Author Swati Sengupta speaks of her recently-published book Out of War - Voice of Surrendered Maoists, and the reasons behind the acts of the foot soldiers involved in the Maoist movement
The post-Independence India was a difficult nation on many levels — apart from financial strain and getting princely states under the Indian government, the administration was also dealing with a rapid rise in Naxalite and Maoist movements in regions across India.
What began then, has still not ceased. Maoist soldiers continue to fight, not only for their rights, but often for their survival. Some of them end up surrendering to the Indian administration. It is these surrendered Maoists that author Swati Sengupta gives voices to, in her book Out of War - Voice of Surrendered Maoists.
Sengupta, a full-time journalist based in Kolkata, was not only reading about the Maoists and the stories of their surrender in the newspapers every day, but also reporting on them. That is how she thought of telling their stories. “The book required a lot of travelling and I realised I couldn’t work and write the book simultaneously. I was also writing fiction for young adults back them. I thus quit my job to concentrate on the books,” says the young author.
“While working as a journalist, I came across a few people who had surrendered since I used to do the government and administration beat. There were a lot of surrenders then. I, however, didn’t begin the book with a focus on surrendered Maoists. I was simply researching on Maoists. The stories of the surrendered ones sounded interesting when I spoke to a few of them,” she explains how she got to writing the book.
How difficult was talking to them? “It is not easy to contact them and getting them to talk can be difficult at times. But once I began interactions, they seemed quite keen on telling their stories. I spoke to the foot soldiers the most, the ones at the lowest rung of their hierarchy. They are either under the control of their leaders or in control of the police once they surrender,” Sengupta narrates.
It took her two years of rigorous research and then some time for writing the book before it could be published. “I had to speak to each of them more than once, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone. A single meeting wouldn’t get me all the information that I needed,” she says.
It is days of interacting with the surrendered Maoists that Sengupta took to understand their struggles, their stories, and their restraints. “I don’t want to trivialise the fight, but a lot of them join the movement not for ideology but for poverty. They didn’t have enough food to eat, especially the ones at the lowest rung. Some surrendered because they wanted a better life. The practical reason of survival is behind their acts — of joining the movement and of quitting it.”
She points to one of the last sections of her book where she writes about a 40-something man who left home for political reasons. While in the movement, he met a girl and married her. But even to this basic act of marriage, there are so many reasons. “It’s not so easy to describe these,” says the author, adding, there are so many subtle layers to their acts. For instance, the girl needed someone to flee with. She found an accomplice in her marriage to him. There is complicated reasoning involved here and you can’t just put two and two together.”
Most of her narratives are “human stories that tell us about the plight of being poor in a growing economy governed by majoritarian politics”. It is, according to her, “the futility of the very existence of tribals and poor in a country where they are always afterthoughts in policymaking”.
Their lives, she says, are not very different after surrender. “Their previous targets used to be police and now their job is to hunt down former colleagues. Not much difference there. The peaceful lives they hoped for, most of them haven’t got it,” she sighs.
Each story is different, she insists, saying that she also spoke to some slightly higher ranks as also to the police and political leaders involved in the Maoist crackdown. Speaking of her future plans, Sengupta says, “My first book (Guns on My Red Earth, fiction) is the story of a child soldier who works in a Maoist group. I have worked for three years researching and writing Out of War. Right now, there is no plan to write another book — fiction or non-fiction, on the Maoist movement. It is very taxing emotionally. I would like to write a fun book for the young now.”