Unravelling the Maoist movement

Sonia K Kurup
Saturday, 1 December 2018

Night march -  A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands
Author: Alpa Shah
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 327 
Price: Rs 699

On some evenings Alpa Shah, the professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Somwari, an adivasi woman whom she fondly calls her ‘sister’, would sit together to enjoy a drink. The alcohol would either be hadia (rice beer) or mahua wine prepared by Somwari using the pots kept aside for the same in her small hut, in one of the many villages in the Naxal heartland of eastern India. 

Such passing yet unforgettable tales are woven into the framework of this ethnographic study that probes, albeit with a heart, into what in common parlance continues to be known as India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’, the Maoist. In many such memories of Shah that shape this book the images and experiences are vivid, thrilling and heartbreaking. 

The main event that becomes the focus of Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands is an arduous 250km trek that Shah undertakes with an all-male guerrilla platoon. Disguised as a male guerrilla, she walks with the insurgents hiding from the security forces for seven nights across state borders mostly through inaccessible terrains such as forests and hills. 

Staying clear of romanticising armed revolutions, Shah outlines the historical emergence of the Naxalbari movement and its latter association with the adivasis in the mineral-rich regions of eastern India. Having set the backdrop, Shah situates herself and her ‘characters’ — whose names and locations have been changed to protect them — in the specificities of their lives. Through this, she works out the complexities of the conflict to critique and warn against the dangers of looking at the issue only through the lens of national security. For, such an approach also favours a powerful nexus of corporations, politicians, contractors and international aid agencies. The proposed solution is to address structural inequalities in societies sustained through hierarchies of class, caste and gendered practices. 

In this context, the writer’s account of the Maoists is revealing. Her conversations with the leaders of the movement and her observations about its foot soldiers, mainly young adivasis and dalits, give insight into what drives them to risk everything to live precariously, while battling the might of the Indian state. The reasons for joining the guerrillas are as simple as a fight with a parent or a sibling. The adivasi or lower-caste youth then moves in and out of the Maoist groups as if it were their second ‘home’. The stories also instantly expose the vulnerabilities and resilience of idealists among the Naxalites who believe that their cause can bring about an egalitarian classless and casteless society. As India remains ever more polarised between the rich and the poor, the movement continues to attract and mobilise the most socially discriminated and oppressed groups. 

The writer’s close interaction with the guerrillas is only a small part of a decade-long ethnographic study of the adivasi communities and individuals associated with the Naxalite movement in the region. The level of commitment that Shah has shown towards her research is commendable; learning Nagpuri and Sadri languages, and living among the adivasis as one of their own for many years. She emanates the true spirit of ethnographers and anthropologists such as Verrier Elwin. 

Her experience of the conflict is therefore more nuanced and complex than generally portrayed in the media and elsewhere. Hence, the outcome in the form of this book is a valuable contribution towards understanding the Naxalite movement in India.

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