Boys and girls who became guerrillas

Dilip D'Souza

Some lines from page 102 probably sum up Jangalnama for me: “Bastar is known as one of the world’s mineral-rich lands. Its jungles, natural springs and minerals make it one of a kind. But the people here, equally Nature’s gift, exist barely at subsistence levels.”

Behind all we hear about the Maoist movement in this country, behind violence and counter-violence and camps and laws and outrage, is this fundamental point: it’s the people. What’s happening across such a large swathe of India did not just sprout magically one sunny day. It is rooted in people, in how they live and how they have lived in the India that became free in 1947.

That it has become so easy for us to forget this is, I believe, why Satnam wrote this book. A Punjabi journalist, Satnam spent two months among the Maoists in 2001, hiking, camping, washing, eating and talking with them. “I want to acquaint the world,” he writes about his effort, “with these people … their problems and their achievements, however small and insignificant they might be in the eyes of the outside world.”

Does he succeed? I dearly want him to. Because while I suppose the might of the state might eventually crush the Maoists, there’s a much harder problem the rest of us face. And that is to fully comprehend two things: one, the way a lot of Indians live.

Two, that Indians are India’s great resource, every bit as much as the minerals of Bastar are. But Satnam faces a severe challenge in getting that message out. After all, we live in times when the home ministry can issue a press release threatening “civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, intellectuals and the general public” with imprisonment if they “support the CPI (Maoist) ideology.”

Exactly what does “support” mean, for this apparently McCarthy-cloned directive? Does Satnam’s attempt to understand the roots of the movement qualify? Does my hope that he will succeed qualify? Does the publication of this review qualify? Does your reading it qualify?

To be sure, often enough Satnam doesn’t help himself. There are too many rants in this book. The elite, the upper classes, “civilised society” that spreads “muck and filth”, “so-called houses of justice in Delhi” — Satnam has contempt for all of these and you can see why. Yet in giving in to the temptation to express it, he overlooks a fundamental goal of journalism: your writing has to be effective.You might have only disgust for your readers, but every time you show it, you lose them.This is the problem with Jangalnama: many might dismiss it as one more angry tract.

A pity. For if you look beyond the contempt, the book offers plenty to think about. What miseries drive young boys and girls to pick up a gun and live the brutal life of a guerrilla? If some “tribals can learn to make landmines”, can they also, and perhaps preferably, learn “to make preserves, pickle and medicines”? How have these people managed to build a more egalitarian society than the country at large has, and do they thus have things to teach us? What does “objectivity” mean, when you spend two months immersed in their lives?

Once, Satnam meets a woman carrying a fever-stricken child. No doctors are available, so Satnam does what he can: he gives the kid a tablet for the fever, taken from his own kit. Then he has this laconic observation: “Since she would have nothing except rice to eat, the question of prescribing a nutritious diet to the child did not arise.”

If that’s a sobering reflection, elsewhere Satnam runs across inspiring examples of self sufficiency. Irrigation is difficult in Bastar’s rocky terrain. But people find ways to tackle it. In one area, the tribals had built themselves a dam and a sloping channel for the water, and were raising crops. “Though it could not have been easy to dig a slope on that rocky ground,” writes Satnam, “they had done it through [their] joint labour and sheer hard work … using spades, hoes and baskets.”

Episodes like these serve to remind us that while it might be a guerrilla zone that Satnam travels through, it also is a place filled with ordinary people and their ordinary concerns.

Satnam makes no effort to hide his sympathies. (And his contempt). That will earn him the anger of readers for whom the word ‘Maoist’ has become, pun not intended, a red flag. Yet the real message of this book will not vanish because of such anger. Yes, these are people Satnam writes about, people like you and the corner paanwallah, like Manmohan Singh and me. If we lose sight of that, we may just lose sight of the idea of India.Give that a thought. But remember the home ministry.

Dilip D’Souza is the author of Roadrunner: An Indian Quest In America