“By tradition, the Indian tribal has never received justice”, wrote Amrita Rangaswamy in the 1970s, adding, “But in Srikakulam denial of justice has been made a canon of official policy”.
Rangawamy’s remarks are quoted in Nandini Sundar’s superb new book The Burning Forest, which — among many other things — show that the denial of justice to adivasis has taken place in many places apart from Srikakulam, and in many decades after the 1970s as well. Adivasis remain the section of Indian society most discriminated against; they have gained least, and lost most, from seven decades of political democracy and economic development in India.
Sundar’s book focuses on Bastar, the former princely state that is now part of Chhattisgarh. This is a most beautiful part of the country that is now the epicentre of a most brutal civil war. Bastar has been subject to what one might call a triple resource curse. First, its rich forests were subject to large-scale logging. Second, its fast-flowing rivers were eyed by dam-builders. Third, its extensive deposits of mineral ore were coveted by the urban-industrial sector not just in India, but in Japan and China too. Commercial forestry, hydel-projects, and unregulated mining have all enriched outsiders while bringing environmental degradation and social devastation to the adivasis of Bastar.
In the 1980s, Maoists from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh entered Bastar. When they first came, the Maoists “appeared to the villagers as Robin Hoods”, fighting on their behalf for better wages, for fairer terms for forest produce, and the like. As they dug deeper roots they changed their tactics, seeking now to use Bastar as a base to launch an armed struggle to capture State power. In desperation, the Chhattisgarh government promoted a vigilante army named Salwa Judum, which escalated the violence even further. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of police and paramilitary descended on the area.
The battle between the State and Maoists, writes Sundar, “has raged across roads, trees, schools, transformers and hand-pumps, fought each bitter inch of the way”. Among the saddest signs of this ongoing war “are the abandoned schools, their ceilings half fallen, creepers growing out of the sides of blasted walls”.
The Burning Forest aims to explore “what it means to be an adivasi citizen of India caught in armed conflict”. It documents the crimes of every side in this war; the villages burnt and looted by the Judum; the murders and rapes committed by them too. And it investigates the many instances of Maoist violence; their killings of policemen, politicians, and Judum leaders; their murders of village headmen and of alleged “informers” too.
Sundar also documents the refugee crisis caused by this war. She interviews villagers in camps in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, who almost uniformly desire to return to their abandoned villages, to rebuild their homes and their lives.
The crisis in Bastar was deepened by a curious, and perhaps unique, example of a Congress-BJP alliance, an alliance constructed for altogether destructive ends. The BJP and Congress leaders within Chhattisgarh collaborated in creating and patronising the Salwa Judum. Meanwhile, in Delhi, central governments led both by the Congress and BJP variously endorsed, whitewashed, suppressed and denied the colossal violations of the Constitution in Bastar.
Other metropolitan writers have visited Bastar as guests of the Maoists. The Maoists did not invite Sundar on a guided tour, apparently worried that she would ask them tough questions. That she certainly would have. The Burning Forest is the work not of a starry-eyed tourist, but of a scholar who has worked in the region for 25 years. Individuals, communities, plants, homes, settlements, the rhythms of the local agrarian and forest economies — all these (and more) are described with sensitivity and understanding.
As a result of the civil war, the integrity and solidarity of adivasi life have been totally destroyed. The small joys of the people of Bastar — feasts, festivals, cockfights, hunts — have been replaced by an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, suspicion, and paranoia. Clan has been set against clan, village against village, sometimes brother against brother. In such a conflict, writes Sundar, “the worst part is that one never knows who is who, and if you talk too loudly, the wrong people might hear”.
A few days ago the country celebrated Republic Day. Every thinking Indian, every citizen who is concerned about the present and future of the Republic, should read The Burning Forest. It is an impeccably researched and finely written work of scholarship, redolent with insight, and displaying enormous courage as well. Sundar‘s book shines a sharp spotlight on our Republic’s failures, demonstrating how, despite professedly functioning institutions of democracy such as Parliament, the press, and the judiciary, “even the most basic of checks within the state fail in the face of corporate and political greed and official indifference”.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India. The views expressed are personal.