Alpa Shah’s Nightwatch: A Journey into India’s Naxal
Heartlands is the latest in a barrage of books on the Naxalites (at least
50 since 2007 by Shah’s own count in her Bibliographic essay at the end of the
book), the impetus of which is somewhat dubious.
The Indian government (specifically Manmohan Singh, which shows no real difference in how the Congress and the BJP or any major party sees them) has deemed the Naxalites the nation’s “largest internal security threat” which is really a joke considering that they are a ragtag army of a few thousands with outdated artillery, tramping through dangerous, malarial jungles. But it is a fiction that most of these books have taken seriously which once again says more about the need to produce sensation within publishing than anything else.
As a result, interest in the Naxalites has been adolescent and superficial in most cases. The fact that most of the cadres in the Naxal forces are Adivasi and Dalit has not been the concern of most of these books. Instead, the focus has been on the Naxal leaders (mostly caste Hindu), their military structures and strategies, their discipline, their marching in difficult conditions and so on. Shah, an anthropologist who has worked among the adivasis in Lalgaon in Jharkhand, a stronghold of the Naxals, might have proved to be an exception but not only falls for the same game, she does worse.
Her book centres around a march with the Naxals in 2010 (which makes the book somewhat outdated as the situation has changed considerably in the almost-decade that followed) even as she claims her purpose is to track the “contradictions, limitations and paradoxes of emancipatory ambitions”. The frame of the book is her dressing up as a man and marching across 240 km with a male Maoist platoon. This is surely not the best context for her above-stated purpose unless the march is made a foil or a point of departure to engage with those larger questions.
The book, clearly written for a foreign audience (published originally by Hurst in Britain where Shah is located and teaches), opens with a Preface and Part One (comprising three chapters) with a somewhat flattening account of the contexts that surround the march. The Maoists, the Indian state, multinational corporations, journalists and human rights activists are all put on the same plane in thumbnail descriptions and an account of the stark power differentials between them is forsaken for clichés about Bombay high rises and slum dwellers and romanticised images of silver-lipped coalminers whose “intent and determination was hauntingly piercing” (sic).
Chapter 2 has a similar schematic laying out of Maoist movements across the world and the somewhat more detailed account of the Indian context is once again simplistic. The history of the Naxal movement in India is followed by the history of state operations against them as if these are commensurable, with no account of the gross inequalities of scale between the two and the overriding reasons behind the brutality visited upon the movement.
In the end, they would never get rid of the politicians who collaborated with the multinational companies and created government policy that generated inequality; instead the Naxalites would kill the hundreds of young Adivasi soldiers who were being used by the state armies.
The final chapter in the first section is autobiographical
but a telling admission is that Shah thought of the Naxalites as mere protection
racketeers (evident in her academic monograph “In the Shadow of the State:
Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India”). If
complicating that picture of the Naxalites was the purpose, the focus on the
march and on the Naxal leaders would be appropriate but Shah divides her
attention between them, the Adivasi Naxals and the adivasis in general, all
independent categories for her, offering in the bargain an insufficiently
complex account of the Naxalite movement and situation.
Part Two’s three chapters introduce us to Prashant, a Naxal leader, Bimalji, the leader she came on the mission to meet but who puts her to sleep with his “well-trodden histories” and Kohli, a young tribal recruit. We do not really get to know any of them. Shah attends the conference of the state-level committee but gives us no account of the proceedings, indeed little more is offered than thumbnail sketches of these three characters.
Part 3’s three chapters begin with a more detailed account of Gyanji but it meanders into Shah’s own theory of the connection between the figure of the revolutionary and “a long history of renunciation for liberation in India” undercut by her own following of this with some deliberations on the question of violence. Unlike a good anthropologist, Shah does not bother to listen to the voices of her subjects but offers us her own dilemmas and assessments, ranging from the banal idea that oppression is not homogeneous to this passage:
“In the end, they would never get rid of the politicians who collaborated with the multinational companies and created government policy that generated inequality; instead the Naxalites would kill the hundreds of young Adivasi soldiers who were being used by the state armies.”
This is a curious assessment to say the least. Apart from the purist politics she wishes the Naxalites to have, it is surely absurd to expect Naxals to “get rid” of the politicians and blame them for the murders of state-employed adivasis in counter-operations, ignoring glaring structural inequalities in the situation and among the players on the ground.
Part 4 begins with an engagement with Kohli but does not dwell on him, segueing instead into accounts of his sister and “other boys” to move yet again (and again superficially) into the lives of adivasis working in brick kilns. Chapter 11 shows how the Naxalites won over the adivasis through a series of democratic engagements yet closes with a clichéd account of how the adivasis are caught between the Naxals and the state. “Everyone was now afraid whenever the security forces crested the hills, terrified of getting caught in the crossfire with the Maoists,” she writes. Who is this everyone? And didn’t she tell us that she was going to offer us a more “nuanced understanding” than that “which argued that people were stuck between two armies, or coerced into revolutionary support, or turned to the guerrillas because of either some utilitarian benefits or the long-standing grievances they addressed”?
The final chapter in the section criticises Gyanji’s infantilising of Kohli and contrasts Shah’s own progressive views on adivasi life with the conservative Naxal position on pornography. Nowhere does Shah show any self-reflexivity or she might have seen her own investment in conservative ideologies, apparent for example in her critique of Vikas, the adivasi Naxal gone wrong, in the next section.
In her account of Vikas, Shah sees his masculinity as Hindu upper caste and his corruption as the result of Naxalite forms of taxation. Her account of Vikas shows no anthropological engagement let alone empathy with his subjectivity. She offers no account of his interiority beyond the “utilitarian benefits” referred to earlier. Surely Vikas is not reducible to his corrupt actions? Surely there is more to be explored behind the façade of his aggressive masculinity? Why is Vikas not given the kind of attention given to Gyanji?
This continues in Part 6 with Shah’s account of Seema, a Naxal woman leader, whom she accuses of being upper caste, monogamous and married and hence unable to relate, let alone learn from, the adivasis. How is this not equally applicable to Shah, seen not least in her horror at Gyanji’s having given up his family to go underground? Shah does not really engage with Seema at all or understand her difficulties from within.
Further, while Shah is progressive on adivasi sexual and drinking practices, her progressiveness stops when it comes to offering any sense of them as politically agential subjects. Her lack of empathy with the imaginations of Gyanji and Seema is matched only by an equal lack of entry into the adivasi political imaginations, especially of the men—Vikas and Kohli—but also the women Naxals whom she lyrically romanticises as victims of Naxalism. A third category of women represented by the adivasi woman, Somwari, whom she lives with during her fieldwork is both romanticised and seen only externally and not in her own account.
It is not clear then what Shah’s object is as she gives us neither a deep and engaged narrative of upper caste Naxals nor of adivasi Naxals. The former come across as limited by caste, class and gendered ideologies; the latter are corrupt or sweet boys or deluded girls who will be corrupted. A third category of adivasis are seen as outside these two groups (itself highly problematic given Somwari’s own affiliation and estrangement with the Naxals) and are alternately romanticised as progressive and infantilised as victims.
Perhaps her own disappointment and disillusionment clouds her ability to engage with any of the players in the field with the true empathy of an anthropologist.
Part 7 concludes the book with Shah’s own neat and simplistic laundry list of the contradictions in the Naxal struggle. Structured in too easy binaries, despite Shah’s own claim that she wanted to avoid the “binaries of condemnation and romanticisation,” she lists six major contradictions, ones briefly touched upon in each of the chapters—Naxal reliance on caste Hindu family relations, Naxal immersion in the capitalist economy, an outdated analysis of the Indian economy by the Naxals, a lack of understanding of adivasis by Naxals, the use of violence by Naxals and gendered inequalities among the Naxals—but none of them are read from within.
Shah ends with some patronising comments on the Naxals arguing that they are a democratising force: “catalysing those who want to fight for a more equal world, who are mobilised by the spirit of revolutionary struggle, even if they have been, at the same time, disappointed and disillusioned by its practice.”
It is not clear who this “those”, “who” and “they” are and this points to the crucial flaw in this book. Who is this book about? The uppercaste Naxalites? Adivasi Naxalites? The non-Naxaladivasis? Shah does not give us detailed accounts of this disappointment and disillusionment in any of the three groups.
Perhaps her own disappointment and disillusionment clouds her ability to engage with any of the players in the field with the true empathy of an anthropologist and this is because she sees herself as some curiously “independent” figure, free of any of the concerns, she claims, of the state, of human rights activists, or the Maoists. She is merely a “scholar” and then “an independent researcher and reporter.”
Such naivete from an anthropologist is alarming—the anthropologist is neither purely independent nor free of assumptions that might inform human rights work, the state or the Maoists. There is no such thing as a pure, objective scholar or reporter and any anthropologist would know that. An anthropologist both constitutes and is constituted by her object and Shah seems to have forgotten this in her urge to explain the Naxalites to the world.
The result is a not a narrative free-floating and independent from any materialist grounding but rife with assumptions and biases that are not examined. More damagingly, it far from succeeds in Shah’s stated aim of “seeking to know and experience the world through their [the adivasis] perspectives and actions in as holistic a manner as possible.”
If in her academic anthropological work, the Naxals were “protection racketeers”, here they are failed revolutionaries, marred by their own contradictions. As for the adivasis, they are corrupted or victims. The foil of the march is the book’s undoing, It is a march to nowhere.