GIVEN THE NEWS of the Intelligence Bureau communiqué calling human and civil rights groups across the country fronts for the Maoist cause, and the Union Home Minister announcing that Maoist supporters will not be spared, the authors of both books under review are in danger. One of them (Varavara Rao) has already been in and out of jail for decades now, the other (Satnam) is absolutely clear about his sympathies with the tribals and the Maoists. Yet to read these books in the simplistic manner in which the state wants us to view the issue—Us (the state) vs Them (the Maoists)—is to do the authors a great disservice.
Writer-activist Arundhati Roy has been resisting the framing of the debate in these terms, and in a recent talk organised by the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights in Mumbai, questioned the category ‘Maoist.’ But looking beyond such reductionism is not what the State and the media are interested in and so Roy, and anyone else, is frequently forced to speak in the State’s facile terms or misrepresented as doing so. Reading Satnam’s Jangalnama: Travels in a Maoist Guerilla Zone is refreshing because (having been written a decade ago) it is unfettered by the current culture of paranoia, surveillance and undemocratic pressure applied by the State. Such pressure can be seen in Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, published in 2008, where his use of adjectives and smart-alecky turns of phrase illustrate his need to come across as ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased.’ Like Satnam, Chakravarti calls his book a travelogue, but assumes a neutral position—the famed looking at both sides—that is untenable, and results in a voice quite different from Satnam’s.
Satnam’s narrative comes from a position that is not of the Maoists but of the powerless and the oppressed—the tribals who live in the jungle. Satnam is granted access to them by the Maoists, who mainly consist of, work closely with and are dependent upon the tribal forest dwellers. His book offers us the first comprehensive account of tribal life and Maoist organisation (it was published in Punjabi in 2002 and has since been translated into several Indian languages and now into English). Satnam spent two months in the jungles of Bastar with the tribals and Maoists. More recent accounts have been based on shorter visits by Arundhati Roy and Gautam Navlakha.