Jangalnama - Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone; Author: Satnam; Translated by: Vishav Bharti; Published: Penguin Books, 2010; Pages:206; Price: 250; ISBN: 978-0-143-41445-2
By Suparna Banerjee
The book ‘Jangalnama - Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone’ is not just a travelogue. It brings out the human element of Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in a compelling and heart rendering way. Written by Satnam, a journalist by profession describing his experience of living among the guerrillas and providing a first-hand account of their life, what and how they eat, what they wear, what is their leisure activity, the life of the girls in the camps etc. The geographical area covered in this book is part of South Bastar and it includes Bairamgarh, Golapalli, Konta, Durnapal, Maadh, Maded and Basaguda. The speciality of the book lies in the fact that the important issues generally associated with LWE - underdevelopment, exploitation, land distribution, forest rights etc. are dealt with rather in a subtle manner.
The book is divided into three chapters.
The first chapter Entering the Jungle deals with the author’s attempt to adapt to the surroundings which prove to be challenging. Walking through the paths of the jungle with people who live there and survive is a unique experience. Two very important depictions described in this chapter are noteworthy. One is his severing all ties with civilisation. One is reminded of the famous scene of the Satyajit Ray movie ‘Aranyer Din Ratri’ (Days and Nights in the Forest) where the actor enacts the scene by burning the newspaper symbolising the discontinuity in the relation with civilisation. There is another portion in the book (Chapter 2) where he is seen picking up ‘civilisation’. He mentions that civil society controls the newspaper and hence has no interest in the protest march organised by the jungle people against the American invasion of Afghanistan. Second is the vivid description of the jungle which has been rendered an agency by the author. It is not just a natural setting but also a habitation of numerous people. The jungle has its own rules and regulations just as it is in the city. One cannot talk while walking, switch on the lights and also learn to quickly hide in the face of incoming ‘danger’ (either animals or government vehicles). Another very important aspect pointed by the author is that the inhabitants of the jungle never abuse the natural products or the terrain of it. They never pollute the river, pluck any flower or cut any leaf. Ordinary things left over or wasted by the city inhabitants become a prized possession for the jungle dwellers. They learn to value even the most trivial objects generally considered insignificant.
The second chapter, Inside the Guerrilla Camp, deals with his experience when he actually enters the camp. He describes life in the camp as and how he witnesses. A camp life begins quite early with roll calls and followed by physical exercises. It is here that the author picks up discussion on a number of issues vital to the movement. It ranges from the prospect of winning a war from the jungle, views on People’s War, purpose of a camp etc. He seems quite impressed with the clarity with which views are expressed. On the issue of religion the tribals hardly have any trouble. They are neither Hindus nor Muslims and hence have no problem in consuming beef. The tribal society is free of crime and they have their own ways of becoming self sufficient through cultivating vegetables and rice. But the production of the latter is quite low in Bastar and selling of children due to poverty is thus high. The author also mentions about flesh trade common among the tribals. However, according to the author the situation is a little better where the guerrillas are present. The forest has a life of its own unknown to the outsiders. The forest is rich but its inhabitants are poor.
A pressing problem in the jungle is the absence of doctor and medicines which makes even the most common disease like malaria incurable. Malnutrition is yet another problem which perturbs the author, keeping in mind the amount of food wasted in the city. The author also addresses the issue of fake encounter and the number of tribals killed, sometimes mistakenly as a Naxalite. On the issue of forcible recruitment Satnam asserts that the number increases voluntarily. The author has a knack of giving a human touch to the issues and problems faced by the tribals in the jungle.
In the third chapter, Walking through the Jungle, the jungle is the protagonist. The jungle comes alive in the writings of the author. He describes the jungle as and how it is. It is the darkness, dense woods and the haphazard trajectories followed by the guerrillas that fascinate the author. For the tribals the jungle isn’t just a forest cover it is intrinsic to their identity. They get everything from the jungle and do not want to disturb it. This at times becomes problematic when potential usable items are left unused. He remarks at a point, “Following the leader’s footsteps saves you from a lot of trouble.” There appears to be a subtle meaning attached to it. The author seems to refer not only to the paths of the jungle but also the following of blind ideology as established by the leader. He sounds a caution when he mentions that it is the silence that dominates the jungle and provides cover to the guerrillas and that cannot be disturbed at any cost. Even sounds of sneezing and coughing are considered dangerous.
It is in this section that he comes across Chetna Natya Manch (CNM) a propaganda unit of the Maoists. Here once again the author takes on the government for its repressive measures against the freedom of expression which this troupe has to suffer. Another very important topic picked by the author is the issue of generation of crores of wealth in the forests of Chhattisgarh unknown to the tribals who live in dire poverty due to want of basic facilities. A peculiarly unique reason for the absence of women’s body cover is not just poverty but the belief that dress would make the women look good which could lead them astray. Satnam picks on the Maulvis for forcing cover on the female’s body. Similarly the West wants to capitalise on the female body. As per the author in all the three case it is the male’s perspective that decides the female form and here it appears everyone to be unanimous. Strange but true! Satnam met with new people, came across their new occupation as he changed places and went to a new area. It in a way resembled the life of the guerrilla who is always on the move.
Varavara Rao in the Afterword praises the effortless writings of the author and more so for his honest depiction of the situation. He adds that there are two types of fires that burn in Bastar – fire in the belly i.e. hunger and wild fire that consumes the forest. The guerrillas enter to ignite the third fire - revolution.
The author through his writings wants to convey that the jungle is a habitation within this huge habitation of city. It is a circle within a circle. It has people, their shelter, food, leisure, joys, sorrow, pain, complaints etc. These are oblivious to people like us. The inhabitants have a life of their own distinct from us. Every inhabitant has his own story. The names mentioned in the book are not real names because they have relinquished their names and with that their identity long ago.
Regrettably the book is not without its share of drawbacks. One of the main issues that disturb the book is the division of the chapters. All the chapters more or less speak of the jungle life. The distinctiveness in the chapters is lacking. Secondly the book focuses on a particular perspective. It has raised a humanist voice oblivious to the numerous deficiencies prevalent among the Maoists and their method of working. It lacks a comprehensive overview of the movement.
Despite this one needs to appreciate the language which is simple and easily understandable. The book carries the reader along the journey which is what makes the reading interesting. However, it caters to the need of a specific group of academic community due to the absence of an overall perspective.
(Suparna Banerjee is Junior Research Fellow, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org