For over 25 years, sociologist Nandini Sundar has been writing about Bastar and its inhabitants, both the adivasis and the Maoist guerrillas, who were described as "the biggest internal security threat" to India by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In her latest book, The Burning Forest: India's War in Bastar, Sundar combines her extensive research based on a multiplicity of sources — field trips, oral testimonies and government and court archives — with powerful story-telling to come up with a narrative that is scholarly yet gripping.
The advent of Maoism, the atrocities perpetrated by the state-sponsored vigilante group Salwa Judum, rise of the rapacious mining media and the destruction of a way of life for the adivasis come together to paint a harrowing portrait of the human cost of the ongoing tragedy in the region.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
How and when did you get involved with Bastar and the lives of its inhabitants?
I first visited in 1990 to check out the place for PhD research, and then between 1991 and 1993 I stayed there for a year and a half, looking at district archives, and exploring life in a Dhurwa village.
You wrote this book against "the government's militaristic understanding of the Maoist movement and the revolutionary certainties of the Maoists and their sympathizers". Can you explain this positioning?
This book is written, as much as is possible for an outsider like me, from the perspective of ordinary adivasis who are experiencing the civil war, and how they see the different actors. It is written from a position of self-doubt as I have tried to work out what my own stand on the Maoist movement and the government's response is, as someone who wants to understand all the complexities of the issue, and not reduce it to black and white positions.
Much of Bastar's historical and present problems have been fomented by media coverage. Can you talk about how reporting in national and local media has affected the region?
I wouldn't say that media coverage is at the root of Bastar's problems at all. The basic problems stem from upper-caste and immigrant contempt for adivasis, and the national treatment of adivasi areas as sources of raw material to serve the rest of the country — whether forests or mineral resources.
The media is a problem because it presents things in a certain way — subsidies on MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), food etc. are highlighted as wasteful, when in fact corporate tax write-offs are much more of a burden on the public exchequer. In the case of this conflict, the problem has been first, the lack of reporting; second, a form of reporting that supports only the government version, and third, increasing numbness induced by long-term war.
You write that in a case like Bastar, public anger is often focused on corruption but not at the model of growth being foisted on the adivasis. Can you discuss this conundrum and its implications?
The problem is that there is no costing of things like biodiversity or sustainable lifestyles or recognition that adivasis have ownership rights over their resources. It's all seen as terra nullius — land that can be taken over for public purpose, which effectively means for the benefit of corporates and urban middle classes. The crime involved in taking away adivasi lands and resources is not even seen as theft — it is glorified as development. And even when their rights are recognised, there is so much corruption involved — they are given no compensation, there are arrests, firings on protestors etc. The same middle class public which was upset about scams like 2G don't see what a huge scam is being perpetrated on adivasis.
You also write, 'India's constitutional democracy, because of and in spite of all its failures, is a predicament and promise that no citizen can escape from'.
There is actually a long and complicated history behind this statement. On the one hand, the constitution and electoral democracy provides the government a legitimacy which covers up all its failures. That's what I mean by the predicament of Indian democracy.
On the other hand, even though there is enormous state violence in places like Kashmir, Manipur or Chhattisgarh, people still look to the same system — the courts, the human rights commissions etc. for justice, for redress. Even the armed groups — or at least groups like the Maoists — invoke constitutional principles. That is both a predicament (for the rulers this time) and a promise (for the ruled) — because sometimes — perhaps not often enough — the system does work to provide some justice.
In other words, the Constitution is a home which holds out the ideal of refuge and nourishment for all its citizens, and even when it fails, the ideal continues to influence all of us and is hard to abandon, even for revolutionary change. This is not to say that the Constitution is perfect — there are many sections taken from colonial laws like the 1935 Act. What I want to emphasise in this context, however, is the section on fundamental rights and the vision of the preamble.
How do counter-insurgency measures taken by successive governments in the Northeast and Kashmir compare with Bastar?
In the book, I show how models of counterinsurgency circulate not just within India but across the world. Whether it's Guatemala or Colombia or Chhattisgarh, you see similar processes — villages being burnt, inhabitants displaced, sometimes forced into camp, civilians being armed and made to fight against other civilians from their area. In India, villagers being forced into Salwa Judum camps in Chhattisgarh was borrowed from the police action between 1946-51 in Telangana and from regrouping in Nagaland and Mizoram from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Kashmiri Ikhwanis, surrendered ULFA (SULFA), Punjab Cats etc. are models for the Special Police Officers in Bastar. And so on.
It's been a decade since the Salwa Judum was formed. What is your sense of the future that awaits the members of this group as well as those it has ruled for the last ten years?
The Supreme Court had banned Salwa Judum and ordered in 2011 that the state should stop supporting vigilantes by any name. It had also said that those who committed atrocities should be punished, whether on the government side or Maoists.
Across India, vigilantism has been given a filip with gau rakshaks, right-wing student groups and others enforcing their own version of the law - Nandini Sundar
But of course, nothing of the sort happened. The same Salwa Judum leaders, along with new urban recruits, have formed other groups like the Samajik Ekta Manch, Vikas Sangharsh Samiti Bastar, AGNI etc. They keep changing the name, but the characters are the same. They are fully supported by the police, especially the current Inspector-General of Bastar range, SRP Kalluri. Their primary task is to intimidate civil society members who are critical of the police's excesses like journalists, researchers, or activists; and act as cheerleaders for the police when they carry out encounters.
Unless there is a change of government and/or the rule of law is enforced, they will continue to thrive. Across India, vigilantism has been given a filip with gau rakshaks, right-wing student groups and others enforcing their own version of the law, which may have no relationship to the actual laws in place. As for those they have exploited — the ordinary adivasis — their future is very bleak. If this continues, the future of India as a whole — its civilisation, its diversity, its rich traditions — is dim.
The Burning Forest: India's War in Bastar (Juggernaut Books, 2016, 413 pp, Rs 699) is available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.
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