Blood Red River questions the dominant narrative of development—and also those who challenge it
Rohit Prasad’s Blood Red River forces the reader, no matter where she stands on the political spectrum, to confront some inconvenient truths about the existing political-economic reasons that underpin the Maoist conflict in India.
Prasad, a professor of economics at the Management Development Institute, travelled in the parts of Chhattisgarh that are affected by ‘Left-wing extremism’ (LWE)—official-ese for the Maoist movement—for over two years, in the course of which he had extensive conversations with a populace caught between the barrels of two opposing guns.
Blood Red River is a book written to confront, to agitate and to finally explain. It makes us question the development path we have taken as a nation, for the human cost it nominally hides from us. It attempts, in Prasad’s words, “a radical immersion in a world far away from the drawing rooms and malls where hegemonic public opinion is fashioned and purveyed”. The author begins with some provoking questions about the growth model India has pursued post the 1991 reforms, singling out land acquisition and the underlying question of rights over forest lands and the resources they host as one of the primary reasons why the Maoist movement established its strongholds in those areas of India where forest-dwelling tribals came into conflict with the government/industry over the control of the said resources. He carefully unspools the politics that has facilitated it—one that has made secondary citizens out of India’s tribals in Chhattisgarh.
The book relies on first-person accounts of the author’s conversations with ordinary tribals, industry leaders, Maoist ideologues and foot-soldiers, and mainline politicians, as much as it does on meticulously drawn-out facts from academic papers and government reports. There is no attempt to align with any particular side, but the apparent divisions of thought between the opposing camps are examined for their merits. To be sure, the book is no catechism of what the author thinks development should ideally mean. Prasad explains the rise of, and the response to, Maoist conflict in Bastar, using prominent individual stakeholders of the region—tribal rights activist Soni Sori; Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was killed for his role in the setting up of Salwa Judum, the armed resistance to Maoists by tribals; RN Singh, the chief resident executive of Tata Steel in Chhattisgarh, among others—as representatives of the various interests at work.
Blood Red River does a good job of turning the lens on the primary actors in this ongoing ‘war’—the Indian state, the industry and the Maoists. In that, it manages to strip the façade of opposing ideological stances off the faces of many in each camp, foot-soldiers and top guns alike. What the reader then is able to see is the naked self-interest and greed that have perpetuated a false narrative of polarities. As this “if you are not with us, you are against us” farce plays out, those of us living far away from ground zero buy into rigid perspectives on development, albeit replete with contradictions. It is this blinkered understanding that Blood Red River can perhaps save us from.
As I read the book, I was tempted to juxtapose Prasad’s inferences with the ones I drew living in Saranda in Jharkhand for the better part of 2012, reporting on a ‘development package’ fronted by the Union rural development ministry of the day. Saranda, a sal forest that sits on one of India’s richest iron ore reserves, had been under the control of the Maoists for nearly a decade before central paramilitary forces and the state police drove them out in August 2011 after 11 months of an armed offensive. With the R256-crore Saranda Development Plan (SDP)—largely a concentration of existing welfare schemes, including the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), the Indira Awas Yojana and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, with the rules relaxed to extend the benefits as widely as possible—the government had hoped for some sort of rapprochement with the locals, mostly Ho and Munda tribals, after decades of ‘an absent state’, a vacuum many blame for the Maoists making Saranda a stronghold.
The then Union rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, was making frequent trips to Saranda those days to monitor the implementation of the plan and gather feedback from the locals. On a July day, at a press gathering in Ranchi, Ramesh had said the government needed to view Maoist conflict as being rooted in questions over the politics of development as much as in endemic social and economic problems. Most media present didn’t report this, focusing instead on the minister’s view that Saranda needed a 10-year moratorium on mining of iron ore by private concerns. But Ramesh had brought out a very seminal point—the need to draw tribals into mainline politics with true political empowerment. The SDP took detail steps to do this, from fast-tracking the recognition of community rights to the forest land in official records to building ‘integrated development centres’ (IDCs) that would house a single window for delivery of benefits under many Union and state welfare schemes—apart from the panchayat office—in each of the six panchayats where the plan was being implemented.
Today, after four years, the only evidence of there ever having been a plan are the mud huts built or refurbished with Indira Awas funds, the single, unoccupied IDC in one of the panchayats, and some half-complete stretches of PMGSY roads. Somewhere, in the transition from the government Ramesh was part of to the current one, Saranda, its tribals and the SDP have all taken a backseat—restarting, perhaps, the cycle of neglect, resentment and rebellion. Blood Red River explains why a similar story will continue to play out—unless there is serious rethinking on what constitutes real development.