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Squabble over Resources in Bastar’s Forests

Vikramaditya Thakur (vikramadityat@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Delaware, Newark, United States.

Blood Red River: A Journey into the Heart of India’s Development Conflict by Rohit Prasad, Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2016; pp 336, 399.

 

In the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the state paramilitary forces and the Maoists have been battling each other for years. Rohit Prasad’s Blood Red River: A Journey into the Heart of India’s Development Conflict is a timely book that explores the reasons behind the seemingly endless bloodbath unfolding in the remote forests. Based largely on fieldwork, supplemented by news reports, the book brings the reader inside “the most militarised zone in the entire country” (p 57) through a series of colourful vignettes.

Stained Bastar

Inhabited by the Scheduled Tribes (STs), including Gonds and Halbas, the hilly and forested Bastar region was part of the erstwhile princely states during the colonial rule. As Prasad sketches, this region is marked by insubstantial health or educational facilities for over half a century after the formal end of colonial rule. For the ST inhabitants in Bastar, coercive police and forestry departments have largely defined the presence of the state.

Bastar, from the state’s perspective, largely represents an area rich in minerals such as iron ore. The mining of such resources, in turn, leads to the forced displacement of the locals. In the marketplace, middlepersons have largely gained from the sales of tendu leaves, a minor forest produce collected by the Gonds and Halbas. Losing out from the bulk of profits, a vital source for liquid cash has rendered the already precarious existence of these ST groups even tougher. It is within this setting that a group of educated youth entered the forests of Bastar in the 1980s, making Dandakaranya their stronghold. Inspired by Mao Tse-tung’s idea of armed revolution, these Maoist revolutionaries found a fertile ground to expand their influence while giving a voice to the grievances of the locals (p 7).

Prasad’s book on the Maoist violence in Bastar delves into matters that have often been raised regarding rural populations in many parts of the world. He asks whether mineral-rich areas are in fact suffering from a resource curse(p 3) or not. Backed by numerous case studies, the author locates the reasons behind the regular mass killings that have stained Bastar for decades as a consequence of numerous murky deals in a high-stakes game of control over natural resources that is being waged in national and state government offices and corporate boardrooms. These deals are at most times in opposition to the utopian ideology driven by the Maoists, who are waging a war against the Indian state.

Non-fiction Monographs

The book belongs to the rare genre of non-fiction monographs in India on critical social issues which are backed by a fair amount of research conducted by a non-specialist—the author is trained in economics and teaches at a business college. It is written for the common Indian readers as opposed to an exclusively academic audience. It is not a standard academic text; the book does not have any explicit theoretical framework and takes a liberal tone while cleanly avoiding social science jargon. The book has no index or bibliography. A few footnotes and references are there based on some newspaper sources and seminal academic research conducted in Bastar region such as works of the historian and sociologist Archana Prasad (pp 56, 111), and of Walter Fernandes (p 19) on development-induced displacement.

It begins with a short introduction that outlines the author’s concerns about the current development discourse and its victims in India, as well as a cursory introduction to the history of Bastar through Maoists, the role of police, the Salwa Judum militia, and contrasting it to the current climate of chief executive officers’ spouting discourse of a global village and new economy.

The author’s methodology included fieldwork and interviews in the villages and towns of Bastar, and reports of the seminars, workshops and corporate office visits across different cities in India over a span of two years (p 4). After the introduction, the book is divided into five sections. The first deals with malpractices in the name of democracy and development in Bastar. We meet the intrepid and incorruptible local journalist Kamal Shukla (p 40), who takes the author into the heart of rural Bastar, including the “liberated zones” of the Maoists. Prasad shows that state-sponsored development in present-day Bastar is a process that involves

a bunch of frightened contractors, propped by gung-ho SPs [police officials], paying off a group of Maoists (and, probably some government officials and politicians as well) who are busy setting up bombs and being chased down by jittery often lonely security forces paid by the taxpayer’s money. (p 61)

The second section focuses on the tragedy faced by the locals in Bastar who are caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the state armed forces. Here, we meet Noku Koram, a village head with a “burning desire to improve the lot of his tribal community” (p 121). He was murdered by another local on the orders of the Maoists. The Maoists are supposedly profiting from the money coming in the name of local development funds.

The third and fourth sections are the highlights of the book where the author moves with an ease in his familiar urban labyrinth of corporations and state actors. He focuses on the “dirty tricks” of corporations in their efforts to mine mineral resources cheaply in a volatile world market. He boldly levels charges against some of the biggest business houses in India such as the Jindals and Tatas. He contends that the Tatas chose to support Mahendra Karma, a local Bastar politician. Karma was also the founder of Salwa Judum, an armed militia supported by the state to counter the Maoists, that has been indulged in widespread arson and murders in Bastar’s countryside. The Tatas, in order to get their plant rolling in Bastar in the face of hostile locals and Maoist opposition, backed Karma despite their company mission of promoting social responsibility through health and social initiatives.

The fifth and final section of the book brings out the interrelated connections between intersecting stories and concludes with a timeline of events leading up to April 2016 in Bastar. The book concludes with two appendices, highlighting the history of policy for the STs of central India that was drawn on a conversation with an advocate of the Supreme Court.

Racy Stories about Mining

The book’s strength lies in its treatment of the grim events related to Bastar in a racy and engaging style. The story unfolds through interrelated vignettes involving a set of diverse characters ranging from an idealist young civil servant, several Maoists who get killed or surrendered, corporate heads and middlepersons, grass-roots activists and many others. The focus remains on the central theme of state and corporate greed targeting Bastar as the narrative breathlessly takes the reader through a series of shocking incidents involving over two dozen principal characters. His data collection reaches a point where the author himself becomes a peripheral character that is inadvertently dragged into the underbelly of unscrupulous moves and countermoves involving Jindal Steel, which has mining interests in Bastar, Zee News, and a victim of displacement (pp 213–34).

This unfolds during his search for “racy stories about mining” (p 212), where the author admits his taste for “the piquant and the controversial.” The author’s predilections for scandal and a penchant for dramatisation are made amply clear from the start. Rather than choosing any other serious event for the year 1975, he uses the movie Sholay’s release as a benchmark for the year to establish a period of severe decline of the Maoists in Bengal and Telangana (p 7). He maintains this same style through large parts of the book. The most outstanding example is the biography of Mahendra Karma. Though Karma’s life-sketch receives barely a few scant paragraphs (pp 15–16), there is an entire sub-section titled, “The Death of Mahendra Karma,” that describes his murder by the Maoists in a remote hilly area in May 2013 in gory detail as an act of revenge.

Through stories that regularly move from the remote Bastar forests to gleaming urban boardrooms, the author continually affirms his argument about the blatant loot of mineral resources by corporations in cahoots with elected government representatives, with the hapless locals at the receiving end of the fallout of corporate greed.

With its fast pace and lucid writing, as well as the carefully selected case studies which include several lurid scams that comprise the bulk of the book, Prasad’s prose has the potential to attract a wide readership. The author succeeds in connecting disparate links to unambiguously highlight the loot for natural resources in Bastar by corporations with the backing of the state, wherein only a ragtag army of local STs led by the Maoists offer substantial resistance. He differentiates both the strengths and shortcomings of the Maoists, while also bringing in a host of non-Maoist left actors such as the feisty local schoolteacher, Soni Sori, who survives police torture to testify in the Supreme Court. The book itself is a very engaging read; just left to case studies and biographies that the author sets up, the book illuminates a burning social issue.

Limitations

The non-Indian readers may find the book to be an arduous read as the text often assumes quite a bit of prior knowledge about India. Even Indian readers may find things tough at times. For a book that is written about Bastar and the displacement of its Adivasis, other than a map of Chhattisgarh and a hurried historical background (pp 13–14), there is little basic data provided at any point about the area and its people in terms of population sizes of the various ST groups and their respective percentages within the total diversity of the Bastar region and the state. Nothing is mentioned about inter-group interactions and the social relationships that form among them. The author does drop cryptic hints when he mentions a petty government official who considers himself superior to the elected village head because the former was a Halba, while the latter was presumably a Gond (p 123), but otherwise provides little detail.

One of the most glaring limitations of the text is the author’s periodic digression into casual references to complex macro-terminologies on a periodic basis. The book casually wades into a host of social science subjects, engaging them fleetingly, and at times even flippantly, which may disappoint social scientists in a host of fields. As a social anthropologist studying the Bhils, the largest ST of India, in a historical perspective, I can highlight a couple of examples dealing with my sphere of competence. I was surprised by the author’s description of the ST groups in Bastar, who he states “…had been living for millennia in the midst of forests and streams” (p 12). These types of statements incorrectly presuppose that communities remained in remote isolation from the world until their discovery by the British in the 19th century where everything supposedly went downhill for the denizens of the hills thereafter.

The book’s uncritical use of terms such as “Adivasi” could have benefited from Archana Prasad’s work on the topic. While he describes Prasad as “the mainstream leftist thinker,” twice citing her seminal work on Maoist violence (pp 56, 111), he seemingly misses her critical historicisation of the term “Adivasi” in the context of Bastar and the history of ST groups.1

While there is a prolific body of literature on the historiography of ST groups that present rich and complex historical perspectives,2 the author perhaps chose to keep things simple for readers. But, in the process, his omissions and hurried treatment of many serious topics result in sweeping generalisations that are difficult to fathom as this second example shows. The author, “who has a lifelong aversion to ritualistic song and dance,” gets to hear the music of the Gonds and it “reminds him of the aboriginal melodies of Australia and Africa” (pp 98–99).

The common connection between the similarities, as he explains, is on account of the same group of humans that migrated 60,000 years ago from Africa in different directions, including Australia and India. He buttresses this claim based on genetic evidence from an evolutionary biology journal article and his own experience of jazz dancing that he learnt in the US. “Jazz draws heavily from ancient African traditions,” the author informs us, as he seemingly recognises “the four-step barn dance” popular at the US summer fairs within the Gondi dance which he claims, symbolises “rites of passage” of people who “return to elemental rhythms in their moments of joy” (p 99).

This whole comparison of likeness, explained largely through a footnote, is unclear, but also seems somewhat farcical and largely problematic. In general, the author’s focus on songs and dances when it comes to describing the everyday life of the ST groups of Bastar simply reinforces the stereotypical and erroneous image of “noble savages” and “nature’s children” despite the ST groups’ practices and livelihood being little different from those of the other groups living in their vicinity. Drawing on own research and those of earlier work on the Bhils living in and around the Narmada River Valley in central–western India, I have found that practices, social values, and even identity for ST groups, like any other human group, can and do undergo changes due to human and natural agency within much shorter spans of 100–125 years or even shorter periods.3

The book could have benefited by not touching on a whole range of serious academic debates in a perfunctory manner. If one skips these short interruptions, this is a rewarding fast read that concludes on an apt, though sad note that, “if Bastar is an arena for a rooster fight, then the ST groups are the rooters and the owners of the birds are the different sides—Maoists, the government and the corporates” (p 310).

Notes

1 Archana Prasad (2010). Also see her 2003 book on the history of central Indian ST groups.

2 See Sumit Guha’s longue-duree study for central and western India; see Surajit Sinha (1987) on eastern India among other works.

3 See my book chapter on the dramatic socio-economic transformation of the Bhils of Narmada Valley through the late 19th century to the present. Also see the works cited above.

References

Guha, Sumit (1999): Environment and Ethnicity in India 1200–1991, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prasad, Archana (2010): “The Political Economy of Maoist Violence in Chhattisgarh,” Social Scientist, 34 (3/4): 3–24.

— (2003): Against Ecological Romanticism: Verrier Elwin and the Making of the Anti-Modern Tribal Identity, New Delhi: Three Essays.

Sinha, Surajit (1987): Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-Colonial Eastern and North Eastern India, Calcutta: Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.

Thakur, Vikramaditya (2014): “Logjam: Peasantization Caused Deforestation in Narmada Valley,” Shifting Grounds: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History, Mahesh Rangarajan and K Sivaramakrishnan (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 228–51.

Updated On : 7th Sep, 2017

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