The tribal zone of central India, which is also the seat of the Maoist insurgency for several decades, is among the least comprehended areas of the country. The presence of mineral-rich forests, the hunt of private companies for natural resources, local dissent against land acquisition, and the ongoing confrontation between the insurgents and security forces make it an elusive territory in popular imagination.
Two new books, dealing with two different aspects, attempt to decode the culture and dynamics of this area. Narendra’s Bastar Dispatches: A Passage Through the Wilds is a personalised account of his engagement with Bastar that stretched for over three decades in various capacities. He first went as a field researcher, lived in Abujhmad and was soon pulled towards “the wilds and the ecological cohesions in everyday living that sustain the Adivasi way of life”. His poignant memoir, written in a prose that often evokes poetry, grasps the Adivasi life of Bastar with a finesse that few writers have been able to achieve.
Narendra begins with a marvellous observation: “There is a certain magic to the relatively small vocabulary of Abujhmad. It has very little of the enduring and much of the tentative and amorphous.” It’s a world where stories, songs and conversations end “abruptly, without answering the obvious curiosities”. One has to spend considerable time in Abujhmad to grasp the precision and beauty of this description.
The book comprises 46 short chapters, anecdotal and reflective. They are independent but also interconnected, and together weave an authentic picture of Abujhmad. The area is also the kingdom of the Maoist insurgency for over two decades, but Narendra skips over the guerrillas and chooses to focus on the languid village life. Such is his portrayal of tribal life that the absence of a defining factor of Abujhmad doesn’t limit the work.
Human civilisations are known for their quest of knowledge, which holds little value for the resident of Abujhmad. Inverting the question, the author asks: “Why know? What does one do with knowing?” “Abujhmad’s politics is of the powerless and meaningless. They neither engage with, participate in or even know of such an intensely knowledgeable world.” Abujhmad doesn’t negate the world of knowledge, but charts its own universe.
The author also points at the travesty of introducing mindless government schemes in the area, and notes that the forces of modernity have certainly inflicted considerable damage on Bastar in the last two decades.Should the tribals be left alone to evolve on their own or a gradual interference is required to bring them to the ‘mainstream’? Though Narendra makes his stance clear on an issue India has been debating for long, there are perhaps no universal solutions that can be prescribed for every tribal zone of the country.
However, as the book begins commenting on the ills of modernity, history and secularism, it doesn’t find an easy space in the ongoing narrative. For instance, the proposition that “no bondage is worse as the journey of secular thought” is legitimate in itself, but appears a bit incongruous in a work on Abujhmad that is yet to be invaded by what can be termed as secularism. The book makes for engrossing reading when the author shares his insights, but as the tone turns argumentative, it tends to lose its ground.
The second book is located in Jharkhand, the other part of the central Indian forest. Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands documents “an unexpected seven-night trek” of around 250 km, which the author, “dressed as a man in an olive-green guerrilla uniform”, had undertaken with a Naxal squad in 2010. An associate professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, Shah had been researching the region for long before she received a sudden invitation from the guerrillas and soon found herself accompanying them on a long trip.
Many journalists and researchers have been part of such guerrilla squads earlier and have returned with invaluable insights about their lives and ideologies. She makes some pertinent observations about the guerrillas, describes the Maoists’ exploits with the local black market, highlighting the underlying contradictions of their lives. Luck also takes her to a conference of the state-level committee of the CPI (Maoist), as she recounts her meetings with several senior leaders. An instance is particularly revealing when she notices a senior Maoist Gyanji receiving a phone call at midnight from his wife asking him to return home and take care of his son’s education. Unlike the cadres of Telangana, the Maoists of Bihar-Jharkhand are rarely able to sever their family ties. Caught between the call for revolution and yearnings for a family, they live with ironies in their stride.
The book slips on the way as it tries to move beyond “Nightmarch”. A chapter, for instance, details the history of the Maoist movement, which is already well-documented, adding little to the existing discourse. The comparison between the Maoist revolutionaries and renouncers in Indian traditions like of yogis and monks is a bit far-fetched. The author tries to underline a “continuity between the figure of the communist revolutionary and a long history of renunciation for liberation (Moksha) in India”. Many guerrillas have undoubtedly sacrificed their lives for the dream of revolution, but the philosophy a seeker of nirvana embraces is perhaps fundamentally different from the ecosystem of a revolutionary.
With the alleged killing of a US citizen by the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India is now witnessing a fresh discourse on the status of tribes. But can the tribes speak? Does the state even attempt to grasp their language? Both the works, in their respective spheres, draw urgent attention to a zone whose continued neglect reflects the collective pathologies of society.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla