India is on the road to creating a giant prison. A country-wide lockdown was called in March 2020, but the forces of the Indian state have been locking away ordinary people’s lives for years. The regime in power today is accelerating along a path previous governments paved. It brings anti-democratic measures with parallels across the world, from Brazil to Turkey. A lethal mix of authoritarianism and neo-liberal reforms is on the rise, benefitting big business but brutally curtailing many people’s freedoms, dispossessing them of their livelihoods, and sharply escalating inequalities...
I saw the imprisonments first happening in the heart of the country, in the forests that are home to the Adivasis – India’s indigenous people. The state security forces surrounded their hills, occupied their schools and health centres, and ran riot in their villages. If the locals had not already fled when their homes were burnt down, they were labelled terrorists, promised their ‘freedom’ only if they ‘surrendered’ it first, and otherwise locked in jails. I am told that in the state of Jharkhand alone there are more than 4,000 Adivasis who are in prison as alleged Naxalite or Maoist extremists, kept without even being produced for trial.
In the villages where I lived as an anthropologist, everyone had tales of the wounds of police torture they bore, had witnessed or had helped heal. The ones I heard about included electric shock treatment, branding with hot iron rods, and thrashings while hanging upside down with hands and legs tied. Others had been disappeared and presented later in some forest as killed in an encounter – India’s infamous ‘encounter killings’ – or simply declared dead in custody. This is not an unusual story. In 2019, the National Human Rights Commission reported that 1,723 people, about five a day, died in police custody in India.
Over the years many Adivasis migrated to faraway destinations to escape these horrors at home. They joined the precarious armies of invisible workers constructing cities in Tamil Nadu, paving roads in the Himalayas, or carrying bricks on their heads and across their shoulders in West Bengal. They poured their energy and sweat, their laughter and tears, into laying the foundations of a shining new India that they would ultimately be kept out of. Underpaid and overworked, unprotected by labour legislation, often tied to labour contractors, they lived in slum colonies in conditions almost as bad as that of their kin in prison.
That is, until the lockdown was announced. Indians were given just four hours by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare for a regime that would keep people holed in their homes, unfolding what many commentators have said is the greatest humanitarian crisis of the last fifty years. At that point, with no way to feed themselves, Adivasis had little option but to defy the new order and march back to their forests. When they got there, those who had not returned for several years found their villages occupied by military barracks.
I was told the Adivasis were some of the poorest people on earth but, in the years I lived with their communities, the people who became my new uncles and aunts showed me a world of infinite riches. One where women roamed the forests and fields at their will, where men often cooked and cleaned, and where children spent days swinging on lianas, rolling wagon wheels of hay and feasting on wild berries. A place where individual autonomy and creativity were valued without a need to rise above the rest.
The Adivasis I lived with helped each other to make their picturesque villages from the mud, dung and timber around them. They beautifully carved teak doors, artfully painted walls with their fingers using white mud, and moulded and baked their roof tiles which, unlike the commercial ones, kept their houses cool in the summer and warm in the winter and on which the rain made music. They wove their sleeping mats from reeds, their baskets from bamboo, and made cups and plates for parties from sal leaves. Their cuisine – which was the product of foraging from hundreds of different varieties of flowers, leaves and mushrooms; hunting wild meat; and distilling wine made from the mahua flower – would amaze any Michelin-star chef. Leaving only a bare trace of their presence, their negligible ecological imprint and their democratic practices made these Adivasis visionaries for our future.
Yet Adivasis have been under constant assault from outsiders who have seen them as fossils of our past and sought to ‘develop’ and colonise them while robbing them of their land, flora and fauna. From freely roaming the terrain, British colonial rule forced them into permanent settlements to extract revenue, sold their trees as timber for the building of railways and military ships, and took the land from under their feet for the excavation of coal, iron ore and bauxite. Adivasi bows and arrows were no match for the cannons and muskets fired at them, but they secured a bare minimum protection to retain some access to their land, forests and water to live on their own terms. Yet, despite these protections, it has been a losing battle to try to keep at bay the national and multinational corporations, aided and abetted by the state, who today steal Adivasi land and forests, perpetuating severe human rights abuses and creating what is now one of the world’s most unequal countries.
Protesting against these inequalities, the Naxalites marched into the Adivasis’ forested hills from the agricultural plains. These Marx-, Lenin- and Mao-inspired revolutionaries came looking for better terrain for guerrilla warfare, leading their protracted war to move from the countryside to the city to take over the state. They said they were fighting the injustices faced by the Adivasis and would bring about a more equal communist world. But, if for centuries colonial and independent India’s ideas of progress had failed to value the Adivasi world, so too did these insurgents.
For those leading the country, Adivasi lands are simply a vast treasure of mineral reserves that need to be freed from the dark jungles above – jungles inhabited by a savage people who must be tamed, civilized and chained to work for the nation, or who must perish. Such stigmas against the Adivasis are widely held. Even in Ranchi city, well-meaning, educated friends who had lived there for decades were adamant that it was too dangerous for me to live in the mud huts on their doorstep. ‘Visit the villages in the daytime in a four-wheeler with a driver, if you must, but return to the city by dusk,’ they advised. The darkness brought wild elephants and Naxalites, but also the threat of the people, they said, allegedly seeking to protect me. The Naxalites saw the traditional lives of the Adivasis as doomed to the dustbin of history, as people who must be developed to be fit for the new communist world. Indeed, if the Hindutva forces, who are now also spreading in these areas, treat the Adivasis as ‘backward Hindus’ to be made into ‘proper Hindus’, the Naxalites saw them as ‘primitive communists’ to be turned into ‘real communists’. So, though the two forces are so commonly opposed as ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’, and though of course there are important differences between them, the course of the ‘Nightmarch’ also reveals the similarities in their puritanism, their renunciation, and their patriotism. In the pages of Nightmarch there is much to criticise the Naxalites, but it is also clear that they are no ‘anti-nationals’, no ‘desh-virodhi’ people, but those who love India just as much as the followers of Hindutva say they do, though they have very different ideas about its future.
Excerpted from Nightmarch: A Journey Into India's Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah with permission from HarperCollins India. The new paperback edition of the book is out tomorrow.