I opened this book with a conflicted mind. As a capitalist, my understanding of India’s Naxal movement has been that of a movement galvanising ignorant people to block India’s development. I strongly believe that they deserve what is rightfully theirs, but I have never been a great admirer of alternative governments and violence.
Alpa Shah’s brilliant examination of the movement—not as an outsider writing on the subject but as a participant observer—made me revisit some of my beliefs. By the end of the book, I felt familiar with the world of the Naxals, their motivations and conflicts, and the sordid path of those who lead the movement forsaking worldly pleasures for the difficult dream of a just and egalitarian society.
The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone—and that’s what takes this book right to the top of political writing in narrative non-fiction. Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India.
Between 2008 and 2010, Alpa Shah spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, a professor of anthropology in London, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.
Shah moved to Jharkhand at the time when Operation Green Hunt, a government operation to flush out guerrillas, was launched. This made her task more difficult as tribal communities were far removed socially, geographically and politically from the rest of India and she had to venture into the interiors. Towards the end of her stay, she joined a platoon of more than two dozen Naxals on their night march from Bihar to Jharkhand—a 250-kilometre trek—dodging scrutiny of police camps and check posts. This was a dangerous and audacious exercise given that Shah was unarmed, the lone woman in the platoon, and also new to navigating the rough terrain at night. But her determination convinced the Naxals. Very soon, she was off on a ten-day trek that would allow her to not just connect with Naxal leaders at a personal level, but to also have the most intimate view into their motivations, dilemmas and conflicts.
On the night march, Shah meets Gyanji, a senior Maoist leader whose soft feet belied his Naxal identity. Later, she would discover that he came from an upper-caste, well-to-do family, committed to bringing justice and fairness to the lives of the tribals. With her description of Naxal leaders, Shah humanises them and at times, also seeks to address popular myths about the men and women leading the movement. Gyanji, for example, with his playful eyes, love for poetry and interest in grooming himself, is not a gun-wielding Naxal. Prashant, with his guns, songs of revolution, and books written by Gulzar, Tagore and Russian revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai, is a Naxal who was driven to the movement after the upper-caste feudal army, Ranvir Sena, burnt his cousins’ house. Overnight, he became a Naxal from being a Naxal sympathiser. Kohli, with his boyish appeal, joins the movement to escape his father’s reprimand on spilling milk. Clearly, everyone has different reasons to be a Naxal.
Yet, despite these differences, Naxalism, as it stands today, endures dreams of a classless and equal society. Inspired by Soviet Russia and Maoist China, India’s early Naxal movement in the 1960s was killed. Yet, seeds of rebellion were sown and it resurfaced in the later years in the “flaming fields” of states such as Bihar where fierce caste wars between the Naxals and dominant caste landlords raged on.
Extreme caste hierarchies still continue to plague the Indian society, giving succour to the Maoist movement whose war is against caste oppression. And this continues to mobilise the most socially discriminated group, the adivasis.
The most extreme counterinsurgency measures began in 2005, affecting lakhs of adivasis who were seen by the government as Maoist sympathisers. The crackdown followed the emergence of a new political and military organisation the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Today, as per government claims, 20 Indian 28 states are Naxal-affected.
Shah describes police action in these states against the guerrillas as the “juggernaut of perhaps one of the greatest people-clearing operations of our times”. The underlying message in the book is that of development pitted against social justice, with corporations invading natural habitats of adivasis for profit, destroying environment along the way, even as Naxal leaders mobilise the tribals they drive to homelessness.
Alpa Shah discovered Naxalism, and the “participant observation” method, proposed by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, while she was a university student in London as an antidote to armchair research. But the motivation to finally travel to a Naxal-dominated, remote Jharkhand village perhaps came from the grit and fortitude of her grandmother who many years ago had travelled in a small boat to Nairobi in the late 1920s from a dusty Gujarat village. While Shah’s personal history and her father’s secular values shaped her outlook in life, it was not until her stints in the slums of Delhi for the World Bank that made her want to question injustices and change the world.
In Jharkhand, Shah spotted NGO workers in Land Rovers, development funds siphoned off by local elites, votes bought during elections, corporate honchos landing at Ranchi airport to mitigate land acquisition worries, and Naxal armies recruiting tribals in the region. This is how she eventually came to see the Naxalites: protection and rent seekers. But when her doctoral research supervisor asked her if Naxals were “really a bunch of thugs”, she decided to find out.
Nightmarch is Shah’s account of what she saw when she immersed herself in the lives of Naxals and their ideological war against the Indian state. Yet, Shah is astutely objective in her narrative and reflections, and notes, with profound understanding, how the idealism that holds Naxalism together is very often undone by the movement’s ease with using means of violence, how a movement modelled on principles of equality can create a more unequal society for Adivasi women and how Naxal leaders survive the hardships of jungle life to be betrayed by their own trusted men.
In the end, Shah discusses the contradictions the revolutionaries face. Besides being betrayed by their own people as they continue a relationship with their kin and families, Naxals find themselves ideologically pitted against capitalism when capitalism is needed to fund largescale revolutions. Not just this, their tendency for violent resistance also invites violent state oppression.
Being led by upper-caste men, Naxal movements have also overlooked the inequalities within their own ranks as men from elite classes have failed to give space for nurturing of the lower caste, adivasi women leaders. Yet, Shah argues that revolutionary movements such as Naxalism have provided an alternate vision where individualism, hierarchies, and accumulation of wealth at the cost of exploitation are discouraged, thereby acting as a democratising force.
Nightmarch isn’t just a journey into India’s Naxal heartlands, it’s a journey into your minds and hearts as you turn page after page, and for this and this above all, it must be read.
Nightmarch: A Journey Into India’s Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah
Published by Harper Collins
First published here.