They Didn’t Start the Fire

Nandini Sundar’s account of Indian democracy’s failures in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist corridor is a disturbing but essential read.

Written by Rahul Pandita | Updated: October 1, 2016 1:49 pm
The Burning Forest book, India’s war in Bastar book, Maoist, Nandini Sundar, Bastar Maoism War zone: A security man keeps watch from behind barbed wire fencing outside a police station near the Bijapur Salwa Judum camp. The entire region lives on the edge with Naxal violence.

Name: The Burning Forest: India’s war in Bastar
Author: Nandini Sundar
Publisher: Juggernaut
Pages: 432 pages
Price: Rs 699

On September 23, two boys left their home in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, to visit their aunt in a village 20 kilometres away. In the wee hours of the morning after, they were picked up from there by police personnel and shot dead, allegedly, in cold blood.

This is a story that has often repeated itself through India’s so-called red corridor, especially in the Bastar region: innocent people picked up and shot dead in the name of anti-Maoist operations.

I specifically mention Bastar because there appears to be some sort of incentivisation in Chhattisgarh to boost the kill count. It is nauseating to see journalists close to a certain police officer eulogising him for such sinister operations, referring to him as “tiger” and using every possible emoji on WhatsApp groups to lionise him.

The academic Nandini Sundar, who has for long dealt with violence in Bastar, begins her book, The Burning Forest: India’s war in Bastar, with a similar incident in February 2006, when a group of security forces, led by vigilantes of Salwa Judum, swooped down on a village in Bastar, raping and killing a young woman, Jogi, who had just returned home after collecting mahua flowers. To draw home the message that nothing has changed even 10 years later, Sundar describes another incident from February this year when two boys were picked up from a forest and then killed, like the two boys I mentioned in the beginning. The similarity is shocking; but more shocking is the fact that no heads will roll in these cases or dozens of such others.

It is largely because of Sundar’s efforts that the Supreme Court’s intervention in Salwa Judum became possible. Unlike most journalists or even activists, Sundar is invested in the people of Bastar. Her investment is reflected in the clarity of her narrative about how the lives of adivasis have been destroyed by the state that has enabled a very convenient marriage of mining and militarism. She writes that she went to Bastar for the first time in 1990 as a Ph.D. student, a time when she “laughed a lot.” By that time, the first squads of Maoist guerrillas had been in Bastar for 10 years and, barring an odd newspaper report or two, there were very little signs of the war. But the war had already begun, as she realised soon afterwards.

Like most of those who have tried to make sense of the war in Bastar, Sundar also grapples with the question of where to begin the narrative — should it begin with the adivasis of Bastar rebelling against the British more than a hundred years ago, or 1947 when India became independent, or 1967 when the Spring Thunder of revolution erupted in far-off Naxalbari, or in 1980 when the Maoist guerillas entered Bastar for the first time, or in 2004 when their war against the state intensified, prompting then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call it “India’s biggest internal security threat”?

the-burning-forest There are enough questions that have been answered in The Burning Forest to keep you sleepless over several nights.

Sundar insists that her narrative is not about the Maoists but about Indian democracy and how it has reduced “political contests over rights, distributive justice and alternative visions of the good to law and order problems.” The picture she paints is grim, but mostly familiar to those who follow the war in Bastar (and elsewhere in the red corridor): a local media intimidated or co-opted by the state, indifference of the national media, the loot of the region’s natural resources and the cosy relationship between the Maoists and industrialists, how the Maoists entrenched themselves among the adivasis (especially Gonds), how the Maoists are seen as “national vermin” to be fought by state forces with names such as Greyhounds and Cobras, or how the security forces have penetrated deep into the erstwhile Maoist bastions, sometimes demolishing memorials erected in memory of fallen Maoist leaders such as the one on the river launch of Janbai (not Jambai) in Odisha’s Malkangiri for Patel Sudhakar Reddy.

From Part Two, titled ‘Civil War’, the narrative focuses on the phenomenon of Salwa Judum, showing how quickly it spread within one year (from its inception in 2005), turning village after village into battle zones and ending up strengthening the Maoists. It is a stark reminder of the follies committed by the state and a damning indictment of how the state turned adivasis against each other, with many days turning into “absolute carnivals of looting, arson, rape and killing.” The author deftly weaves stories of how the Judum triggered off a cycle of violence and displacement, reducing people to “both anger and helpless, vacant despair.”

In the third and final part of the book, Sundar looks at how the state and its policies and plans and legislations have failed to bring about any significant change in the lives of the people in this war zone. A majority of funds allotted to bring development to 88 Maoist-affected districts, have been used to construct roads (for the easy movement of troops), while people suffer from an absolute lack of basic amenities like healthcare and education. Sundar also correctly points out the fallacy of “celebrity campaigns”, which make Soni Sori the face of the fight against Salwa Judum while activists like Manish Kunjam (of the Communist Party of India) remain mostly obscure. In village after village in Bastar (Sarkeguda, for example), if you care to visit, they will tell you how Kunjam silently appeared with a tractor (at Bhadrachalam in Telangana where they had migrated because of Judum terror) and without any fanfare brought them back to their land.

The author likes to make a virtue out of the fact that she has never been embedded with the Maoists. “I was told it was because I ask too many questions,” she writes. But sometimes there is no need to ask questions. The answers are right there and Sundar is not incapable of finding them. Nevertheless, there are enough questions that have been answered in The Burning Forest to keep you sleepless over several nights, thinking about what we have done to our own people. It is a book that all of us need to read.

Rahul Pandita is the author of, among others, Hello, Bastar: The untold story of India’s Maoist movement.