The night walkers

The Maoste Naxalite guerrilla, resulting from the fight against agrarian feudalism and for the untouchable castes, today defends the rights of forest populations. Alpa Shah offers a sumptuous ethnography of this movement denigrated by the nationalist power.

Walking in the night: this could have been the literal French translation of the book Nightmarch by the anthropologist Alpa Shah. its place, the judicious title The Insurgent Jungle Book insists on the word jungle as if to better invite us to immerse ourselves in the difficult-to-access forests of the tribal belt of India. This is where the maost gurilla shelters naxalitea name it takes from the village where it emerged at the end of the 1960s. Initially centered around struggles against de facto agrarian feudalism and the defense of untouchable castes (Singh 2004, Jaoul 2011, Cabalion 2014, Kunnath 2018, Naudet and Tawa-Lama Rewal 2018), the movement naxalite (Or naxal) sis progressively focused on protecting the rights of adivasis, these tribal populations who live in forest areas that are difficult to access by the Indian federation and its state mille-feuille. Incarnated since 2004 by the CPI(Maoist), or Communist Party of India (Maoste) in French, the naxalism is by extension a term used by the ruling Hindu nationalist party to denigrate political opposition from other traditions of the Indian left (Shah 2022).

If the jungle d'Alpa Shah delimits its field of investigation, it also constitutes a field of narrative experimentation aimed at restoring the daily life of the Naxalite armed struggle. The encompassing vagueness of the jungle has a heuristic function here, that of relegating to the background a catalog of specific socio-political phenomena which carried his first book (Shah 2010), and which could lose the general public. Thus, there is less talk of state paramilitary repression, seasonal migrations of adivasisof the cogs of mining extractivism of protection market of the Maoist gurilla (Shah 2006a,b), of the local administration or even the role of certain actors – such as tribal rights activists (Shah 2013a; Sundar 2013). While these deliberate omissions are daring—like the moving of the well-documented review of the literature on the movement to the appendix—they nevertheless allow Alpa Shah to purify his narrative in order to focus on the life trajectories of key people in the movement. The result is a sumptuous political and activist ethnography. The author invites us to rethink the intimacy of the relationship between participants and civilian populations as a centrifugal force of armed insurrectional movements (chapter 11, see also Shah 2013b).

The enlightening preface by Nak Desquesnes, translator and editor of the work, emphasizes that the French title is an explicit allusion to the Jungle Book by the Anglo-Indian Rudyard Kipling. This vocation is not accidental as Alpa Shah's text is part of what Clifford Geertz calls thestrange romance between anthropology and literature (2003). The central characters of the book are in fact not just a sum of biographical trajectories, they are each an allegory, an incarnation (ch. 20) of the most salient features of Naxalism. The thread of the story takes us back to the original title Nightmarch, that is to say the 250 km march lasting seven nights, carried out by Alpa Shah and a mobile squadron of maos to reach a base in the state of Jharkhand (p. 111-12). In the light of the work of Alpa Shah, I take up here the discursive process of the book by presenting its issues and those of Maosism in India in general through three of the life paths exposed.

Gyanji: the pious view of the big evening

Gyanji is a leader of the Naxalite movement which he joined over 30 years ago. He is not only the main interlocutor of Alpa Shah (283 mentions), but also an ideological endorsement of the movement and its contradictions. Before his arrest in 2010 or 2011 (p. 294-95), Gyanji already insisted on the contradictions of armed struggle and the use of violence, whose logistical concerns occupy the bulk of the political effort to the detriment of the politicization of executives and sympathizers ( p.230). The disenchanted Gyanji is the epitome of a generation of educated, high-caste Naxalites who chose to renounce the privileges inherent in the middle classes to which they belonged.

Here, the mechanism underlying militant engagement is that of declassification (p. 315), consisting of a squandering of symbolic and economic capital with the aim of making the representation of the most deprived legitimate (Martelli 2021). Thus, everything is unlike Gyanji from the other tribal members: he is highly educated, speaks English fluently, and his life project has long been to become a yogi ascetic in order to turn his back on the inequalities of the material world (p. 139). At the 2012 annual Malinowski Lecture of the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, Alpa Shah linked the utopianism of the Naxalite avant-garde to its ability to subvert (by politicizing) the personal approach to asceticism specific to Hindu piety (Shah 2014). The search for individual liberation extra orbem of a religious type would therefore be replaced among the former leaders by an aspiration for collective liberation (p. 140). In this context, Gyanji Marxism can be understood as a secular theology whose political radicalism is based on notions of purity and sacrifice alongside the oppressed.

Vikas: the waking nightmare

If Gyanji is the Doctor Jekyll of Indian Maosm, Vikas is his MrHyde, or rather Frankenstein's monster, as Gyanji likes to call him (p. 233). Member of a tribe traditionally associated with blacksmithing, Vikas' behavior was innocent and respectful his arrival among the Maos (p. 209-10). The story reveals, however, that Vikas was gradually won over by the lure of gain, allowing him to acquire an expensive car and a new house and to celebrate his second marriage lavishly without separating from his first wife (ch. 13). It would seem that Vikas regularly used the revolutionary tax that he raised in the name of the Naxalites from entrepreneurs in the region in exchange for protection for their activity. In his first book on Naxalism, Alpa Shah took up the concept of very double-edged by the American political scientist Charles Tilly (2010 (1985)) to describe this type of racket based on forced protection. This notion no longer appears in his second work and ultimatelythe reader will have to refer to other studies to refine their understanding of the coercive mechanisms of the Naxalite financing method, otherwise little studied (DSouza 2009, Miklian 2012, Roy 2021).

The fact remains that the author attributes to the Naxalites a great responsibility in replacing the traditional values ​​of tribal horizontality with a capitalist greed typical of the upper castes and non-tribal traders of the rest of India. Naxalism in Adivasi areas would have import from the outside a form of moral corruption of which Vikas would be the archetype. We will return to this contradiction between the Maos' egalitarianism in principle and de facto inequalities in the light of Somwari's life trajectory. Vikas was ultimately killed by a Naxal brigade after having defected and formed an anti-Maos militia. These comings and goings between maosts and banditry close to paramilitaries thus illustrate the porosity between revolutionaries and state forces. This reality also qualifies Alpa Shah’s previous interventions. In the latter it showed in fact that the Munda tribes sought to protect themselves at all costs from sarkari people—state representatives—such as forest rangers, elected officials, police and army (2007).

Somwari: an Arcadian dream?

For Alpa Shah the case of the tribal Oraon Somwari crystallizes the criticism of the patriarchal morality of the Naxalite leadership. The author thus extends the work of researchers Mallarika Sinha Roy (2010) and Srila Roy (2012) on this question. As Alpa Shah's host during his field investigation, Somwari has a complicated relationship with the Naxalites towards whom she gradually develops distrust and even hostility. She does not tolerate the humiliations inflicted on her by other adivasis younger than her, notably those from the Naxalite Women's Liberation Front who came, in the name of violence against women, to break her jars of Madhuca flower wine (p. 260-61). following similar events, the author realized that maostic cadres valued gender notions specific to high castes, such as purity through abstinence from alcohol consumption and the criminalization of sexuality outside of marriage. The case of Somwari, who is forced to celebrate the memory of the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin during International Women's Day, without compensation for her lost working day, shows the effort of forced deculturation of local customs, qualified d rear by Naxalite leadership (p. 262-63).

In light of the case of Somwari, the author goes further: she sees in tribal socializations the milestones of a more egalitarian and less gendered society, including, among other things, a fairer distribution of domestic and productive tasks (p. 73-4). Alpa Shah has previously called these fragments of tribal counter-society arcadian spaces (Shah 2010, pilogue) the sequel to Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (2002). In a note on the contradictions inherent in the Naxalite movement, at the very end of Nightmarch—and unfortunately absent from the French translation, Alpa Shah notes that the Naxalite leadership neglected the fact that the societies among which they operate have more egalitarian gender relations than those from which they come (Shah 2018, p.180).

However, it remains to be asked to what extent the moral and political structures of the adivasis – which the author has elsewhere named sacred diet (2007, 2013b)can be thought of separately from those of the societies which surround them and with which they regularly interact. For the author, the Maos would be the main vector of corruption of the values ​​and modes of socialization of the indigenous, thereby minimizing other potential sources of cultural hybridization. One of these sources of contact with the outside world is the traditional trade in paper sheets. tensevery popular in India in the coating of cigarettes bid (Teltumbde and Sen 2011, Sundar 2016).

Alpa Shah has denounced throughout his career the essentialism of works on indignity in South Asia, and in particular their tendency to represent the adivasi as a radically different other through his veneration of nature and the land on which he is rooted (Shah 2010, 2012). As Uday Chandra (2013) notes, tribal rights activism does not just rightly denounce the destruction of adivasi forests; it also lends indigenous lifestyles a post-materialist, ecological and romantic intention based on the love of a sacred nature. But if we ridicule the tribal by making it carry a political ecology project that it does not have, what about the feminism that the author wants Somwari to carry?? The latter will eventually leave the Naxals before joining a nationalist Hindu sect (p. 293). Even if Alpa Shah herself demonstrates topopia by seeing in Adivasi cultures a potential for radical alterity to the dominant culture of the Indian middle classes, she grasps first-hand the paradoxes of the other political utopia of this story: that of Naxalism. The Insurgent Jungle Book thus demonstrates with sensitivity and brilliance that the shadow of utopia is the specter of dystopia which lurks.