Marching with the Maoists

When I was a teenager living in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland my friends and I used to smoke little handmade cigarettes from India. They were called bidis and were made of leaves from the kendu tree that grows in India. The leaves were rolled tightly into a small cigarette that was then tied with a piece of thread and dried. The bidi packages were triangular in shape and contained twenty or so cigarettes. They were harsh but no more so than one of the French tobacco cigarettes we also used to smoke. If I remember correctly, the bidi cigarettes cost two Deutschmarks per pack. This was around the same price as tobacco cigarettes at the time. The reason I mention these bidi cigarettes is because of their connection to the Naxalite Maoist revolutionaries that operate in the central and eastern forests of India where the cigarettes are harvested.

According to author and anthropologist Alpa Shah in her 2019 book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, the harvesting and selling of the kendu leaves is one of the funding sources for the Naxalites, also known People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This guerrilla force has been operating among the poorest of India’s poor for more than fifty years. As of this writing, they are the ongoing target of a campaign by the Indian government to eradicate them; it is one of many such campaigns. Primary among the reasons the Indian military and associated paramilitary gangs wish to destroy the Naxalites is their resistance to the ever more invasive multinational companies bent on extracting the minerals and other resources from the rich lands the Naxalites operate in.

The most populous tribes in the forests of eastern India are the Adivasi people. Their history is one common to forest dwellers—living off the forest and small farming operations. In the past twenty years or so, however, the presence of industrial undertakings not too distant from their villages has meant that the young and usually single members will work at these industrial sites. Usually, they are given the hardest and lowest paying jobs. Like the Dalit caste, the forest people of India are considered less than human by many of their fellow residents. This prejudice also feeds their interest in and involvement with the Maoist revolutionaries, who are fighting the very same system that keeps the Adivasis down. Indeed, the Naxalites are composed mostly of Dalits and Adivasis.

India is one of the most unequal nations in the world. This is not only true in terms of economic inequality; it is also the case in how females are treated and in relation to social caste. Since the essentially fascist Modi regime has consolidated its power, the status of the Muslim population has also been diminished. All of this is true despite (or perhaps because of) India’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy. The economic adjunct to this democratic status is what truly explains the gross inequalities in the nation, however. Succinctly put, India’s fundamental inequalities are a result of its capitalist economy.

The author Shah writes with this understanding of the situation. Her previous book regarding the Naxalites portrayed them as just another gang running a protection racket—taking money from businesses and government officials for a promise not to sabotage their operations. However, while she lived among the Adivasis as part of an anthropological study, her perspective on their role and membership in the communities changed. Nightmarch acknowledges this reconsideration, discussing the literacy programs of the Party, its appeal to the young and its movement among the Adivasis like the proverbial fish in the sea. She also discusses their shortcomings when it comes to their acceptance or rejection of local customs, especially in relation to the personal and sexual relationships of the Adivasi.

Shah’s text takes the reader on a weeklong march with a Naxalite guerrilla column on their way to an annual conference in the woods of eastern India. The march was undertaken only during nighttime hours because of an intensive campaign by the Indian military to capture or kill members of the revolutionary army. Along the way, the reader is introduced to Gyanji, a leader in the Party who grew up in middle class comfort in Delhi only to reject his class and upbringing to join the revolution. Gyanji is Shah’s connection to the foot soldiers, her intermediary and protector. The journey she describes is fraught with danger, but also exhilarating and liberating. Shah’s descriptions of the trek, the people they meet and the people she is marching with provide a panoramic and multidimensional look at what life might be like as a member of a genuine revolutionary people’s army. There are descriptions of the hazards created by nature and the enemy, discussions centering around the question of self-discipline and temptation faced by the revolution’s soldiers, heartfelt stories of reunions and murders, and a sense of the drudgery and boredom that makes up a fair amount of the revolutionaries’ lives.

Like the systems they hope to overthrow, all revolutions and revolutionary movements have their contradictions. They exist because of the revolution’s existence in the very society they wish to change and often reflect that society’s own contradictions. Alpa Shah describes the Naxalites’ attempts to deal with the contradictions they encounter and discusses their failures and successes. This honesty reflects her attempt to understand the Naxalites ongoing existence as both a hopeful force for those it represents and a threat to those whose purpose is to destroy them. Nightmarch is insightful and interesting journalism about a place and people few in the West know much about.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: