise references to subsequent scholarship on a host of topics as they occur in the text. In short, this first-rate book not only makes for pleasant and informative reading, but it will prove most helpful to all future students of twentieth century Bihar and of the role of the peasant masses in the freedom movement.

Jacques Pouchepadass

Senior Research Fellow (emeritus),

South Asia Studies Centre, School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences, Paris