Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone by Satnam, translated by Vishav Bharti- a review.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté (a local drink) and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’

– Che Guevara, describing the life of a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

At the age of 23, Che undertook a journey on a motorcycle across South America and wrote a journal based on it. The journal was published in a book form titled The Motorcycle Diaries a decade or so back. Satnam’s Jangalnama could well be a sequel to that book, written in the context of the Red India, as the Maoist controlled belt has come to be known.

There are differences, of course. Che was young, fresh out of medical college. He rode a motorcycle and was essentially on an adventure tour during the course of which he got to see the underbelly of South America and about which he wrote so eloquently. This journey was part of his education in becoming a revolutionary soon after.

Satnam, on the other hand, is an unknown writer- there is very little about him in the book except a few self descriptions. We know that at the time of his travel in 2001 he is a forty something, bespectacled Punjabi journalist who took a 2 month tour of the ‘red’ tribal belt in Eastern India in the company of the guerrillas. Che was at an age when young men and women of a certain generation tended to turn communists, Satnam, on the other hand, was at an age when the same young men and women become cynical. Satnam’s undying idealism,however, makes his account outstanding. The very fact that a person would travel all the way from Punjab to the tribal districts of Eastern India, that too, in a Maoist controlled territory is quite remarkable.

Satnam describes how the guerrilla live and operate. He travels with different squads across the Bastar, visiting tribal villages and observing how the guerrillas and the tribals live.

Some of his observations are so straightforward that they would be trite, were they not accompanied by the flights of imagination that makes the same observation so special. Take for example, on the tribals’ use of river water.

One of the things that stuck me as I travelled through the jungle was that the tribals neither abuse their rivers, nor do they worship them. They don’t pollute their rivers because they get their drinking water from them.They use natural toilet paper, that is leaves, or water. They don’t know what sin is, so they don’t need to wash it away in a ritualistic ordeal. They are free of thievery and fraudulence that afflict civilized societies.

A commonplace observation thus takes on a different meaning when put in a broader context and becomes a critique of much that we otherwise take for granted. Similarly, he writes on the use of plastic.

Plastic is a rarity in the jungle, there are no heaps of garbage in the jungle. the guerrillas use it for carrying water for their morning ablutions, or to protect their books and stuff from rain. ‘Garbage’ is the sign of civilized society. An abundance and luxury, followed by muck and filth.

What reminded me of Che’s book, was this description of how how Satnam discovers a heap of ‘something re- coloured’ over which the water flowed clearly.

I didn’t know whether it was magnet or iron ore but iron ore is found throughout Bastar. It is this very iron ore of Bastar on which the Japanese factories and its famous automobile industry thrive. One is infuriated by the role that these iron mines have played in the lives of the tribals. Every day, two goods trains full of iron extracted from the mines of Bailadilla head for the port of Vizag where it is loaded on to ships for Japan. The tribals, legitimate owners of this invaluable resource, have no idea about the many uses of iron and how it has been the base for modern civilization… the hellholes of exploitation and abuse are Japan’s contributions to the industrial development of the country.

There are observations too on how the guerrillas work with the tribals- how they have made medical care their highest priority, after the resistance against plunder and governmental repression. Pisiculture and even simple things that one takes for granted- like the use of vegetables and fruits that are rich in nutritional or medicinal properties, are unknown to the tribal people and educating them on their uses is a challenge for the Maoists.

The campaign for education- literacy as well as political education, too are described as a lived experience and not drab statistics. One of the most hilarious parts of the book is the one where the guerrillas organize a meeting to protest against the US invasion of Afghanistan and speaker after speaker fails in delivering a speech. Most of  the speakers- all young women and men encouraged to speak in public- end up either giggling away or saying ‘Lal salaam’ and quickly exiting the stage. One of the speakers manages to speak longer:

“Adna got up from his place and jauntily walked up to the stage. looking around, he scratched his head and wondered whether anything remained to be said. He put his hands on his waist, looked into Raju’s eyes, and the words came to his lips. Looking into everyone’s heads, he stared into the darkness:

‘America is the world’s number one enemy. Tomorrow all of you will come here with bows and arrows, axes and sickles.We will fight America.’ He uttered these three sentences in a single breath, spat on the ground and swung back as he had come.’

There are snippets, too, of the writer’s conversations with some of the guerrillas- young Gond men and women whose personal stories point to the fact that behind the tribal upsurge there are also as many stories of personal rebellions as there are guerrillas.

The book, a translation from Punjabi to English, makes for an effortless reading. It is written in a simple style, like a journal, and keeps the reader engaged with insightful observations that the writer makes about the life of the Maoist guerrillas and the tribals among whom they work. The descriptions are not exotic or scintillating as they might have been in the pen of a more youthful or excitable writer- indeed as they in Arundhati Roy’s somewhat flamboyant short travelogue, but have the quiet dignity of aging silver. In terms of time, Satnam’s 2001 rendezvous with the Maoists is older than that of Roy’s as well as Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun, Travels in Naxalite Country (2008).

This is not to say that the book is without its flaws- it is marked by repetition, particularly that of a political rhetoric that might reassure the converted but is a bit of a nuisance for others. It is clear that the writer is sympathetic to the Maoist guerrillas as he makes it a point to reiterate it every few pages. Other than that, it is an insightful book on what the Indian Prime Minister considers to be “India’s gravest internal threat”. Reading the book, one realizes that it might be the other way round- and that it is Indian government which is the gravest threat for the tribals of eastern India.

Image Source: Survival International.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

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