A major reason that the Maoists, who entered Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in 1980s, could make the forested zone their headquarters was their grasp of tribal life, particularly the class struggle among communities. Having learnt that unlike other tribes, Gonds were the “Aryans of Bastar”, “ever ready to colonize new tracts”, it was easy for the rebels to identify their potential recruits. As they helped Gonds occupy forest land and settle villages in south Bastar, the tribe became their front soldiers in their struggle against the state.
This is a rare sociological insight in Nandini Sundar’s The Burning Forest, which mostly focuses on the decade in Bastar after Salwa Judum began in 2005.
The complexities Bastar carries can make it look like a mythical land. A pristine forest that has seen little footfall of outsiders, traditional brews of mahua and salfi, race among top industries to acquire rich reservoir of minerals, laboratory of guerrillas, increasing militarisation, human rights violation by the state and the consequent destruction of tribal life. Sadly still, largely absent from the national discourse.
Among the few concerned voices on Bastar, Sundar’s engagement with the zone has been fairly long, beginning in the 1990s, first as a PhD scholar, then as an activist and a litigant of the Judum case. She has already authored a book, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-2006). In The Burning Forest, her litigant often assumes the front seat, as a major portion documents the police violence and her struggle with the court proceedings. The failure of the state, of course, can never be recorded enough, but when a top anthropologist pens down her memoirs, one expects introspective and insightful prose. A self-reflective narrative that simultaneously confronts both the external and the internal world of the writer.
In his marvellous essay, The Social System of a Mysore Village, sociologist MN Srinivas had pointed at “the hierarchy in diet” that is related to “caste hierarchy”. The village had mere 15 Brahmins among a total of 1,523 residents. Still, Srinivas found that “when a caste wants to rise in the hierarchy, it may adopt the Brahminical diet”—non-alcoholic, vegetarian food. Such instances take a text to a different plane.
Sundar’s prose is elevated when it becomes intimate, acquires flesh and the writer bleeds through her words. “The activists insist on talking of the ‘root causes’ of Maoism. The security experts brush aside any reference to ‘root causes’ and insist we talk of ‘Maoist violence’. The academics debate what violence means, the journalists worry about their next big newsbreak. And so it goes on…I can no longer see the child in the forest.” This paragraph, ironically, is part of the few ‘field notes’ the writer has included in the book.
Bastar is a collective failure. Few entered the zone, and many of those who did often carried a pre-written script, in obvious search of evidences to validate their already ossified propositions.
Sundar’s observant eye is visible only at instances. A signpost with ‘Welcome to Heaven’ written outside a CRPF post in the forested zone of Sukma; nameless rape victim tribal women referred to as wife or mother of someone, losing their identity in the vortex of violence; the training song of Jungle Warfare College in Bastar was perhaps borrowed from the Guantanamo Bay camps.
She brilliantly highlights the often-neglected struggle of the CPI in Bastar, dedicating the book to its intrepid leader Manish Kunjam and underlines the shortcomings of the media campaign around certain names like Binayak Sen and Soni Sori. The CPI, considered a bete noire by the Maoists, is ironically termed a Maoist front by the police. Kunjam has fought more for tribals than many leaders put together. Sundar cites a Google search that had Sen mentioned 1,42,000 times, Sori 67,000 times, and Kunjam on just 4,770 occasions. The generation that considers the internet the only archive will obviously consider Sen and Sori as the Bastar crusaders and the real fighters will be ignored. “Sori was not known for any human rights or political work before her arrest,” Sundar writes, detailing how “personality-driven” movements, “influx of funds and terminology like ‘human rights defenders’ have so transformed the human rights movement that the defenders become more important than the cause they are defending”.
Besides other activists and journalists working in Bastar, Sundar is often termed a ‘sympathiser’ by the police. The police will obviously ignore her accurate pointer that the rebels “are so blinded by the certitudes of their own revolution that they are unable to appreciate even the symbolic importance of elections as a moment of mobilisation for popular demands”.
If the police have made wild allegations without any accountability, it’s also a reflection on the state of Chhattisgarh. The state’s polity, media and people have failed to evolve a civil society that engages with both the rebels and the state. In the absence of a strong internal dissent, it is easier for the establishment to term any concerned voice first as an “outsider”, and finally a “Maoist”.
Urban intellectuals and activists often face a moral dilemma over finding an appropriate reaction to the Maoist violence while acknowledging the socio-economic ideal behind the rebellion. Sundar traverses this fine line neatly, coming across as a passionate advocate for peace. She has a word for the “urban radicals” too, who “are unable to cope with the moral complexity of multiple affiliations and desires…and the desperate yearning for peace”.
A writer’s soul can often be gauged by the final lines. In the last paragraph, Sundar writes “an alternative happy ending” of Bastar in which she “walks through dense and fragrant forests” and can “hear the koel calling”. Village schools have “chemistry labs” and teach Gondi, Hindi, English—even Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Too romantic for a scholar? Is such an “ending” possible without enormous intervention of multiple external forces that might permanently alter, perhaps spoil, the fragrance of mahua leaves? Acknowledging her commitment to Bastar and underlining the significance of this work, one also wishes it had more of the writer and her ‘field notes’.