Rebellion in India’s Heartland

Against the Current, No. 164, May/June 2013

Sara Abraham

Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion
By Gautam Navlakha
Penguin India, 2012, 272 pages, $22.75 paperback.

THIS BOOK INTRODUCES the reader to the deeply engrossing tale of the ongoing struggle of people in the Bastar region (aka “the red corridor” by Indian media and state intelligence). This region, comprising 10-13 districts that cross five state lines in central India, is home to multiple adivasi (indigenous tribal) peoples such as Gond, Madia, Godavari, Kondh, Dolra, Muia and Oriya. It is an area of thick forests, hills and rivers, rich in iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, granite, marble and other natural resources.

Over the past decade, ore as well as forest produce such as bamboo has become a focal point of interest for local and multinational mining, forest and metal interests, and so a site of increasingly militarized violent conflict between the state-backed corporates and the people of the region.

The tale of the conflict is told in the first person and with much reflection by the veteran democratic rights activist Gautam Navlakha (often seen on Indian television debating the militarized Indian state in Kashmir, or for a global audience can be found on youtube alongside comrade Arundhati Roy). Navlakha describes his journey in 2010 with members of the CPI (Maoist), who lead him and his companion Jan Myrdal, the Swedish intellectual, deep into the forests of the camps and liberated zones to show them “the struggle.” For crucially, after two generations of work in this region, Maoists have established liberation zones and villages that have resisted the encroachment of mining and other interests.

The Maoist movement in India is a revolutionary movement that organizes a broad swathe of people including indigenous people, workers, peasants, students, and lower caste people, largely around their own localized issues like control over their livelihood and resources. The Maoist movement has been organized into three main trends: the first, the largest of which is organized by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)[Liberation], have largely eschewed armed politics in favor of legal methods; the second, which includes several small organizations/parties, continues to advocate armed politics but place most of their emphasis and resources on legal methods in the immediate term; and the third, led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), argue the time is ripe for immediate armed struggle through a strategy that they call, “protracted people’s war.” This grouping has made deepest inroads in the central forested areas of India, and is the subject of this book.

Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion essentially offers an extended argument for activists to support the Maoist-led struggle of the region, while also briefly levelling at the Maoist movement the challenges inherent in expanding beyond its current regional base and cadre, and the inevitable need to adjust to a multi-Left political plurality. It is presumably in that spirit of plurality that Navlakha invites activists in turn to appreciate the tremendous role, sacrifices and advances made by these Maoists.

It is also a book of didactics and polemics, designed to counter the extensive state rhetoric on “violent militants” that has been fully absorbed by middle-class India, including the “non-violent” activists.  Navlakha pits argument against argument; where the state speaks of violence he brings up the violence of poverty, early mortality, malnutrition, and terror as unleashed by state-sponsored factions. Malnutrition which is endemic across rural India is in genocidal proportions.

Navlakha also points out how the state governments of Punjab, Gujarat, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, have all used extraordinary legislation, in fact, lawlessness, to crush dissent where it has arisen. We can add a number of other states to this list. Navlakha reports that despite a finding of illegal mining in multiple cases, none of the corporate criminals have been convicted by the courts and the fines imposed have been trivial compared to the profits being raked.

His account is rich with insights such as “this lawlessness is getting compounded by a kind of laissez-faire political approach. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, a major Hindu nationalist party) has taken the war against the Maoists to another level by virtually conducting its own foreign and military policy. The decision of the BJP to send a high-powered delegation to Israel led by its party president — to request Israeli assistance for anti-Maoist operations being carried out by its governments in Chhattisgarh, MP, Jharkhand and Karnataka — is a prime illustration of this… ” (11) Navlakha goes on to explain the growing cooperation between Israel and India.

Civil War in India

Navlakha’s first argument is that a war is being waged by the Indian state against people of this region (and throughout India) who have consequently been compelled to take up arms to defend themselves.

The strategy of war is explicitly laid out in a Doctrine of Sub-Conventional Operations, as drafted by the Ministry of Defence. It includes spreading propaganda and building mind-sets that condemn rebellion and resistance as futile endeavors so as to break morale, and it casts resistance as ‘illegal’ and a disturbance to the smooth progress of the Indian state.

This war takes place through detention, extraordinary laws, disappearances, betrayals, rapes, massacres and a complete lack of accountability. The argument that there is indeed a civil war is extremely compelling, and raises the question of, why this war.

Navlakha challenges the state’s explanation of the war as lying in the potential of the Maoist movement to actually or fundamentally threaten the behemoth of the Indian state. The movement is for instance far smaller than the armed wings of the right-wing RSS (the street troops of the BJP) and Bajrang Dal movements, which are allowed to operate freely and without impunity. The territory in central India where the Maoists are strongest also covers only 5% of the land mass of India and is where 2% of population lives.

The truth of the propaganda and the war then lies in its regionality — over the past three decades the Maoists had unknowingly built their bases in the mineral-rich central regions of India, exactly where international and local mining companies have now laid their claims, placing them now at the forefront of the struggle against the newest stage of capitalist expansion into India.

Navlakha quotes directly from the government’s own report (Committee on Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Tasks of Land Reforms, 2009) (that after the cleansing war orchestrated by pitting adivasis against adivasis) “640 villages in Dantewada district are empty. Villages sitting on tons of iron-ore are effectively de-peopled and available for the highest bidder. The latest information that is being circulated is that both Essar Steel and Tata Steel are willing to take over the empty landscape and manage the mines.” (30) Chilling indeed.

The Humanity of the People

Navlakha explains his book as a desire to reveal the humanity of the side against which war has been waged and who themselves have taken up arms in “self-defence.”

The resistance is led by the Maoists, but also increasingly the tribal populations of the region. Here his main argument is that the people and the Maoist movement have become largely synonymous in their opposition to multinational mining, land theft, poverty, lack of health and education infrastructure, and rapacious development.

The origins of the success of the Maoists with working with the tribal communities came over three decades ago with some successful organizing drives: winning a better rate for picking tendu leaf and for cutting bamboo are the ones he mentions. They replaced the middlemen by negotiating directly with the company, and withstood the bribes of the intermediaries.

By 1989 a region-wide adivasi peasant/worker organization was formed that has over a million members today. Importantly this organization slowly came to replace the power of the local chiefs and patriarchs. One estimate has it that 300,000 acres of forest land was saved from theft.

Navlakha relates his observations of the Maoist cadre and leadership with whom he spent two intensive weeks of shared living and discussions. He notices their body language, the way they pass their time, and their views on the meaning of their struggle for them, on violence, “mistakes,” on organization. The themes of the cadre as they relate events or meanings to him tend to the mystical — this forest and this land is our life, it is love and trust of the people that allows expansion and survival.

Most of the cadre are indigenous and the party has responded by developing local scripts, social reforms, and cultural preservation. Navlakha pushes this logic by querying what might happen if tribal national identity became the axis of struggle; the response is that the party would not oppose it since the nationality would be rooted amongst the most deprived sectors of the population (a class-sensitive approach was taken in working with the adivasis right from the outset).

He learns that the movement is experimenting on its bases with economic and social self-sufficiency and agricultural farms and cooperatives out of an interest both in production as well as experiment. The party has also established a parallel government structure (Janatam Sarkar) across the villages and districts where it is strongest. Women comprise 40-45% of the party, they lead platoons, and are leading cadre of the people’s government, which by itself marks this movement out from other Left organizations in the country.

Left Struggles in India

It is a poignant book, marked as it is emotionally by the grief of the distance between the intellectual-activist and the adivasi peoples of central India, speaking different languages in every sense of the word. The book takes a stance of showing a responsibility to bridge some of these gaps. Navlakha also makes links across historical gaps — between the 1967 Naxalbari revolt, the 19th century indigenous rebellions, and the present time. Finally it compares the success of the Maoists in the Bastar region to the failure of the Maoists in resisting state repression in the neighboring state ofAndhra Pradesh in the 1980s-’90s.

Navlakha renders into print in English a smattering of countless oral debates that have taken place far from the urban centers of India and this in particular makes the book a gem to be used by open-minded activists who are deep in people’s struggles and facing repression, but who are otherwise distant from the Maoists, their ideology, and their organizational reach.

There are many such activists in India today (against the nuclear plant in Koodankalum at the southern tip of India, etc.) Hence a bibliography of further reading into debates would have greatly assisted the committed reader.

Yet much more will need to be written. For instance, there is very little ideological explication in the book despite its firm stand on the side of the Maoist movement in central India, as if the commitment to defend people’s rights and the tactics and strategies of a defensive war are all that matters, and other theory is secondary.

This is partly a matter of the book being structured as an argument to persuade the reader onto the side of the Maoists. But, is this also why there is so little by way of alternative economic and political development models which can be used by revolutionary movements? Is the lack of analysis of alternatives and experiments why the revolutionary movement in neighbouring Nepal is floundering? These are questions that Navlakha also raises by the end.

He would also probably agree that legitimately embedding the current struggle in Bastar into a history of people’s struggles in India is still not going to be sufficiently redemptive. A cursory review of post-independence 20th century struggles led by the Left in India reveal multiple, equally intense moments and upsurges (in the regions of Telangana in the 1940s, West Bengal in the 1950s), of powerful social movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Gujarat, which never resulted, however, in a nationalist revolutionary awakening.

Going further back, Indian history is littered with intense regional battles, of some symbolic worth but leading to little structural transformation of the state. In other words, is this movement really both about self-defense and about something greater?

But that is asking too much and the wrong question, because it is always about something greater. The battle in Bastar is an important frontline of contemporary global indigenous resistance to primitive accumulation and capitalist expansion.

Our task is surely to join the author (and countless others) in exposing the Indian state and the major corporate sectors for their ruthless exploitation of natural resources and peoples; to use forums of international trade and law to embarrass the Indian state at every turn; to develop non-neoliberal models of healthcare, childcare and education delivery; to develop sustainable and non-exploitative models of industrial and agricultural development and growth; and to decolonize the mindset that is ignorant of and hostile to non-urban ways of living.

Only through that process will we be able to find solutions to the dilemma of ‘true and democratic development’ so needed in India and elsewhere.


You might be interested in reading an interview with Sudha Bharadwaj of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, conducted by Justin Podur in Raipur on 5 March 2013:

May/June 2013, ATC 164