Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Politics of Dignity and the Politics of Poverty

by John Holloway

This is the text and notes for a talk given in Nottingham.

How far is Latin America from Nottingham? It depends on how you measure it. You can measure it in terms of a politics of poverty or you can measure it in terms of a politics of dignity.

If we speak of a Pink Tide in the area, we must remember that Pink is not a primary colour, that what seems to be pink is in fact a blend of colours that combine and conflict. There is a central issue that runs through so-called pink tide in Latin America and the way that we understand it. This is the contrast between a politics of poverty and a politics of dignity.

By a politics of poverty I mean a politics that starts from the poverty of the great mass of the population and the desire to eliminate it. This has a very real basis. There is enormous poverty in the region. This is one of the most striking things when you first go there: the number of people selling things at the traffic lights or begging in the streets, the shanty towns, the poverty in the countryside. A very big part of the population live in poverty or extreme poverty. And beside that, the big houses and the big cars, the obvious social disparities between rich and poor.

The immediate reaction when we see all that is to say that we must strive for the elimination of poverty and for an end to injustice. We need economic progress and we need a government that will introduce policies that benefit the poor and attack the structures of inequality, a government that will try to free itself from the neoliberalism that has caused so much misery in the region in the last thirty years or so, that will improve health and education. As we know, there are now a number of governments in the region that are firmly committed to making important changes in these directions, and that is most definitely to be welcomed.

But there is more to be said. Go back to the poor people we started with and talk to them, or rather listen to them. And as you listen to them, they open up in front of you, or rather your mind opens up, and you see them not as poor people to be pitied or cared for, but as people in struggle, in daily struggle for existence and very often in collective struggle for a better society. And as you listen, the third person dissolves, the third person relation that separates them from you: you realise that they and you are part of a we that are trapped in a world of injustice and trying to find a way out, part of a frustrated we that have the capacity to create a different world but cannot do it. Inside the poverty we discover dignity: the dignity of the poor and the dignity of ourselves. Inside the object an objectified subject struggling against her own objectification.

This changes everything, because it changes the way that we think about politics and the way we organise politically and the way we understand what is happening in Latin America and the world.

First of all, dignity breaks the state as a form of organisation. The concept of poverty leads to a state-oriented politics: the poor are a they – poor people – and the way to change things for them is by improving them on their behalf. The state is precisely that – a group of professionals that claim to do things on behalf of people, and this always involves imposing a view of what is for the benefit of people, treating people as objects. Dignity, on the other hand, says “No, thank you very much, don’t do anything on our behalf, we’ll do it ourselves. To think politics from the subject means thinking of different forms of organisation, forms that articulate the collective will of those involved – assemblies, councils, forms of organisation that aim at overcoming the separation of politics from everyday life. This is often referred to as a politics of autonomy, or of dialogue rather than monoogue, of listening rather than talking, a politics of mandar obedeciendo, as the Zapatistas put it: a form of organisation that seeks the effective subordination of all decisions to the collective will of the community.

This means a critique of representative democracy. A representative is someone who claims to act on our behalf. The very act of representation is the creation of a public sphere separate from the private, an act of distancing politics from life, an exclusion. A concept of dignity pushes towards a different form of democracy, one that does not exclude.

Dignity dissolves the third person, the state, representative democracy, and it also dissolves progress. The concept of poverty is closely linked to that of progress. Progress is generally seen as the antidote to poverty, but it is a progress that is understood as having an autonomous, objective existence, something that we must try to attain. Dignity, on the other hand, is anti-progressive, not in the sense of not wanting to develop human capacities to create a better life, but in the sense of subordinating changes to collective consideration: if progress means making bigger and bigger cities, that is probably not what we want; if progress means covering the world in highways, that is probably not what we want; if progress means accelerating global warming, that is not what we want. But Progress, as an autonomous force outside our control, is simply the operation of the law of value, the rule of socially necessary labour time, of that empty faster-faster-faster that determines what is done and how it is done under capitalism. Dignity, then, is anti-capitalist in the profound sense of breaking capitalist time, in confronting the faster-faster-faster of capitalism with a “whoa, let’s slow down, lets discuss whether we really want a new highway, whether we want the mechanisation of agriculture, whether we really want to work under so much pressure.”

Dignity, in short, takes us into a whole different epistemological universe where everything is laid open: the meaning of knowledge, the meaning of research, the meaning of politics, the meaning of revolution, the meaning of class, the meaning of work, time, space, the meaning of left and right. The person we start off by classifying as poor turns around to us and says “I am not poor, I am in struggle, I have dignity” and with that she hurls all our categories back in our faces and forces us to rethink everything. It is this manifest bubbling of dignity that makes Latin America such an exciting place at the moment, such a challenge to us all.

But of course dignity simmers in all the world. And of course the politics of Latin America, or even the radical politics of Latin America, is not just a politics of dignity. Rather, it is an extremely complex and tense intertwining of the politics of poverty with the politics of dignity. At one extreme, perhaps, we have the Zapatistas who proclaim dignity as their central principle - and in this they are echoed by many of the movements of opposition - , and on the other side we have the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela, say, who, by their form of existence as states, act on behalf of the people, however open they may be to consulting them. But of course it is not so simple: there are certainly instances in which the Zapatistas or other groups reproduce authoritarian practices or in which Zapatista supporters say “we must help the poor indígenas”, and there are also genuine attempts by the Venezuelan state (or part of the Venezuelan) state to break with the state as a form of social organisation and transform itself into what they call a Commune state, particularly through such measures as the promotion of the communal councils. With the distinction between a politics of dignity and a politics of poverty I do not want to say “these are the goodies and here are the baddies”, or “here is the answer”. Nevertheless I do find the distinction helpful in at least three ways.

Firstly I think it means that we (the two strands of anti-capitalist thought) should push together in the same direction as far as we possibly can. In that sense, I confess that I am one of the many adherents of the Otra Campaña in Mexico who did vote for López Obrador in the last election and certainly I think the governments of Chávez and Morales are preferable to their predecessors.

Secondly, however, I do not think we can simply add the two politics together, as was advocated by both John Foran and Mike Geddes yesterday, and is argued by the proponents of poder popular in Argentina and elsewhere, because there are really two different logics at work here, two different concepts of the world and politics, and of what is at issue in anti-capitalist social change. Put simply, it is the clash between the progressive and the anti-progressive left. Progressive governments are just that, progressive, with all that means in terms of slotting in to the faster-faster-faster of capitalist development and all the destruction that that involves, whereas many of the most important anti-capitalist struggles both in Latin America and the world are very explicitly opposed to the destruction that Progress entails, whether in the form of new metro lines, nuclear power stations or climate change. In that sense the Zapatistas are quite right to criticise the politics of López Obrador, and I have a great deal of sympathy for the many people involved in the important social movements in Bolivia from 2000 to 2005 who feel that the Morales government does not represent what they were fighting for. That is why, too, I do not feel very optimistic about the future of the more radical strands within the Bolivarian process in Venezuela.

Thirdly, I think the distinction is useful because it confronts us who work in the universities with what we are doing. If we think in terms of the politics of poverty, then we live in a world of pre-established categories in which we can define Latin America as our object of analysis, comfortably separated from us by the Atlantic Ocean. If however, our object of analysis turns into a subject who kills the third person and throws our categories back in our faces, then we find ourselves on very unstable ground in which we have to feel our way forward, experimenting and exploring, and always asking as we walk.

Measured in terms of a politics of poverty, Latin America is certainly over there, a million miles away from Nottingham. Measured in terms of a politics of dignity, Latin America is right on top of us, a raging challenge, an appalling terror, and a shining light of hope for the future.


Dignity is the push towards social self-determination against-and-beyond a world that is built on the negation of self-determination.

Poverty leads you to a politics on behalf of, dignity to a politics of No thank you, we’ll do it ourselves, autonomy.

Dignity and we-ness. Dignity breaks the third person. Poverty reproduces it. In Latin America there are two voices raised: the voice of poverty and the cry of dignity. Closely intertwined but very important to distinguish. Lead in different directions politically, reminding us that pink is not a primary colour.

The distinction between dignity and poverty is not concerned just with how we understand Latin America: it slaps us in the face, it is about how we relate to the world and understand what is happening.

'Then that suffering that united us made us speak, and we recognised that in our words there was truth, we knew that not only pain and suffering lived in our tongue, we recognised that there is hope still in our hearts. We spoke with ourselves, we looked inside ourselves and we looked at our history: we saw our most ancient fathers suffering and struggling, we saw our grandfathers struggling, we saw our fathers with fury in their hands, we saw that not everything had been taken away from us, that we had the most valuable, that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet, and we saw, brothers, that all that we had was DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame of having forgotten it, and we saw that DIGNITY was good for men to be men again, and dignity returned to live in our hearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, saw that we were new again and they called us again, to dignity, to struggle'.
- Marcos
continue reading

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Governments and Movements: Autonomy or New Forms of Domination?

by Raúl Zibechi, Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order

The end of 2008 marked the ten-year anniversary of Hugo Chávez's first electoral victory (December 6, 1998), which initiated a new period marked by the emergence of progressive and left governments in South America. His clinching of the presidency was the result of a long process of struggles from below, beginning in February 1989 with the Caracazo—the first great popular insurrection against neoliberalism—which drove into crisis the party-system that for decades had sustained elite domination.

In the years that followed, seven other presidents embodying the ongoing political-institutional changes came to power, accounting for a total of eight out of ten governments in the region: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. These administrations were made possible—to a greater or lesser degree—by the resistance of social movements to the neoliberal model.

In some cases, admittedly, this change at the top level arose from years of steady electoral growth (notably, in Brazil and Uruguay), while in other countries it was the fruit of social movements capable of overthrowing neoliberal parties and governments (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and to an extent Argentina). A decade after the start of this process, it is time for a brief evaluation of what has happened:

1. Beyond the differences between these processes, they share something fundamental in common: the return of the state to a central role as the driver of change.

2. Movements that in the 1990s and early 2000s were the central protagonists of resistance to the neoliberal model have been marginalized.

3. The dominant contradiction in this period is between the governments and right-wing sectors, a change that has sucked movements into a statist whirlwind from which most have been unable to escape.

4. There are some tendencies—still dispersed—that seek to rebuild the movements on new foundations, based on new issues and new forms of political action.

The twilight of the "progressive" decade as a source of social, political, and economic change makes it necessary for social movements to balance their accounts and take stock of the gains and losses this decade has brought to popular forces.

The risks of subordination

An initial stage was marked by government subordination of the movements, or rather by the movements’ demobilization and division, and the fragmentation of their initiatives. Only small nuclei remained in open confrontation with the governments, while most slid toward government collaboration in exchange for direct economic subsidies (known as planes sociales) and other material benefits. Many other movement collectives simply dissolved.

By contrast, in Chile, Peru, and Colombia, the movements are experiencing an era of vibrant activity. In all three countries, indigenous groups are taking the lead. In Chile, the Mapuche are recovering from the ravages of the Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law, which was reactivated by "socialist" President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006). The Mapuche, along with high school students and workers from various sectors, particularly mining and forestry, have generated a major reactivation of social struggles.

Indigenous communities affected by mining in Peru are vigorously resisting through the grassroots Quechua organization Conacami, paying a high price in lives and arrests for their struggles. The group is leading the fight against genocidal mining projects that leave behind contaminated water sources and un-breathable air just to line the pockets of the multinationals. CONACAMI fiercely opposes the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and President Alan García's neoliberal policies.

In Colombia, the long struggle of the indigenous Nasa represented by the ACIN and CRIC has been doubly fruitful.[1] The broad social mobilization known as the "Minga" (literally, collective work), which brought together dozens of indigenous groups in October 2008 in Cauca, managed to break through a military siege and the militarization of society that had immobilized indigenous communities. Cane cutters—most of them Afro-Colombians—service workers, neighborhood organizations, and human rights activists all joined the indigenous-led Minga.

The example set by these movements, which are beset by and born out of adversity, should be a point of inspiration for the rest of the continent's movements. The long hunger strike by Mapuche advocate Patricia Troncoso between November 2007 and January 2008 and Colombia's indigenous Minga share the potent mission of breaking through the isolation and "soft" genocide that seek to wipe indigenous groups off the map in an attempt to silence their existence as a people.

In other countries, the panorama for the movements is extremely complex. Perhaps the most emblematic case is that of Argentina. The vast majority of the piquetero movement of unemployed workers has been coopted by the state through economic subsidies to families (the planes sociales) and the awarding of government posts to their leaders. The human rights movement—particularly, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which had played a prominent role in resisting neoliberalism during the 1990s—has joined officialdom, becoming an unequivocal defender of government policies. Meanwhile many neighborhood assemblies have simply disappeared.

Nonetheless, not everything has been a step backward. Over the last five years, innumerable collectives have sprung up, many of them focusing on environmental issues, such as open-pit mining, forestry, and soy mono-cropping. From this process, some 100 local assemblies have emerged and are organized into the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC), which has become one of the most active opponents of multinational mining.

Also in Argentina, campesinos and small farmers formed the National Campesino Front, made up of some 200 rural organizations representing family and community agriculture against the impetuous advance of soy agribusiness. The organization represents long-standing movements (such as MOCASE from Santiago del Estero) as well as new organizations of small producers, including a handful of collectives from urban peripheries.

In Brazil, the movements have been incapable of advancing beyond their long-standing defensive footing—a position aggravated by the Lula government. In Uruguay, despite organized labor's growing strength—largely attributable to state protection of labor leaders' activities—the movements are far from being an anti-systemic actor, and organizational levels among the urban poor remain local and fragmented. The planes sociales are largely responsible for this weakening of the movements.

In Bolivia, the situation is quite different. The movements have not been defeated and maintain their significant capacity for mobilization and pressure over the government and right-wing sectors. The September 2008 crisis, for example, was resolved in favor of popular sectors thanks to the movement's intense mobilization, which included the cordoning off of Santa Cruz and the resistance of Plan 3000—the poor and indigenous peripheral suburb of the oligarchic mestizo city.[2]

As Raquel Gutiérrez noted about the current conjuncture, Bolivian movements have "recovered a margin of political autonomy in relation to government decisions," particularly when they see the government as incapable of stopping the oligarchy. "But they have no inclination to be subordinated when it comes to the fulfillment of their demands."[3]

The pressure exerted by the movements, however, comes up against statist logic, which remains firmly enmeshed in bloated state bureaucracies (military, judicial, legislative, ministerial, and municipal). Those bureaucracies are reticent to change. Bureaucracies are not only conservative by nature, they are also managed by newly empowered officials—both elected (deputies, senators, council members, mayors) and non-elected (ministers and hundreds of advisers)—whose main ambition is to maintain their positions.

The new forms of domination

It is not possible for movements to overcome state dependency and subordination without understanding that the new "left" and "progressive" governments are exercising new forms of domination. The planes sociales aimed at "integrating" the poor play a central role in these novel modes of social control.

I recently had the following conversation with a top-level official of Uruguay's Ministry of Social Development:

The official said, "For us, social policies are emancipatory policies, not a way of disciplining the poor."

"Is this your personal opinion or is it the ministry's as well?" I wondered.

The official replied, "It's not just mine, it's also that of the national government and of the Ministry of Social Development. The national government did not come here to placate the poor; it came to generate opportunities for integration and emancipation."

Such affirmations, no doubt honest in their intent, implicitly undermine the role of social movements by adopting their discourses and even their practices. This raises three central questions:

1. The end of the old right: The new governments born from the crisis of the first stage of neoliberalism—the period of privatization and deregulation—consolidated their rule by destroying right-wing elites' traditional bases of domination. These elites had built extensive clientelistic networks with local political bosses (caudillos), who used their role as mediators with state institutions and the electoral system to subjugate the poorest sectors.

The movements arose to fight against these elites. The piquetero case is symptomatic: the piqueteros’ struggle for direct control of the planes sociales sought to snatch from caudillos their ability to control patron-client networks. In confronting the right directly, this wave of mobilizations strengthened the piquetero movement and modified Argentina's regional political map.

With mixed success, the new governments have sought to displace these clientelistic networks, putting government-directed state bureaucracies in their place. This is arguably the main "progressive" action of the new governments. In the process of dismantling the old elite networks, the governments have employed the same language and codes used by the movements of organized popular sectors.

2. New forms of control: The crisis of discipline as a way of molding bodies in closed spaces was one of the most prominent characteristics of the "Revolution of '68." The overwhelming of patriarchal hierarchies and the defiance of authority in the workshop, the school, the hospital and the barracks forced capital and the state to create new forms of open-air social control. They now had to find new ways to deal with the population and to maintain security.

The state-backed planes sociales, directed by a coterie of NGO officials, are how these new forms of domination are being introduced into spaces and territories that are impervious to discipline. In these sites, the state becomes capillary, working from within, stretching its reach into ramshackle neighborhoods that had been bastions of revolt. It works with the very sectors that had been organized as movements, but its aim is to disorganize them.

The state’s presence no longer manifests itself in the grotesque form of the police baton—though, for sure, it's never absent—but rather in the subtler form of "social development for citizen integration." For this, the state counts on all the knowledge accumulated by NGOs over decades of local "cooperation," during which they adopted the "participatory" practices of popular education.

Young NGO officials constitute a new army of functionaries who no longer wait for children at schools or tend to patients at hospitals, but who instead go directly to the territories of poverty and rebelliousness. And they have something that makes this job much easier: They have insider knowledge of these popular sectors, because many of these officials at one time participated in resistance against the neoliberal model; they had been militants or, at least, deeply tied to social activism.

Echoing Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, it could be said that the planes sociales are instruments of biopolitical control in which the state classifies people according to their material needs and "restores a type of clientelism" (let's call it state-scientific) in which politics become irrelevant.[4]

True, the planes sociales help alleviate poverty, but they do not change the distribution of income, and they altogether avoid the growing concentration of wealth, while leaving the fundamental aspects of the model intact. And by affecting the organizational capacity of the movements and blocking their ability to grow, the planes sociales serve the neoliberal drive to turn all of life into a commodity. In this regard, it is alarming that left intellectuals are nearly unanimous in viewing the planes sociales as an achievement of progressive politics.

3. An offensive against autonomy: States now adopt the language of the movements, even claiming support for the "critical autonomy" of those receiving the planes sociales. States have devised mechanisms of coordination so that the movements themselves participate in the design of the planes sociales and are involved in the implementation of local policies (never general policies, though, or those that might question the model).

The movements are persuaded to undertake a "participatory diagnosis" of the neighborhood or town; in fact they are even put in charge of carrying out the local charity work. This all falls into the policy of "capacity building" designed by the World Bank, which involves choosing which ministry each organization is suited to work with.

All of this is aimed at "state building" within the everyday practices of popular sectors, and it is done precisely in areas where people had learned "movement building." The planes sociales are directed straight at the heart of territories that were incubators of rebellion. These programs seek to neutralize or modify networks and forms of solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual assistance that were created by the poor (los de abajo) in order to survive neoliberalism. Once the social ties and knowledge that assured their autonomy have disappeared, these sectors are easier to control.

None of this should be attributed to a supposed malevolence on the part of the progressive governments. Whenever the poor have overturned existing forms of domination, new and more perfected ones have necessarily taken their place. Only by neutralizing these planes sociales and overcoming their offensive against the autonomy of the poor will the movements be able to get back on their feet and resume their march toward emancipation.

[1] [Ed. Note: For details, see Mario Murillo’s article in S&D, no. 51 (November 2009).]
[2] [Ed. Note: For Plan 3000 resistance to the right wing coup, see Marxa Chávez in S&D no. 51.]
[3] Raquel Rodriguez, “Winds of Civil War in Bolivia: Understanding a Four-party Conflict,” Center for International Policy-Americas Program, October 29, 2008 (
[4] See Francisco de Oliveira, “The Duckbilled Platypus,” New Left Review 24, November/December 2003.
continue reading

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Serving Our Life Sentence in the Shacks

by Zodwa Nsibande & S'bu Zikode, El Kilombo

People all over South Africa have been asking the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo as to why the government continues to ignore the demands of the shack dwellers. They have been asking why after all the marches, statements, reports and meetings the Kennedy Road settlement continues to get burnt down through the endless shack fires.

They have been referring in particular to the recent Kennedy Road shack fire on Sunday, 4 July 2010 that took four lives, leaving more than three thousand people displaced and homeless.

Without much more words to explain this continuous tragedy we have replied that in fact the shack dwellers of South Africa are serving a life sentence. Everybody knows that we are the people who do not count in this society. But the truth that must be faced up to is that we have been sentenced to permanent exclusion from this society.

Over the years it has been made clear that the cities are not for us, that the good schools are not for us and that even the most basic human needs like toilets, electricity, safety from fire and safety from crime are not to be met for us. When we ask for these things we are presented as being unreasonable, too demanding and even as a threat to society. If we were considered as people that did count, as an equal part of society, then it would be obvious that the real threat to our society is that we have to live in mud and fire without toilets, without electricity, without enough taps and without dignity.

Waiting for ‘delivery’ will not liberate us from our life sentence. Sometimes ‘delivery’ does not come. When ‘delivery’ does come it often makes things worse by forcing us into government shacks that are worse than the shacks that we have built ourselves and which are in human dumping grounds far outside of the cities.’Delivery’ can be a way of formalising our exclusion from society.

But we have not only been sentenced to permanent physical exclusion from society and its cities, schools, electricity, refuse removal and sewerage systems. Our life sentence has also removed us from the discussions that take place in society. Everyone knows about the repression that we have faced from the state and now, also, from the ruling party. Everyone knows about the years of arrests and beatings that we suffered at the hands of the police and then the attack on our movement in the Kennedy Road settlement.

We have always said that in the eyes of the state and the ruling party our real crime was that we organised and mobilised the poor outside of their control. We have thought for ourselves, discussed all the important issues for ourselves and taken decisions for ourselves on all the important issues that affect us. We have demanded that the state includes us in society and gives us what we need to have for a dignified and safe life. We have also done what we can to make our communities better places for human beings. We have run crèches, organised clean up campaigns, connected people to water and to electricity, tried to make our communities safe and worked very hard to unite people across all divisions. We have faced many challenges but we have always worked to ensure that in all of this work we treat one another with respect and dignity.

The self-organisation of the poor by the poor and for the poor has meant that all of those who were meant to do the thinking, the discussing and to take decisions on our behalf – for us but without us – no longer have a job. Our decision to build our own future may therefore not be an easy one to accept for those who can no longer continue to take decisions and to speak for us but without us. Some of the people who have refused to accept our demand that those who say that they are for the poor should struggle with and not on behalf of the poor are in the state. Some are in the party. Some are in that part of the left, often in the universities and NGOs, that sees itself as a more progressive elite than those in the party and the state and which aims to take their place in the name of our suffering and struggles.

We call this left a regressive left. For us any leftism outside of the state that, just like the ruling party, wants followers and not comrades and which is determined to ruin any politics that it cannot rule is deeply regressive. We have always and will always resist its attempts to buy our loyalty just as we have always and will always resist all attempts by the state and the ruling party to buy our loyalty. We will also resist all attempts to intimidate us into giving up our autonomy. We will always defend our comrades when they are attacked. Our movement will always be owned by its members. We negotiate on many issues. Where we have to make compromises to go forward we sometimes do so. But on this issue there will never be any negotiation.

We have done a lot for ourselves and by ourselves. But for a long time what we could not succeed in doing for ourselves was to secure good land and decent housing in our cities. We stopped the evictions and we were no longer going backwards but it was a real struggle to go forwards. But we kept pushing and made some small advances here and there. This really offended the authorities in the party. This became very clear and evident when the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal passed the notorious Slums Act, meaning that the shack dwellers would never again have any place in our cities. Our successful challenge to the Slums Act in the Highest Court in the land was a great setback for the government’s plan to formalise our life sentence by eradicating our settlements and putting us in the human dumping grounds. The deal that we negotiated with the eThekwini Municipality to upgrade two settlements and to provide basic services to fourteen settlements was another setback to the eradication agenda of the politicians. The recent announcement by the eThekwini Municipality that they will accede to our demand to provide services including, for the first time since 2001 electricity, to settlements across the city is another victory of our struggle and another major setback to the eradication agenda. We are slowly but surely defeating the eradication agenda.

As South Africa was hosting the World Cup Abahlali warned that it will not benefit the poorest of the poor in our land. We warned that it would make the poor, poorer and more vulnerable. Leading up to the World Cup there were more evictions and pending court cases in different parts of the country. Poor street traders had their belongings confiscated as they had no permits to sell in restricted zones and the taxi industry suffered the impoundment of their taxis. Stopping the rush to celebrate the World Cup by raising all these questions and condemning these attacks on the poor as immoral and illegitimate has been a slap on the authorities’ faces. Although the fact is that all these huge soccer stadiums, hotels and other projects were built by the poor of the poorest they remained outside their benefit. The South African government has overspent its budget in building a ‘world class country’ and could not match and balance such expenditure with social needs such housing and the provision of the most basic services. The amount that has been spent for the World Cup could have built at least one millions homes for the poor. Although we acknowledge the efforts that have been put into this event we still feel that such effort could have been used to bring basic services and infrastructure to the poor. If that had been the case then the shack dwellers would not have been affected by these ongoing fires every time.

The truth about the attack on our movement has always been firm and not changing at any stage. We cannot make public comment on matters that are sub judice but our demand for an independent commission of inquiry that will bring the whole story into the light remains unchanged. The Kennedy 5, part of those who are already serving their life sentence in and out of the jails, have now been released from Westville prison. They had already been serving ten months of their punishment without any evidence of guilt being brought to the court and without the court saying anything about their illegal detention. The South African Constitution says there shall be no detention without trial and that a person cannot be detained for more than 48 hours without a proper bail hearing. The fact that, up until the release of the Kennedy 5, this trial was being conducted as a political trial outside of the rule of law even though it was taking place in a court of law tells us something very important about the position of the poor in post apartheid South Africa. Those who have handed a life sentence down to us always want to exclude us from fair and equal access to the courts and the rule of law. When they fail to achieve this through the commodification of the legal system they are willing to actively undermine the system from above.

The movement insists that the people shall govern; this is what the famous Freedom Charter says. Abahlali holds on to that. The strength and the autonomy of the movement compels us all to strive for a just world, a world that is free, a world that is fair and a world that looks after all its creations. We remain convinced that the land and the wealth of this world must be shared fairly and equally. We remain convinced that every person in this world has the same right to contribute to all discussions and decision making about their own future. For us all to succeed we have to be humble but firm in what we believe is right. We have to resist all our jailers, be they in the state, the party or the regressive left, and to take our place as equals in all the discussions.

We also know that the South African government still wants to look good in the eyes of the international communities and that they fear disgrace and shame. They want to show the world Soccer City but hide eTwatwa, Blikkiesdorp, Westville Prison, the red ants and the shack fires all around the country. We wish to thank all the international activists and organisations who have raised their concern against the repression that we have faced, including those that have organised protests against the South African diplomats in their respective countries.

We hope South Africa will become one of the world’s caring countries. We hope that one day our society will be an inspiration rather than a shock to you. As Abahlali we have committed ourselves to achieving this goal. But right now we are serving a life sentence and fighting all those who are trying to keep us imprisoned in our poverty, all those who demand that we know our place – our place in the cities and our place in the discussions. We have recognised our own humanity and the power of our struggle to force the full recognition of our humanity. Therefore we remain determined to continue to refuse to know our place.

Compiled by Zodwa Nsibande and S’bu Zikode -Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, together with with Landless People’s Movement (Gauteng), the Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal) and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, is part of the Poor People’s Alliance – a national network of democratic membership based poor people’s movements
continue reading

Monday, 24 May 2010

Letter to Maurice Thorez

Aimé Césaire
Député for Martinique
To: Maurice Thorez
General Secretary of the French Communist Party

It would be easy for me to articulate, as much with respect to the French Communist Party as with respect to the Communist International as sponsored by the Soviet Union, a long list of grievances or disagreements.

Lately, the harvest has been particularly bountiful: Khrushchev’s revelations concerning Stalin are enough to have plunged all those who have participated in communist activity, to whatever degree, into an abyss of shock, pain, and shame (or, at least, I hope so).

The dead, the tortured, the executed — no, neither posthumous rehabilitations, nor national funerals, nor official speeches can overcome them. These are not the kind of ghosts that one can ward off with a mechanical phrase.

From now on, they will show up as watermarks in the very substance of the system, as the obsession behind our feelings of failure and humiliation. And, of course, it is not the attitude of the French Communist Party as it was defined at its Fourteenth Congress — an attitude which seems to have been dictated above all by the pitiful concern of its leaders to save face — that will facilitate the dissipation of our malaise and bring about an end to the festering and bleeding of the wound at the core of our consciences.

The facts are there, in all their immensity.

I will cite at random: the details supplied by Khrushchev on Stalin’s methods; the true nature of the relationships between state power and the working class in too many popular democracies, relationships that lead us to believe in the existence in these countries of a veritable state capitalism, exploiting the working class in a manner not very different from the way the working class is used in capitalist countries; the conception generally held among communist parties of Stalinist orientation of the relationship between brother states and parties, as evidenced by the avalanche of abuse dumped for five years on Yugoslavia for the crime of having asserted its will to independence; the lack of positive signs indicating willingness on the part of the Russian Communist Party and the Soviet state to grant independence to other communist parties or socialist states; or the lack of haste on the part of non-Russian parties, especially the French Communist Party, to seize the offer and declare their independence from Russia. All of this authorizes the statement that, with the exception of Yugoslavia, in numerous European countries — in the name of socialism — usurping bureaucracies that are cut off from the people (bureaucracies from which it is now proven that nothing can be expected) have achieved the pitiable wonder of transforming into a nightmare what humanity has for so long cherished as a dream: socialism.

As for the French Communist Party, one cannot avoid being struck by its reluctance to enter into the path of de-Stalinization; by its unwillingness to condemn Stalin and the methods which led him to his crimes; by its persistent self-satisfaction; by its refusal to renounce, for its own part and relative to its own affairs, the antidemocratic methods dear to Stalin; in short, by everything that allows us to speak of a French Stalinism that has a life more durable than Stalin himself and which, we may conjecture, would have produced in France the same catastrophic effects as in Russia, if chance had permitted it to come to power in France.

In light of all this, how can we suppress our disappointment?

It is very true that, the day after Khrushchev’s report, we trembled with hope.

We expected from the French Communist Party an honest self-critique; a disassociation with crimes that would exonerate it; not a renunciation, but a new and solemn departure; something like the Communist Party founded a second time. . . . Instead, at Le Havre, we saw nothing but obstinacy in error; perseverance in lies; the absurd pretension of having never been wrong; in short, among these pontiffs pontificating more than ever before, a senile incapacity to achieve the detachment necessary to rise to the level of the event, and all the childish tricks of a cornered priestly pride.

Well! All the Communist parties are stirring: Italy, Poland, Hungary, China. And the French party, in the middle of the whirlwind, examines itself and claims to be satisfied. Never before have I been so conscious of so great a historical lag afflicting a great people . . .

But as serious as this grievance is — and as sufficient as it is by itself, since it represents the bankruptcy of an ideal and the pathetic illustration of the failure of a whole generation — I want to add a certain number of considerations related to my position as a man of colour.

Let us say it straight out: in light of events (and reflection on the shameful antisemitic practices that have had currency and, it seems, continue to have currency in countries that claim to be socialist), I have become convinced that our paths and the paths of communism as it has been put into practice are not purely and simply indistinguishable, and that they cannot become purely and simply indistinguishable. One fact that is paramount in my eyes is this: we, men of colour, at this precise moment in our historical evolution, have come to grasp, in our consciousness, the full breadth of our singularity, and are ready to assume on all levels and in all areas the responsibilities that flow from this coming to consciousness.

The singularity of our “situation in the world,” which cannot be confused with any other. The singularity of our problems, which cannot be reduced to any other problem. The singularity of our history, constructed out of terrible misfortunes that belong to no one else. The singularity of our culture, which we wish to live in a way that is more and more real.

What else can be the result of this but that our paths toward the future — all our paths, political as well as cultural — are not yet charted? That they are yet to be discovered, and that the responsibility for this discovery belongs to no one but us?

Suffice it to say that we are convinced that our questions (or, if you prefer, the colonial question) cannot be treated as a part of a more important whole, a part over which others can negotiate or come to whatever compromise seems appropriate in light of a general situation, of which they alone have the right to take stock.

(Here it is clear that I am alluding to the French Communist Party’s vote on Algeria, by which it granted the Guy Mollet-Lacoste government full powers to carry out its North African policy — a circumstance that we have no guarantee will not be replicated in the future.)

In any case, it is clear that our struggle — the struggle of colonial peoples against colonialism, the struggle of peoples of color against racism—is more complex, or better yet, of a completely different nature than the fight of the French worker against French capitalism, and it cannot in any way be considered a part, a fragment, of that struggle.

I have often asked myself whether, in societies like ours (rural and peasant societies that they are, in which the working class is tiny and, conversely, the middle classes have a political importance out of proportion with their numerical importance), political and social conditions in the current context permit effective action by communist organizations acting in isolation (worse yet, communist organizations federated with or enfeoffed to the communist party in the metropole) and whether — instead of rejecting, a priori and in the name of an exclusive ideology, men who are nevertheless honest and fundamentally anticolonialist — there was not rather a way to seek a form of organization as broad and as flexible as
possible, a form of organization capable of giving impetus to the greatest number (rather than ordering around a small number). A form of organization in which Marxists would not be drowned, but rather play their role of leavening, inspiring, and orienting, as opposed to the role which, objectively, they play at present: of dividing popular forces.

The impasse at which we find ourselves today in the Caribbean, despite our electoral successes, seems to me to settle the matter: I opt for the broader rather than the narrower choice; for the movement that places us shoulder to shoulder with others rather than the one that leaves us by ourselves; for the one that gathers together energies rather than the one that divides them into chapels, sects, churches; for the one that liberates the creative energy of the masses rather than the one that restricts it and ultimately sterilizes it.

In Europe, unity of forces on the left is the order of the day; the disjointed elements of the progressive movement are tending toward welding themselves back together, and there is no doubt that this drive toward unity would become irresistible if the Stalinist communist parties decided to throw overboard the impediments of prejudices, habits, and methods inherited from Stalin. There is no doubt that, in that case, no reason (or better yet, no pretext) for shunning unity would remain for those in other leftist parties who do not want unity and, as a result, the enemies of unity would find themselves isolated and reduced to impotence.

But in our country, where division is most often artificial and brought from outside (piped in as it is by European divisions abusively transplanted into our local politics), how could we not be ready to sacrifice everything (that is, everything secondary) in order to regain that which is essential: that unity with brothers, with comrades, that is the bulwark of our strength and the guarantee of our hope in the future.

Besides, in this context, it is life itself that decides. Look at the great breath of unity passing over all the black countries! Look how, here and there, the torn fabric is being restitched! Experience, harshly acquired experience, has taught us that we have at our disposal but one weapon, one sole efficient and undamaged weapon: the weapon of unity, the weapon of the anticolonial rallying of all who are willing, and the time during which we are dispersed according to the fissures of the metropolitan parties is also the time of our weakness and defeat.

For my part, I believe that black peoples are rich with energy and passion, that they lack neither vigor nor imagination, but that these strengths can only wilt in organizations that are not their own: made for them, made by them, and adapted to ends that they alone can determine.

This is not a desire to fight alone and a disdain for all alliances. It is a desire to distinguish between alliance and subordination, solidarity and resignation. It is exactly the latter of these pairs that threatens us in some of the glaring flaws we find in the members of the French Communist Party: their inveterate assimilationism; their unconscious chauvinism; their fairly simplistic faith, which they share with bourgeois Europeans, in the omnilateral superiority of the West; their belief that evolution as it took place in Europe is the only evolution possible, the only kind desirable, the kind the whole world must undergo; to sum up, their rarely avowed but real belief in civilization with a capital C and progress with a capital P (as evidenced by their hostility to what they disdainfully call “cultural relativism”).

All these flaws lead to a literary tribe that, concerning everything and nothing, dogmatizes in the name of the party. It must be said that the French communists have had a good teacher: Stalin. Stalin is indeed the very one who reintroduced the notion of “advanced” and “backward” peoples into socialist thinking.

And if he speaks of the duty of an advanced people (in this case, the Great Russians) to help peoples who are behind to catch up and overcome their delay, I do not know colonialist paternalism to proclaim any other intention.

In the case of Stalin and those of his sect, it is perhaps not paternalism that is at stake. It is, however, definitely something that resembles it so closely as to be mistaken for it. Let us invent a word for it: “fraternalism.” For we are indeed dealing with a brother, a big brother who, full of his own superiority and sure of his experience, takes you by the hand (alas, sometimes roughly) in order to lead you along the path to where he knows Reason and Progress can be found.

Well, that is exactly what we do not want. What we no longer want.

Yes, we want our societies to rise to a higher degree of development, but on their own, by means of internal growth, interior necessity, and organic progress, without anything exterior coming to warp, alter, or compromise this growth.

Under these conditions, it will be understood that we cannot delegate anyone else to think for us, or to make our discoveries for us; that, henceforth, we cannot allow anyone else, even if they are the best of our friends, to vouch for us. If the goal of all progressive politics is to one day restore freedom to colonized peoples, it is at least necessary that the everyday actions of progressive parties not be in contradiction with this desired end by continually destroying the very foundations, organizational as well as psychological, of this future freedom, foundations which can be reduced to a single postulate: the right to initiative.

I believe I have said enough to make it clear that it is neither Marxism nor communism that I am renouncing, and that it is the usage some have made of Marxism and communism that I condemn. That what I want is that Marxism and communism be placed in the service of black peoples, and not black peoples in the service of Marxism and communism. That the doctrine and the movement would be made to fit men, not men to fit the doctrine or the movement. And, to be clear, this is valid not only for communists. If I were Christian or Muslim, I would say the same thing. I
would say that no doctrine is worthwhile unless rethought by us, rethought for us, converted to us. This would seem to go without saying. And yet, as the facts are, it does not go without saying. There is a veritable Copernican revolution to be imposed here, so ingrained in Europe (from the extreme right to the extreme left) is the habit of doing for us, arranging for us, thinking for us — in short, the habit of challenging our possession of this right to initiative of which I have just spoken, which is, at the end of the day, the right to personality.

This is no doubt the essence of the issue.

There exists a Chinese communism. Without being very familiar with it, I have a very strong prejudice in its favour. And I expect it not to slip into the monstrous errors that have disfigured European communism. But I am also interested, and more so, in seeing the budding and blossoming of the African variety of communism. It would undoubtedly offer us useful, valuable, and original variants, and I am sure our older wisdoms would add nuance to or complete them on points of doctrine.

But I say that there will never be an African variant, or a Malagasy one or a Caribbean one, because French communism finds it more convenient to impose theirs upon us. I say that there will never be an African, Malagasy, or Caribbean communism because the French Communist Party conceives of its duties toward colonized peoples in terms of a position of authority to fill, and even the anticolonialism of French communists still bears the marks of the colonialism it is fighting. Or again, amounting to the same thing, I say that there will be no communism unique to each of the colonial countries subject to France as long as the rue St-Georges offices — the offices of the French Communist Party’s colonial branch, the perfect counterpart of the Ministry of Overseas France on rue Oudinot—persist in thinking of our countries as mission fields or as countries under mandate.

To return to our main subject, the period through which we are living is characterized by a double failure: one which has been evident for a long time, that of capitalism. But also another: the dreadful failure of that which for too long we took to be socialism, when it was nothing but Stalinism.

The result is that, at the present time, the world is at an impasse. This can only mean one thing: not that there is no way out, but that the time has come to abandon all the old ways, which have led to fraud, tyranny, and murder.

Suffice it to say that, for our part, we no longer want to remain content with being present while others do politics, while they get nowhere, while they make deals, while they perform makeshift repairs on their consciences and engage in casuistry.

Our time has come.

And what I have said concerning Negroes is not valid only for Negroes.

Indeed, everything can be salvaged, even the pseudo-socialism established here and there in Europe by Stalin, provided that initiative be given over to the peoples that have until now only been subject to it; provided that power descends from on high and becomes rooted in the people (and I will not hide the fact that the ferment currently emerging in Poland, for example, fills me with joy and hope).

At this point, allow me to think more particularly about my own unfortunate country: Martinique.

Thinking about Martinique, I note that the French Communist Party is totally incapable of offering it anything like a perspective that would be anything other than utopian; that the French Communist Party has never bothered itself to offer even that; that it has never thought of us in any way other than in relation to a world strategy that, incidentally, is disconcerting.

Thinking about Martinique, I note that communism has managed to slip the noose of assimilation around its neck; that communism has managed to isolate it in the Caribbean basin; that it has managed to plunge it into a sort of insular ghetto; that it has managed to cut it off from other Caribbean countries whose experience could be both instructive and fruitful (for they have the same problems as us and their democratic evolution is rapid); and, finally, that communism has managed to cut us off from Black Africa, whose evolution is currently taking shape in the opposite direction of ours. And yet it is from this Black Africa, the mother of our Caribbean culture and civilization, that I await the regeneration of the Caribbean—
not from Europe who can only perfect our alienation, but from Africa who alone can revitalize, that is, repersonalize the Caribbean.

Yes, I know.

We are offered solidarity with the French people; with the French proletariat and, by means of communism, with the proletariats of the world. I do not reject these solidarities. But I do not want to erect solidarities in metaphysics. There are no allies by divine right. There are allies imposed upon us by place, time, and the nature of things. And if alliance with the French proletariat is exclusive; if it tends to make us forget or resist other alliances which are necessary and natural, legitimate and fertile; if communism destroys our most invigorating friendships — the friendship uniting us with the rest of the Caribbean, the friendship uniting us with Africa — then I say communism has done us a disservice in making us exchange living fraternity for what risks appearing to be the coldest of cold abstractions.

I shall anticipate an objection.

Provincialism? Not at all. I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism.

But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the “universal.”

My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.

And so? So we need to have the patience to take up the task anew; the strength to redo that which has been undone; the strength to invent instead of follow; the strength to “invent” our path and to clear it of ready-made forms, those petrified forms that obstruct it.

In short, we shall henceforth consider it our duty to combine our efforts with those of all men with a passion for justice and truth, in order to build organizations susceptible of honestly and effectively helping black peoples in their struggle for today and for tomorrow: the struggle for justice, the struggle for culture, the struggle for dignity and freedom. Organizations capable, in sum, of preparing them in all areas to assume in an autonomous manner the heavy responsibilities that, even at this moment, history has caused to weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Under these conditions, I ask you to accept my resignation as a member of the French Communist Party.

Paris, October 24, 1956

Aimé Césaire
— Translated by Chike Jeffers
continue reading

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Market Colonization of Intellectuals

Tuesday 06 April 2010
by: Lewis R. Gordon, Truth Out

In many forums over the past decade, public intellectuals seem unable to talk about pressing social issues without performing the equivalent of an academic literature review. Although reasons range from trying to inform their audiences of relevant debates to efforts to demonstrate erudition, that many public intellectuals present their work as the basis for rewards in academe and the entertainment industry suggests influences tantamount to the colonization of intellectuals by the ever-expanding market.

There was a time when the divide between academic intellectuals and those whose primary vocation was the common weal was marked by location. The former worked in universities, colleges, professional schools and seminaries. The latter worked in public organizations, advocacy groups, civic and religious associations, political parties and given the consequences of dissent, a good number of them produced their work from prisons and the trenches in times of war.

These two spheres offered communities for intellectual development and, crucially, they offered, albeit in the past, modest employment. To think, everyone needs also to eat.

Along the way, some academics became public figures and some public figures became academics. But the political legitimation of either depended on the impact of their work on public institutions and social movements. Then came a wave of reactionary policies in the 1980s into the past decade in an effort to push back the achievements of the 1960s. Accompanying these efforts was a war against left-oriented intellectuals.

In an ironic development, the anti-left quickly took advantage of at least one Marxian insight, exemplified well in Ayn Rand's 1957 novel "Atlas Shrugged": Attack the material conditions of the opposition. Right-wing think tanks, bloated with funding, waged war on social policies and institutions that offer safety nets for dissenting and creative left-wing and even centrist intellectuals. As public intellectuals became more academic, they increasingly relied on academic institutions for employment. So, the right hit them where it hurts.

Increased pressures in the academic job market began to affect every aspect of academic life, while the shift to neoliberal and neoconservative policies dried up government support once enjoyed during the cold war, where the public image of capitalist countries mattered as much as the demand for technical mastery over implements of war. Privatization became the mantra against humanistic projects and the shift, familiar to all, is to a corporate and consumer model of higher education. This change affected the sociology of academic institutions. One outcome is the emergence of an academic managerial class. In many universities, a consequence is administrators outnumbering faculty, a development rarely discussed as a factor in the rising costs of higher education. Administrators are more expensive than faculty.

Not all administrators fit this portrait. But the exception to a rule does not eliminate the explanatory force of the rule. It only shows that the rule has limits. In the past, an administrator was a scholar motivated by civic commitment to her or his institution. Today, there are administrators who skip over scholarship beyond achievement of the Ph.D. or comparable degree. Their relationship to academic management becomes, then, instrumental, the way managers with M.B.A. degrees learn the techniques of business without necessarily grasping its larger social problematics.

This academic managerial class consists of a mixture of academics, accountants, lawyers and business people (often serving on boards of trustees and on different levels of administrating universities). They are generally without goals short of imitation. Thus, their avowed purpose is to align the university with the sociology and norms of the market. This alignment brings along an accompanying rationality with market-driven social practices. The hegemony of those practices, which also assert themselves as the bases of intellectual and professional legitimacy, is a form of colonizing rationality. Since it has an impact on how academics behave and aims to determine what and how academics think and what they produce, I call it the market colonization of the academy. Its correlate is the market colonization of knowledge.

The managerial academic class works with a logic governed by quantitative models of assessment and consumption. Thus, knowledge is constantly measured and so, too, are its modes of assessment: the ranking of journals and the number of publications a scholar achieves in those of the highest rank. The result is the prevalence of more conservative models of assessment, where prestige of publishing houses and establishment auspices prevail over ideas.

Content falls sway to form and abrogated reasoning emerges, where judgment is supposedly reserved while only access to certain markers dominates. A weird circular logic results, in which work is praised by its appearance in distinguished places. In other words, a scholar or a public intellectual is important if her work appears in distinguished places determined by distinguished people appearing in them.

These developments have an impact on knowledge at the level of content in the following ways. As institutions become more consumer driven, interest in research declines as consumers seek degrees and predictable markers of appearing educated instead of the critical and difficult achievements of an actual education. As more scholars apply for fewer jobs, risk aversion develops and creativity declines.

In the humanities, for instance, employment safety means a return to scholastic forms of knowledge with the replacement of science instead of the god or gods around which past institutions were built. What this means today is that a demonstration of two kinds of expertise become marketable in a consumer-driven academy - namely, mastery of technical knowledge (sometimes scientific, but more often science-like) and textual mastery, which is a correlate of the first.

Mastery of technical knowledge offers opportunities of securing precious grants from private foundations, for-profit corporations, and neoliberal or neoconservative government projects. As well, for the consumers who also seek employment with their degree, technical scientific or professional knowledge offers skills for those markets.

Textual mastery imitates, in the humanities and some areas of the social sciences, scientific technical knowledge. The job of teaching texts promises consumers the appearance of education through textual familiarity. Thus, research that challenges texts, produces new kinds, and may even transcend textual virtuosity is less marketable. The academic, in this sense, offers technique, which is marketable.

Should a budding young scholar object to this portrait, her or his peers, in addition to advisers and friends, offer a powerful corrective: "You want a job, don't you?"

Securing a job is the rhetorical trump that legitimizes the entire process. In the academy, it leads to a strange logic: The best way to get a job is to have one. Thus, many academics and by extension many public academic intellectuals are perpetually on the job market. Market potentiality governs everything they produce.

In the academy, nothing is more marketable than the reputation of being smart. This makes sense: No one wants dumb intellectuals.

The problem, of course, is how "smart" is defined. In a market-oriented society, that means knowing how to play the game of making oneself marketable. The problem here is evident if we make a comparison with ethics. I once asked an environmental activist, who argued that a more ethical ecological position is the key against looming disaster, which would bother her more: to be considered unethical or stupid? She admitted the latter. In a society that makes it stupid to be ethical, what should public intellectuals do?

The impact of this development of market-driven knowledge is evident in how many professional intellectuals with an avowed social critical project write and present their work. Although it is important to engage valuable research in presenting matters for the public good, the reality is that some scholars function more like the knowledge equivalent of brand names than ideas. The result is, as I initially protested, much cultural criticism looking more like academic literature reviews (textual marketability) in dissertations and professional journals. As the market gets more conservative, this becomes increasingly so in relation to canonical texts. The big boys of ages past offer marketable support.

The effect is that many well-meaning people no longer have the capacity to think, or at least formulate thought, outside of the rehearsal of the academic job talk. They present their marketability and this mode of presentation affects even those who are at first not academic. The nonacademic intellectual has "arrived," so to speak, when the academic post is offered in recognition of the supposedly nonacademic intellectual achievement.

Now this concern about the market colonization of the academy and its impact on public intellectual life is not a criticism of individuals whose goals are primarily academic. It is not my wish to join the neurotic call of condemning academics for being part of a profession our civilization values, or at least used to value, greatly. What is crucial here is whether the underlying practices of academic assessment are, at the end of the day, academic at all. This consideration emerges not only from intrusive boards of trustees, who increasingly seem to want academics to lose spiritual remnants of their vocation and become the equivalent of automatons, but also from academics and public intellectuals who have learned how to play the market, as it were. Those academics and public intellectuals, having achieved the coveted judgment "smart," understand that there is nothing more marketable than becoming a "brand," and this is usually done at the level of phrases that become isomorphic with their authors.

To produce an idea that contributes to the advancement of human knowledge is a wonderful achievement. Yet, it could also leave its author out in the proverbial cold. To produce an idea wedded to the author in such a way as to make her or him the exemplar of the idea, the brand, so to speak, makes the presence of that author indispensable for the experience of the product. Even more effective is the transformation of the author's name into a product itself or at least an isomorphic relationship between the two. There are many examples. In recent times, can one think of deconstruction without Jacques Derrida or Jacques Derrida without deconstruction?

This is not to say there must be something nefarious about these associations. After all, the same could be said about relativity and Einstein, psychoanalysis and Freud, hegemony and Gramsci, justice as fairness and John Rawls or Orientalism and Edward Said. The list can go on, but I think the reader gets the point.

Becoming an eponym for an intellectual achievement works, however, if the demand grows in the market place. Intellectuals thus face selling their knowledge goods in ways that many did not have to in the past. Prior intellectuals were subject to different criteria of assessment in a world with a very different relationship between the university and the market and the academic and the nonacademic intellectual. To illustrate this changed relationship, the discussion thus far can be made salient through consideration of the role of capital itself in modern times.

Capital refers to ownership over the means of production. This was the designation of the class known as the bourgeoisie. Correlated with the bourgeoisie was the production of mystifying modes of argumentation, knowledge practices whose purpose it was to create a labyrinth of rationalizations of the alienation of flesh and blood human beings. As Peter Caws, the famed English philosopher of science and culture, explained:

One convenient way of escaping responsibility for unfortunate social facts (private property and wage labor, for example) is to regard them as relations between people and things: The capitalist is related to his property, so the expropriated worker vanishes from the equation; the worker is related to his work, so the factory owner similarly vanishes. Marx insists that both are disguised relations between people and other people: The owner of private property deprives and the wage slave is enslaved to, human beings in flesh and blood, not economic abstractions.[1]

The bourgeois academy maintains itself, in similar kind, through legitimating the practices of bourgeois society. Sometimes, this takes ironic forms, as we find in elite anti-elitism (witnessed on a nearly daily basis by many of us who have taught in first-tier institutions across the globe), where bourgeois society espouses also commitments to equality and freedom while demanding that the justice of inequalities should at least receive demonstration.

Although they may be critical of bourgeois society, many public academic intellectuals have bourgeois aspirations. What do those intellectuals do when they lack ownership of the means of material production - when the only type of capital they seem to have is the cultural one of their degree? Our brief discussion of branding suggests that they seek its epistemological equivalent: ownership over the means of knowledge production.

This ownership, governed by the social, cultural and legal institutions in contemporary, market-dominated society, brings along with it the correlative problems of colonization faced by material production. For example, the more mystifying knowledge capital becomes, the more linked is the relationship between the author and the product, making them one and the same and, since no one else is identical with the author and the brand, the reference point of the flow of profit becomes restricted. What this means is that the demand for the product becomes the demand for the author who has also become the product and, thus, an affirmation of market forces.

In recent times, what is even weirder is that the political identity of intellectual product has also become marketable. Thus, consumers seeking right-wing, centrist or left-wing intellectual products have an array of public intellectuals and academics offering also their politics as grounds of their marketability. Under the right circumstances, one's politics sells.

Together, these streams of market colonization - over academic institutions, academics and the squeezing of public intellectuals into the contemporary market logic of neoliberal and neoconservative academic life - inaugurate a claustrophobic environment for critical thinking and the production of new and revolutionary ideas.

Yet, this dismal picture has many lacunae. The list I offered of individuals associated with great intellectual achievements in the past and recent times is, for instance, a highly imperfect one. I simply included them because of their familiarity and also to encourage the reader to think through alternatives without taking a reactionary stand against the notion of an academic project. Many of the intellectuals on that list were and their proper heirs continue to be, correctly located in academic institutions, even with their clear impact on larger cultural knowledge.

But, yes, there are intellectuals who offered alternatives. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest of African-American scholars in the social sciences, had a tenuous relationship with the academy. He offered some of the most groundbreaking concepts through which to study racism, colonialism and modern political life. When fired from teaching because of his politics, he made a living through employment in alternative institutions and, of course, his writing. Anna Julia Cooper worked as the principal of the M Street High School, although she spent several years in alternative employment. She, too, had to seek alternative employment for a time after being fired because of her politics. Her work in black feminist thought continues to make an impact and she, along with Du Bois, was among the founders of the Pan-African movement. Aimé Césaire, who coined the term Négritude, was not mired in a permanent rationalization of the French academy. He will also be remembered in terms of his work as a political figure in Martinique, as the former Mayor of Fort de France, and a critical intellectual presence in the black Diaspora and concerns of postcolonial thought. The same can be said for Leopold Senghor, one of the other fathers of Négritude, in Senegal. And, of course, there is the work of Frantz Fanon, whose writings and biography, in spite of his formal role of training interns in psychiatry in Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, remains an abiding testament to the struggle for freedom in the colonial and postcolonial worlds.

Reflections on the market colonization of public intellectuals and academics and the mystifying practices they occasion are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the critical literature on some of the intellectuals I have offered as exemplars of alternatives. Their critics often offer celebrity academics as politically superior alternatives to intellectuals of the past who were, suspiciously, known as revolutionaries. An example among the more mainstream intellectuals is the presentation of Martin Heidegger (a celebrity philosophy professor who was formerly a member of the Nazi Party) over Jean-Paul Sartre (a celebrity philosophical writer and anti-imperialist who rejected being an academic and who aligned himself with nearly every left-wing revolutionary movement from his middle age to the end of his life) on supposedly political grounds.

This is not to say that there isn't much in Sartre's biography that would not be embarrassing instead of inspiring to a market-colonized academy. Sartre was offered all the prestigious academic prizes in French and the wider European society, including a post at France’s premier institution, the Collège de France, and the most prestigious one for a writer, the Nobel Prize for Literature. He rejected them all.

Although Sartre himself became a signifier for existentialism (a major branding if there ever was one), his decisions consistently suggested that he held himself to a standard beyond ordinary models of assessment. He knew he was a bourgeois writer, but he prized writing and the question of public commitment, with his notion of the politically engaged writer, to the point of living more modestly than he could have and dying much less wealthy. His godson John "Tito" Gerassi summarized him well when he eulogized:

Sartre was an enormously generous man and every modest. Though he earned a great deal of money with his plays, novels essays, philosophical works and biographies of Baudelaire, Genet and Flaubert, he died in debt, having given away most of his fortune to political movements and activists and to an untold number of struggling intellectuals. To this day, five young writers are receiving monthly checks from Sartre's publisher not knowing their true source.[2]

Gerassi added:

Sartre's philosophy is difficult to live. Perhaps because of that, most Anglo-Saxon commentators and teachers, raised on an escape-crammed philosophical tradition of pragmatism, preferred to praise the moral message propagated by Sartre's existential rival, Albert Camus. Since all organized actions lead to doctrinaire authoritarianism, said Camus, all we can do is shout, No!

Bad faith, replied Sartre. What we must do instead, he said, is commit ourselves over and over again. No act is pure. All acts are choices, which alienate some. No one can live without dirty hands. To be simply opposed is also to be responsible for not being in favor, for not advocating change. To fall back on the proposition that human actions are predetermined is to renounce mankind. No writer can accept the totalitarianism implied by "human nature." If he writes, he wants to change the world - and himself. Writing is an act. It is commitment. [Gerassi 2009, p. 275.]

These are certainly admissions that would make many contemporary academics and public intellectuals (most of whom are academics) squirm. Gerassi himself is an academic at Queens University of the City University of New York and public intellectual. His admiration for Sartre is not that Sartre was somehow better than the rest of us with the choices he made, but that he truly reflected his commitments in those choices. Being critical of being an academic, Sartre gave up being one and found a way to live as a writer without academic affiliation.

Critical of being a bourgeois, Sartre attempted to live, as best he could, a life that exemplified his commitment to freedom. Sartre's life, as was Fanon's, places upon all of us the question of the kinds of decisions we would make if we were in his situation. What are we willing to reject or embrace for our avowed commitments?

For many, it's impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

There are intellectuals out there who are struggling for alternatives. And even within the academy, there are those who labor, work and act according to commitments through which they hope to transcend the powerful gravitational pull of market forces. They offer inspiration for many who echo that powerful, historical search for what is to be done. Forgive me, then, as I here end by resisting the marketing seduction of offering their names.


[1] Peter Caws, "Sartrean Structuralism?" in The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, ed. Christina Howells (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 296.

[2] John Gerassi, "Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates" (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 274.
continue reading

Monday, 05 April 2010

Deleuzian Politics? A Roundtable Discussion

Éric Alliez, Claire Colebrook, Peter Hallward, Nicholas Thoburn, Jeremy Gilbert (chair)

Nick and Jeremy circulated some general questions to think about before the discussion, which particularly focused on the surprising fact that many casual commentators, and indeed, some self-styled ‘Deleuzians’, seemed to regard Deleuzian philosophy as wholly compatible with an embrace of market capitalism and its tendency to celebrate the ephemeral, the individual, the hyper-mobile, the infantile; while others seemed to think of Deleuze as a wholly apolitical or even anti-political thinker, mired in Nietzschean aristocratic elitism, ineffectual mysticism, or old-fashioned individualism. As such, the first question touched on the relationship of Deleuze and Guattari to Marx.

Click here to download this discssion in pdf from the journal New Formations.
continue reading

Monday, 29 March 2010

Abahlali baseMjondolo Demands to Jacob Zuma

A Memorandum of Demands to President Jacob Zuma
Monday, 22 March 2010 14, 2005

We, members and supporters of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Rural Network in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, are democrats committed to the flourishing of this country. We speak for ourselves and direct our own struggles. We have no hidden agendas. We have been mobilised by our suffering and our hopes for a better life. We believe that it is time to take seriously the fact that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

We come from the townships of Inanda, KwaMashu and Lamontville. We come from the farms in eNkwalini, New Hanover, Howick, KwaNjobokazi, Melmoth, Utrecht, Babanango and eShowe. We come from the flats of Hillary, Portview, Ridge View (Cato Manor), Wentworth and New Dunbar. We come from the shacks of Joe Slovo, Foreman Road, Clare Estate, Palmiet Road, Quarry Road, Motala Heights, Siyanda, Umkhumbane, New eMmaus, Pemary Ridge, Arnett Drive, Lindelani, Richmond Farm and, yes, Kennedy Road. We come from the transit camps of Richmond Farm, eNsimbini, Ridge View (Transact Camp), Cato Manor and New Dunbar.

We are all agreed that there is a serious crisis in our country. The poor are being pushed out of any meaningful access to citizenship. We are becoming poorer. We are being forced off our land and out of our cities. The councillor system has become a form of top down political control. It does not take our voices upwards. The democracy that we won in 1994 is turning into a new system of oppression for the poor.

We are all agreed that this country is rich because of the theft of our land and because of our work in the farms, mines, factories, kitchens and laundries of the rich. That wealth is therefore also our wealth. We are all agreed that the democratic gains that were won in 1994 were won by the struggles of the people and that we, the poor, are part of the people. Those victories are therefore also our victories. We are all agreed that we can not and will not continue to suffer in the way that we do. We are all agreed that we can not and will not give up our hopes for a better life and a fair world.

We have had meetings in all of our areas to discuss this march. Each area has developed its own set of demands which we are presenting to you. We have also taken all the demands that are common to many areas and put them together into this statement of our collective demands. We offer it to you as a statement of our demands. We also proclaim it to ourselves and to the world as a charter for the next phase of our struggle.

For too long we have been subject to evictions from our homes, be they in shack settlements or farms. These evictions are often unlawful, they are often violent and they often leave the poor destitute. Therefore we demand an immediate end to all evictions so that we can live in peace and with security.

For too long our communities have survived in substandard and informal housing. Therefore, we demand decent housing so that we can live in safety, health and dignity.

For too long those of us living in shacks have suffered without enough water and without toilets, electricity, refuse collection and drainage. Therefore we demand decent social services in all our communities so that we can live in safety, health and dignity.

For too long many of those of us who are formally connected to water and electricity have not been able to afford the costs of these services and face disconnection. Therefore we demand that these services be made free for the poor.

For too long the promise of housing has been downgraded to forced removal to a transit camp. These transit camps are more like prisons than homes. If they are ‘delivery’ then they are the delivery of the people into oppression. Therefore we demand an immediate and permanent end to all transit camps so that the dignity of the people that have been taken to the camps can be immediately restored.

For too long the housing that has been built has been built in human dumping grounds far outside of the cities and far from work, schools, clinics and libraries. Therefore we demand immediate action to release well located land for public housing. Where necessary land must be expropriated for this purpose. The social value of urban land must be put before its commercial value.

For too long people that are already languishing in human dumping grounds have been unable to access the cities. Therefore we demand the immediate provision of safe and reliable subsidised public transport to these areas.

For too long there has been rampant corruption in the construction and allocation of housing in transit camps, RDP housing and social housing. Therefore we demand complete transparency in the construction and allocation of all housing and an immediate end to corruption. We demand, in particular, a full and transparent audit into all the activities of the social housing company SOCHO – including its CEO, general manager and board of directors. We demand a similar audit into all the activities of Nandi Mandela and her associates.

For too long poor flat dwellers have suffered from unaffordable and exploitative rents. Therefore we demand the writing off of all arrears and the institution of an affordable flat rate for all.

For too long the poor have been forced to sign exploitative rental agreements under duress and threat of eviction. Therefore we demand the cancellation and collective renegotiation of all rental agreements signed under duress.

For too long farm dwellers have suffered the impoundment of their cattle, demolition of their homes, the denial of the right to burry their loved ones on the land, the denial of basic service and brutality, and sometimes even murder, at the hands of some farmers. The bias that the justice system has towards the rich has meant that it has systematically undermined farm dwellers. Therefore we demand immediate and practical action to secure the rights of farm dwellers.

For too long a fair distribution and use of rural land has been made impossible by the fact that land –a gift from God – has been turned into a commodity. Therefore we demand immediate steps to put the social value of rural land before its commercial value.

For too long the attack on our movement, its leaders and well known members, their family members and its offices in the Kennedy Road settlement in September last year has received the full backing of the local party and government structures. Therefore we demand

• a serious, comprehensive and credible investigation into the attack and its subsequent handling by the local party and government structures. This must include a full investigation into the role of the South African Police Services.
• the right to return for all the victims of the attack, including the Kennedy Road Development Committee and all its sub-committees. This right must be backed up with high level protection for the security of all the residents of the settlement.
• full compensation for everyone who lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods in the attack.
• a full and public apology by Willies Mchunu for the attack and its subsequent handling.
• the immediate release of those members of the Kennedy 13 who are still being held in detention.
• that immediate steps be taken to ensure that Willies Mchunu, Nigel Gumede and Yakoob Baig are not allowed to interfere in any police or judicial processes resulting from the attack.

For too long our communities have been ravaged by the cruelest forms of poverty. Therefore we demand the creation of well-paying and dignified jobs.

For too long the right to education has been reserved for the rich. Therefore we demand free education for the poor.

For too long we have not been safe from criminals and violence. We are especially concerned about the lack of safety for women in our communities. Therefore we demand immediate practical action to secure the safety of everyone and, in particular, the safety of women.

For too long the poor have been turned against the poor. Therefore we demand an immediate end to all forms of discrimination against isiXhosa speaking people (amamPondo) and people born in other countries.

For too long the legal system has been biased against the poor. Therefore we demand serious practical action to ensure that access to justice is no longer distorted by access to money.

For too long the councillor system has been used to control the people from above and to stifle their voices. Therefore we demand the immediate recognition of the right of all people to, if they so wish, organise themselves outside of party structures in freedom and safety.

Furthermore, just as people from around the city, the province and the country are uniting in support of our struggle we express our support for our comrades elsewhere. We have stood with, and will continue to stand with our comrades in Wentworth, our comrades in the Poor People’s Alliance and struggling communities and movements across the country. We thank everyone who has demonstrated solidarity with our struggle including church leaders, students and our comrades in other countries. We will do our best to offer the same support to your struggles.

continue reading

Walking With The Comrades

Gandhians with a Gun? Arundhati Roy plunges into the sea of Gondi people to find some answers...

Outlook India

The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal Security Threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from them. I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”

Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.

There are many ways to describe Dantewada. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town.

In Dantewada, the police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar.

Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists, is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. Children who ought to be in school run wild. In the lovely forest villages, the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie in a heap, or they are full of policemen. The deadly war that is unfolding in the jungle is a war that the Government of India is both proud and shy of. Operation Green Hunt has been proclaimed as well as denied. P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister (and CEO of the war), says it does not exist, that it’s a media creation. And yet substantial funds have been allocated to it and tens of thousands of troops are being mobilised for it. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India, it will have serious consequences for us all.

If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something, that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the new four-lane highway crashing through the forest is the opposite of a ghost. Perhaps it is the harbinger of what is still to come.

The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.

It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered. Even after Independence, tribal people were at the heart of the first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari village in West Bengal (where the word Naxalite—now used interchangeably with ‘Maoist’—originates). Since then, Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about the Naxalites.

This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.

Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

The most recent expression of concern has come from home minister P. Chidambaram who says he doesn’t want tribal people living in “museum cultures”. The well-being of tribal people didn’t seem to be such a priority during his career as a corporate lawyer, representing the interests of several major mining companies. So it might be an idea to enquire into the basis for his new anxiety.

Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MoUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.

Therefore, this war.

When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares war within its borders, what does that war look like? Does the resistance stand a chance? Should it? Who are the Maoists? Are they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection? What lessons have they learned from their past experience? Is armed struggle intrinsically undemocratic? Is the Sandwich Theory—of ‘ordinary’ tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists—an accurate one? Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out? Do their interests converge? Have they learned anything from each other? Have they changed each other?

The day before I left, my mother called, sounding sleepy. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, with a mother’s weird instinct, “what this country needs is revolution.”

An article on the internet says that Israel’s Mossad is training 30 high-ranking Indian police officers in the techniques of targeted assassinations, to render the Maoist organisation “headless”. There’s talk in the press about the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: laser range-finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones, so popular with the US army. Perfect weapons to use against the poor.

The drive from Raipur to Dantewada takes about 10 hours through areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested’. These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.

To protect the highway, security forces have ‘secured’ a narrow bandwidth of forest on either side. Further in, it’s the raj of the ‘Dada log’. The Brothers. The Comrades.

On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta (the company our home minister once worked with) Cancer Hospital. In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a university. In these creeping, innocuous ways, mining corporations enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants Who Really Care. It’s called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. It allows mining companies to be like the legendary actor and former chief minister NTR, who liked to play all the parts in Telugu mythologicals—the good guys and the bad guys, all at once, in the same movie. This CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta report for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s the occasional cancer hospital here or there?

I don’t remember seeing Vedanta’s name on the long list of MoUs signed by the Chhattisgarh government. But I’m twisted enough to suspect that if there’s a cancer hospital, there must be a flat-topped bauxite mountain somewhere.

We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College run by Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold). “Fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla”, the motto of the warfare training school, is painted on the rocks. The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason), eat snakes and live off the jungle. The brigadier takes great pride in training street dogs to fight ‘terrorists’. Eight hundred policemen graduate from the warfare training school every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an army. (In Kashmir, it’s the other way around. The army is being turned into a bloated, administrative police force.) Upside down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People.

It’s late. Jagdalpur is asleep, except for the many hoardings of Rahul Gandhi asking people to join the Youth Congress. He’s been to Bastar twice in recent months but hasn’t said anything much about the war. It’s probably too messy for the People’s Prince to meddle in at this point. His media managers must have put their foot down. The fact that the Salwa Judum—the dreaded, government-sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings, for burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes—is led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress MLA, does not get much play in the carefully orchestrated publicity around Rahul Gandhi.

I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”

“And the bananas?”

“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”

He really was a security threat.

His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.

We walked to the bus stand, only a few minutes away from the temple. It was already crowded. Things happened quickly. There were two men on motorbikes. There was no conversation—just a glance of acknowledgment, a shifting of body weight, the revving of engines. I had no idea where we were going. We passed the house of the Superintendent of Police (SP), which I recognised from my last visit. He was a candid man, the SP: “See Ma’am, frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted out.”

In no time at all we were riding out of town. No tail. It was a long ride, three hours by my watch. It ended abruptly in the middle of nowhere, on an empty road with forest on either side. Mangtu got off. I did too. The bikes left, and I picked up my backpack and followed the small internal security threat into the forest. It was a beautiful day. The forest floor was a carpet of gold.

In a while we emerged on the white, sandy banks of a broad flat river. It was obviously monsoon-fed, so now it was more or less a sand flat, at the centre a stream, ankle deep, easy to wade across. Across was ‘Pakistan’. “Out there, ma’am,” the candid SP had said to me, “my boys shoot to kill.” I remembered that as we began to cross. I saw us in a policeman’s rifle-sights—tiny figures in a landscape, easy to pick off. But Mangtu seemed quite unconcerned, and I took my cue from him.

Waiting for us on the other bank, in a lime-green shirt that said Horlicks!, was Chandu. A slightly older security threat. Maybe twenty. He had a lovely smile, a cycle, a jerry can with boiled water and many packets of glucose biscuits for me, from the Party. We caught our breath and began to walk again. The cycle, it turned out, was a red herring. The route was almost entirely non-cycleable. We climbed steep hills and clambered down rocky paths along some pretty precarious ledges. When he couldn’t wheel it, Chandu lifted the cycle and carried it over his head as though it weighed nothing. I began to wonder about his bemused village boy air. I discovered (much later) that he could handle every kind of weapon, “except for an LMG”, he informed me cheerfully.

Three beautiful, sozzled men with flowers in their turbans walked with us for about half an hour, before our paths diverged. At sunset, their shoulder bags began to crow. They had roosters in them, which they had taken to market but hadn’t managed to sell.

Chandu seems to be able to see in the dark. I have to use my torch. The crickets start up and soon there’s an orchestra, a dome of sound over us. I long to look up at the night sky, but I dare not. I have to keep my eyes on the ground. One step at a time. Concentrate.

I hear dogs. But I can’t tell how far away they are. The terrain flattens out. I steal a look at the sky. It makes me ecstatic. I hope we’re going to stop soon. “Soon,” Chandu says. It turns out to be more than an hour. I see silhouettes of enormous trees. We arrive.

The village seems spacious, the houses far away from each other. The house we enter is beautiful. There’s a fire, some people sitting around. More people outside, in the dark. I can’t tell how many. I can just about make them out. A murmur goes around. Lal Salaam Kaamraid (Red Salute, Comrade). Lal Salaam, I say. I’m beyond tired. The lady of the house calls me inside and gives me chicken curry cooked in green beans and some red rice. Fabulous. Her baby is asleep next to me, her silver anklets gleam in the firelight.

After dinner, I unzip my sleeping bag. It’s a strange intrusive sound, the big zip. Someone puts on the radio. BBC Hindi service. The Church of England has withdrawn its funds from Vedanta’s Niyamgiri project, citing environmental degradation and rights violations of the Dongria Kondh tribe. I can hear cowbells, snuffling, shuffling, cattle-farting. All’s well with the world. My eyes close.

We’re up at five. On the move by six. In another couple of hours, we cross another river. We walk through some beautiful villages. Every village has a family of tamarind trees watching over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent, gods. Sweet, Bastar tamarind. By 11, the sun is high, and walking is less fun. We stop at a village for lunch. Chandu seems to know the people in the house. A beautiful young girl flirts with him. He looks a little shy, maybe because I’m around. Lunch is raw papaya with masoor dal, and red rice. And red chilli powder. We’re going to wait for the sun to lose some of its vehemence before we start walking again. We take a nap in the gazebo. There is a spare beauty about the place. Everything is clean and necessary. No clutter. A black hen parades up and down the low mud wall. A bamboo grid stabilises the rafters of the thatched roof and doubles as a storage rack. There’s a grass broom, two drums, a woven reed basket, a broken umbrella and a whole stack of flattened, empty, corrugated cardboard boxes. Something catches my eye. I need my spectacles. Here’s what’s printed on the cardboard: Ideal Power 90 High Energy Emulsion Explosive (Class-2) SD CAT ZZ.

We start walking again at about two. In the village we are going to meet a Didi (Sister, Comrade) who knows what the next step of the journey will be. Chandu doesn’t. There is an economy of information too. Nobody is supposed to know everything. But when we reach the village, Didi isn’t there. There is no news of her. For the first time, I see a little cloud of worry settling over Chandu. A big one settles over me. I don’t know what the systems of communication are, but what if they’ve gone wrong?

We’re parked outside a deserted school building, a little way out of the village. Why are all the government village schools built like concrete bastions, with steel shutters for windows and sliding folding steel doors? Why not like the village houses, with mud and thatch? Because they double up as barracks and bunkers. “In the villages in Abujhmad,” Chandu says, “schools are like this....” He scratches a building plan with a twig in the earth. Three octagons attached to each other like a honeycomb. “So they can fire in all directions.” He draws arrows to illustrate his point, like a cricket graphic—a batsman’s wagon wheel. There are no teachers in any of the schools, Chandu says. They’ve all run away. Or have you chased them away? No, we only chase police. But why should teachers come here, to the jungle, when they get their salaries sitting at home? Good point.

He informs me that this is a ‘new area’. The Party has entered only recently.

About 20 young people arrive, girls and boys. In their teens and early 20s. Chandu explains that this is the village-level militia, the lowest rung of the Maoists’ military hierarchy. I have never seen anyone like them before. They are dressed in saris and lungis, some in frayed olive-green fatigues. The boys wear jewellery, headgear. Every one of them has a muzzle-loading rifle, what’s called a bharmaar. Some also have knives, axes, a bow and arrow. One boy carries a crude mortar fashioned out of a heavy three-foot GI pipe. It’s filled with gunpowder and shrapnel and ready to be fired. It makes a big noise, but can only be used once. Still, it scares the police, they say, and giggle. War doesn’t seem to be uppermost on their minds. Perhaps because their area is outside the home range of the Salwa Judum. They have just finished a day’s work, helping to build fencing around some village houses to keep the goats out of the fields. They’re full of fun and curiosity. The girls are confident and easy with the boys. I have a sensor for this sort of thing, and I am impressed. Their job, Chandu says, is to patrol and protect a group of four or five villages and to help in the fields, clean wells or repair houses—doing whatever’s needed.

Still no Didi. What to do? Nothing. Wait. Help out with some chopping and peeling.

After dinner, without much talk, everybody falls in line. Clearly, we are moving. Everything moves with us, the rice, vegetables, pots and pans. We leave the school compound and walk single file into the forest. In less than half an hour, we arrive in a glade where we are going to sleep. There’s absolutely no noise. Within minutes everyone has spread their blue plastic sheets, the ubiquitous ‘jhilli’ (without which there will be no Revolution). Chandu and Mangtu share one and spread one out for me. They find me the best place, by the best grey rock. Chandu says he has sent a message to Didi. If she gets it, she will be here first thing in the morning. If she gets it.

It’s the most beautiful room I have slept in, in a long time. My private suite in a thousand-star hotel. I’m surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal. They’re all Maoists for sure. Are they all going to die? Is the jungle warfare training school for them? And the helicopter gunships, the thermal imaging and the laser range-finders?

Why must they die? What for? To turn all of this into a mine? I remember my visit to the open cast iron-ore mines in Keonjhar, Orissa. There was forest there once. And children like these. Now the land is like a raw, red wound. Red dust fills your nostrils and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red, their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands of trucks, taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities that spring up overnight. Into a ‘growth rate’ that leaves economists breathless. Into weapons to make war.

Everyone’s asleep except for the sentries who take one-and-a-half-hour shifts. Finally, I can look at the stars. When I was a child growing up on the banks of the Meenachal river, I used to think the sound of crickets—which always started up at twilight—was the sound of stars revving up, getting ready to shine. I’m surprised at how much I love being here. There is nowhere else in the world that I would rather be. Who should I be tonight? Kamraid Rahel, under the stars? Maybe Didi will come tomorrow.

They arrive in the early afternoon. I can see them from a distance. About 15 of them, all in olive-green uniforms, running towards us. Even from a distance, from the way they run, I can tell they are the heavy hitters. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). For whom the thermal imaging and laser-guided rifles. For whom the jungle warfare training school.

They carry serious rifles, INSAS, SLR, two have AK-47s. The leader of the squad is Comrade Madhav who has been with the Party since he was nine. He’s from Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. He’s upset and extremely apologetic. There was a major miscommunication, he says again and again, which usually never happens. I was supposed to have arrived at the main camp on the very first night. Someone dropped the baton in the jungle-relay. The motorcycle drop was to have been at an entirely different place. “We made you wait, we made you walk so much. We ran all the way when the message came that you were here.” I said it was okay, that I had come prepared, to wait and walk and listen. He wants to leave immediately, because people in the camp were waiting, and worried.

It’s a few hours’ walk to the camp. It’s getting dark when we arrive. There are several layers of sentries and concentric circles of patrolling. There must be a hundred comrades lined up in two rows. Everyone has a weapon. And a smile. They begin to sing: Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam, aane vaale saathiyon ko lal lal salaam (red salute to the comrades who have arrived). It is sung sweetly, as though it was a folk song about a river, or a forest blossom. With the song, the greeting, the handshake, and the clenched fist. Everyone greets everyone, murmuring Lalslaam, mlalslaa mlalslaam....

Other than a large blue jhilli spread out on the floor, about 15 feet square, there are no signs of a ‘camp’. This one has a jhilli roof as well. It’s my room for the night. I was either being rewarded for my days of walking, or being pampered in advance for what lay ahead. Or both. Either way it was the last time in the entire trip that I was going to have a roof over my head. Over dinner I meet Comrade Narmada, in charge of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS), who has a price on her head; Comrade Saroja of the PLGA who is only as tall as her SLR; Comrade Maase (which means Black Girl in Gondi), who has a price on her head too; Comrade Rupi, the tech wizard; Comrade Raju, who’s in charge of the division I’d been walking through; and Comrade Venu (or Murali or Sonu or Sushil, whatever you would like to call him), clearly the seniormost of them all. Maybe central committee, maybe even politburo. I’m not told, I don’t ask. Between us we speak Gondi, Halbi, Telugu, Punjabi and Malayalam. Only Maase speaks English. (So we all communicate in Hindi!) Comrade Maase is tall and quiet and seems to have to swim through a layer of pain to enter the conversation. But from the way she hugs me, I can tell she’s a reader. And that she misses having books in the jungle. She will tell me her story only later. When she trusts me with her grief.

Bad news arrives, as it does in this jungle. A runner, with ‘biscuits’. Handwritten notes on sheets of paper, folded and stapled into little squares. There’s a bag full of them. Like chips. News from everywhere. The police have killed five people in Ongnaar village, four from the militia and one ordinary villager: Santhu Pottai (25), Phoolo Vadde (22), Kande Pottai (22), Ramoli Vadde (20), Dalsai Koram (22). They could have been the children in my star-spangled dormitory of last night.

Then good news arrives. A small contingent of people with a plump young man. He’s in fatigues too, but they look brand new. Everybody admires them and comments on the fit. He looks shy and pleased. He’s a doctor who has come to live and work with the comrades in the forest. The last time a doctor visited Dandakaranya was many years ago.

On the radio there’s news about the home minister’s meeting with chief ministers of states ‘affected by Left-Wing Extremism’. The chief ministers of Jharkhand and Bihar are being demure and have not attended. Everybody sitting around the radio laughs. Around the time of elections, they say, right through the campaign, and then maybe a month or two after the government is formed, mainstream politicians all say things like “Naxals are our children”. You can set your watch to the schedule of when they will change their minds, and grow fangs.

I am introduced to Comrade Kamla. I am told that I must on no account go even five feet away from my jhilli without waking her. Because everybody gets disoriented in the dark and could get seriously lost. (I don’t wake her. I sleep like a log.) In the morning Kamla presents me with a yellow polythene packet with one corner snipped off. Once it used to contain Abis Gold Refined Soya Oil. Now it was my Loo Mug. Nothing’s wasted on the Road to the Revolution.

(Even now I think of Comrade Kamla all the time, every day. She’s 17. She wears a homemade pistol on her hip. And boy, what a smile. But if the police come across her, they’ll kill her. They might rape her first. No questions will be asked. Because she’s an Internal Security Threat.)

After breakfast, Comrade Venu (Sushil, Sonu, Murali) is waiting for me, sitting cross-legged on the jhilli, looking for all the world like a frail village schoolteacher. I’m going to get a history lesson. Or, more accurately, a lecture on the history of the last 30 years in the Dandakaranya forest, which has culminated in the war that’s swirling through it today. For sure, it’s a partisan’s version. But then, what history isn’t? In any case, the secret history must be made public if it is to be contested, argued with, instead of merely being lied about, which is what is happening now.

Comrade Venu has a calm, reassuring manner and a gentle voice that will, in the days to come, surface in a context that will completely unnerve me. This morning he talks for several hours, almost continuously. He’s like a little store manager who has a giant bunch of keys with which to open up a maze of lockers full of stories, songs and insights.

Comrade Venu was in one of the seven armed squads who crossed the Godavari from Andhra Pradesh and entered the Dandakaranya forest (DK, in Partyspeak) in June 1980, 30 years ago. He is one of the original forty-niners. They belonged to People’s War Group (PWG), a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(ML), the original Naxalites. PWG was formally announced as a separate, independent party in April that year, under Kondapalli Seetharamiah. PWG had decided to build a standing army, for which it would need a base. DK was to be that base, and those first squads were sent in to reconnoitre the area and begin the process of building guerrilla zones. The debate about whether communist parties ought to have a standing army, and whether or not a ‘people’s army’ is a contradiction in terms, is an old one. PWG’s decision to build an army came from its experience in Andhra Pradesh, where its ‘Land to the Tiller’ campaign led to a direct clash with the landlords, and resulted in the kind of police repression that the party found impossible to withstand without a trained fighting force of its own.

(By 2004, PWG had merged with the other CPI(ML) factions, Party Unity (PU) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC)—which functions for the most part out of Bihar and Jharkhand. To become what it is now, the Communist Party of India-Maoist.)

Dandakaranya is part of what the British, in their White Man’s way, called Gondwana, land of the Gonds. Today the state boundaries of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra slice through the forest. Breaking up a troublesome people into separate administrative units is an old trick. But these Maoists and Maoist Gonds don’t pay much attention to things like state boundaries. They have different maps in their heads, and like other creatures of the forest, they have their own paths. For them, roads are not meant for walking on. They’re meant only to be crossed, or as is increasingly becoming the case, ambushed. Though the Gonds (divided between the Koya and Dorla tribes) are by far the biggest majority, there are small settlements of other tribal communities too. The non-adivasi communities, traders and settlers, live on the edges of the forest, near the roads and markets.

The PWG were not the first evangelicals to arrive in Dandakaranya. Baba Amte, the well-known Gandhian, had opened his ashram and leprosy hospital in Warora in 1975. The Ramakrishna Mission had begun opening village schools in the remote forests of Abujhmad. In north Bastar, Baba Bihari Das had started an aggressive drive to “bring tribals back into the Hindu fold”, which involved a campaign to denigrate tribal culture, induce self-hatred, and introduce Hinduism’s great gift—caste. The first converts, the village chiefs and big landlords—people like Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum—were conferred the status of Dwij, twice-born, Brahmins. (Of course, this was a bit of a scam, because nobody can become a Brahmin. If they could, we’d be a nation of Brahmins by now.) But this counterfeit Hinduism is considered good enough for tribal people, just like the counterfeit brands of everything else—biscuits, soap, matches, oil—that are sold in village markets. As part of the Hindutva drive, the names of villages were changed in land records, as a result of which most have two names now, people’s names and government names. Innar village, for example, became Chinnari. On voters’ lists, tribal names were changed to Hindu names. (Massa Karma became Mahendra Karma.) Those who did not come forward to join the Hindu fold were declared ‘Katwas’ (by which they meant untouchables) who later became the natural constituency for the Maoists.

The PWG first began work in south Bastar and Gadchiroli. Comrade Venu describes those first months in some detail: how the villagers were suspicious of them, and wouldn’t let them into their homes. No one would offer them food or water. The police spread rumours that they were thieves. The women hid their jewellery in the ashes of their wood stoves. There was an enormous amount of repression. In November 1980, in Gadchiroli, the police opened fire at a village meeting and killed an entire squad. That was DK’s first ‘encounter’ killing. It was a traumatic setback, and the comrades retreated across the Godavari and returned to Adilabad but in 1981 they returned. They began to organise tribal people to demand a rise in the price they were being paid for tendu leaves (which are used to make beedis). At the time, traders paid three paise for a bundle of about 50 leaves. It was a formidable job to organise people entirely unfamiliar with this kind of politics, to lead them on strike. Eventually the strike was successful and the price was doubled, to six paise a bundle. But the real success for the party was to have been able to demonstrate the value of unity and a new way of conducting a political negotiation. Today, after several strikes and agitations, the price of a bundle of tendu leaves is Re 1. (It seems a little improbable at these rates, but the turnover of the tendu business runs into hundreds of crores of rupees.) Every season, the government floats tenders and gives contractors permission to extract a fixed volume of tendu leaves—usually between 1,500 and 5,000 standard bags known as manak boras. Each manak bora contains about 1,000 bundles. (Of course, there’s no way of ensuring that the contractors don’t extract more than they’re meant to.) By the time the tendu enters the market, it is sold in kilos. The slippery arithmetic and the sly system of measurement that converts bundles into manak boras into kilos is controlled by the contractors, and leaves plenty of room for manipulation of the worst kind. The most conservative estimate puts their profit per standard bag at about Rs 1,100. (That’s after paying the party a commission of Rs 120 per bag.) Even by that gauge, a small contractor (1,500 bags) makes about Rs 16 lakh a season and a big one (5,000 bags) upto Rs 55 lakh. A more realistic estimate would be several times this amount. Meanwhile, the Gravest Internal Security Threat makes just enough to stay alive until the next season.

We’re interrupted by some laughter and the sight of Nilesh, one of the young PLGA comrades, walking rapidly towards the cooking area, slapping himself. When he comes closer, I see that he’s carrying a leafy nest of angry red ants that have crawled all over him and are biting him on his arms and neck. Nilesh is laughing too. “Have you ever eaten ant chutney?” Comrade Venu asks me. I know red ants well, from my childhood in Kerala, I’ve been bitten by them, but I’ve never eaten them. (The chapoli turns out to be nice. Sour. Lots of folic acid.)

Nilesh is from Bijapur, which is at the heart of Salwa Judum operations. Nilesh’s younger brother joined the Judum on one of its looting and burning sprees and was made a Special Police Officer (SPO). He lives in the Basaguda camp with his mother. His father refused to go and stayed behind in the village. In effect, it’s a family blood feud. Later on, when I had an opportunity to talk to him, I asked Nilesh why his brother had done that. “He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses. He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”

We return to the history lesson. The party’s next big struggle, Comrade Venu says, was against the Ballarpur Paper Mills. The government had given the Thapars a 45-year contract to extract 1.5 lakh tonnes of bamboo at a hugely subsidised rate. (Small beer compared to bauxite, but still.) The tribals were paid 10 paise for a bundle which contained 20 culms of bamboo. (I won’t yield to the vulgar temptation of comparing that with the profits the Thapars were making.) A long agitation, a strike, followed by negotiations with officials of the paper mill in the presence of the people, tripled the price to 30 paise per bundle. For the tribal people, these were huge achievements. Other political parties had made promises, but showed no signs of keeping them. People began to approach the PWG asking if they could join up.

But the politics of tendu, bamboo and other forest produce was seasonal. The perennial problem, the real bane of people’s lives, was the biggest landlord of all, the Forest Department. Every morning, forest officials, even the most junior of them, would appear in villages like a bad dream, preventing people from ploughing their fields, collecting firewood, plucking leaves, picking fruit, grazing their cattle, from living. They brought elephants to overrun fields and scattered babool seeds to destroy the soil as they passed by. People would be beaten, arrested, humiliated, their crops destroyed. Of course, from the forest department’s point of view, these were illegal people engaged in unconstitutional activity, and the department was only implementing the Rule of Law. (Their sexual exploitation of women was just an added perk in a hardship posting.)

Emboldened by the people’s participation in these struggles, the party decided to confront the forest department. It encouraged people to take over forest land and cultivate it. The forest department retaliated by burning new villages that came up in forest areas. In 1986, it announced a National Park in Bijapur, which meant the eviction of 60 villages. More than half of them had already been moved out, and construction of national park infrastructure had begun when the party moved in. It demolished the construction and stopped the eviction of the remaining villages. It prevented the forest department from entering the area. On a few occasions, officials were captured, tied to trees and beaten by villagers. It was cathartic revenge for generations of exploitation. Eventually, the forest department fled. Between 1986 and 2000, the party redistributed 3,00,000 acres of forest land. Today, Comrade Venu says, there are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya.

For today’s generation of young people, the forest department is a distant memory, the stuff of stories mothers tell their children, about a mythological past of bondage and humiliation. For the older generation, freedom from the forest department meant genuine freedom. They could touch it, taste it. It meant far more than India’s Independence ever did. They began to rally to the party that had struggled with them.

The seven-squad team had come a long way. Its influence now ranged across a 60,000 sq km stretch of forest, thousands of villages and millions of people.

But the departure of the forest department heralded the arrival of the police. That set off a cycle of bloodshed. Fake ‘encounters’ by the police, ambushes by the PWG. With the redistribution of land came other responsibilities: irrigation, agricultural productivity and the problem of an expanding population arbitrarily clearing forest land. A decision was taken to separate ‘mass work’ and ‘military work’.

Today, Dandakaranya is administered by an elaborate structure of Janatana Sarkars (people’s governments). The organising principles came from the Chinese revolution and the Vietnam war. Each Janatana Sarkar is elected by a cluster of villages whose combined population can range from 500 to 5,000. It has nine departments: Krishi (agriculture), Vyapar-Udyog (trade and industry) Arthik (economic), Nyay (justice), Raksha (defence), Hospital (health), Jan Sampark (public relations), School-Riti Rivaj (education and culture), and Jungle. A group of Janatana Sarkars come under an Area Committee. Three area committees make up a Division. There are 10 divisions in Dandakaranya.

“We have a Save the Jungle department now,” Comrade Venu says. “You must have read the government report that says forest has increased in Naxal areas?”

Ironically, Comrade Venu says, the first people to benefit from the party’s campaign against the forest department were the mukhias (village chiefs)—the Dwij brigade. They used their manpower and their resources to grab as much land as they could while the going was good. But then people began to approach the party with their “internal contradictions”, as Comrade Venu put it quaintly. The party began to turn its attention to issues of equity, class and injustice within tribal society. The big landlords sensed trouble on the horizon. As the party’s influence expanded, theirs had begun to wane. Increasingly, people were taking their problems to the party instead of to the mukhias. Old forms of exploitation began to be challenged. On the day of the first rain, people were traditionally supposed to till the mukhia’s land instead of their own. That stopped. They no longer offered them the first day’s picking of mahua or other forest produce. Obviously, something needed to be done.

Enter Mahendra Karma, one of the biggest landlords in the region and at the time a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In 1990, he rallied a group of mukhias and landlords and started a campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (public awakening campaign). Their way of ‘awakening’ the ‘public’ was to form a hunting party of about 300 men to comb the forest, killing people, burning houses and molesting women. The then Madhya Pradesh government—Chhattisgarh had not yet been created—provided police back-up. In Maharashtra, something similar called ‘Democratic Front’ began its assault. People’s War responded to all of this in true People’s War style, by killing a few of the most notorious landlords. In a few months, the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan, the ‘white terror’—Comrade Venu’s term for it—faded. In 1998, Mahendra Karma, who had by now joined the Congress party, tried to revive the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan. This time it fizzled out even faster than before.

Then, in the summer of 2005, fortune favoured him. In April, the BJP government in Chhattisgarh signed two MoUs to set up integrated steel plants (the terms of which are secret). One for Rs 7,000 crore with Essar Steel in Bailadila, and the other for Rs 10,000 crore with Tata Steel in Lohandiguda. That same month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his famous statement about the Maoists being the “Gravest Internal Security Threat” to India. (It was an odd thing to say at the time, because actually the opposite was true. The Congress government in Andhra Pradesh had just outmanoeuvred the Maoists, decimated them. They had lost about 1,600 of their cadre and were in complete disarray.) The PM’s statement sent the share value of mining companies soaring. It also sent a signal to the media that the Maoists were fair game for anyone who chose to go after them. In June 2005, Mahendra Karma called a secret meeting of mukhias in Kutroo village and announced the Salwa Judum (the Purification Hunt). A lovely melange of tribal earthiness and Dwij/Nazi sentiment.

Unlike the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan, the Salwa Judum was a ground-clearing operation, meant to move people out of their villages into roadside camps, where they could be policed and controlled. In military terms, it’s called Strategic Hamleting. It was devised by General Sir Harold Briggs in 1950 when the British were at war against the communists in Malaya. The Briggs Plan became very popular with the Indian army, which has used it in Nagaland, Mizoram and in Telangana. The BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, announced that as far as his government was concerned, villagers who did not move into the camps would be considered Maoists. So, in Bastar, for an ordinary villager, just staying at home became the equivalent of indulging in dangerous terrorist activity.

Along with a steel mug of black tea, as a special treat, someone hands me a pair of earphones and switches on a little MP3 player. It’s a scratchy recording of Mr Manhar, the then SP Bijapur, briefing a junior officer over the wireless about the rewards and incentives the state and central governments are offering to ‘jagrit’ (awakened) villages, and to people who agree to move into camps. He then gives clear instructions that villages that refuse to surrender should be burnt and journalists who want to ‘cover’ Naxalites should be shot on sight. (I’d read about this in the papers long ago. When the story broke, as punishment—it’s not clear to whom—the SP was transferred to the State Human Rights Commission.)

The first village the Salwa Judum burnt (on June 18, 2005) was Ambeli. Between June and December 2005, it burned, killed, raped and looted its way through hundreds of villages of south Dantewada. The centre of its operations were the districts of Bijapur and Bhairamgarh, near Bailadila, where Essar Steel’s new plant was proposed. Not coincidentally, these were also Maoist strongholds, where the Janatana Sarkars had done a great deal of work, especially in building water-harvesting structures. The Janatana Sarkars became the special target of the Salwa Judum’s attacks. Hundreds of people were killed in the most brutal ways. About 60,000 people moved into camps, some voluntarily, others out of terror. Of these, about 3,000 were appointed SPOs on a salary of Rs 1,500.

For these paltry crumbs, young people, like Nilesh’s brother, have sentenced themselves to a life-sentence in a barbed wire enclosure. Cruel as they have been, they could end up being the worst victims of this horrible war. No Supreme Court judgement ordering the Salwa Judum to be dismantled can change their fate.

The remaining hundreds of thousands of people went off the government radar. (But the development funds for these 644 villages did not. What happens to that little goldmine?) Many of them made their way to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa where they usually migrated to work as contract labour during the chilli-picking season. But tens of thousands fled into the forest, where they still remain, living without shelter, coming back to their fields and homes only in the daytime.

In the slipstream of the Salwa Judum, a swarm of police stations and camps appeared. The idea was to provide carpet security for a ‘creeping reoccupation’ of Maoist-controlled territory. The assumption was that the Maoists would not dare to attack such a large concentration of security forces. The Maoists, for their part, realised that if they did not break that carpet security, it would amount to abandoning people whose trust they had earned, and with whom they had lived and worked for 25 years. They struck back in a series of attacks on the heart of the security grid.

On January 26, 2006, the PLGA attacked the Gangalaur police camp and killed seven people. On July 17, 2006, the Salwa Judum camp at Erabor was attacked, 20 people were killed and 150 injured. (You might have read about it: “Maoists attacked the relief camp set up by the state government to provide shelter to the villagers who had fled from their villages because of terror unleashed by the Naxalites.”) On December 13, 2006, they attacked the Basaguda ‘relief’ camp and killed three SPOs and a constable. On March 15, 2007, came the most audacious of them all. One hundred and twenty PLGA guerrillas attacked the Rani Bodili Kanya Ashram, a girls’ hostel that had been converted into a barrack for 80 Chhattisgarh Police (and SPOs) while the girls still lived in it as human shields. The PLGA entered the compound, cordoned off the annexe in which the girls lived, and attacked the barracks. Some 55 policemen and SPOs were killed. None of the girls was hurt. (The candid SP of Dantewada had shown me his PowerPoint presentation with horrifying photographs of the burned, disembowelled bodies of the policemen amidst the ruins of the blown-up school building. They were so macabre, it was impossible not to look away. He looked pleased at my reaction.)

The attack on Rani Bodili caused an uproar in the country. Human rights organisations condemned the Maoists not just for their violence, but also for being anti-education and attacking schools. But in Dandakaranya, the Rani Bodili attack became a legend: songs, poems and plays were written about it.

The Maoist counter-offensive did break the carpet security and gave people breathing space. The police and the Salwa Judum retreated into their camps, from which they now emerge—usually in the dead of night—only in packs of 300 or 1,000 to carry out cordon and search operations in villages. Gradually, except for the SPOs and their families, the rest of the people in the Salwa Judum camps began to return to their villages. The Maoists welcomed them back and announced that even SPOs could return if they genuinely, and publicly, regretted their actions. Young people began to flock to the PLGA. (The PLGA had been formally constituted in December 2000. Over the last 30 years, its armed squads had very gradually expanded into sections, sections had grown into platoons, and platoons into companies. But after the Salwa Judum’s depredations, the PLGA was rapidly able to declare battalion strength.)

The Salwa Judum had not just failed, it had backfired badly.

As we now know, it was not just a local operation by a small-time hood. Regardless of the doublespeak in the press, the Salwa Judum was a joint operation by the state government of Chhattisgarh and the Congress party which was in power at the Centre. It could not be allowed to fail. Not when all those MoUs were still waiting, like wilting hopefuls on the marriage market. The government was under tremendous pressure to come up with a new plan. They came up with Operation Green Hunt. The Salwa Judum SPOs are called Koya Commandos now. It has deployed the Chhattisgarh Armed Force (CAF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Greyhounds, Scorpions, Cobras. And a policy that’s affectionately called WHAM—Winning Hearts and Minds.
Significant wars are often fought in unlikely places. Free Market Capitalism defeated Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. Here in the forests of Dantewada, a battle rages for the soul of India. Plenty has been said about the deepening crisis in Indian democracy and the collusion between big corporations, major political parties and the security establishment. If anybody wants to do a quick spot check, Dantewada is the place to go.

A draft report on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reform (Volume 1) said that Tata Steel and Essar Steel were the first financiers of the Salwa Judum. Because it was a government report, it created a flurry when it was reported in the press. (That fact has subsequently been dropped from the final report. Was it a genuine error, or did someone receive a gentle, integrated steel tap on the shoulder?)

On October 12, 2009, the mandatory public hearing for Tata’s steel plant, meant to be held in Lohandiguda where local people could come, actually took place in a small hall inside the Collectorate in Jagdalpur, many miles away, cordoned off with massive security. A hired audience of 50 tribals was brought in a guarded convoy of government jeeps. After the meeting, the district collector congratulated ‘the people of Lohandiguda’ for their cooperation. The local newspapers reported the lie, even though they knew better. (The advertisements rolled in.) Despite villagers’ objections, land acquisition for the project has begun.

The Maoists are not the only ones who seek to depose the Indian State. It’s already been deposed several times by Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism.

Lohandiguda, a five-hour drive from Dantewada, never used to be a Naxalite area. But it is now. Comrade Joori, who sat next to me while I ate the ant chutney, works in the area. She said they decided to move in after graffiti had begun to appear on the walls of village houses, saying, Naxali aao, hamein bachao (Naxals come and save us)! A few months ago, Vimal Meshram, president of the village panchayat, was shot dead in the market. “He was Tata’s man,” Joori says. “He was forcing people to give up their land and accept compensation. It’s good that he’s been finished. We lost a comrade too. They shot him. D’you want more chapoli?” She’s only 20. “We won’t let the Tatas come there. People don’t want them.” Joori is not PLGA. She’s in the Chetna Natya Manch (CNM), the cultural wing of the party. She sings. She writes songs. She’s from Abujhmad. (She’s married to Comrade Madhav. She fell in love with his singing when he visited her village with a CNM troupe.)

I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy—who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative”—should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach? Which door did the Narmada Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years and years it fought against Big Dams on the Narmada?

It’s dark. There’s a lot of activity in the camp, but I can’t see anything. Just points of light moving around. It’s hard to tell whether they are stars or fireflies or Maoists on the move. Little Mangtu appears from nowhere. I found out that he’s part of the first batch of the Young Communists Mobile School, who are being taught to read and write and tutored in basic Communist principles. (“Indoctrination of young minds!” our corporate media howls. The TV advertisements that brainwash children before they can even think are not seen as a form of indoctrination.) The young Communists are not allowed to carry guns or wear uniforms. But they trail the PLGA squads, with stars in their eyes, like groupies of a rock band.

Mangtu has adopted me with a gently proprietorial air. He has filled my water bottle and says I should pack my bag. A whistle blows. The blue jhilli tent is dismantled and folded up in five minutes flat. Another whistle and all hundred comrades fall in line. Five rows. Comrade Raju is the Director of Ops. There’s a roll call. I’m in the line too, shouting out my number when Comrade Kamla who is in front of me, prompts me. (We count to twenty and then start from one, because that’s as far as most Gonds count. Twenty is enough for them. Maybe it should be enough for us too.) Chandu is in fatigues now, and carries a sten gun. In a low voice, Comrade Raju is briefing the group. It’s all in Gondi, I don’t understand a thing, but I keep hearing the word RV. Later Raju tells me it stands for Rendezvous! It’s a Gondi word now. “We make RV points so that in case we come under fire and people have to scatter, they know where to regroup.” He cannot possibly know the kind of panic this induces in me. Not because I’m scared of being fired on, but because I’m scared of being lost. I’m a directional dyslexic, capable of getting lost between my bedroom and my bathroom. What will I do in 60,000 square kilometres of forest? Come hell or high water, I’m going to be holding on to Comrade Raju’s pallu.

Before we start walking, Comrade Venu comes up to me: “Okaythen comrade. I’ll take your leave.” I’m taken aback. He looks like a little mosquito in a woollen cap and chappals, surrounded by his guards, three women, three men. Heavily armed. “We are very grateful to you comrade, for coming all the way here,” he says. Once again the handshake, the clenched fist. “Lal Salaam Comrade.” He disappears into the forest, the Keeper of the Keys. And in a moment, it’s as though he was never here. I’m a little bereft. But I have hours of recordings to listen to. And as the days turn into weeks, I will meet many people who paint colour and detail into the grid he drew for me. We begin to walk in the opposite direction. Comrade Raju, smelling of Iodex from a mile off, says with a happy smile, “My knees are gone. I can only walk if I have had a fistful of painkillers.”

Comrade Raju speaks perfect Hindi and has a deadpan way of telling the funniest stories. He worked as an advocate in Raipur for 18 years. Both he and his wife Malti were party members and part of its city network. At the end of 2007, one of the key people in the Raipur network was arrested, tortured and eventually turned informer. He was driven around Raipur in a closed police vehicle and made to point out his former colleagues. Comrade Malti was one of them. On January 22, 2008, she was arrested along with several others. The charge against her is that she mailed CDs containing video evidence of Salwa Judum atrocities to several members of Parliament. Her case rarely comes up for hearing because the police know their case is flimsy. But the new Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) allows the police to hold her without bail for several years. “Now the government has deployed several battalions of Chhattisgarh police to protect the poor members of Parliament from their own mail,” Comrade Raju says. He did not get caught because he was in Dandakaranya at the time, attending a meeting. He’s been here ever since. His two schoolgoing children, who were left alone at home, were interrogated extensively by the police. Finally, their home was packed up and they went to live with an uncle. Comrade Raju received news of them for the first time only a few weeks ago. What gives him this strength, this ability to hold on to his acid humour? What keeps them all going, despite all they have endured? Their faith and hope—and love—for the Party. I encounter it again and again, in the deepest, most personal ways.

We’re moving in single file now. Myself and one hundred “senselessly violent”, bloodthirsty insurgents. I looked around at the camp before we left. There are no signs that almost a hundred people had camped here, except for some ash where the fires had been. I cannot believe this army. As far as consumption goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist. But for now, it even has a Gandhian approach to sabotage; before a police vehicle is burnt, for example, it is stripped down and every part cannibalised. The steering wheel is straightened out and made into a bharmaar, the rexine upholstery stripped and used for ammunition pouches, the battery for solar charging. (The new instructions from the high command are that captured vehicles should be buried and not cremated. So they can be resurrected when needed.) Should I write a play, I wonder—Gandhi Get Your Gun? Or will I be lynched?

We’re walking in pitch darkness and dead silence. I’m the only one using a torch, pointed down so that all I can see in its circle of light are Comrade Kamla’s bare heels in her scuffed, black chappals, showing me exactly where to put my feet. She is carrying 10 times more weight than I am. Her backpack, her rifle, a huge bag of provisions on her head, one of the large cooking pots and two shoulder bags full of vegetables. The bag on her head is perfectly balanced, and she can scramble down slopes and slippery rock pathways without so much as touching it. She is a miracle. It turns out to be a long walk. I’m grateful to the history lesson because apart from everything else it gave my feet a rest for a whole day. It’s the most beautiful thing, walking in the forest at night.

And I’ll be doing it night after night.

We’re going to a celebration of the centenary of the 1910 Bhumkal rebellion in which the Koyas rose up against the British. Bhumkal means earthquake. Comrade Raju says people will walk for days together to come for the celebration. The forest must be full of people on the move. There are celebrations in all the DK divisions. We are privileged because Comrade Leng, the Master of Ceremonies, is walking with us. In Gondi, Leng means ‘the voice’. Comrade Leng is a tall, middle-aged man from Andhra Pradesh, a colleague of the legendary and beloved singer-poet Gadar, who founded the radical cultural organisation Jan Natya Manch (JNM) in 1972. Eventually, JNM became a formal part of the PWG and in Andhra Pradesh could draw audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. Comrade Leng joined in 1977 and became a famous singer in his own right. He lived in Andhra through the worst repression, the era of ‘encounter’ killings in which friends died almost every day. He himself was picked up one night from his hospital bed, by a woman Superintendent of Police masquerading as a doctor. He was taken to the forest outside Warangal to be ‘encountered’. But luckily, Gadar got the news and managed to raise an alarm. When the PW decided to start a cultural organisation in DK in 1998, Comrade Leng was sent to head the Chetna Natya Manch. And here he is now, walking with me, for some reason wearing an olive-green shirt and purple pyjamas with pink bunnies on them. “There are 10,000 members in cnm now,” he told me. “We have 500 songs, in Hindi, Gondi, Chhattisgarhi and Halbi. We have printed a book with 140 of our songs. Everybody writes songs.” The first time I spoke to him, he sounded very grave, very single-minded. But days later, sitting around a fire, still in those pyjamas, he tells us about a very successful, mainstream Telugu film director (a friend of his) who always plays a Naxalite in his own films. “I asked him,” Comrade Leng said in his lovely Telugu-accented Hindi, “why do you think Naxalites are always like this?”—and he did a deft caricature of a crouched, high-stepping, hunted-looking man emerging from the forest with an AK-47, and left us screaming with laughter.

I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to the Bhumkal celebrations. I fear I’ll see traditional tribal dances stiffened by Maoist propaganda, rousing, rhetorical speeches and an obedient audience with glazed eyes. We arrive at the grounds quite late in the evening. A temporary monument, of bamboo scaffolding wrapped in red cloth, has been erected. On top, above the hammer and sickle of the Maoist Party, is the bow and arrow of the Janatana Sarkar, wrapped in silver foil. Appropriate, the hierarchy. The stage is huge, also temporary, on a sturdy scaffolding covered by a thick layer of mud plaster. Already, there are small fires scattered around the ground, people have begun to arrive and are cooking their evening meal. They’re only silhouettes in the dark. We thread our way through them (lalsalaam, lalsalaam, lalsalaam) and keep going for about 15 minutes until we re-enter the forest.

At our new campsite, we have to fall-in again. Another roll call. And then instructions about sentry positions and ‘firing arcs’—decisions about who will cover which area in the event of a police attack. RV points are fixed again.

An advance party has arrived and cooked dinner already. For dessert, Kamla brings me a wild guava that she has plucked on the walk and squirrelled away for me.

From dawn, there is the sense of more and more people gathering for the day’s celebration. There’s a buzz of excitement building up. People who haven’t seen each other in a long time meet again. We can hear the sound of mikes being tested. Flags, banners, posters, buntings are going up. A poster with the pictures of the five people who were killed in Ongnaar the day we arrived has appeared.

I’m drinking tea with Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi. Comrade Narmada talks about the many years she worked in Gadchiroli before becoming the DK head of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan. Rupi and Maase have been urban activists in Andhra Pradesh and tell me about the long years of struggle by women within the party, not just for their rights, but also to make the party see that equality between men and women is seen as central to a dream of a just society. We talk about the ’70s and the stories of women within the Naxalite movement who were disillusioned by male comrades who thought themselves great revolutionaries but were hobbled by the same old patriarchy, the same old chauvinism. Maase says things have changed a lot since then, though they still have a way to go. (The party’s central committee and politburo have no women yet.)

Around noon, another PLGA contingent arrives. This one is headed by a tall, lithe, boyish-looking man. This comrade has two names—Sukhdev, and Gudsa Usendi—neither of them his. Sukhdev is the name of a very beloved comrade who was martyred. (In this war, only the dead are safe enough to use their real names.) As for Gudsa Usendi, many comrades have been Gudsa Usendi at one point or another. (A few months ago, it was Comrade Raju.) Gudsa Usendi is the name of the party’s spokesperson for Dandakaranya. So even though Sukhdev spends the rest of the trip with me, I have no idea how I’d ever find him again. I’d recognise his laugh anywhere though. He came to DK in ’88, he says, when the PWG decided to send one-third of its forces from north Telangana into DK. He’s nicely dressed, in ‘civil’ (Gondi for ‘civilian clothes’) as opposed to ‘dress’ (the Maoist ‘uniform’) and could pass off as a young executive. I ask him why no uniform. He says he’s been travelling and has just come back from the Keshkal ghats near Kanker. There are reports of 3 million tonnes of bauxite that a company called Vedanta has its eye on.

Bingo. Ten on ten for my instincts.

Sukhdev says he went there to measure the people’s temperature. To see if they were prepared to fight. “They want squads now. And guns.” He throws his head back and roars with laughter, “I told them it’s not so easy, bhai.” From the stray wisps of conversation and the ease with which he carries his AK-47, I can tell he’s also high up and hands-on PLGA.

Jungle post arrives. There’s a biscuit for me! It’s from Comrade Venu. On a tiny piece of paper, folded and refolded, he has written down the lyrics of a song he promised he would send me. Comrade Narmada smiles when she reads them. She knows this story. It goes back to the ’80s, around the time when people first began to trust the party and come to it with their problems—their ‘inner contradictions’, as Comrade Venu put it. Women were among the first to come. One evening an old lady sitting by the fire got up and sang a song for the dada log. She was a Maadiya, among whom it was customary for women to remove their blouses and remain bare-breasted after they were married.

Jumper polo intor Dada, Dakoniley
Taane tasom intor Dada, Dakoniley
Bata papam kittom Dada, Dakoniley
Duniya kadile maata Dada, Dakoniley

(They say we cannot keep our
blouses, Dada, Dakoniley
They make us take them off, Dada,
In what way have we sinned, Dada,
The world’s changed, has it not Dada)

Aatum hatteke Dada, Dakoniley
Aada nanga dantom Dada, Dakoniley
Id pisval manni Dada, Dakoniley
Mava koyaturku vehat Dada, Dakoniley

(But when we go to market Dada,
We have to go half-naked Dada,
We don’t want this life Dada,
Tell our ancestors this Dada).

This was the first women’s issue the party decided to campaign against. It had to be handled delicately, with surgical tools. In 1986, it set up the Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (AMS) which evolved into the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan and now has 90,000 enrolled members. It could well be the largest women’s organisation in the country. (They’re all Maoists by the way, all 90,000 of them. Are they going to be ‘wiped out’? And what about the 10,000 members of CNM? Them too?) KAMS campaigns against the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and abduction. Against the custom of making menstruating women live outside the village in a hut in the forest. Against bigamy and domestic violence. It hasn’t won all its battles, but then which feminists have? For instance, in Dandakaranya, even today women are not allowed to sow seeds. In party meetings, men agree that this is unfair and ought to be done away with. But, in practice, they simply don’t allow it. So, the party decided that women would sow seeds on common land which belongs to the Janatana Sarkar. On that land, they sow seed, grow vegetables and build check dams. A half-victory, not a whole one.

As police repression has grown in Bastar, the women of KAMS have become a formidable force and rally in their hundreds, sometimes thousands, to physically confront the police. The very fact that KAMS exists has radically changed traditional attitudes and eased many of the traditional forms of discrimination against women. For many young women, joining the party, in particular the PLGA, became a way of escaping the suffocation of their own society. Comrade Sushila, a senior office-bearer of KAMS talks about the Salwa Judum’s rage against KAMS women. She says one of their slogans was Hum do bibi layenge! Layenge! (We will have two wives! We will!). A lot of the rape and bestial sexual mutilation was directed at members of KAMS. Many young women who witnessed the savagery then joined the PLGA and now women make up 45 per cent of its cadre. Comrade Narmada sends for some of them and they join us in a while.

Comrade Rinki has very short hair. A bob-cut, as they say in Gondi. It’s brave of her, because here, ‘bob-cut’ means ‘Maoist’. For the police, that’s more than enough evidence to warrant summary execution. Comrade Rinki’s village, Korma, was attacked by the Naga battalion and the Salwa Judum in 2005. At that time, Rinki was part of the village militia. So were her friends Lukki and Sukki, who were also members of KAMS. After burning the village, the Naga battalion caught Lukki and Sukki and one other girl, gang-raped and killed them. “They raped them on the grass,” Rinki says, “but after it was over, there was no grass left.” It’s been years now, the Naga battalion has gone, but the police still come. “They come whenever they need women, or chickens.”

Ajitha has a bob-cut too. The Judum came to Korseel, her village, and killed three people by drowning them in a nallah. Ajitha was with the militia and followed the Judum at a distance to a place close to the village called Paral Nar Todak. She watched them rape six women and shoot a man in his throat.

Comrade Laxmi, who is a beautiful girl with a long plait, tells me she watched the Judum burn 30 houses in her village, Jojor. “We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could do nothing but watch.” She joined the PLGA soon after. Laxmi was one of the 150 guerrillas who walked through the jungle for three-and-a-half months in 2008, to Nayagarh in Orissa, to raid a police armoury from where they captured 1,200 rifles and 2,00,000 rounds of ammunition.

Comrade Sumitra joined the PLGA in 2004, before the Salwa Judum began its rampage. She joined, she says, because she wanted to escape from home. “Women are controlled in every way,” she told me. “In our village, girls were not allowed to climb trees; if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs 500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.” Good reason to join a guerrilla army?

Sumitra tells the story of two of her friends, Telam Parvati and Kamla, who worked with KAMS. Telam Parvati was from Polekaya village in south Bastar. Like everyone else from there, she too watched the Salwa Judum burn her village. She then joined the PLGA and went to work in the Keshkal ghats. In 2009, she and Kamla had just finished organising the March 8 Women’s Day celebrations in the area. They were together in a little hut just outside a village called Vadgo. The police surrounded the hut at night and began to fire. Kamla fired back, but she was killed. Parvati escaped, but was found and killed the next day.

That’s what happened last year on Women’s Day. And here’s a press report from a national newspaper about Women’s Day this year:

Bastar rebels bat for women’s rights
Sahar Khan, Mail Today, Raipur, March 7, 2010

The government may have pulled out all stops to combat the Maoist menace in the country. But a section of rebels in Chhattisgarh has more pressing matters in hand than survival. With International Women’s Day around the corner, Maoists in the Bastar region of the state have called for week-long “celebrations” to advocate women’s rights. Posters were also put up in Bijapur, a part of Bastar district. The call by the self-styled champions of women’s rights has left the state police astonished. Inspector-general (IG) of Bastar, T.J. Longkumer said, “I have never seen such an appeal from the Naxalites, who believe only in violence and bloodshed.”

And then the report goes on to say:

“I think the Maoists are trying to counter our highly successful Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). We started the ongoing campaign with an aim to win popular support for Operation Green Hunt, which was launched by the police to root out Left-wing extremists,” the IG said.

This cocktail of malice and ignorance is not unusual. Gudsa Usendi, chronicler of the party’s present, knows more about this than most people. His little computer and MP3 recorder are full of press statements, denials, corrections, party literature, lists of the dead, TV clips and audio and video material. “The worst thing about being Gudsa Usendi,” he says, “is issuing clarifications which are never published. We could bring out a thick book of our unpublished clarifications about the lies they tell about us.” He speaks without a trace of indignation, in fact, with some amusement.

“What’s the most ridiculous charge you’ve had to deny?”

He thinks back. “In 2007, we had to issue a statement saying, ‘Nahin bhai, hamne gai ko hathode se nahin mara (No brother, we did not kill the cows with a hammer).’ In 2007, the Raman Singh government announced a Gai Yojana (cow scheme), an election promise, a cow for every adivasi. One day the TV channels and newspapers reported that Naxalites had attacked a herd of cows and bludgeoned them to death—with hammers—because they were anti-Hindu, anti-BJP. You can imagine what happened. We issued a denial. Hardly anybody carried it. Later, it turned out that the man who had been given the cows to distribute was a rogue. He sold them and said we had ambushed him and killed the cows.”

And the most serious?

“Oh, there are dozens, they are running a campaign, after all. When the Salwa Judum started, the first day they attacked a village called Ambeli, burned it down and then all of them—SPOs, the Naga battalion, police—moved towards must have heard about Kotrapal? It’s a famous village, it has been burnt 22 times for refusing to surrender. When the Judum reached Kotrapal, our militia was waiting for it. They had prepared an ambush. Two SPOs died. We captured seven, the rest ran away. The next day the newspapers reported that the Naxalites had massacred poor adivasis. Some said we had killed hundreds. Even a respectable magazine like Frontline said we had killed 18 innocent adivasis. Even K. Balagopal, the human rights activist, who is usually meticulous about facts, even he said this. We sent a clarification. Nobody published it. Later, in his book, Balagopal acknowledged his mistake.... But who noticed?”

I asked what happened to the seven people who were captured. “The area committee called a jan adalat (people’s court). Four thousand people attended it. They listened to the whole story. Two of the SPOs were sentenced to death. Five were warned and let off. The people decided. Even with informers—which is becoming a huge problem nowadays—people listen to the case, the stories, the confessions and say, ‘Iska hum risk nahin le sakte (We’re not prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’, or ‘Iska risk hum lenge (We are prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’. The press always reports about informers who are killed. Never about the many who are let off. So everybody thinks it is some bloodthirsty procedure in which everybody is always killed. It’s not about revenge, it’s about survival and saving future lives.... Of course, there are problems, we’ve made terrible mistakes, we have even killed the wrong people in our ambushes thinking they were policemen, but it is not the way it’s portrayed in the media.”

On the other hand, what about ‘encounters’, fake and otherwise—the worst form of summary justice—that get policemen and soldiers bravery medals, cash awards and out-of-turn promotions from the Indian government? The more they kill, the more they are rewarded. ‘Bravehearts’, they are called, the ‘Encounter Specialists’. ‘Anti-nationals’, we are called, those of us who dare to question them. And what about the Supreme Court that brazenly admitted it did not have enough evidence to sentence Mohammed Afzal (accused in the December 2001 Parliament attack) to death, but did so anyway, because “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender”.

At least in the case of the Kotrapal jan adalat, the collective was physically present to make its own decision. It wasn’t made by judges who had lost touch with ordinary life a long time ago, presuming to speak on behalf of an absent collective.

What should the people of Kotrapal have done, I wonder? Sent for the police?

The sound of drums has become really loud. It’s Bhumkal time. We walk to the grounds. I can hardly believe my eyes. There is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people, dressed in the most wild, beautiful ways. The men seem to have paid much more attention to themselves than the women. They have feathered headgear and painted tattoos on their faces. Many have eye make-up and white, powdered faces. There’s lots of militia, girls in saris of breathtaking colours with rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. There are old people, children, and red buntings arc across the sky. The sun is sharp and high. Comrade Leng speaks. And several office-holders of the various Janatana Sarkars. Comrade Niti, an extraordinary woman who has been with the party since 1997, is such a threat to the nation that in January 2007 more than 700 policemen surrounded Innar village because they heard she was there. Comrade Niti is considered to be so dangerous and is being hunted with such desperation not because she has led many ambushes (which she has), but because she is an adivasi woman who is loved by people in the village and is a real inspiration to young people. She speaks with her AK on her shoulder. (It’s a gun with a story. Almost everyone’s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how, and by whom.)

A CNM troupe performs a play about the Bhumkal uprising. The evil white colonisers wear hats and golden straw for hair, and bully and beat adivasis to pulp—causing endless delight in the audience. Another troupe from south Gangalaur performs a play called Nitir Judum Pito (Story of the Blood Hunt). Joori translates for me. It’s the story of two old people who go looking for their daughter’s village. As they walk through the forest, they get lost because everything is burnt and unrecognisable. The Salwa Judum has even burned the drums and the musical instruments. There are no ashes because it has been raining. They cannot find their daughter. In their sorrow, the old couple starts to sing, and hearing them, the voice of their daughter sings back to them from the ruins: the sound of our village has been silenced, she sings. There’s no more pounding of rice, no more laughter by the well. No more birds, no more bleating goats. The taut string of happiness has been snapped.

Her father sings back: my beautiful daughter, don’t cry today. Everyone who is born must die. These trees around us will fall, flowers will bloom and fade, one day this world will grow old. But who are we dying for? One day our looters will learn, one day Truth will prevail, but our people will never forget you, not for thousands of years.

A few more speeches. Then the drumming and the dancing begins. Each Janatana Sarkar has its own troupe. Each troupe has prepared its own dance. They arrive one by one, with huge drums and they dance wild stories. The only character every troupe has in common is Bad Mining Man, with a helmet and dark glasses, and usually smoking a cigarette. But there’s nothing stiff, or mechanical, about their dancing. As they dance, the dust rises. The sound of drums becomes deafening. Gradually, the crowd begins to sway. And then it begins to dance. They dance in little lines of six or seven, men and women separate, with their arms around each other’s waists. Thousands of people. This is what they’ve come for. For this. Happiness is taken very seriously here, in the Dandakaranya forest. People will walk for miles, for days together to feast and sing, to put feathers in their turbans and flowers in their hair, to put their arms around each other and drink mahua and dance through the night. No one sings or dances alone. This, more than anything else, signals their defiance towards a civilisation that seeks to annihilate them.

I can’t believe all this is happening right under the noses of the police. Right in the midst of Operation Green Hunt.

At first, the PLGA comrades watch the dancers, standing aside with their guns. But then, one by one, like ducks who cannot bear to stand on the shore and watch other ducks swim, they move in and begin to dance too. Soon there are lines of olive-green dancers, swirling with all the other colours. And then, as sisters and brothers and parents and children and friends who haven’t met for months, years sometimes, encounter each other, the lines break up and re-form and the olive green is distributed among the swirling saris and flowers and drums and turbans. It surely is a People’s Army. For now, at least. And what Chairman Mao said about the guerrillas being the fish and people being the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally true.

Chairman Mao. He’s here too. A little lonely, perhaps, but present. There’s a photograph of him, up on a red cloth screen. Marx too. And Charu Mazumdar, the founder and chief theoretician of the Naxalite Movement. His abrasive rhetoric fetishises violence, blood and martyrdom, and often employs a language so coarse as to be almost genocidal. Standing here, on Bhumkal day, I can’t help thinking that his analysis, so vital to the structure of this revolution, is so removed from its emotion and texture. When he said that only “an annihilation campaign” could produce “the new man who will defy death and be free from all thought of self-interest”—could he have imagined that this ancient people, dancing into the night, would be the ones on whose shoulders his dreams would come to rest?

It’s a great disservice to everything that is happening here that the only thing that seems to make it to the outside world is the stiff, unbending rhetoric of the ideologues of a party that has evolved from a problematic past. When Charu Mazumdar famously said, “China’s Chairman is our Chairman and China’s Path is Our Path,” he was prepared to extend it to the point where the Naxalites remained silent while General Yahya Khan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), because at the time, China was an ally of Pakistan. There was silence too, over the Khmer Rouge and its killing fields in Cambodia. There was silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and Russian revolutions. Silence over Tibet. Within the Naxalite movement too, there have been violent excesses and it’s impossible to defend much of what they’ve done. But can anything they have done compare with the sordid achievements of the Congress and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat.... And yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about the superiority of “the non-violent way” and his notion of trusteeship: “The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of society.”

How strange it is, though, that the contemporary tsars of the Indian Establishment—the State that crushed the Naxalites so mercilessly—should now be saying what Charu Mazumdar said so long ago: China’s Path is Our Path.

Upside Down. Inside Out.

China’s Path has changed. China has become an imperial power now, preying on other countries, other people’s resources. But the Party is still right, only, the Party has changed its mind.

When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, its army genuinely a People’s Army. But after the Revolution how easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage. How easily the People’s Army can turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its mind? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?

The dancing will go on all night. I walk back to the camp. Maase is there, awake. We chat late into the night. I give her my copy of Neruda’s Captain’s Verses (I brought it along, just in case). She asks, again and again, “What do they think of us outside? What do students say? Tell me about the women’s movement, what are the big issues now?” She asks about me, my writing. I try and give her an honest account of my chaos. Then she starts to talk about herself, how she joined the party. She tells me that her partner was killed last May, in a fake encounter. He was arrested in Nashik, and taken to Warangal to be killed. “They must have tortured him badly.” She was on her way to meet him when she heard he had been arrested. She’s been in the forest ever since. After a long silence, she tells me she was married once before, years ago. “He was killed in an encounter too,” she says, and adds with heart-breaking precision, “but in a real one.”

I lie awake on my jhilli, thinking of Maase’s protracted sadness, listening to the drums and the sounds of protracted happiness from the grounds, and thinking about Charu Mazumdar’s idea of protracted war, the central precept of the Maoist Party. This is what makes people think the Maoists’ offer to enter ‘peace talks’ is a hoax, a ploy to get breathing space to regroup, re-arm themselves and go back to waging protracted war. What is protracted war? Is it a terrible thing in itself, or does it depend on the nature of the war? What if the people here in Dandakaranya had not waged their protracted war for the last 30 years, where would they be now?

And are the Maoists the only ones who believe in protracted war? Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation, it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems—Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Nagaland, Manipur, Telangana, Assam, Punjab, the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and now across the tribal areas of Central India. Tens of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands tortured. All of this behind the benign mask of democracy. Who have these wars been waged against? Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Communists, Dalits, Tribals and, most of all, against the poor who dare to question their lot instead of accepting the crumbs that are flung at them. It’s hard not to see that the Indian State is an essentially upper-caste Hindu State (regardless of the party in power) which harbours a reflexive hostility towards the ‘other’. One that, in true colonial fashion, sends the Nagas and Mizos to fight in Chhattisgarh, Sikhs to Kashmir, Kashmiris to Orissa, Tamilians to Assam and so on. If this isn’t protracted war, what is?

Unpleasant thoughts on a beautiful, starry night. Sukhdev is smiling to himself, his face lit by his computer screen. He’s a crazy workaholic. I ask him what’s funny. “I was thinking about the journalists who came last year for the Bhumkal celebrations. They came for a day or two. One posed with my AK, had himself photographed and then went back and called us Killing Machines or something.”

The dancing hasn’t stopped and it’s daybreak. The lines are still going, hundreds of young people still dancing. “They won’t stop,” Comrade Raju says, “not until we start packing up.”

On the grounds I run into Comrade Doctor. He’s been running a little medical camp on the edge of the dance floor. I want to kiss his fat cheeks. Why can’t he be at least 30 people instead of just one? Why can’t he be one thousand people? I ask him what it’s looking like, the health of Dandakaranya. His reply makes my blood run cold. Most of the people he has seen, he says, including those in the PLGA, have a haemoglobin count that’s between five and six (when the standard for Indian women is 11.) There’s TB caused by more than two years of chronic anaemia. Young children are suffering from Protein Energy Malnutrition Grade II, in medical terminology called Kwashiorkor. (I looked it up later. It’s a word derived from the Ga language of Coastal Ghana and means “the sickness a baby gets when the new baby comes”. Basically the old baby stops getting mother’s milk, and there’s not enough food to provide it nutrition.) “It’s an epidemic here, like in Biafra,” Comrade Doctor says, “I have worked in villages before, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Apart from this, there’s malaria, osteoporosis, tapeworm, severe ear and tooth infections and primary amenorrhea—which is when malnutrition during puberty causes a woman’s menstrual cycle to disappear, or never appear in the first place.

“There are no clinics in this forest apart from one or two in Gadchiroli. No doctors. No medicines.”

He’s off now, with his little team, on an eight-day trek to Abujhmad. He’s in ‘dress’ too, Comrade Doctor. So, if they find him, they’ll kill him.

Comrade Raju says that it isn’t safe for us to continue to camp here. We have to move. Leaving Bhumkal involves a lot of goodbyes spread over time.

Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam,
Jaane wale saathiyon ko lal lal salaam

(Red Salute to departing comrades)

Phir milenge, phir milenge
Dandakaranya jungle mein phir milenge

(We’ll meet again, some day, in the Dandakaranya forest).

It’s never taken lightly, the ceremony of arrival and departure, because everybody knows that when they say “we’ll meet again” they actually mean “we may never meet again”.

Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi are going separate ways. Will I ever see them again?

So, once again, we walk. It’s becoming hotter every day. Kamla picks the first fruit of the tendu for me. It tastes like chikoo. I’ve become a tamarind fiend. This time we camp near a stream. Women and men take turns to bathe in batches. In the evening, Comrade Raju receives a whole packet of ‘biscuits’. News:

* 60 people arrested in Manpur Division at the end of Jan 2010 have not yet been produced in Court.
* Huge contingents of police have arrived in South Bastar. Indiscriminate attacks are on.
* On Nov 8, 2009, in Kachlaram Village, Bijapur Jila, Dirko Madka (60) and Kovasi Suklu (68) were killed
* On Nov 24, Madavi Baman (15) was killed in Pangodi village
* On Dec 3, Madavi Budram from Korenjad also killed
* On Dec 11, Gumiapal village, Darba Division, 7 people killed (names yet to come)
* On Dec 15, Kotrapal village, Veko Sombar and Madavi Matti (both with KAMS) killed
* On Dec 30, Vechapal village Poonem Pandu and Poonem Motu (father and son) killed
* On Jan 2010 (date unknown), head of the Janatana Sarkar in Kaika village, Gangalaur, killed
* On Jan 9, 4 people killed in Surpangooden village, Jagargonda Area
* On Jan 10, 3 people killed in Pullem Pulladi village (no names yet)
* On Jan 25, 7 people killed in Takilod village, Indravati Area
* On Feb 10 (Bhumkal Day), Kumli raped and killed in Dumnaar Village, Abujhmad. She was from a village called Paiver
* 2,000 troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) are camped in the Rajnandgaon forests
* 5,000 additional BSF troops have arrived in Kanker

And then:

* PLGA quota filled.

Some dated newspapers have arrived too. There’s a lot of press about Naxalites. One screaming headline sums up the political climate perfectly: ‘Khadedo, Maaro, Samarpan Karao (Eliminate, kill, make them surrender).’ Below that: ‘Vaarta ke liye loktantra ka dwar khula hai’ (Democracy’s door is always open for talks).’ A second says the Maoists are growing cannabis to make money. The third has an editorial saying that the area we’ve camped in and are walking through is entirely under police control.

The young Communists take the clips away to practice their reading. They walk around the camp reading the anti-Maoist articles loudly in radio-announcer voices.

New day. New place. We’re camped on the outskirts of Usir village, under huge mahua trees. The mahua has just begun to flower and is dropping its pale green blossoms like jewels on the forest floor. The air is suffused with its slightly heady smell. We’re waiting for the children from the Bhatpal school which was closed down after the Ongnaar encounter. It’s been turned into a police camp. The children have been sent home. This is also true of the schools in Nelwad, Moonjmetta, Edka, Vedomakot and Dhanora.

The Bhatpal school children don’t show up.

Comrade Niti (Most Wanted) and Comrade Vinod lead us on a long walk to see the series of water-harvesting structures and irrigation ponds that have been built by the local Janatana Sarkar. Comrade Niti talks about the range of agricultural problems they have to deal with. Only 2 per cent of the land is irrigated. In Abujhmad, ploughing was unheard of until 10 years ago. In Gadchiroli on the other hand, hybrid seeds and chemical pesticides are edging their way in. “We need urgent help in the agriculture department,” Comrade Vinod says. “We need people who know about seeds, organic pesticides, permaculture. With a little help we could do a lot.”

Comrade Ramu is the farmer in charge of the Janatana Sarkar area. He proudly shows us around the fields, where they grow rice, brinjal, gongura, onions, kohlrabi. Then, with equal pride, he shows us a huge but bone-dry irrigation pond. What’s this? “This one doesn’t even have water during the rainy season. It’s dug in the wrong place,” he says, a smile wrapped around his face. “It’s not ours, it was dug by the Looti Sarkar (the government that loots).” There are two parallel systems of government here, Janatana Sarkar and Looti Sarkar.

I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: they want to crush us, not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering the world an alternative model.

It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun. There’s too much hunger, too much sickness here. But it has certainly created the possibilities for an alternative. Not for the whole world, not for Alaska, or New Delhi, nor even perhaps for the whole of Chhattisgarh, but for itself. For Dandakaranya. It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It has laid the foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs doctors, teachers, farmers.

It does not need war.

But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.

Over the next few days, I meet women who work with KAMS, various office-bearers of the Janatana Sarkars, members of the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (DAKMS), the families of people who had been killed, and just ordinary people trying to cope with life in these terrifying times.

I met three sisters—Sukhiari, Sukdai and Sukkali—not young, perhaps in their 40s, from Narayanpur district. They have been in KAMS for 12 years. The villagers depend on them to deal with the police. “The police come in groups of two to three hundred. They steal everything: jewellery, chickens, pigs, pots and pans, bows and arrows,” Sukkali says, “they won’t even leave a knife.” Her house in Innar has been burned twice, once by the Naga battalion and once by the CRPF Sukhiari has been arrested and jailed in Jagdalpur for seven months. “Once they took away the whole village, saying the men were all Naxals.” Sukhiari followed with all the women and children. They surrounded the police station and refused to leave until the men were freed. “Whenever they take someone away,” Sukdai says, “you have to go immediately and snatch them back. Before they write any report. Once they write in their book, it becomes very difficult.”

Sukhiari, who as a child was abducted and forcibly married to an older man (she ran away and went to live with her sister), now organises mass rallies, speaks at meetings. The men depend on her for protection. I asked her what the party means to her. “Naxalvaad ka matlab hamara parivaar (Naxalvaad means our family). When we hear of an attack, it is like our family has been hurt,” Sukhiari says.

I asked her if she knew who Mao was. She smiled shyly, “He was a leader. We’re working for his vision.”

I met Comrade Somari Gawde. Twenty years old, and she has already served a two-year jail sentence in Jagdalpur. She was in Innar village on January 8, 2007, the day that 740 policemen laid a cordon around it because they had information that Comrade Niti was there. (She was, but she had left by the time they arrived.) But the village militia, of which Somari was a member, was still there. The police opened fire at dawn. They killed two boys, Suklal Gawde and Kachroo Gota. Then they caught three others, two boys, Dusri Salam and Ranai, and Somari. Dusri and Ranai were tied up and shot. Somari was beaten within an inch of her life. The police got a tractor with a trailer and loaded the dead bodies into it. Somari was made to sit with the dead bodies and taken to Narayanpur.

I met Chamri, mother of Comrade Dilip who was shot on July 6, 2009. She says that after they killed him, the police tied her son’s body to a pole, like an animal and carried it with them. (They need to produce bodies to get their cash rewards, before someone else muscles in on the kill.) Chamri ran behind them all the way to the police station. By the time they reached, the body did not have a scrap of clothing on it. On the way, Chamri says, they left the body by the roadside while they stopped at a dhaba to have tea and biscuits. (Which they did not pay for.) Picture this mother for a moment, following her son’s corpse through the forest, stopping at a distance to wait for his murderers to finish their tea. They did not let her have her son’s body back so she could give him a proper funeral. They only let her throw a fistful of earth in the pit in which they buried the others they had killed that day. Chamri says she wants revenge. Badla ku badla. Blood for blood.

I met the elected members of the Marskola Janatana Sarkar that administers six villages. They described a police raid: they come at night, 300, 400, sometimes 1,000 of them. They lay a cordon around a village and lie in wait. At dawn they catch the first people who go out to the fields and use them as human shields to enter the village, to show them where the booby-traps are. (‘Booby-traps’ has become a Gondi word. Everybody always smiles when they say it or hear it. The forest is full of booby-traps, real and fake. Even the PLGA needs to be guided past villages.) Once the police enter a village, they loot and steal and burn houses. They come with dogs. The dogs catch those who try and run. They chase chickens and pigs and the police kill them and take them away in sacks. SPOs come along with the police. They’re the ones who know where people hide their money and jewellery. They catch people and take them away. And extract money before they release them. They always carry some extra Naxal ‘dresses’ with them in case they find someone to kill. They get money for killing Naxals, so they manufacture some. Villagers are too frightened to stay at home.

In this tranquil-looking forest, life seems completely militarised now. People know words like Cordon and Search, Firing, Advance, Retreat, Down, Action! To harvest their crops, they need the PLGA to do a sentry patrol. Going to the market is a military operation. The markets are full of mukhbirs (informers) who the police have lured from their villages with money. I’m told there’s a mukhbir mohalla (informers’ colony) in Narayanpur where at least 4,000 mukhbirs stay. The men can’t go to market anymore. The women go, but they’re watched closely. If they buy even a little extra, the police accuse them of buying it for Naxals. Chemists have been instructed not to let people buy medicines except in very small quantities. Low-price rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS), sugar, rice, kerosene, are warehoused in or near police stations, making it impossible for most people to buy.

Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

All the walking seems to have finally got to me. I’m tired. Kamla gets me a pot of hot water. I bathe behind a tree in the dark. But I can’t eat dinner and crawl into my bag to sleep. Comrade Raju announces that we have to move. This happens frequently, of course, but tonight it’s hard. We have been camped in an open meadow. We’d heard shelling in the distance. There are 104 of us. Once again, single file through the night. Crickets. The smell of something like lavender. It must have been past 11 when we arrived at the place where we will spend the night. An outcrop of rocks. Formation. Roll call. Someone switches on the radio. BBC says there’s been an attack on a camp of Eastern Frontier Rifles in Lalgarh, West Bengal. Sixty Maoists on motorcycles. Fourteen policemen killed. Ten missing. Weapons snatched. There’s a murmur of pleasure in the ranks. Maoist leader Kishenji is being interviewed. When will you stop this violence and come for talks? When Operation Green Hunt is called off. Any time. Tell Chidambaram we will talk. Next question: it’s dark now, you have laid landmines, reinforcements have been called in, will you attack them too? Kishenji: Yes, of course, otherwise people will beat me. There’s laughter in the ranks. Sukhdev the clarifier says, “They always say landmines. We don’t use landmines. We use IEDs.”

Another luxury suite in the thousand-star hotel. I’m feeling ill. It starts to rain. There’s a little giggling. Kamla throws a jhilli over me. What more do I need? Everyone else just rolls themselves into their jhillis.

By next morning the body count in Lalgarh has gone up to 21, 10 missing.

Comrade Raju is considerate this morning. We don’t move till evening.

One night, people are crowded like moths around a point of light. It’s Comrade Sukhdev’s tiny computer, powered by a solar panel, and they’re watching Mother India, the barrels of their rifles silhouetted against the sky. Kamla doesn’t seem interested. I ask her if she likes watching movies. “Nahin didi. Sirf ambush video (No didi. Only ambush videos).” Later, I ask Comrade Sukhdev about these ambush videos. Without batting an eyelid, he plays one for me.

It starts with shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the close-up of a bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling. Then suddenly a comrade is wiring up an IED, concealing it with dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are being snatched. Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.

Who’s filming it? Who’s directing operations? Who’s reassuring the captured cops that they will be released if they surrender? (They were. I confirm that later.)

I know that gentle, reassuring voice. It’s Comrade Venu.

“It’s the Kudur ambush,” Comrade Sukhdev says.

He also has a video archive of burned villages, testimonies from eyewitnesses and relatives of the dead. On the singed wall of a burnt house, it says, ‘Nagaaa! Born to Kill!’ There’s footage of a little boy whose fingers were chopped off to inaugurate the Bastar chapter of Operation Green Hunt. (There’s even a TV interview with me. My study. My books. Strange.)

At night, on the radio, there’s news of another Naxal Attack. This one in Jamui, Bihar. It says 125 Maoists attacked a village and killed 10 people belonging to the Kora tribe in retaliation for giving police information that led to the death of six Maoists. Of course, we know that the media report may or may not be true. But, if it is, this one’s unforgivable. Comrade Raju and Sukhdev look distinctly uncomfortable.

The news that has been coming from Jharkhand and Bihar is disturbing. The gruesome beheading of the policeman Francis Induvar is still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s a reminder of how easily the discipline of armed struggle can dissolve into lumpen acts of criminalised violence, or into ugly wars of identity between castes and communities and religious groups. By institutionalising injustice in the way that it does, the Indian State has turned this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest. The government is quite wrong if it thinks that by carrying out ‘targeted assassinations’ to render the CPI (Maoist) ‘headless’, it will end the violence. On the contrary, the violence will spread and intensify, and the government will have nobody to talk to.

On my last few days, we meander through the lush, beautiful Indravati valley. As we walk along a hillside, we see another line of people walking in the same direction, but on the other side of the river. I’m told they are on their way to an anti-dam meeting in Kudur village. They’re overground and unarmed. A local rally for the valley. I jump ship and join them.

The Bodhghat dam will submerge the entire area that we have been walking in for days. All that forest, all that history, all those stories. More than 100 villages. Is that the plan then? To drown people like rats, so that the integrated steel plant in Lohandiguda and the bauxite mine and aluminium refinery in the Keshkal ghats can have the river?

At the meeting, people who have come from miles away say the same thing we have all heard for years. We will drown, but we won’t move! They are thrilled that someone from Delhi is with them. I tell them Delhi is a cruel city that neither knows nor cares about them.

Only weeks before I came to Dandakaranya, I visited Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Dam has more or less reached its full height now. And almost every single thing the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) predicted would happen has happened. People who were displaced have not been rehabilitated, but that goes without saying. The canals have not been built. There’s no money. So Narmada water is being diverted into the empty riverbed of the Sabarmati (which was dammed a long time ago.) Most of the water is being guzzled by cities and big industry. The downstream effects—saltwater ingress into an estuary with no river—are becoming impossible to mitigate.

There was a time when believing that Big Dams were the ‘temples of modern India’ was misguided, but perhaps understandable. But today, after all that has happened, and when we know all that we do, it has to be said that Big Dams are a crime against humanity.

The Bodhghat dam was shelved in 1984 after local people protested. Who will stop it now? Who will prevent the foundation stone from being laid? Who will stop the Indravati from being stolen? Someone must.

On the last night, we camped at the base of the steep hill we would climb in the morning, to emerge on the road from where a motorcycle would pick me up. The forest has changed even since I first entered it. The chiraunji, silk-cotton and mango trees have begun to flower.

The villagers from Kudur send a huge pot of freshly-caught fish to the camp. And a list for me, of 71 kinds of fruit, vegetables, pulses and insects they get from the forest and grow in their fields, along with the market price. It’s just a list. But it’s also a map of their world.

Jungle post arrives. Two biscuits for me. A poem and a pressed flower from Comrade Narmada. A lovely letter from Maase. (Who is she? Will I ever know?)

Comrade Sukhdev asks if he can download the music from my Ipod onto his computer. We listen to a recording of Iqbal Bano singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge (We will Witness the Day) at the famous concert in Lahore at the height of the repression during the Zia-ul-Haq years.

Jab ahl-e-safa-Mardud-e-haram,
Masnad pe bithaiye jayenge

(When the heretics and the reviled will be seated on high)

Sab taaj uchhale jayenge
Sab takht giraye jayenge

(All crowns will be snatched away
All thrones toppled)

Hum dekhenge

Fifty thousand people in the audience in that Pakistan begin a defiant chant: Inqilab Zindabad! Inqilab Zindabad! All these years later, that chant reverberates around this forest. Strange, the alliances that get made.

The home minister’s been issuing veiled threats to those who “erroneously offer intellectual and material support to Maoists”. Does sharing music qualify?

At dawn, I say goodbye to Comrade Madhav and Joori, to young Mangtu and all the others. Comrade Chandu has gone to organise the bikes, and will come with me to the main road. Comrade Raju isn’t coming (the climb would be hell on his knees). Comrade Niti (Most Wanted), Comrade Sukhdev, Kamla and five others will take me up the hill. As we start walking, Niti and Sukhdev casually but simultaneously unclick the safety catches of their AKs. It’s the first time I’ve seen them do that. We’re approaching the ‘Border’. “Do you know what to do if we come under fire?” Sukhdev asks casually, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Yes,” I said, “immediately declare an indefinite hunger strike.”

He sat down on a rock and laughed. We climbed for about an hour. Just below the road, we sat in a rocky alcove, completely concealed, like an ambush party, listening for the sound of the bikes. When it comes, the farewell must be quick. Lal Salaam Comrades.

When I looked back, they were still there. Waving. A little knot. People who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world lives with its nightmares. Every night I think of this journey. That night sky, those forest paths. I see Comrade Kamla’s heels in her scuffed chappals, lit by the light of my torch. I know she must be on the move. Marching, not just for herself, but to keep hope alive for us all.
continue reading