By Peter Hendy
RED SUN: Travels in a Naxalite Country : Sudeep Chakravati
Penguin Books India 2009
A revolutionary war is being fought by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-Maoist) against the Indian state. A ‘Red Corridor’ exists down a swathe of central India from Nepal in the north to Karnatka in the South covering more than a quarter of India’s land mass.
India’s Maoist movement, known as Naxalites, after a district in Naxalbari in West Bengal where they staged a peasant uprising in 1967, is now spread over fifteen of its twenty eight states and controls vast chunks of territory.
In Red Sun Chakravati provides a fascinating and detailed account of his travels into those areas most affected by the Naxalites. The purpose of his journey is to promote an understanding of a ‘phenomena’ or the spectre of revolution haunting India.
The book is directed toward the urban middle classes whom he considers to be in a state of denial and suffering from ‘mall stupor’. The journey appears potentially very dangerous and he is clearly adept at negotiating his way through mistrust and suspicion on both sides.
Chakravati is an intrepid journalist and his excellent research provides a shocking context to the war. The statistics are shocking and make for grim reading. He solemnly writes that when the statistics begin to hit the millions they almost become meaningless. Half the children in India are malnourished, one fifth of the population go hungry and three quarters don’t have access to drinking water or sanitation. Two million cases of atrocities against lower caste people are currently pending. This is in a country of 1.12 billion people. Chakravati not only exposes but is very critical of the abysmal failure of India’s political institutions and subsequent creation of an explosive political vacuum.
Gross poverty, landless peasantry, crushing exploitation, rampant corruption, injustice, inherent caste issues and nepotism are factors that fuel the upsurge in revolutionary violence and explain the emergence of liberated zones.
Chakravati has tracked India’s massive economic growth of 8 per cent but is deeply concerned about the economic, political and social disconnection that leaves the mass population of peasantry and workers India no better off than feudal sub-Saharan Africa.
He visits dirt poor villages in the mosquito filled forests of Chhattisgarah, West Bengal, Andra Pradesh, Bihar and Jarkland and attempts to interview those at the epicentre of the conflict. He meets senior police and government officials, paramilitaries, local people, those involved in self help groups and some revolutionaries. Thus he meets some intriguing individuals who express some disturbing views.
Chakravati details the historical splits, mergers and alignments of the Naxalite movement and its increasing sophistication, audacity and ingenuity. This is particularly useful given the plethora of political parties and organisations that exist in India. He is particularly disturbed by the precise details of Naxalite documents. These relate to developments in ideology, strategy, tactics and organisation as the conflict escalates and spreads to include targeted urban areas swelled by those displaced from the countryside.
He reports on the states brutal response to the revolutionary war and powers to arrest, incarcerate and kill with impunity anyone suspected of revolutionary activity. He interviews a special policeman involved in Salwa Judum, a state sponsored vigilante paramilitary organisation set up to stem and halt the armed struggle. This shadowy lawless organisation is responsible for murder, torture, rape, looting beatings, forcible displacement and marginalisation. He visits Salwa Judum villages created to remove those potentially drawn to the struggle and is repulsed. Slums smelling of, ‘...garbage, urine and faeces overpowering the aroma of cooking fires and boiled rice.’
The book contains some detailed maps that illustrate the surge of CPI (Maoist) activity over recent years and the appendix provides some contemporary documents which give a direct insight into their strategies, tactics and objectives.
However, there are some criticisms of the book. Chakravati is not a Communist and his attempt to remain objective, independent and impartial fail. He is not hostile to the Maoists but critical and dismissive of socialism. Ultimately, he believes that the only solution to India’s failings are for efficient governance, policing, justice and administration. He has his own sociological theory on how he sees India’s future. A theory involving massive gated city states ‘In-Land’ places of food and commerce and ‘Out-land’ areas of lawlessness and potential warlordism. There maybe some partial truth in this analysis but one that ignores the complexity of political power, the state and class conflict.
Chakravati is a man with a conscience and evidently is very uncomfortable with what he hears and experiences. Reference is made to the bourgeois notion of ‘governance’ and how this needs to be developed. but his ideas appear nothing but hollow, abstract and devoid of any substance. He can see clearly the anger felt by the population aligning itself with the Naxalites but remains very uncomfortable and critical of the strategies adopted. He can offer a commentary but only up to a point because he remains unpoliticised. Chakravati’s social background and no doubt privileged existence can on occasions be detected in his tone that reflects an unconscious aloofness and distance from those he is interviewing. Thus, opportunities to ask significant questions and to pursue meaningful lines of enquiry are lost.
Failure to interview Naxals or Maoist revolutionaries ‘deep’ in Naxal zones and to instead concentrate on those not directly involved like former elderly insurgents from the movement’s beginning or individuals from rival revolutionary organisations is a significant criticism.
For those without an extremely detailed geographical knowledge of India the journey can be frustrating and confusing. A few maps to aid the reader would have been helpful.
The major strength of the book lie in Chakravati’s attempt to convey this political conflict to a wider audience where reporting in the bourgeois media is often non-existent. A recommended read for those wanting to understand the revolutionary political situation and realities of life in war torn India.