Alpa Shah is from an East African Gujerati background. Her family moved to England when she was 15 years and she followed the usual liberal middle class journey to Cambridge, and on to jobs ranging from international development organisations to the World Bank, and then back to Cambridge and a PHD.
Aged 23 , she decided to undertake her research in the field: going to India but not to her relatives, instead going to the remote forests and hills of Jharkhand, living with the Munda Adivasi tribal people in a village of mud houses with no electricity or running water. “A good base from which to understand, from the grassroots, the virtues and limits of the various attempts at addressing poverty and inequality –whether it was by international development agencies or by grassroots social movements.”
Alpa dons her fatigues and joins communist guerrillas, the Naxalites, on a 250 mile trek through the hills and forests of eastern India. Her timing was not brilliant as the Indian government in 2008 launched its counter insurgency policy “Operation Green Hunt,” putting thousands of troops into the area surrounding the Adivasi hills.
Journalists and human rights activists were jailed if they tried to get into the guerrilla areas or report on the government’s human rights abuses. Alpa was now going to be one of the few outsiders and the only woman who was going to take part in this night march. “Hunted ruthlessly by the state, we had to march in the safety of the darkness –all under cover of night and without the light of a torch to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.”
For decades the Naxalites have been engaged in a long struggle against the Indian state. It is a movement made up of middleclass, well educated revolutionaries and poor people outraged by the discrimination and inequality they experience who have decided to take on the highly militarised might of the Indian state.
Alpa’s discussions and analysis of the movement and its role amongst a rural community is fascinating, as well at the same time reflecting her own lack of political experience. Her own views about political violence were tested when she was confronted by the guerrillas making bombs. And, whilst she could draw the links between their use of political violence in response to that of the Indian state towards the poor, she was less sure about the Naxalites use of violence when it came to its own comrades. “What about those who were co-opted by or turned to the other side? Or those whom the Naxalites shot dead as police informers, betrayers or traitors?”
One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Alpa meets up with female comrades. “Despite the existence of women’s organisations of the Maoists, the number of women to take up guns was small and their participation was often fleeting.” And, not unlike many male comrades in the West, when it came to women becoming mothers the same conservative attitudes came to the fore: Naxalite women would then return to the villages. “They became important, providers of food, trusted messengers and couriers and much needed guarantors of safe houses and security.” As Alpa comments; “Perhaps involving fathers in childbearing might help resolve the issue of women leaving.”
Nightmarch is a fascinating insight into a war going on in one of the world’s largest democracies. A war that is largely unreported in the west, maybe because the revolutionary nature of the communist guerrillas is too challenging to the politicians and parties that dominate in the UK and Europe. Unlike the UK where post war ideas about the Welfare State seem revolutionary the Naxalites fighting in the forests and jungles of eastern India, as Alpa comments. “…strive for a utopian human community, devoting their lives to fight together, when the circumstances were so set clearly against them.”
It costs £20 if you can buy it here