x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The hungry tide

Books Reading Sudeep Chakravarti's nuanced account of India's Maoist movement, Toral Gajarawala wonders why the country's Anglophone novelists have so persistently avoided the crisis of nationalism it represents

The famed Telugu balladeer and Naxalite activist Gummadi Vittal Rao - known in India as Gaddar - performs at the press club of India in New Delhi.
The famed Telugu balladeer and Naxalite activist Gummadi Vittal Rao - known in India as Gaddar - performs at the press club of India in New Delhi.

Reading Sudeep Chakravarti's nuanced account of India's Maoist movement, Toral Gajarawala wonders why the country's Anglophone novelists have so persistently avoided the crisis of nationalism it represents. Red Sun: Travel in Naxalite Country Sudeep Chakravarti Viking Dh120 In Siddhartha Deb's English-language novel An Outline of a Republic, a journalist from Calcutta is sent to the Indo-Burmese border to investigate an insurgent group called the Movement Organised to Resuscitate Liberation Struggle (MORLS). As he travels to the edge of the country via Delhi, Calcutta, Imphal and Kohima, his progress is slowed by broken-down buses, bribes and border patrols. Along the way, we hear scattered rumours about the "ultras", as the revolutionaries are called, but we see them in just a single archival photograph. In Moreh, a small city along the border, the journalist spots some armed men in camouflage in a forest clearing, "but it was impossible to tell if they were a government unit or an insurgent outfit". We never meet members of MORLS, or learn much about their political programme. We do, however, learn quite a bit about the journalist: in the end, the insurgency in the Northeast serves as a backdrop for his story, his search, his demands.

Sudeep Chakravarti's Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country is not a novel, but it follows a similar journey: the slow voyage of a journalist (Chakravarti himself) towards the dark heart of an Indian rebellion. In this case, the insurgents in question are the country's Maoist guerrillas, often referred to as the Naxalites. In documenting the current state of the Naxalites, Chakravarti does what Indian literature in English has avoided doing for the last five decades; that is, he investigates (often at the level of daily experience) a political movement that exists outside of the electoral, the parliamentary and the sanctioned - and poses serious questions about the future of a country.

The Red Corridor, the central swathe of India, crosses 12 states, from Bihar in the north and West Bengal in the east, to Andhra Pradesh in the south and the edges of Maharashtra in the west. It covers some of the most rural, underdeveloped and poverty-stricken areas of the country, areas in which there is only occasional and passing sign of the state. This region is increasingly under the control of armed revolutionaries, members of various factions consolidated in 2004 as the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The Maoists threaten moneylenders, burn debt papers, organise jailbreaks, redistribute land and steal weapons. They organise and arm local dalams (militias) to fight against the state and its usurpation of indigenous peoples' land. They create sanghams, communities of village support for the guerrillas. They extract "permissions" from forest contractors, traders and big businesses for access to land under their control. They set landmines, kidnap bureaucrats, kill landlords and torture informers.

It is estimated that there are over 50,000 active Maoist rebels in India, not including silent supporters. In 2006, 750 people were killed in "Naxal-related violence" according to the Indian state department. CPI (Maoist) is outlawed by the Indian government as a terrorist organisation, and prime minister Manmohan Singh has identified Maoists as the single most serious threat to India's national security. In the last few years, these facts have been well-circulated in news reports on India's stability. But who are the Maoists? What do they believe? How are they funded and how do they operate? These questions are rarely discussed in much detail, even within India, and Red Sun - which capitalises on the intimacies and sympathies produced by narrative, first-person journalism - does well to explore the answers.

CPI (Maoist) was produced by the consolidation, in 2004, of two influential Maoist groups: the People's War Group in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Communist Centre in Bihar and Punjab. Like almost all of the many other Maoist factions in India, these groups have their ideological roots in Naxalbari, the West Bengal village where peasants rose up against their landlords in 1967. Destitute farm labourers occupied the land on which they worked, seized grain, attacked landowners and, with help from students and intellectuals, established a parallel administration. The gains of the Naxalites - and the inspiration they were providing for similar movements in the south - provoked a violent response from the government: activists and intellectuals were steadily jailed, tortured, murdered throughout the early 1970s.

When the remains of these movements emerged from prison or from hiding, the failures of the original Naxalites became the topic of a serious self-reflective debate that produced the broad range of sub-movements now in operation today. What has always united Naxalites has been their call for a "protracted people's war", "an agrarian revolution", an "armed struggle against feudalism" and, eventually, political power. They are (with only a few exceptions) opposed to the current political system, the constitution and electoral politics more generally. But they aren't secessionists or ethnic nationalists. As Chakravarti writes: "India's Maoists do not want a separate country. They already have one. It's just not the way they would like it - yet."

Chakravarti spends much of his time documenting the hardships faced by the Red Corridor's residents. Inroads made there by large mining and metal corporations have displaced thousands of tribal people in Orissa and Chattisgarh; in Jharkand and Bihar, illiterate farmers have been told they contractually own just six inches of their land. Farmer indebtedness, increased seed costs and low crop prices have led to tens of thousands of farmer suicides. Caste violence, perpetrated both by individuals and upper-caste militias like the Ranvir Sena in Bihar, continues with a regularity and ferocity that challenges even the most dedicated documenters.

Within the Red Corridor, Chakravarti spends the majority of his time in Chattisgarh, the state which has spawned the controversial Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored paramilitary organisation that recruits and arms citizens in an attempt break down the Maoist web of support. Well-equipped and fantastically violent, Salwa Judum "resettles" people after burning down their villages, destroying food sources and killing suspected Maoist sympathisers. In 2005, Salwa Judum members gouged the eyes of a Maoist sympathiser and dismembered him in front of his children; there are many such atrocities on both sides of this conflict.

In Raipur, the head of an anti-Naxal police cell tells Chakravarti: "If you spend some time in that area, you begin to empathise with the Naxals. You should see what happens - the levels of exploitation are so high." Again and again, Chakravarti's book captures the way the Maoists' ideological position is capacious enough to harness the anger of the rural for the urban, the slum dweller for the apartment dweller, the Dalit for the upper caste, the tenant for the farmer, the tribal for the forest guard. It also captures the powerful persuasive effect the Naxalites' critique (if not always their methodology) has on the journalist himself. Weaving his way through "the twilight zone between the hard Left and the extreme Left", Chakravarti repeatedly notes the similarities between the dire predictions of senior economists and Maoist spokesmen: poverty and misery abound in both. Through the prism of the Red Corridor, the history of India appears as one long battle for conditions of equity and the redistribution of land.

And not just forest and farm land. Perhaps the jungle is the current source of Indian Maoists' symbolic capital, producing images of guerrilla fatigues, primitive weaponry and dusty kangaroo courts, but it will soon be supplanted by a new iconography: slum-dwellers meeting around chawl water pumps, engineers photo-copying pamphlets after work, women in loose hair and long jeans. This may sound unbelievable to those informed solely by breathless magazine reports that paint the Naxalites as a primitive tribal army. But the "Urban Perspective Plan" put out by the CPI (Maoist) in 2004 discusses various strategies for "mass mobilisation", both "secret" and "open", at work, at home, in the chawl, in the factory, the NGO. It outlines elaborate models for urban party cells and worker-peasant alliances, the courting of unions, teachers and women's organisations. Whenever Chakravarti can, he checks his e-mail and blogs like "naxalrevolution" and "naxalwatch" for updates. Yes, the Naxals are young, sometimes very young, men who fight with bows and arrows and bamboo staves when they don't have guns or bullets; but they are also wired, well-connected and transnational. As Red Sun documents, these guerrillas receive significant ethical and logistical support from the urban, educated, uppercaste - and plausibly from Sri Lanka's now-dismantled LTTE, as well as Nepali Maoists.

Red Sun also departs from most coverage of Naxalism at an analytical level, underlining again and again that it isn't simply a law-and-order problem, but rather a development problem, one dictated by the economic structure of the Indian nation. Roughly 75 per cent of the country's people are rural, two-thirds of them depend on agriculture to earn, and 280 million are landless labourers, the vast majority indebted. When Chakravarti asks Ajay Sahni, of the Indian Institute for Conflict Management, why Indian policymakers prefer to focus on Pakistan, jihadis and separatists rather than the massive and growing Naxalite issue, he responds: "Because we don't like it. There is no foreign hand; we'll have to face our own failures in this particular case." Maoists do not consider themselves unpatriotic, and they are steeped in Indian history; as such, they represent a genuine crisis of nationalism.

This alone should warrant the interest of India's Anglophone literary sphere, which has always been preoccupied with the idea of India and the romance of history. But these writers haven't touched the Naxalites, a reflection of the circumscribed political field in which they operate. Indian Anglophone fiction is a fiction of good citizens and nonviolent resisters. It is largely an urban genre, produced by and for cosmopolitan urbanites, and the Naxals seem like an exclusively hinterland problem. They are diasporic writers, often concerned with being Indian in the world beyond India, and the Naxals seem like a local problem. They are committed to English, and the Naxals seem a bit too vernacular, employing languages and dialects with no history of translation, with no relationship to the English and Hindi of the elite.

Only VS Naipaul has written a significant novel on the Maoists in English, 2004's Magic Seeds, which justly received a chorus of negative reviews. James Atlas, writing in the New York Times, called it a "lazy" book, commenting on its many narrative failures. But it is politically lazy as well. The People's War Group, like all revolutionaries before them, are hollowed of all ethical capital, of any sense of injustice, of any potential redemption. "No one is more vain and vicious than the low willing to set the record straight." The fighters are psychopaths and criminals looking for an outlet; their supporters are motivated by boredom; villagers who have become soldiers are hired hands who like the feel of a gun. This is vintage Naipaul, for whom beliefs are always shallow, social movements always narcissistic. (Magic Seeds is the sequel to Half A Life, in which caste struggles are labelled "petty", and the colonial struggle on the world stage is the only one of any consequence.)

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's recent Booker Prize-winning novel is in many ways a Naipaulian heir. It vaguely suggests the Maoists as the most recent manifestation of the conflict between the haves and the have-nothings; the Naxals hover in the background of the class crisis the novel showcases. But when the lowcaste protagonist kills his master, he isn't fighting for conditions of equity - he simply wants his own piece of the pie.

This is modern India, where the individual reigns. And more than anything else, Indian Anglophone fiction wants to be modern, to recast western modernity as something global yet recognisably Indian. Cars, elections, English, free markets, consumption, seated Indian-style. Red headbands, daggers, tribals - these crude, incomplete signifiers of Naxalism compromise a vision of a nation that has been painfully and artfully sketched by several generations, from RK Narayan's Gandhian village of Malgudi to Amitav Ghosh's global India. The guerrillas, moving amid tribal communities effectively invisible in the elite Indian imagination, trafficking ideologies discredited by India Shining, are modernity's other cheek.

Naxalism has thus been left to journalists, historians and anthropologists - and poets and playwrights in vernacular languages with limited cultural capital. Scholars track the past and present, and revolutionaries sing the partisan. But fiction is capable of its own rich interventions: the exploration of conscience, the resurrection of submerged histories, the complication of the simple binaries presented by politicians and the news media. This is why the resistance of Indian Anglophone fiction to the Naxalite issue is a kind of blindness. Deb's novel is striking because it travels to the elusive Northeast to chronicle the politically marginal, the elusive guerrilla - then remains trapped in the same fictional paradigm. Only certain citizens become characters.

"I wanted to portray the everydayness of Maoism," writes Chakravarti. It's a telling line. Red Sun depicts the India you know - Dehli, Bombay, Bangalore - as a collection of islands amid swelling tides. Beware global warming. The lack of critical interest in the Naxalites, this literary disappearing of India's guerrillas, is a failure to address one of the most important political movements in postcolonial India, and a tragic one at that.

Toral Gajarawala teaches literature in New York.