Creeping Red Tide
A Review, by Anjana Basu
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Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country
By Sudeep Chakravarti
Viking India, Rs 495
There is no doubt that the world has changed and that life has become more uncertain. Bombs explode at unexpected moments. Travel has become a matter of standing in line waiting to be searched, anxiously going through lists of what one can or cannot put into one’s hand luggage. There are terrorists lurking everywhere. And in India, to add to all the currently existing types of terrorism like Al Qaeda, underworld dons and fundamentalists, Hindu or otherwise, is a threat called Maoism which has over the years mushroomed into a very real menace in certain Indian states.
Not that it is completely new. Maoist philosophy has always fretted at India’s capitalist ethos - first in 1941 when its rumblings were being felt in China and then later, at the end of the 60’s when a village called Naxalbari in North Bengal flashed into the headlines. Spring Thunder, they called it in China, where all sympathetic movements were noticed, a roar of warning to all those comfortable people in their safe city homes who knew where their next meal was coming from. Naxalbari’s revolution against capitalism affected a generation and emptied colleges with its fervour while the older generation scratched their heads in bewilderment and counted their missing children. Then the slogan was ‘Our Chairman is China’s Chairman!’, and it was scrawled in red on walls in Calcutta.
Now, in another century, comes a book which flags the Naxalites on its blood red cover with Mao’s arm raised in incompleteness. Mao is an entity that everyone knows, a return perhaps to the old familiar ways. Show anyone here that arm and they recognise it instantly, though they may not respond to the fact that Naxalite philosophy and Maoist philosophy as practiced today are two different things altogether.
“The notion that a Naxalite is someone who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen fighting for justice and equality.” This is the premise on which Sudeep Chakravarti starts his book, meaning Maoists when he uses the word Naxalites. And it all begins when he visits a friend called B who was once an activist but now has moved to the corporate world while still keeping his networks intact. B is swaying to the beat of Sufi rock music on his iPod. He unplugs himself and sets Chakravarti off on his quest.
Red Sun – the title of a Charles Bronson movie, the name of a Peruvian Maoist magazine which can be found online in pdf format…perhaps the East where the red sun is rising? I never did get to ask the author where the name came from at the book launch. Too many people were busy commenting on Maoists and Marxists and the importance of a book like this in the modern context.
In Kolkata it’s hard not to have once- politically-active contacts. I showed my copy of Red Sun at my own contact in hope of enlightenment. He pointed out that Naxals and Maoists weren’t interchangeable even though the terms had become one and the same these days. The Naxalites began in a small village in North Bengal and spread like wildfire to students all over the country who thought it was a remarkably Robin Hood thing to do. Gentlemen Naxals play bridge even in jail and stick sternly by their ethics – some of the police even refer to them as ‘shokher Naxal’, Naxalites by whim. If you compare the two, the Maoists come across as more focused, more direct and more organised in every way. They are educated, blogging individuals who belong to the 21st century and who have come into being because there is a lacuna which the government of an Independent India is unable to fill - the ever deepening void that exists between the haves and have- nots. National Sample Survey Organization estimates put a third of India’s rural population as living on less than Rs 12 a day. On the other hand, we have four Indians on Forbes’ list of the top 10 millionaires.
The book falls roughly into two sections. In the first part, Chakravarti, very aware that he is boldly going where no travel book has gone before in the Indian context, states his game plan with certain set phrases and pictures. Indian politicians like Karan Singh speak ‘mincingly’, government office security guards in Chattisgarh are ‘scruffy’. Village children are fly-blown with snotty noses. A railway station is surrounded by the usual flotsam of poverty - there are women with ‘matted hair’ and dirty young men. He hops on the back of a motorbike and puttputts into Dantewada, spying out Maoist trails and talking to the people he meets in the village-and-a-half along the way. Varying accounts of the death of a police informer – beheaded with a chopper – are counterpointed by the arrival of a ramshackle bus playing ‘Mera jota hai japanni’ (surprisingly attributed to Mera Naam Joker) and which underscores the meaningless message of globalisation in the backwaters of India.
What one misses in the first part of the book is sympathy, which may be an absurd thing to say about a book that is dedicated to understanding why the Maoists are gaining a foothold amongst India’s downtrodden. My ex-Naxal friend turns the pages gently and murmurs something about arrogance, adding hastily ‘as far as he can see’. He was gunned down once on a tramline. Is it really arrogance or is it that most of us come from the right schools with the attitudes that characterise those schools?
Then comes the second part, consisting of four sections which, put together, are more sprawling, since here Chakravarti proceeds to talk to people associated with the Maoists to get a point of view from the opposite side. According to government figures, there are 16 states that have been forced to deal directly with the Maoist threat, and each has come up with different strategies for coping with the problem. However, the underlying cause, that of economic deprivation, remains undealt with. There are too many people who will gain from pocketing money meant to solve grassroots problems.
Chattisgarh is where the greatest problem lies – there an anti-Maoist force called the Salwa Judum, which is state backed, is causing greater chaos by contributing their own brand of violence to rural life. And the Chattisgarh-Jharkhand area is where someone has also come up with the notion that setting up vasectomy camps will both further India’s family planning and create less Naxals in the future for recruitment. Of course, in the Chambal they are doing the same thing and throwing in a rifle as incentive, which may be counterproductive.
The Salwa Judum has recently been declared illegal by the Supreme Court, because its fall-out are atrocities committed against local Adivasi tribesmen by higher caste individuals. Anyone who gets killed, whether in a false encounter or otherwise, can always be shown to be a Naxal. According to the court, private individuals cannot be armed by the state and given a license to kill.
To back his theories, Chakravarti quotes generously from Maoist treatises and translations of Naxalite poems, which have been thrown in to the mix both for their content and to emphasise that both the past Naxalites and present Maoists have a literary streak. Sometimes that goes on for too long – a 30-line poem by a bureaucrat seems like self-indulgence. And then there are all those people hiding under initials and pseudonyms. They’re welcome to their privacy, but the letters begin to blur in confusion.
There’s no faulting Chakravarti’s interviews however - they contain some of his best writing. There’s his meeting with M, a Mumbai police office and, presumably, part of the anti-Naxal operations. He tells Chakravarti that they are training a force which will, in a few years, eliminate the Naxals. There are no short-term plans, however. All the authorities can suggest is ‘Kill them. Just finish them. Whatever you can …These Naxal chaps, they break the law, for which I will fight them and kill them. But they are fighting for the right things. Isn’t it?’” Damning if the police really believe that.
Or there’s his dinner with a whole clutch of HHs in Orissa, a group of languid royals convinced that the problems don’t really belong to them, who are cynical about Gyanendra’s fate in Nepal, since that is something they’ve been confronting for years, and who console themselves with an Anglo- Indian dinner to which the author is bidden. Theirs is an odd, threatened world to which they cling despite all odds with their so-called subjects around them.
What makes the book different is the way it is written – trying to explain the phenomenon simply for the every day Anglicised people who are busy making money and intent on their cushy commercial rat-race lives. Along the way the path tangles and bifurcates, but the intent is good. This is certainly an important book for an economy that’s growing so fast that it’s leaving humanity behind. What it is not, however, is a travel book, because Chakravarti’s travels are only at the beginning and the end. You miss the descriptions of different tribes and territories, the rites with which locals combat both terror and industrialisation. In Orissa, for example, they’re placating the gods of the hills, asking to be protected against greedy industrialists and armed violence.
Where do Chakravarti’s sympathies lie? Presumably with the Maoists, since they are working to right a wrong and they’re fascinatingly intellectual. However, the author does admit that they also have their shortcomings and it’s a dog-eat-dog world where role reversals are frequent. At the end of the book, on a journey into another village where little girls’ red ribbons hang from tree branches presumably marking mines, Chakravarti asks a villager whether it would be good if the Maoists took over or not. The answer that he gets is non- committal – many things can happen, the leaves on the mango trees may grow. The book begins at one end with the Salwa Judum’s depredations and ends at the other with a village cringing in fear at the Maoists but stoically refusing to comment.
Another friend thoughtfully suggested that the book was part of a conspiracy theory to terrorise the urban middle classes. For all anyone knew, the Maoists could have commissioned it, couldn’t they? I found that premise a little unlikely, even though there’s no telling who is a Maoist and who isn’t. But certainly someone who also reports for Rolling Stone may not be one--though the leftist doyennes at the book launch I attended were convinced that Red Sun was a book that would become as important as Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. Alternatively, if not on such an international level it could be considered at least on a par with books written on the subject of the Naxalites by journalist Sumantra Banerjee.
“…after following the Maoist movement closely for the last one year and a study of the prevailing conditions in the country I have come to the conclusion that the armed struggle waged by the Maoists may not be able to provide a lasting solution to the problems faced by this country and humanity in general, nor would I follow, endorse or recommend this path to anyone else as of today.” This quote comes from one of the sources that Sudeep Chakravarti cites in Red Sun and is the last post in the blog which has since then shut down, whether it was shut down by force or simply abandoned remains unclear.
In China, in any case, Mao has been discredited to a great extent. He is now a face on a banknote or part of a lighter that plays Red songs when flipped open, though crowds in Tiananmen Square still line up patiently to endure body searches before viewing Mao’s body in its air-conditioned glass coffin. Sometimes it takes the whole day. Here in India the papers frequently erupt with news of mines exploding in Purulia or jailbreaks or shootouts in the forest--a dangerous road marked by the red trail of little girls’ ribbons.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her short fiction has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, Antigonish Review, Blue Moon Review, Eclectica, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)