|The Burning Forest, Nandini Sundar, Juggernaut Books, Rs 488|
TSC Book Review by Abhimanyu Kumar
The Burning Forest, a treatise on Bastar and its raging civil war, by the sociologist and human rights activist Nandini Sundar, is certainly not the first book to be written on the subject nor will it be the last.
Sundar says herself in the book that this will be a long-drawn war. Hence, we may expect other tomes in the days to come. As far as previous output is concerned, several writers have turned their attention to this war which carries on without any end in sight: the Maoists continue to claim Bastar or Dandakaranya, the actual name of the forest in which it lies, as a Liberated Zone while the State continues to tighten the screws, with more forces, arms and ammunition.
Among notable works in the past which merit a mention, one can count Satnam’s Jangalnama, an insider’s account of how the Maoists operated. The late writer known for pronounced sympathies for the Maoists, spent enough time inside the forests of Bastar to emerge with a narrative which chronicled the great odds overcome by the comrades on a daily basis to keep going, in order to remind the country that a substantial section of its population lives in degrading circumstances, with no hope of improvement. Red Sun by Sudeep Chakravarti was more wide-ranging in its scope but had fewer insights, compared to Jangalnama. Jan Myrdal, the Swedish writer also spent a fair amount of time with the Maoists – who had invited him to visit – and managed to engage the Maoist top boss Ganapathy in a lengthy conversation about a number of issues, all of which is dutifully narrated in his book Red Star over India. Journalists Rahul Pandita and Neelesh Mishra also wrote about the subject in The Absent State.
Then there was Arundhati Roy’s longish essay in Outlook titled Walking with the Comrades which Sundar credits with being responsible for creating the maximum buzz.
What differentiates Sundar’s book is its scope: focussed primarily on the sinister role played by the so-called people’s militia also known as Salwa Judum, but examining all the related issues in great depth.
It helps that Sundar has had a long association with the area. She has been visiting it over the last decade regularly, and has accessed locations which most have not. Her criticism of the Salwa Judum is based on meticulous observation of their modus operandi and she exposes the State’s complicity and its hypocrisy in propping it up, violating the Constitution utterly. In the process, she also demonstrates the cynical role played by other vested interests – corporate houses, institutions that are supposed to act as the watchdogs of democracy like National Human Rights Commission and the media, and of course the police and para-military forces.
Without a book like Sundar’s, one would not be able to see the grotesque irony of reports such as the one which appeared in a national daily recently about a woman para-military officer being posted in Bastar and how this was a PR scoop for the state government. A picture of the smiling officer holding a gun duly accompanied the report, with villagers looking on, some amused, some wary.* Sundar's sincerity is further proved by the fact that she fought a lengthy court battle to have Salwa Judum banned. She was also recently targeted by the state government for her efforts.
Where she fails, however, is that she reserves most of her praise for those who belong to mostly the same class and 'tribe' as hers- the left-liberal ‘saviours’ fighting the good war. The good Samaritans are ex-bureaucrats, Supreme Court judges, senior lawyers, and urban media personnel and activists.
Out of the tribals, CPI leader Manish Kunjam gets a generous mention for his brave work amongst his community. His party is also praised for doing what a communist party should be doing, and that is heartening. However, others only get brief and sporadic mentions. Their grit, and tenacity comes in for praise, and political correct statements about their agency are made but the thrust remains that without the civil society they would be doomed. She does note the caste – upper – of non-tribals who control the affairs and side with the State but never or rarely if at all, does that in case of the members of the civil society who come across as entirely selfless warriors - this is not to say they are all driven by selfish interests altogether but there are gains for the privileged when they intervene in a conflict situation. In fact, the case of activist Soni Sori who suffered a lot of brutality at the hands of the security forces, does not seem to impress Sundar much who notes, grudgingly, that Sori did not have much of a history of activism when the police picked her up. Her insinuation is that she was thrust into the role of a firebrand activist through mere circumstances.
Other than this inherent flaw, the book is a worthy addition to the existing literature on the subject and is a compelling and harrowing read, a must indeed for every student of Indian democracy, as a citation on the cover says.