Sunday, July 26, 2009
Red Sun: The Road Less Travelled
In the summer of 2004, a journalist friend of mine travelled to the Maoist headquarters of Rolpa, hoping to meet the combatants. After a month-long journey through Rolpa and Rukum, the hinterland in the Mid Western region, he could not stumble upon a single combatant. He returned empty handed, and talked about it with his colleagues in cosy Kathmandu newsroom. Nevertheless, his travelogue was published in the Nepali language weekly newsmagazine, titled: “A Red Fort without Combatants.”
This came to my mind while reading Sudeep Chakravarti's book Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. Despite several attempts, the author fails to meet the combatants holed up deep in India's backwater. Towards the end of the book, he embarks on a tour of Jharkhand, hoping to meet gun-toting guerrillas. Instead, he ends up pondering the beauty of the place: “Photography was born for this.”
However, this should not deter a tenacious reader from enjoying the fascinating book that blends travelogue and reportage to tell the stories of atrocities committed by both the Maoists and the state. The Indian government's lackadaisical response to the threat caused by Maoists seems to partly propel his inquiry.
It was only in April 2006 when Nepal's Maoists had already joined hands with parliamentary political parties to undertake peaceful mass protest to overthrow the monarchy that India awoke to the magnitude of Maoist crisis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed the Naxal violence 'greatest internal security threat.'
Sudeep writes in the preface: “Maoism is not our greatest security threat. Poverty, non-governance, bad justice and corruption are. Maoist presence in a third of India merely mirrors our failings as a nation.” He further elaborates on the goal of writing the book: “I wanted to adopt a role of a storyteller, to attempt to tear the veil of denial that urban, middle-class-and-up, policymaking India lives behind without realising there's a poison pill inside the nation—of the nation's own making.”
On his flight from Mumbai to Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, the state most ravaged by 'people's war,' the author meets his potential readers: Ritu Jain and SD Karmalkar, the former a graduate of India's top business school and now an employee at American Express and the latter a manager at ACC Limited. The two are the epitome of “urban, middle-class-and-up” India that he aspires to inform through his book. He strikes a conversation and both like him seem worried about the violence and counter violence especially in the mineral rich and tribal dominated Chhattisgarh. The state has also become a laboratory for state sponsored vigilante groups thanks to the formation of controversial and notorious Salwa Judum in which the tribespeople are pitted against the Maoists. (The notion of arming civilians to crush rebels also found its way into Nepal's Maoist insurgency. In 2005, retaliation forces under the name of Pratikar Samiti were formed in Tarai districts of Kapilbastu and Nawalparasi. Mohid Khan, a leader of such vigilante group in Kapilbastu was later killed in a communal violence).
But Chhattisgarh is only the tip of the iceberg. The Red Corridor (dubbed “Pashupati to Tirupati” by LK Advani), covers 12 states, from Bihar in the north and West Bengal in the east, to Andhra Pradesh in the south and the edges of Maharashtra in the west. It is also home to India's underbelly where casteism, corruption, injustice, poverty and illiteracy hold sway. And, Maoists with their ideology of encircling city from village, easily bank on the state's apathy and its absence in those areas.
The Naxalism or Naxalite movement can be traced to a small village called Naxalbari, near Siliguri in West Bengal. In 1967, a group of Bengalis launched an armed uprising led by Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal. The rebellion was quickly suppressed. Mazumdar died in detention, but Kanu, who dissented with the former is “among the few on-ground leaders and participants who still live in and around ground zero.” The writer even manages to sneak into Nepali border side of Kakkarbhitta where he runs into a Maoist pro-democracy protest in the spring of 2006.
Had the writer travelled a little further west in Jhapa district, he would have come across a remnant of Naxalbari in Nepal. In 1971, a handful of young communists from Jhapa, inspired by Naxalite movement, launched an armed uprising. But after the massacre of a few local 'feudal lords', the movement was swiftly crushed. This incident which is considered precedence to Maoist 'people's war' is not mentioned in the book.
By juxtaposing Indian Maoists with their Nepali counterpart, the writer suggests Indian comrades to follow Nepal's path. But this seems like a wishful thinking. Of late, the gulf between Indian Maoists and Nepali comrades has widened. CPI Maoist's recent decision to call Nepali Maoists 'revisionist' says it all.