‘Flaming Forest’

Back From Conflict Zones

Joydip Ghosal

In 2010 Freny Manecksha began a series of journeys across the strife-torn areas of the country to get an in-depth view of people’s uprisings. As an independent journalist her visits to Bastar and Kashmir brought about a tectonic shift in her ways of seeing. The horrific experiences of documenting state oppression in the name of national interest, death, dispossession and routine violation of human rights set her on a learning course. Tragedies resulting from brutal repression propelled her to unearth the realities behind these atrocities. Her book Flaming Forest, wounded valley- stories from Bastar and Kashmir published by Speaking Tiger was the outcome of her passionate engagement with the regions where she documented the gruesome accounts of killings, beatings and razing of homes. In order to chronicle how the conflict and authoritarian rule permeated every aspect of civic life she visited Chattisgarh and Kashmir again and again. In these theatre of conflicts readers would find overlapping contents. Close encounters with the inhabitants of the regions gave her an idea of how places and spaces were impacted by politics of overlordism and how people fought resolutely to reclaim their lost places and identity. In this book she repeatedly stressed that the concept of home as a safe space did not exist in those violence- ridden villages and towns especially in Kashmir where draconian laws empowered the security personnel to act with absolute impunity. Instances were galore where they exhibited scant regards for human rights. Troops can force their way into home at any hour and deploy a male member as a human shield or decoy. Aged and infirm were not spared from the atrocities. Even mere failing to stop at a check- post barrier can get one shot in Kashmir. This is how they maintain law and order and sell India as the biggest showcase of democracy.

 In case of Adivasis their culture was shaped by forest for centuries. It had hugely contributed towards their ecosystems. Indigenous people lived in harmony with the trees, water bodies and earth which Arunopol Seal described as ethics of reciprocity. But this orientation got disrupted when they were forced to live in make-shift camps. Despite vague claims by the government it became apparent that it was the concerns of the corporates that became paramount. Anyone who defied government dictate was described as a terrorist. Then a maoist tag is enough to keep anyone behind bars for years without any trial.

Over several field trips she came upon the stories of resilience of common people. This book celebrates the idea that heroic deeds are performed by ordinary people.

This book traverses different aspects. The author points out that in Chhattisgarh how the commercial perspective and the logic of economy determine the classification of forest produces. It is needless to say that displacement drive was undertaken to insidiously advance the interest of corporate honchos. While the repressive measures like Salwa Judum intensified the shadow of death dangled precariously over the heads of Adivasis. The author here raised the pertinent question why there were so many demonstrative acts of dissent against the ‘development’ agenda. Through her field trips she learnt that Adivasis suffered great feelings of insecurity and alienation because they associated camps as centres of illegal incarceration, torture and humiliation. In this regard the protest at Silger camp and the resultant repression found mention in her account. She chronicled several incidents of sexual brutalisation, rape and intimidation. Her graphic narrative documents how serious crimes against humanity were brushed aside. The recent understanding of sexual violence as a weapon of war had reshaped the understanding of the feminists and rights activists. It was deployed in conflict zones as a means to crush the resistance movements.

Malik Sajad, an artist in Kashmir once wrote that “We prepared our ears for both screams and silence.” Decade long armed conflict and state repression proved beyond doubt that Kashmir was gripped with an eerie air of uncertainty. Medical anthropologist Saiba Verma described how the concertina wire had been used to divide the city of Srinagar. It prevented the movements of people, goods and information. Verma described the siege as an ‘infrastructural war”, a term coined by Stephen Graham, the geographer. Graham in his book Disrupted Cities graphically detailed the havoc that Hurricane Catarina wrecked upon the livelihoods of New Orleans. He described how the intersectionality of technology, urban city life and security was devastated beyond any comprehension. People generally take urban centric infrastructure for granted but when it gets dismantled panic sets in. Complete clampdown leading to disruption of Kashmiri lives was just like that. State did not allow them to share even the most basic level of information. Manecksha collated the poignant accounts of how disruption of infrastructural flows caused immense suffering to the common people in Kashmir. Application of digital technology facilitated the webs of ‘invisible infrastructure’. It got visible when its functioning got halted. After the abrogation of article 370 Kashmir was literally plunged into digital darkness. State argued that it had genuine concerns for the security of the state. But Access now, a digital rights group said in addition to limiting the rights to freedom of expression, disruption of communication became the cover for state violence. Freny Manecksha unequivocally stated that denial of access to internet and other facilities had become a new form of warfare. In 2016 UN adopted a resolution when it categorically stated that ‘the same right people have offline must also be protected online’.

So gathering stories from the highly militarised zones of Bastar and Kashmir this book deftly examines how radically spaces can be altered. This moving book shows as Nandini Sundar says, ‘an India that is stitched together in pain and resilience’ where ‘stories of torture coexist with hope.’

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Vol 55, No. 32, Feb 5 - 11, 2023