Revolution as Selfless Service

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Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerillas, by Alpa Shah
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Christian Stalberg

As we all know, conquerors write history and if you ask the average person in the street about revolution, i.e., a sudden change in government often times accompanied by violence, they would say it is a thing of the past. The truth is that round the world there are still today revolutionary struggles taking place. These struggles are both a response to inequality and injustices imposed by the elites on a typically indigenous population, and an endeavor to bring about an ideal or utopian society. Some of the more notable revolutionary struggles in the world today are the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, the Syrian Democratic Force in Rojava, Syria, and the Naxalites situated in several central and eastern districts within India.

Many revolutionary struggles emerge to defend once protected or remote indigenous lands that are under assault in the name of economic growth. This is the proverbial ‘development’ that the state pursues which, if it encounters resistance, regards it as terrorism. Once labeled as terrorism, those providing the resistance must then be
vanquished, either by the state and/or the private interests who stand to benefit.

It is this struggle of the Naxalites in India that ethnographer Alpah Shah uncovers in her book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerillas and does so in such a way as to provide the reader with a visceral experience of what it is like to be a revolutionary in the twenty-first century. She does this by becoming intimately familiar with the situation having herself lived amongst the Adivasi, India’s original people (indigenous), for two years while undertaking her doctoral research in a region controlled by the Naxalites. Having won their trust, she then joins the Naxalite army and goes underground for a period of time as the quintessential participant-observer. The name
of the book Nightmarch comes from a 240-kilometer journey she undertakes with the guerillas where they travel on foot under the cover of darkness. Her act is fraught with danger as the Naxalites are hunted by the Indian state as a sworn enemy.

In the book’s preface, Shah provides us with a quick overview of the context for her work and the drama that unfolds in the pages to follow. She talks about the oppressed underclasses who comprise the foot soldiers of the organized rebellion, as well as its leaders who mostly come from the privileged upper classes. The overbearing state and its drive to develop economically is portrayed, with its military offensive to eliminate the guerillas who stand in the way of ‘progress.’ Shah hints at how her ethnography delves into the personal lives of the revolutionaries themselves, giving us a glimpse into some of the characters she then accompanies and reveals more fully throughout the chapters of the book.

The book is then broken up into the nights of the march, with a chapter devoted to each night, describing the logistics of travel, the hurdles encountered, and so forth. These chapters are then interspersed with other chapters devoted to exploring the intricacies of the movement, the people, the engagement with the state, and the villagers.

At the end of the book Shah provides something akin to an epilogue to her fieldwork, as well as a bibliographic essay as a survey of the literature on the Naxalites. Both of these sections of the book are invaluable contributions to the reader for understanding Shah’s positioning of her work, how the book came to be, and its differentiation amongst other scholarly works on the subject.

Throughout the book, Shah is careful to not pass final judgement on either the Naxalites as individuals, or on their campaign which includes the use of extortion and violence while seeking a utopian society. She points out the contradictions she encounters in her experience of both the individuals she accompanies as well as in the movement itself. While discussing people’s court’s sentencing and executions of alleged police informants, and protection racketeering to extract money to fund the cause, Shah is respectful at all times and neither condemns nor condones. As she uncovers this mostly hidden world, she leaves it to the reader to ponder the forces at play to reach their own conclusion.

Being of Indian descent herself and having grown up with the privilege of education, Shah understands all too well contemporary India and the forces therein. With its rise on the world stage as a superpower – having both the nuclear bomb and fully exploited both the technology and medical economies with a highly educated workforce – India is now subject to the same forces of extreme social stratification we see in the USA and other advanced nations. Forces such as competitive hyper-individualism and material accumulation, classism with its growing wealth inequalities, and ethnonationalism, all embedded within the spreading contagion of neoliberal capitalism. What makes the Indian situation particularly pernicious however are the remnants of its ancient caste system which, while illegal under Indian law, remains systemically pervasive and accentuates the classism accelerated under the growing wealth inequalities. Shah probes the impact of these forces on the individual Naxalite revolutionary in the interviews she conducts of a few of its members she accompanies on her journey.

The external conditions are such that the Indian state is in the grips of fervent neoliberal capitalist growth and this includes the extraction of India’s natural resources and, as luck would have it, many of these resources are located in the tribal areas which are the Naxalites operational areas. In 2010 the Indian home secretary declared that the insurgents, i.e., Naxalites, were blocking some $80 billion in investments by the multinational mining companies (p. 37). The commitment by the state to eliminating the opposition of the Naxalites to the extraction agenda has been consistent across a succession of central government administrations. The state’s pursuit of extraction freedom is on top of a long history of land seizure and redistribution actions by the Naxalites targeting large landholders, some of whom hired private armies and militias to protect their property. The state, rather than outlawing or banning such private armed groups (who are under no code of ethics or rules of engagement to prevent their sometimes brutal and indiscriminate violence wrought upon innocent villagers), is now encouraging such outlaw militancy to further its cause by casting a blind eye on the crimes perpetrated.

The revolutionaries comprising the Naxalites that Shah focuses on are of two kinds, each coming from two entirely different conditions. The one which primarily constitutes the Naxalite leadership are high caste, educated individuals who for reasons she explores in her book, left their privilege behind many years ago to join the armed struggle. The other, most of whom comprise the foot soldiers, are from the oppressed classes themselves, the Adivasis (aka tribals) and the Dalits (aka untouchables).  Shah compares and contrasts these two types of revolutionaries by providing intimate portraits of a few select individuals. In addition to exploring the material conditions as reasons for why individuals from these two groups join in the revolutionary struggle, but she goes inside the persons as much as they permit her to in an effort to reveal their heartfelt yearnings and motivations.

Nightmarch weaves a tapestry of contemporary life as lived by the individuals who comprise the Naxalites, with all its complexities and contradictions. At first it would appear that the Naxalites afford opportunities to Adivasi and Dalit youth to climb out of their impoverished conditions and neglected state of affairs to acquire basic literacy and other skills as a basis for their recruitment. In truth however we learn that the Adivasi youth actually leave home and join the guerrillas for reasons of either “a fight with a parent or a sibling; a love affair forbidden in the villages but accepted in the Naxalite armies; (or) a desire to leave home and see another world.” (p. 131).

We learn about how the guerilla movement is funded through their running a ‘protection racket’ against the mining companies and the temptations offered the individual guerilla handlers to take a cut, aka ‘earn’ (p. 172). For various reasons guerilla members shift in and out of the movement for varying periods of time, moving as it were between two homes. The book does a great job describing what it is like for the Adivasi villagers to be caught between the two warring parties, i.e., the state and the Naxalites, and is referred to as the ‘sandwich theory’ (p. 141).

There is what could be described as a mutually symbiotic relationship between the Adivasis and Naxalites, the later regarded as the former’s protector and community investor. From building schools in their villages to arranging for local employment opportunities at fair wages, the Naxalites contribute to bettering the lives of the Adivasis. One way the villagers give thanks to the guerillas is by their providing food to the Naxalites when they pass through their
villages. The guerillas travel on foot with only the barest of essentials, not bothering to carry food. Instead, they make provision as they go, relying on the good will of their protectorate inhabitants. It is ironic how similar this practice is to the food given to Buddhist monks by villagers in southeast Asian countries. It is interesting how both recipients of food as an expression of gratitude can be so different from one another. One committed to improving the material lot of the villagers using violence as necessary, while the other committed to improving the spiritual
condition of their providers while adhering to non-violence.

It is on the more personal level that Nightmarch really excels. How it uncovers the inner lives of the revolutionaries themselves. While Shah accompanies and interviews several individuals throughout her sojourn, including both rural villagers and cosmopolitan professionals, one of the most interesting parts of her book is her exploration of how it is that high caste, educated members of Indian society abandoned their privilege to live and struggle with the tribals against the onslaught of the Indian state on their homeland. This could have special meaning for her as she can more readily identify with their station in life given her privileged background. She focuses in on one such individual named Gyanji, a leader with over twenty years in the movement. Gyanji is highly educated and was radicalized during his college years, attending Marxist-Leninist study groups after his studies. He was on track to pass the exams to enter the Indian Administrative Service and join the government. While still in college he spent some time working to assist low-caste laborers from exploitation by their employers. It was through this experience that Gyanji found the government including the police to be corrupt, thereby becoming completely disenchanted
with the Indian parliamentary system. At this point he abandoned his career plans, dropped out and joined the Naxalites. Now with so many years in the struggle, people like Gyanji are referred to as ‘professional revolutionaries’ (p. 84) by the Naxalites themselves.

Shah is not satisfied with reasons of societal injustice and inequality alone as providing sufficient basis for commitment such as Gyanjis. Here the author looks to the ancient spiritual traditions found in India for direction. While Shah falls short of asking the ultimate question of what is the purpose of life, notions of renunciation, self-effacement and asceticism are explored. Why do these individuals voluntarily dedicate their lives for what appears to be a lost cause leaving behind the self-satisfying individualism, comforts and accumulation that would have been their birthright or natural inheritance? Shah’s answer? Sacrifice. She then provides an overview of sacrifice and its relationship to the human condition and its traditional purposes. Beyond animals, objects, ceremony and dogma,
she cuts to the chase and talks about the human sacrifice of the revolutionary. There is a tradition among revolutionary armed movements that their members take the names of comrades who have fallen before them who are seen as martyrs in order to keep their memories alive as inspiration. The belief is that the ultimate sacrifice of the revolutionary “…would regenerate life to become creative forces.” (p. 94)

Shah tempts the reader to conclude that the revolt is an exercise in futility. That failure is a foregone conclusion given the power of the state’s mission and means to rid itself of opposition to the sweeping tide of neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, she recognizes the value of the movement and its principled basis as means. For the
downtrodden Adivasis and Dalits who join the armed insurrection, there is newfound dignity, self-respect and self-improvement. As for the high caste individuals who abandon their privileged life trajectories to become the movement’s leaders, she leaves room for the possibilities of spiritual transformation.

One of the contradictions pointed out by Shah is the egalitarianism that traditionally exists in Adivasi society between men and women, where men participate in the reproductive activities of the home. Meanwhile the Naxalite leadership brings with them the patriarchal attitudes and mindset of their class and culture which blinds them
from seeing the absence of patriarchy that already exists. An example is given of just how mistaken the Naxalites are in their view. The Naxalites forbid alcohol consumption amongst their ranks. In the Adivasi village once a week a community gathering called a haat takes place where the village women gather together, drink home brewed
alcohol and socialize while the men remain at home. An incident takes place in which one of the Naxalite women comes to the home of villager, marches into the house, finds the pots of alcohol then carries them out and smashes them on the floor of the courtyard.

Shah is restrained in her sentiment about revolution. Nowhere does she speak of love as a motivating force. Che Guevara, for example, reportedly mentioned love several times when asked about revolution. One such quote of Che is “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that a great feeling of love guides the true revolutionary. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” The Jimi Hendrix quote “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” also comes to mind.

For those who are bothered by the mounting inequalities and injustices of the world and who are seeking to bring about social change to correct these conditions, this is a great book. Shah exposes the internal struggles of the revolutionaries, particularly for the oppressed classes as they advance through the ranks in position and responsibility. The choice between giving up on bringing about a utopian society and pursuing individual upward mobility through opportunities that open up including bringing their cause to the government via parliamentary means. Versus remaining in the movement which is being crushed to the point where political education of the masses has become a luxury they can no longer afford as all their attention must now be spent on armed defense.

Nightmarch is a particularly valuable contribution towards understanding contemporary revolutionary struggles in the twenty-first century. Even as inequalities and injustices multiply, the rising cost of living spawned by the march of neoliberal capitalism leaves little time today for anything but survival. This, combined with the increasing power and sophistication of the state and large private extraction makes for seemingly impossible conditions in which to
foment, fund and sustain a revolution to victory.  Such movements today are particularly vulnerable to being weakened and undermined via the elite’s use of surveillance and psyops technologies.

Overall, Nightmarch is masterful in its reach for readership, appealing to both scholars and non-scholars alike. For
anthropologists, Shah’s study of the Naxalites as individuals is enrichened by her interviews, providing insight into the lives of both the upper-class leadership and those in their charge. For sociologists, the book provides a realistic portrayal of the dynamism at work in contemporary India including political, cultural, and economic, among others, and the impacts of their complex interplay upon the Naxalites. While a work of non-fiction, the book can also be read simply as an adventure story, containing elements of risk, dramatic events, even heroes, antagonists and protagonists.


Christian Stalberg is an activist and a doctoral student of Anthropology and Social change (CIIS-San Francisco)

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