‘Walking with the Comrades’

Bernard D’Mello

[This essay is a review of NIGHTMARCH: AMONG INDIA’S REVOLUTIONARY GUERRILLAS by Alpa Shah, London: C. Hurst & Co. 2018; Harper Collins Publishers India, 2018, pp. xxii+320. A different version of the review first appeared in the Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 19, Issue 4, October 2019, pp. 734–738.]

Nightmarch is a book which tries to understand an Adivasi community in the Indian state of Jharkhand and its process of involvement with Maoist-communist revolutionaries (Naxa-lites). The author, Alpa Shah, a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has done considerable fieldwork as a “participant observer,” being and living with Adivasi communities in Jharkhand, including in a Naxalite guerrilla stronghold. A committed independent observer and researcher, this experience has endowed her with a genuine understanding of the Naxalite revolutionaries and the people whom they have mobilised and move with.

The book’s title Nightmarch refers to a seven-night trek Shah undertook with a Naxalite guerrilla platoon in 2010—at a time when the Indian state’s counterinsurgency operations were in full gear—from a revolutionary stronghold in the state of Bihar to one in Jharkhand, covering 250 kilometres.In the book, description of the trek is interspersed with numerous discussions centred on one or other of the various contradictions besetting the revolutionary struggle for a more egalitarian and democratic future.

The literary genre reminds this reviewer of Robert Pirsig’s best-selling fictionalised autobiography, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) which covers the trek of a father and son from Minneapolis, over the Rocky Mountains, to the Pacific coast. In ZAMM there are two journeys, the one by motorcycle across the heartland of the United States of America, and the other metaphorical journey via enlightening talk and conversations that take one into the heart of a contemporary fear of technology. This latter “journey” takes the narrator into a philosophical discourse (accessible, edifying and enlightening, what Pirsig refers to as a Chautauqua) about discovering a genuinely meaningful synthesis between the “classical” (i.e., rational-scientific) and the “romantic” (poetic-intuitive) attitudes towards the world, both of which, when played out, one without the other, leads to immense psychological stress and ultimately, breakdown.

So also, in Nightmarch’s narrative—albeit unlike Pirsig’s, a work of non-fiction—the one journey with Shah “dressed as a man in an olive-green uniform” undertaking the trek from one Maoist heartland to the other as part of a Naxalite guerrilla platoon, the other metaphorical one that takes one to the heart of what has been undermining the revolutionary project. This latter “wandering” is interspersed and punctuated with the actual journey. It is set in the argumentative conversations with a senior Maoist intellectual-revolutionary, Gyanji, and Shah’s consequent reflections over the points of contention. This intellectual discourse makes up Shah’s Chautauqua (for want of another word for it) about the contradictions confronting the revolutionary struggle for a better world and how the problems these contradictions give rise to might be resolved.

What are these “contradictions” —internal conflicts over theory and practice leading to discord in what is a functionally united revolutionary struggle—that Shah thinks are the Naxalite movement’s main obstacles to the realisation of their revolutionary project? The first stems from the very process of creation of new egalitarian and democratic communities necessarily requiring reliance on the agencies of individuals and organisations within existing communities whose values conflict with the imagined ones of the future. Moreover, the Naxalites have no other option but to engage in “dirty” commerce with the capitalist economy on its terms, this to fund and sustain the revolutionary struggle. A second contradiction emanates from the Maoist characterisation of Indian society and economy as semi-feudal even as the livelihoods of the Adivasis, who are a constituent of the Naxalites’ “mass base”, involve forced migration in search of wage work, exposing them to capitalist exploitation of the worst kind, a problem that remains unaddressed by the Naxalite leadership.

Thirdly, insufficient thought given to the “Indigenous (Adivasi) question” in relation to class struggle has led to the Naxalites not providing adequate attention to the relatively egalitarian institutions and values already in place amongst the tribal people they are living with. The various Adivasis—distinct tribes, for instance, Gonds in Bastar in the province of Chhattisgarh, or Santhals and Oraons in Jharkhand and the adjoining parts of Paschim Banga and Odisha—are distinct communities of people, with their own dialects, customs, culture, and rules which structure how they act towards and in regard to each other. What distinguishes them from mainstream society, whether Bengali, Bihari, Odiya, or Telugu, is internal social relations based much more on kinship bonds, frequent cooperation to achieve common goals, and maintenance of a certain distance from the state and mainstream society because there is a historical memory of such contact—with state officials, traders, usurers, and contractors—as having brought oppression, exploitation, and degradation.Ethnic identity and semi-proletarian class character intertwined with each other engender an egalitarian consciousness, which one can sense in the way the oppressed Adivasis come together to cope with deprivation. All that is required is for the Naxalites to bring the Adivasi peasantry into alliance with the rest of India’s poor and landless peasants in the struggle for socialism. But, of course, this is easier said than done.

Fourthly, Naxalite armed resistance has brought on brutal state repression necessitating further fortification of armed resistance, but the latter has come at the expense of neglect of the task of collaborating with the people on the emancipatory political project. Five, the latter project is led mainly by Naxalite men from elite backgrounds, invariably leading to failure to nurture lower-caste, Adivasi, and women leaders, thus undermining the struggle to create casteless, classless, anti-patriarchal communities.

The central characters in Nightmarch are real.Of course, the names of the characters are pseudonyms. The central characters “represent archetypal figures” (p. vii) in the Naxalite movement.There is Gyanji, the upper caste–class, highly-educated, Shelly-reciting mathematician turned Maoist intellectual-revolutionary leader,with whom Shah engages in argumentative conversations that make her Chautauqua so meaningful. And Prashant, who comes from a family of cattle-herding peasants living in mud huts, first attracted to the cultural wing of the movement, and then becoming an enthusiastic, committed guerrilla. Kohli, an Adivasi youth who found in the Maoist guerrilla army a home away from home, and who learned to read and write there. Vikas, the one heading the platoon which took Shah on her Nightmarch, but who turned out to be the opposite of the revolutionary the Naxalites were trying to nurture, or indeed even of the Adivasi community he came from, amassing wealth for his own private purposes, indulging in treachery and betrayal, and ultimately metamorphosing into a “Frankenstein’s monster”.

There are also characters not on Shah’s trek but who figure nevertheless in her Chautauqua. Seema, a remarkable revolutionary, “constrained by the movement’s middle-class, caste-based assumptions of what it meant to be a ‘good woman’,” and, most likely “inhibited from experiencing the gender relations, kinship and family structures, as they existed amongst the Adivasi communities” she lived amidst (p. 214). And Somwari, an Adivasi woman who was independent and autonomous from her partner with whom she had chosen to cohabit and who wasthe father of their children. She makes badia (rice beer) and mahua wine and enjoys drinking it in the company of other Adivasi men and women after a hard day’s collective labour.

Almost all the characters are perplexing and, in some respects, contradictory. The respect and dignity with which the revolutionaries treat the Adivasis, sharing food and eating often from the same plate with them; joking and teasing the Adivasi villagers “with the ease of familiarity”; the tone of voice when addressing people; sitting on the floor with everyone else–these were the “‘small things that enabled the guerrillas to win the local people’s hearts and minds” (p. 137).

Let me then get back to some of “the contradictions” that Shah is concerned about, empathising as she does with the Adivasis and the revolutionaries whom she is studying and who are her “informants.” First, the one related to the “corruption” of some among the Naxalites whom the Maoist Party has deputed to transact “commerce” in the capitalist economy, which for the Naxalites is a necessary evil that must be engaged in to fund and sustain the revolutionary struggle. It is here that the Vikases—deputed to strike deals with the contractor–politician–state official combines doing business in the guerrilla zones, in the process of gaining access and acceptance in these elite social circles—get “corrupted” and siphon off part of the money into their own personal coffers.

Like the good Maoist, with reference to Vikas, Gyanji laments the lack of careful and painstaking political and “ideological” education that should be imparted to every budding revolutionary. For one thing even with the best of such education, the power of capital alongside the mystification of money and the worship of gold that have been a part of ruling cultures over the longue durée, may, in some instances, prove too robust to resist.

Shah’s criticism of the Maoist leadership’s flawed handling of gender issues with respect to Adivasi women is correct. There is a huge gap between Naxalite assumptions of Adivasi women’s subordination and actual patriarchal gender relations in the home. It is usual for Adivasi girls and boys to choose their own partners (p.217). It is common for Adivasi men to help with the cooking, washing, and other household chores, and “share the domestic tasks of reproductive labour with the women”. Adivasi women are on a “far more equal footing” than women in middle-class, middle- and upper-caste families (p. 215). They do not wear the veil and are bold enough to “flirt and flaunt their sexuality in public places outside the domestic confines of their homes” (p. 216). And, like Somwari, they love consuming alcohol in the company of other Adivasi men and women. Verrier Elwin was similarly attracted by the way the Gonds, a distinct Adivasi community, expressed their sexuality, openly, honestly, and uninhibitedly, and seemed to be peeved by followers of M K Gandhi who (like the Naxalites in this respect, as Shah also thinks) were uptight and narrow-minded in these matters. (Regarding Elwin, the reader may refer to Ramachandra Guha’s 1999 book Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India).

There is another important issue that deserves attention, given that the Maoist practice of “people’s war” has brought on the Indian state’s full-scale counterinsurgency operations that have in turn forced the Maoist movement to recede over the last two decades from the plains in the countryside to zones and regions where the terrain is more favourable to the practice of guerrilla warfare. These zones and regions happen to be the forested and hilly areas inhabited mainly by Adivasis. The latter have been mobilised by the Maoists in their mass organisations and in their guerrilla army. It is in this context that one might legitimately pose the question as to how much of the revolutionary movement’s solidarity in the Adivasi areas derives from mobilisation of the Adivasi peasantry based on class struggle and how much of the solidarity stems from a common tribal-ethnic identity.

The solidarity within the revolutionary movement in the Adivasi areas stems from both the Adivasi participants engaged in a common struggle against their oppressors, and exploiters, and from the fact of their common tribal-ethnic identity. Shah’s eagerness to highlight the class character of the Maoist movement in the tribal areas should not lead people to underestimate the affinity deriving from shared tribal-ethnic identity. The two, class and shared tribal-ethnic affinity, taken together, have determined the movement’s overall character. Well, this is in response to Shah demarcating/contrasting the “politics of communism” and/with the “politics of indigeneity” (p. 136).

The dispossession of Adivasis from the lands, forests, and other natural resources of their habitats, a violation of their collective, customary rights over this resource base, and the appropriation of these resources by corporations is part of what David Harvey would call a process of “accumulation by dispossession” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2007, p. 159), and the Maoist movement’s resistance to this is, at its heart, a class struggle. The fact that the solidarity of the dispossessed Adivasis also derives from their common tribal-ethnic affinity does not define the character of the Maoist movement. In other words, the tribal-ethnic identity of the struggle’s main participants cannot, per se, define the movement’s character, which is what Arundhati Roy (in her 2011 book, Broken Republic) does. However, unity of the dispossessed in the struggle would depend both on the depth of the class consciousness of the movement’s participants and the degree of cultural homogeneity that comes from their common tribal-ethnic identity. But the latter cannot be a substitute for the class consciousness of the dispossessed, which is a necessary condition for unity in the struggle against the capitalist process of “accumulation by dispossession.”

In concluding, Shah might be among the very few social anthropologists studying a Maoist revolutionary movement who does not assume that Maoism is bad and unviable. Just as well, for such an assumption invariably leads to a distortion of both theory and fact. Indeed, in Frontier itself, a Marxist philosopher has gone all out to blur and smear the Maoist record in India, his diatribe stemming from a hysterical form of anti-Maoism and anti-Stalinism. Here comes Trotsky after 1927 when he was living in exile, no longer having to manage Soviet state and party organisations, constantly asserting socialist principles while finding fault with his former comrades, who were then directly involved in transforming post-revolutionary Soviet society, mainly to catch-up in the economic and military realms and thus be ready to take on the coming imperialist–fascist onslaughts. But, of course, Trotsky did not go overboard in his berating of the “Stalinists.” Here Marxist philosopher considers the Maoist phenomenon a “‘disease’” and likens the “mindless violence” of the Maoists to fascist brutality, which he claims to be one of a piece of the “same type of brutality by the Maoists.”He and his ilk have something to learn from the social anthropologist Alpa Shah who is deeply attentive to the challenges confronting the Maoists/Naxalites in India.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022