Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Baster: Strangers in their own land ....

Book Review


A complex and nuanced story of the 'adivasis' of Bastar being displaced in the name of development

SUBALTERNS AND SOVEREIGNS — An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-2006): Nandini Sundar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 650

This is not merely an anthropological history of Bastar, as the subtitle of this very important book suggests, but also an exploration on the part of the author of the normative universe that will eventually determine the increasingly fragile idea of Indian democracy and its institutions. It tells a very complex and nuanced story of the 'adivasis' of Bastar being displaced by centralised models of "development", losing, in turn, their rights over la nd, water and forests.

While the conclusion in the book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, hoping for a better future for the 'adivasis' of Bastar, a people who have become strangers in their own land, the afterword is a testimony to the cruel shattering of this optimism. It tells the story of the anti-Naxalite counterinsurgency operation in Bastar called Salwa Judum. Termed by the Chhattisgarh Government variously as a "spontaneous", "self-initiated", "people's movement" and a "peace campaign", it literally means a "purification hunt". It has taken the form of a state-sponsored drive against Naxals, but in truth, it has emptied villages, left houses burnt and displaced nearly a million people.

It is also a story of indiscriminate arson, looting and rape by young vigilantes with the active involvement of security forces and politicians.

Complex picture

What is significant is that the complex picture involving an increasingly centralised state and resistance to its arbitrary power in the guise of democracy does not escape the attention of Nandini Sundar's narrative. She says: "Young men armed by the government wield their guns with new-found machismo, excited when they find and kill some 'dreaded Maoist' who is often a former neighbour or even a relative, but are deeply nervous at the demons they have unleashed within. And in the jungles, the Maoists carry out military exercises, defending some imagined 'guerilla zone'. In an ironic twist orchestrated by the Indian state, young Naga and Mizo reservists, whose collective historical memories include the burning and regrouping of their own villages a few decades earlier, burn adivasi villages and rape women with impunity." The press too reports Naxal violence enthusiastically, while exhibiting an uncharacteristic coyness towards writing about state-sponsored violence. In the end, the 'adivasis' are caught between the Naxalites and the Salwa Judum, both imitating the criminality of the other. Story of Bastar
The book is a very skilful coming together of anthropology and history. It exhaustively chronicles the story of Bastar from the time colonial administrative structures sought to impose "order" and "civilisation" on the 'adivasis' by imposing colonial prejudices and stereotypes to the present time when state-sponsored private vigilantism in the name of countering the Maoist movement threatens to wreck an entire way of life. It also details the way in which the 'adivasis' have resisted the colonial state in the past and a repressive state now.

But Sundar's study is not an attempt to romanticise either the 'adivasis' or their history as one of "undiluted innocence or even heroism." She is clear that "resistance cannot be produced on demand to be participated in or written about, but that it is always there as actuality and potential in the everyday structures of life…" Therefore, even for the 'adivasis', "everyday life is thus conducted through a mixture of active collusion, compromise or call it innovative fusion, resignation or call it avoidance…"Erosion of a way of life

The centrality of her thesis is that despite the steady erosion of the 'adivasi' way of life, despite the increasing insouciance of the modern Indian state towards the needs of the 'adivasis' of Bastar, and despite the predatory inroads of the modern market economy into the forests of Bastar in the name of "development", there is no singular model by which we can comprehend the complexity of choices and the modes of resistance that the 'adivasis' employ, much less impose a monochromatic paradigm on their choices. This is how the author articulates this very significant point: "[T]here is no unitary insurgent consciousness that we can capture, rooted in 'culture'.

In the process of individuals making collective choices of whom to support, what culture to adopt, when to rebel and when not to rebel — whether to organise under a 'traditional' system, whether to support a king or the communists, whether to represent themselves as indigenous people or both, culture is redefined, sometimes in old and sometimes in new terms. These are not entirely free or conscious choices, but they are choices nonetheless."

Sundar's book on Bastar, therefore, is a masterly narrative of the increasing failure of the Indian state to sustain democracy and provide governance. It ought to be read as a note of caution by all democrats, but also can be read for the restrained fluidity of the writing and the subterranean black humour that often is seen in its pages. An instance of the latter is K.P.S. Gill describing Salwa Judum as a real Gandhian movement.

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