To break a siege: A review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s Tribals Under Siege

[First published at]

This is a review by JUSTIN PODUR of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s book Maoists in India: Tribals Under Siege (Pluto Press 2012)

[First published at]

This is a review by JUSTIN PODUR of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s book Maoists in India: Tribals Under Siege (Pluto Press 2012)

Central India is a place where all the fault lines of “development” in today’s world converge. Indigenous people, vast stretches of natural forest, mineral-hungry corporations; media, government institutions, and political parties heavily compromised by private interests; people’s struggles, armed insurgency, counterinsurgency, military occupation, paramilitarism – all are present, and until recently, it has all been a well-kept secret.

The struggles play out differently in different parts of Central India. In Orissa, indigenous people’s movements have battled mining companies and stalled projects for years, in Kashipur and Lanjigarh. In Chhattisgarh, in the northern Bastar region, one of India’s billionaires, Naveen Jindal of the Jindal Group (also a polo player and a Congress Party Member of Parliament for a different district), wields tremendous economic and political power. The mines use captive power plants, coal or hydro, so each mine causes massive ecological and agricultural damage. In a profile by Mehboob Jeelani in Caravan Magazine on March 1, 2013, Jindal explained his philosophy: “We don’t control all the raw materials, but we have captive mines for 60 or 70 percent. This is something my father really believed in—that we must control our raw materials. If we don’t, then other people control us. So we made a conscious effort to acquire coal and iron ore mines.” In southern Bastar in Chhattisgarh, a Maoist insurgency is fighting against government forces, police, paramilitaries, and vigilante groups, from bases deep in the forest, in a war that was largely unknown for decades.

In India, the secret of the insurgency was broken by a series of atrocities committed by a group called Salwa Judum, starting around 2005. Salwa Judum in the Americas would be called paramilitaries, but in India is called a vigilante group. Salwa Judum was organized by the state and headed by a Congress Party politician named Mahendra Karma. It burned hundreds of villages, committed murder and rape, and tried to channel the indigenous people of the forest villages into roadside camps, where their movements could be controlled. This was all done in the name of fighting the Maoist insurgency, and it largely failed on those terms: Maoist numbers increased, the indigenous people went deeper into the forest. But it was a human disaster, and that human disaster has continued. The objective is the lands where the indigenous people (in India called adivasis) live – specifically the minerals underneath those lands, which put them in the way of the extractive development model and hence, in the line of fire.

Outside of India, those who know a little bit about Bastar and this secret war, probably heard about it from Arundhati Roy, who traveled with the Maoists in 2010 and wrote an article and a short book titled Walking With the Comrades. As far as I know, Arundhati never spelled out why she wrote the book, but it seems clear enough from the contents:

The Maoists, and the indigenous people among whom they operate and who comprise their soldiery and cadres, are systematically dehumanized and demonized in media and public discourse. If they can be successfully dehumanized by those who are after their land, the public will stand by and allow any atrocity to be committed against them, in the name of security or development. I think Arundhati’s objective was to humanize them. To reveal that they are people, and more than that, that they are people with a story, people facing total destruction and doing so with incredible courage. Throughout the book, she deliberately chooses words and images to humanize, referring to the younger soldiers as “beautiful children”, discussing how young people follow the people’s army around “with stars in their eyes”, talking about how they “dance into the night”. It seems clear to me: Arundhati was very shrewdly using her tremendous talent with words and observations to try to save lives, to raise the political cost of trying to eliminate these people and their movement. And, though it’s hard to measure, she has been successful.

It is strange, then, that a book that was written in response to Arundhati’s and harshly critical of it would share the same goal, but after reading Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s Tribals Under Siege, I am convinced that it does. Even though Nirmalangshu spends considerable space criticizing the politics and practice of the Maoists as presented in Arundhati’s account (and others), it is clear that Nirmalangshu shares Arundhati’s overwhelming concern: solidarity with the indigenous people who are dying in this war. How is this possible? How did two people of such capacity, sharing the same basic objective, come to such diametrically opposed political conclusions?

Despite what I am arguing is a shared ethical framework, I think the answer is that they have very different ideas about what is broken about India’s democracy and what the best strategies are for resistance in the current context. Arundhati has argued for understanding a “spectrum of resistance”, on which Maoist armed struggle deserves respect as well as other forms. Nirmalangshu’s analysis is motivated by a set of strategic assumptions about how to resist in the context of a (deeply flawed) parliamentary system. To understand his critique of the Maoists, it is necessary to understand these assumptions.

Nirmalangshu characterizes India as a “fragile democracy”, in which “despite its poverty, illiteracy, treatment of women, and dalits, and massive violation of human rights, India happens to be one of the better examples of functioning democracy in the world,” where “the election system in particular has formed significant roots not only in cities but even in rural India and other remote parts of the country.” The electoral system is one arena where, unlike in the West, “Indian elites have not been able to exercise complete authoritarian control”, enabling “the people to repeatedly throw out unpopular regimes”, empowering the people “to have some access to state power”. The fragility of India’s democracy can be seen in “massive corruption… inability of wide sections of the population to access welfare schemes and institutions of justice… widespread criminalization of electoral politics, and the emergence of armed insurgencies.”

Here we come to the fundamental political assumption motivating Nirmalangshu’s critique, as he argues “that current radical priorities require the state with all its glaring limitations so that people can access it. The elimination of the state, or even the overthrowing of the Indian state to install a new one, currently favours the anti-people forces of society. Specifically, the radical task is to uphold and expand the electoral system which I take to be the most fundamental institution of the Indian state.”

In this analysis, Nirmalangshu relies heavily on Chomsky’s concept of “expanding the floor of the cage”, but he could have found support for it from an unexpected quarter. Consider this statement of political strategy:

“Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

Was this written by a Gandhian satyagrahi? No, it comes from Che Guevara’s La Guerra de Guerrillas.

From this perspective, launching an armed struggle within a parliamentary system, as the Indian Maoists have done, is already a strategic error. But the strategic error is compounded, in Nirmalangshu’s view, by the tactical choices and practices.

Where Arundhati has incredible powers of observation and language, Nirmalangshu’s skill set is slightly different, consisting mainly of sharp analysis and extremely careful reading. The main part of the book consists of an analysis of pro-Maoist accounts of Maoist politics and practice. Early in the book, he compiles a list of the Maoists’ practices, which he goes on to analyze in detail:

“Hijacking, derailment and burning of trains; blowing up railway stations, school buildings, and police stations; killing and occasional beheading of suspected informers; attacks on police armories to loot hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition as in Nayagarh; looting of banks and treasuries; mass killing of security personnel in their camps as in Rani Bodili and Silda; ambush and killing of security personnel (and making of ‘ambush’ videos); recruiting children as young as 12 years old for indoctrination and guerrilla training; amassing thousands of guerrillas in People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, armed to the teeth with AK series rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives; recruiting several thousand village-level militias who wield anything from bows and arrows to guns; colluding with varieties of mafia and private contractors to raise funds for arms; and killing of political opponents, especially from the Left and often from depressed sections of society, to grab control over an area”.

Nirmalangshu argues that “in each case… these atrocious operations need to be justified in respect of the proclaimed cause”, and finds that they cannot, in fact, be justified. He asks: “Could the war have been avoided while addressing the rights of adivasis?” Nirmalangshu suggests that it could have, and that the sooner it ends, the better the chances for successful resistance and the sooner the human disaster can end.

This is all the more urgent because, in Nirmalangshu’s assessment, the Maoists are losing: “ultimately, Maoists cannot win this one since they have never secured mass acceptance with the people of India…These forests denote their only habitat and (final) burial.”

Unfortunately, prospects for a solution through dialogue are dim. Nirmalangshu tells the story of one of the brightest Maoist commanders, Azad, who came out from underground to try to set up peace talks with the government and was murdered by police in a faked encounter in July 2010 for the effort. Another important Maoist leader, Kishenji, was also murdered by police in 2011. In a book of cold analysis and suppressed rage, Nirmalangshu’s tribute to these murdered leaders is a rare emotional note: “I am no admirer of their politics,” he writes, “but I am honoured to pay my tributes to these noble spirits especially when one examines with disgust the life-histories of most of the official politicians that rule the country.”

Murdering the peacemakers among the opposition is a tactic that the Israelis use repeatedly, one that prolonged the Colombian civil war for an additional twenty years. When FARC leaders came out from underground to try to contest elections as the Union Patriotica political party in the 1980s, about 3,000 of their members were assassinated over a few years by paramilitaries, police, and vigilante groups. This kind of attack has two effects. The ones who believe in finding a peaceful solution are dead, and the ones who believe that the system will never provide peace are vindicated.

The Indian state is heading in this direction, and this is where Nirmalangshu, by his own admission, begins grasping at “any straw afloat”. The path forward that he suggests is for the democratic people’s movements to “create conditions for adivasis themselves to surrender and return to safety”, for a mass movement to invigilate a “policy of universal amnesty and genuine rehabilitation of the guerrillas and militias after their surrender”, supervised by “eminent civil society persons”.

Perhaps he’s right, but I would suggest a different straw, or at least a different emphasis: that of internal debate within the movement. The unarmed, democratic movement activists I met in Bastar were not as harsh on the Maoists as Nirmalangshu is. Or, rather, they would have agreed with parts of what Nirmalangshu wrote, such as the statement that “it is the Maoists who brought some measure of relief and dignity to people by their sustained efforts for over two decades.” If a full strategic debate could be had about how best to resist the land-grab and protect people, maybe disaster can be averted.

For someone who lives in the Americas, the adivasi struggle cannot help but invoke the Zapatistas of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. There are similarities, and differences, both worth study. Around the same time that the Maoist activists shifted their headquarters to Bastar in the early 1980s, a few squads of non-indigenous revolutionaries moved into the Lacondon jungle in Chiapas, Mexico. These early Zapatistas planned to raise the indigenous people of Chiapas and worked patiently for the next 12 years. Over that period, though, the indigenous people took control of the movement and put the revolutionaries to service in a new agenda that was both indigenous and revolutionary, incorporating concepts like “mandar obedeciendo” (lead by obeying), and strategies like opening their communities to international observers. The latter move, which came shortly after 1994, was also an accommodation to necessity. When they launched their rebellion at the beginning of 1994, the Zapatistas planned to march on Mexico City and overthrow the government, hoping that the people of the country would rise up. The people of the country did rise up, but not for revolution. Instead, they marched and assembled for peace, a mobilization that allowed the Zapatistas the breathing space that they needed to survive and build, over the past 20 years, successful, autonomous communities with developmental successes that the Mexican state was never able to achieve for the indigenous people of Chiapas. The struggle in Bastar hasn’t yet been claimed by the indigenous, and the people of India haven’t yet mobilized massively in solidarity. But the Zapatista example continues to provide a great deal to learn from.

I have a few disagreements with Nirmalangshu. At times it seems like he has mistaken cause (the state and corporate onslaught) and effect (resistance). He uses space in the book arguing there is a paucity of evidence of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the government and mining corporations. Since he completed the book, a lot of this evidence has come out: there are maps and lists of MOUs covering virtually the entire area of Chhattisgarh. At times, it seems he assumes that the outcome of the struggle is determined by the resistance and not the state. When discussing the fall of the LTTE in Sri Lanka for example, he suggests that the Tigers “blood-thirsty operations” created the “chauvinist frenzy” among the Sinhalese. But while it is absolutely clear that the military struggle ultimately failed, it is by no means clear that an unarmed struggle would have succeeded. Finally, the unarmed activists that he celebrates as more likely to succeed seem to have a different view of the problem than he does. But to me, these are points that must be debated. Nirmalangshu is smart and he cares. The worst outcome would be if his book were to be dismissed by its intended audience: the Maoists and their supporters. The best outcome would be if it could contribute to a strategic debate for how to resist the land-grabs, expand India’s fragile democracy, and most urgently, break the noose that the state is tightening around the adivasis and their lands.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and professor at York University, currently a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. His blog is and twitter is

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.