Meet the Woman Who Marched with a Naxal Platoon In the Tribal Belt of Central India

Alpa Shah, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science, once dressed up like a man, in an olive-green guerilla uniform and walked for seven nights, and 250 kilometres, with a Naxal guerilla platoon. She was the only woman in the platoon. She was the only one without a gun.

When Shah started her immersive social science experiment of living among the Adivasis in a small village in Jharkhand she had not expected to run into a guerilla, let alone getting to know their entire army. Her only aim at that point was to document the effects of the Naxal movement on Adivasi life in that region. However, in the one-and-a-half-years of her stay there, Shah not only understood the phenomenon but also observed the Naxal movement closely. She brilliantly chronicles her days spent in that region in her new book Nightmarch.

Critical, analytic and compassionate, Shah’s book, Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands, is also an extraordinary feat of social science research, which gives us an insight into the socio-political and economic issues of the tribal belts of Jharkhand. The author offers a close look into the Naxal movement and its history, as well as the current scenario, and tells us how Naxals and Adivasis co-exist, and why many Adivasis become Naxals.

She throws light on the many contradictions in the Naxal movement and raises concerns about their methods and beliefs: like the extreme punishments doled out to informers, their unquestioning faith in the armed movement, their political doctrines that tend to uphold violence, and how corruption has seeped into the movement. But more than that, Shah introduces us to people who are often branded as ‘terrorists’ by the state, and tells us their individual stories with texture and nuance, to show us their reasons for picking up arms against the state, while never romanticising these narratives or the movement.

Shah talked about the book, Nightmarch, and her days in the Naxal heartland of Jharkhand to Here are some excerpts from the interview:

1. At the beginning of the book, you mention that you started your journey with the modest ambition of spending time among the Adivasis in order to understand how their lives have changed in the face of this revolutionary movement. How did this change?

Yes, that’s right. I wanted to live with the Adivasis to understand their experiences; I didn’t expect to meet a guerrilla, let alone spend any time with their armies. But things changed as I began participant observation, that hallmark praxis of anthropology, which requires deep immersion into the communities one is studying, living with them for at least a year, and participating in their daily life. As the days turned into months in the jungles of Jharkhand, I realised that the guerrillas were in fact everywhere. They were not only in every forest but also in every house, in the sense that almost everyone knew someone who was involved in the guerrilla armies; they had a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, an uncle or a cousin, who had spent some time with them. Indeed, it was not possible to talk in binaries such as ‘the people’ versus ‘the guerrillas’ because the deeper you looked, the more difficult it became to separate the two.

Then, a few months into my stay in the Adivasi villages, the guerrilla leaders who came through the area took an interest in me and called me into the forests to meet them. Slowly, over time, I tried to understand not just the Adivasi villages but also what life is like in the guerrilla armies. That’s how, after almost a year and a half living in Adivasi villages, I ended up walking with a guerrilla platoon from Bihar to Jharkhand, across 250 kilometres, in the dark over seven nights, on the march that frames the book, Nightmarch. And that’s why the book not only shows how and why Adivasis joined the guerrillas and how this impacted their lives, but also unravels the history, contradictions, and conflicts at the heart of the Naxal movement.

2. Were there moments when you regretted being there, especially with so many moments when your life was in danger? Were there times when just wanted out and wished you could escape back to London?

Yes, of course, I often thought of leaving. But I was so moved by the lives of the people I was living with that my primary concern was to try to understand them as best I could to do justice to their stories, their histories and the wider situation in which they found themselves. This required time and commitment. Moreover, I was always aware that any risks I faced were insignificant compared to the many dangers that the people I met were constantly living with, and from which they had no escape; that always helped to put my own fears into perspective

You may be interested to know that what I worried about the most, on a day-to-day basis, were the mosquitoes, not the insurgency or counter-insurgency (I discuss this in ‘Night Four’ of Nightmarch). Almost everyone in Jharkhand lived with malaria and many people I knew died from it. Malaria deaths usually go unreported but even then it is said that, in India, the disease kills 1000 people and affects two million every year . It often seemed to me that it was, in fact, mosquitoes, not Naxalites which are India’s greatest internal threat, and yet there was no nationwide programme to eliminate malaria.

3. How did you tackle the relationship between intimacy and distance in writing about your central characters – Gyanji, Kohli and Somwari – whom you spent a lot of time with?

Well, when I came back to London after one-and-a-half-years of living in the mud huts of villages in Jharkhand, Operation Green Hunt was in full swing. All the people I had lived with, who had welcomed me into their homes, and who had looked after me, were being targeted as potential ‘terrorists’. Some were arbitrarily beaten, others were incarcerated, and still others were killed.  Somwari and Gyanji were both in prison, Kohli had disappeared, and Prashant was murdered.

So, my first impulse was to write a book as fast as possible, with the simple message that these people are not ‘terrorists’. But a hastily written book would only have added to the binaries of condemnation or romanticisation, of the Naxalites, that were then emerging and it would have curtailed my ability to reach a deeper, more nuanced and critical analysis of the experiences, visions, and actions of the people whose lives I had shared. That needed much more time and reflection.

For a few years I worked on academic articles, which in some ways forced me to abstract the stories of Gyanji, Kohl, Somwari and others into general ideas and theories. This helped give the distance I needed to be able to write about them with an intimacy that also centred my critical analysis in a way that was deeply human. So, it was only then, several years after I returned from Jharkhand, that I started writing Nightmarch with the hope of showing the beauties and the blemishes, the dreams and the nightmares, the wonders and the contradictions at the heart of the people who I met, and their coming together in this movement for social change, thus reflecting its tragic history as well as the inequalities and conflicts at the heart of contemporary India.

4. An interesting observation that you have made in the book is the romanticized notion of gender equality in Naxal groups that is often written about by alternative media. You mention that women are an integral part of the movement, however, they always exist in the fringes — providing accommodation, managing the cultural and women’s wings etc. Do they have any real power in the organization, and any say in their plans of action?

The last of the five main parts of Nightmarch focuses on the question of gender and patriarchy. Here, I acknowledge some impressive women Naxal leaders – for instance Anuradha Ghandy, who died a decade ago (from malaria), was fiercely critical of her own comrades, fought against patriarchy within the movement, and created greater space for women. However, women like Anuradha Ghandy were exceptions and I discuss many problems in relation to gender among the Naxalites. For instance, the question of how decisions were made and women inadvertently excluded, the problem of having separate ‘women’s wings’ which leave gender issues to women rather than having gender sensitivity in every single aspect of the movement, and the ways in which Adivasi egalitarian gender relations were being unwittingly undermined by the movement. All in all, the gender problems at the heart of the Naxal movement were not very different to most those of other social movements and political parties, and indeed most organisations in the world, in which women remain the ‘Second Sex’.

5. You also noted that the reasons why Adivasis tend to side with the Naxals are their egalitarian principles and the emotional connection that they have succeeded in establishing with the community. Will you please elaborate on that?

To simplify and summarise a huge part of the book: Historically, almost all outsiders to Adivasi forests treated the forest dwellers as jungli – wild, savage, barbaric. Their purpose was to extract revenue, timber and minerals from Adivasi land, no matter at what cost to the locals. Forest officers and police had the notorious reputation of being brutal. Even those state officers sent to ‘develop’ the areas considered their postings there as ‘punishment posts’. For these reasons, it is not surprising that, in many areas, Adivasis tried to stay away from outsiders.

The Naxalites, though, were different to most outsiders. For them, the fight for a more equal society was not only about a distant dream, but it also affected how they tried to restructure social relations in the present. They, therefore, made a big effort to treat Adivasis as equals, spoke to them with respect and dignity, broke down caste boundaries even eating from the same plate as them. Slowly, they increasingly won the trusts of the Adivasis and were able to enter Adivasi homes and villages, marry into Adivasis communities, and, as more Adivasis began joining them, they became part of the wider extended families of the area.

Over time, there were then many different reasons why any one Adivasi might join the movement. For instance, some were running away from a problem back at home (like Kohli, one of the central characters of Nightmarch, and who had a fight with his father). Others had fallen in love with someone in the armies (like Kohli’s cousin). Still, others joined for one reason but then ended up wanting something different (as was the case for Vikas, another central character of the book, who had run away from home but ended up wanting to extort money through the Naxalite armies). Notwithstanding all these individual differences, the reason why the Naxalites could embed themselves among the Adivasis in the first place – the reason why Kohli or Vikas became close to them at all – was because of their prioritisation of egalitarian values in day-to-day interactions. However, much of Nightmarch also shows how these values were at the same time subverted by the guerrillas.

6. Media reports claim that there had been many innocent civilian casualties in this ongoing clash between armed forces and the guerrilla forces. In fact, reports also suggest that Naxals have intentionally attacked civilians. What has been your observation about this?

The main target of the Naxalites at present are the state forces (it used to be large landlords). Their policy is not to participate in terrorist activity where innocent civilians are killed, as in 9/11 for example. However, there have been times when the Naxalites have killed people who had nothing to do with state forces. Although most of these have later been declared as ‘mistakes’ by the Naxalites, if they are really fighting for social justice they cannot afford to make such fatal blunders. Also, there is the issue of when they kill somebody on the grounds that they are a ‘police informer’. In Nightmarch, I interrogate Gyanji, one of the leaders and another central character of the book, who said that killing was an extreme measure, only to be used against those people who couldn’t be brought into the ‘fold’. But, as I ask in the book, ‘Who was it who decided if this was the case? Was it justifiable to take anyone’s life in this way? Would it not evolve into a reign of fear amongst the people and never-ending cycles of violence whose primary victims were “the oppressed”?’

7. Do you think the Naxal Movement will continue to exist in India where the government crackdown on guerrilla forces is growing harder by the day?

That’s an impossible question to answer. As long as we have governments that support and exacerbate inequalities (which, in India, only seem to be increasing despite economic growth), rebel movements like the Naxalites will find supporters, who see their cause as legitimate and moral, and will join or help them, even if the state considers their actions illicit and criminal, and bans them. Moreover, what is curious about Indian history is that despite intense state repression in the past, when it was thought that the embers of rebellion have been finally snuffed out, the Naxalites have revived themselves, again and again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

8. Since you have lived with people who are a part of this movement, do you have any idea of where they think this movement is heading?

At this moment, I think that the guerrillas are suffocated in tiny pockets of forests, and simply trying to survive. They need to seriously rethink many issues: their analysis of the Indian economy which is outdated and anachronistic; their perspectives on caste and tribe and especially what can be learned from Adivasi communities; a whole set of problems in relation to gender; their position on taking up arms; and how issues of social justice are taking a back seat, with the violence of the oppressor reproduced instead. But they are so focused on trying to stay alive that I think they don’t have time, energy, or resources to do the required hard rethinking on the paths they have taken. So, I don’t know where the movement is heading and my guess is that they don’t know either.


(Nightmarch, A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands, written by Alpa Shah, has been published by HarperCollins India. The hardcover of the book costs Rs 699)

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