Between 2011 and 2015, journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj lived in India's Red corridor, reporting on the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency. In his book The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country, he writes about his time in the Naxal heartland, presenting the prevailing conditions in all their complexity. By using narrative non-fiction and multiple point of views, he offers intimate glimpses of the perspectives of different people he met, and highlights the dominance of death in their way of life.
In an interview with Firstpost, Bhardwaj discusses what life is like inside the Dandakaranya forest, why a solution hasn't yet emerged, the possible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the insurgency, and more.
Tribal responses to the insurgency range across the spectrum " some want to revive the Salwa Judum and actively, violently remove the rebels from their lands, while others earn the title 'mukhbir' because of a loss of identity, and essentially become collateral damage. There are also the ones who join the rebels, primarily because they see it as a battle for 'jal, jungle, aur jameen'. In tribals responding to rebels, what role does gender play?
The Maoists have always tried to bring a large number of women into their fold, and women constitute some 40 percent of their armed cadres in Bastar. Soon after their arrival in Bastar in the 1980s, they had sensed that their ground army of Adivasis couldn't be built without the equal participation of women. They initiate special drives to induct women cadres, celebrate Women's Day on 8 March. In an area where basic nutrition is not easily available, the Maoist rulebook provides for special food rights for women cadres.
Their focus on women is among the major reasons that has enabled their dominance in Bastar for so long. Without the overwhelming support of Adivasi women, they would have found it very difficult to convert the forest into a revolutionary base.
In this sense, the Maoists are strikingly different from another major insurgent zone, Kashmir. Kashmir also has a long running insurgency, but perhaps not a single woman cadre in any of the multiple outfits operating in the Valley over the last three decades.
A militant organisation is as much characterised by its capacity to inflict violence, as by its constitution and composition.
While several guerrillas carry the 'red flag on red fort' dream, there are also those who are not fuelled by that ideological passion. Besides someone joining the rebels to escape patriarchy, or due to being thrashed by the police and being treated unfairly by the rigid, hierarchical Indian system, the act also seems to stem from their search for an alternate society and way of life. As they feel empowered to imagine a better life, what then is the lived reality for such an individual?
The lived reality barely matches the dreams and expectations. The society they had aspired for, they soon realise, will take several generations to bring about. Always on the move in the jungle, battling with death and diseases, living with the fear of a police attack and an untimely death, they fight a battle for posterity, for an ideal that may forever remain a distant dream and may perhaps never be fulfilled. Their life, thus, seems to remain trapped in an escapable irony.
However, this is only my perception of their life. It may very well be erroneous. Perhaps they find their lives extremely fulfilling and meaningful.
You talk about the importance of the oral tradition, as many communities of the forest use stories where they treat Hindu deities with irreverence, to push back against the proposed hegemony of the city. In as much as the Maoists have created an alternate society within the forest, what does their art and culture look like?
An underground guerrilla movement trying to raise an army and secure its ground in the wilderness cannot easily focus on creating or promoting works of art. The CPI (Maoist) has a cultural wing called Chetna Natya Manch that brings out occasional journals, produces street plays, poems and songs to woo villagers and invigorate their cadres.
These performances, mostly undertaken by the younger cadres who don't participate in armed activities, highlight the threat caused by the state and the market, and urge the adivasis to join the cause of the revolution. The cadres also enact major fake encounters by security forces to inform the villagers about the killings of Adivasis.
You tell the stories of couples like Korsa Joga and Varalakshmi, and Akash and Hemla, walking away from the revolution for the simple pleasures of domesticity, and instead finding unhappy endings. There is also Tejaswi, born inside the forest to guerrilla revolutionaries whose yearning for a child was greater than the ideals the revolution had inculcated in them. How is love perceived by the insurgents? Besides being an act of rebellion against the rebels, what role is love playing in this climate where violence and death are so foregrounded and dominant?
The codebook of the Maoists says that love and marital life must conform to the requirements of the revolution. Marriages are allowed within the Party, but the couples are rarely deployed in a squad, and often find themselves in distant platoons. They are expected to remain 'comrades'.
However, being a basic requirement of human life, love and the consequent desire for a family often becomes a tempering factor that contests and challenges the Maoist's ideals. When a guerrilla enters into a forbidden love or, on rare occasions, decides to have a child, it unsettles the entire squad. Such Maoists often give up their weapons, renounce the cause they had been fighting for and leave the Party to begin a new life. Love, thus, severely dents the ideal of revolution.
You share the story of the policeman who has backup outside when he goes with his family to watch a movie, and of how, once inside the jungle, you understood why every player in this situation is always in a constant state of alertness. You explain the state of conflict spies and informers live in, and the dejectedness and loss of identity that many surrendered cadres experience. Inside the forest, there's also the instance of five-year-old boys squeezing the life out of birds as a form of entertainment, a toy. Living and fighting as they are without the legitimacy and validation of the term 'war' or even 'conflict', how is the participants' mental health being affected? As a result, what type of worldview do you see developing in younger generations?
Any comment on their mental health cannot be definitive; it can only be indicative. Considering that the lives of all the participants " policemen, Adivasis and the guerrillas " are always in peril, one could surmise that they might develop some cynicism, indifference for the world.
The younger generation of guerrillas, perhaps, don't share the optimism of the generation of the 1970s and 1980s, who believed that the revolution was not so distant. The cadres who have joined in the last decade seem to be fully aware that they will die fighting this lonely battle in the jungle. Since most of them are Adivasis who have barely stepped out of the forest, they remain unaware of the world outside. Several of them wonder about basic things, like a fan or cooking gas. They denounce 'capitalist America', but don't even know where it is, or what it is. They are taught about Marxist ideology, but don't know what the status of Left politics is in India, let alone the world.
They, thus, seem to be living in a bubble of their beliefs and ideals.
However, one cannot easily make the above proposition without noting that a large number of those who live in cities and metros, India's humungous middle-class, perhaps also remain ensconced in a fanciful world of their beliefs.
In one chapter, comrades watch videos of corpses being brutalised. In another, tribal women sob for their dead, even as they witness their post-mortems happening. In the forest, where letters are permanently buried away, a dead body seems to be the chosen mode of communication. How then might the act of preserving their dead through memorials, which "is a tradition, perhaps an addiction, in Bastar", be a way of reclaiming agency and narrative?
A culture can, perhaps, be gauged by the conversation it holds with its deceased. Bastar has always had an intense and intimate bond with its dead. The Adivasis erect memorials for them; in some communities, women playfully perform somersaults over the corpse of an elderly person in the hope of taking their next birth in his family.
The memorials perform a different function for the Maoists. Such monuments erected in red bricks enable the guerrillas to stamp their presence in the jungle and keep their memory alive. It also instils a faith in cadres that their place is secured in the annals of history even after their death. For the Maoists, then, preserving their dead becomes an act of constructing and sustaining their narrative.
Besides deploying the CRPF and using force, another key State response to the insurgency is legal reforms for tribals under the guise of development. But there's a great paradox in trying to win tribals through development, instead of letting their voice be heard and respecting their way of life. More generally as well, the State seems unwilling to, rather than incapable of, fully engaging with the situation in all its complexity. Decades later, why hasn't a solution yet been found?
The insurgency is now in its sixth decade, spread across the country. As many as 90 districts are currently notified as affected by Left-Wing Extremism. It's not a localised conflict, neither a demand for a separate state. Manmohan Singh, when he was the prime minister, termed it the "biggest internal security challenge." If it still continues to rage on, one can only speculate what reasons the State has to keep the insurgency going.
The State doesn't appear to be sincere in finding a solution because the large chunk of the guerrillas come from the Adivasi community, which doesn't form a coherent political or pressure group. The Adivasis find no representation in the media, in academia and in the artistic community. There are no Adivasi leaders or activists or lawyers in capital cities to articulate the cause and concerns of Bastar.
Second, the theatre of the conflict is a forested land that barely figures in national discourse. Since the political class doesn't feel pressurised to resolve the issue, it can afford to be indifferent to it. Leaders find no urgency to include the Naxal issue in their electoral or political manifesto. The State's recent invention of the epithet 'urban Naxal' to discredit writers and activists further confirms its apathy towards the issue.
Third, the State continues to believe that it can crush the insurgents by deploying security forces in the region. The State doesn't want to acknowledge that despite pumping dozens of battalions of paramilitary forces in Bastar, the military approach has failed because the insurgency thrives on an ideology and needs to be countered on an ideological plane.
The only solution, I believe, is through a dialogue with the insurgents. The political establishment must counter the insurgent's contention that the parliamentary democracy in its present form goes against the interests of the marginalised. The country's leaders must convince the Adivasis that their governments will protect their interests.
How are corporate mining interests and the environment affecting the Naxal-Maoist insurgency?
I cannot say how the environment affects the insurgency, but the mining interests have certainly given the guerrillas an argument to criticise the State and the market for, and thus enhance their support among the Adivasis. The guerrillas argue that the State is indifferent to the interests of the Adivasis, and wants to snatch their mineral rich land. This is particularly true across Central India, where the State goes on to acquire the Adivasi land, forcefully or fraudulently, despite repeated resistance. It brings discontent among the villagers, several of whom find themselves joining the Maoists to save their 'jal, jungle aur jameen'. For many Adivasi guerrillas in Bastar, the fight is not about the revolution, but to save their forest.
In the absence of a threat to their land, many of them wouldn't have shifted towards the Maoists, and the insurgency might have not found it easy to enhance its cadre base.
The CPI (Maoist) document Urban Perspectives lays down the importance of an urban base for the rebellion. There is however, an ambiguity around the term 'urban Naxal' that allows the State to quell any dissent. You also mention in your author's note that urban support for the movement is waning. Why is urban support important? Why is it dwindling, and what might happen next?
The term 'urban Naxal' is an utterly misleading, devilish term to discredit people whom the State doesn't find on its side. The Naxal movement has always had an urban presence since its inception in the late 1960s, and only those can be termed urban Naxals who are a member of any banned Maoist organisation and carry out its activities while living in the cities.
Merely because someone disagrees with the government's policies, or even agrees with some of the demands the Maoists have raised, doesn't make that person an urban or a suburban Naxal.
An underground guerrilla movement needs an urban counterpart that provides a moral, ideological and philosophical ground for the armed struggle. It is this legitimisation of the struggle that helps them gain popular sympathy and respect, recruit cadres. On the other hand, the pressure created by these urban members may also force the State to listen to the demands of the guerrillas, and may eventually pave the way for negotiations and a peaceful resolution of the struggle.
The urban movement is waning because the middle-class is shifting away. The idea of a protracted armed struggle no longer attracts the younger generation as it did a few decades ago. In the absence of urban support, the Naxal struggle will gradually be restricted to the jungles and find it increasingly difficult to sustain itself.
Despite the United Nation's COVID-19-related call for global ceasefire, violence in the region seems to be >consistent>. Tensions between India and China have also emerged. You've written about how the Maoists seem to be in the process of establishing a new base in the KKT (Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu) tri-junction area. In as much as the Maoists are "not separatist or anti-national, but anti-system", how might their plans in the South be affected in a post-COVID world? How do you think the next few years of the insurgency might shape up?
The virus should restrict their movement in several areas. They may find it difficult to get their basic supplies. But in some areas, it may also help them regain the territory they had ceded earlier. In Bastar, for instance, the Maoists seem to have utilised the lockdown period for regrouping their cadres. Intelligence inputs suggest that since the operations of security forces have reduced, the Maoists have intensified their presence in certain areas.
One can only speculate about the shape the insurgency may take in the next few years. It largely depends on the State's initiative to tackle the challenge. The guerrillas continue to hold large territories in Dandakaranya and are spreading out in other states. Unless the State takes concrete steps to initiate talks, the guerrillas should be in Bastar for at least a decade. There will be many more ambushes, fake encounter killings of Adivasis and scores of Adivasis will be lodged in jails on false charges. Many more will be forced to leave their villages and come to cities as daily-wage labourers.
So the question we should ask is this: if the battle continues, what damage will be caused to the Adivasi life in a decade? And whose constitutional responsibility is it to protect the Adivasis?