India's forgotten war

THE BURNING FOREST  
India’s War in Bastar
Nandini Sundar
Juggernaut
413 pages (hardcover); Rs 699

How immoral can a state become? How does the state manufacture an environment of legitimacy to hide the immorality of its actions? What constitutional and legal safeguards exist in India to prevent the state from turning into its worst self? What does it say of a nation when we tacitly or openly provide social sanction to a state to act as a marauding thug against some of its poorest? By providing this social sanction, do we become complicit in the crimes? What triggers shame in a society against perverse acts of the state? 

These are some of the many discomforting questions Nandini Sundar raises in her  book, one of the most comprehensive and meticulous records of the war in Bastar. The facts she marshals to construct the contemporary history of the region leave no doubts that the name of the book is not misleading. It is a war in which the state comes out looking no better than those who have picked up arms against it, the Maoists — actually worse because, as the facts show, the state on too many occasions has been as scornful of the laws and the Constitution as its opponents. As a consequence, anarchy reigns and the Adivasi, whom both sides claim to protect, get butchered. If you read the government records Ms Sundar presents in her book there are few other words to describe the consequences of militarisation in the region. 

Journalism should have done the documentation that Ms Sundar has accomplished in this book. But, apart from the exceptional commitment of some individual journalists such as NDTV’s Hridayesh Joshi, the national media has largely failed to report this war. It has almost willed itself not to, or it has taken the easy route of running the simple narrative that both, the government and Maoists, would love to perpetuate a low-intensity perpetual war because it is also good business. It helps maintain some monopolies and some trades prosper. But it also brings unaccounted power to some and provides illegitimate access to resources for others. Ms Sundar documents this land and resource grab well and also explains how media has failed the people of Bastar and, consequently, the country. Her nuanced and detailed picture spares none, not even civil society and the media. 

So far, the silence of the national media has helped us avoid facing the fact that the Adivasi of Bastar has become an easy kill for either side. Writing from conflict zones is always an ordeal for journalists that come from or live there. As a collective, the media industry has done little to make it easier for the good journalists to report the reality. Many journalists from Chhattisgarh trying to do their job have suffered the heavy hand of the state. So have activists and academics. Ms Sundar documents that too. And now, as if to prove her point better than Ms Sundar could in her book, the Chhattisgarh government has slapped a murder rap on her and another reputed academic, Archana Prasad, along with two political activists from Chhattisgarh. 

The murder rap comes days after the state police officers burnt her effigy and those of other similarly inclined people on the streets.  The trigger was Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) indicting policemen in a 2011 case of burning down a tribal village, rape and murder. It was a case that Ms Sundar and her colleagues have pursued persistently. The book records how even CBI officials faced physical threats while pursuing their investigations. In a state where democracy really works this should have caused an outcry and the state government should have stood discredited. Instead, as Ms Sundar records, both the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance are equally responsible for perpetuating the war in Bastar. 

The third part of Ms Sundar’s book bares the weakness of the country’s democratic institutions in dealing with the militarised responses by state. Even if you are not particularly concerned about the lives of the others, this section should unsettle you. The weak substratum of democracy in India tacitly permits destruction of life in Bastar, portending danger to rights of the more privileged when the state feels emboldened to act immorally. 

It is not difficult for the state to build public narratives that turn any community of citizens into the “other” and then label these “others” anti-national or seditious so that their rights can be trampled on with social sanction. Works like The Burning Forest provide a check against these pernicious tendencies which, let us admit, every nation-state has potential to unleash. 

There are so many good reasons to read Ms Sundar’s book, even if you disagree with her views. But, there is no way you can read it and not feel harrowed by the war India has unleashed against its own people in Bastar and what it implies for us as a functioning democracy.  


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