Until the end of the 19th century the Adivasis enjoyed a relatively bucolic existence in the Princely State of Bastar. They were not subject to the exploitative caste relationships that existed on the plains, and the sparsely populated forests provided them with space to practice shifting cultivation, collect forest produce and hunt animals. This situation has changed markedly over the past century or so. The process began when the Forest Department started to reserve—i.e., expropriate, administer, and keep the Adivasis out of Bastar’s forests in order to satisfy the ship and railway building needs of the British Empire. In 1910 the resulting discontent manifested in the Bhumkal, a widespread ‘tribal rebellion’ against the colonial administration. Since Independence the Indian government has passed a variety of legislations aimed at protecting tribal communities, but the situation for Bastar’s Adivasis continued to deteriorate due to the arrival of large numbers of non-tribal immigrants from the plains of northern India.
As the Adivasis had limited experience of interacting with the modern state and market economy,
the immigrants soon came to control the local bureaucracy and trade, and used their dominant position to exploit the tribal population.
Maoist dalams (guerrilla squads) crossed into Bastar from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s. The rebels directly addressed the Adivasis’ grievances: they threatened Forest Department officials who tried to keep tribal communities out of the forest, contractors who did not pay fair wages, absentee teachers and health workers, land revenue officials and police who demanded bribes, and traders and shopkeepers who cheated the Adivasis. Local State employees and businessmen came to realize they had little option but to acquiesce and cooperate. As the Maoists gained support, the military power of the dalams was complemented by the work of sanghams, which engaged in nonviolent activities in the villages. A base area was established in the forests of Bastar. For two decades politicians in Delhi and Bhopal were indifferent to the goings on in what was then a distant corner of Madhya Pradesh. But this changed after the liberalization of the mining sector in 2003, as Maoist control became a major impediment to the exploitation of Bastar’s fabulous mineral resources by public private partnerships.
One important contribution of The Burning Forest is to document the extreme violence that accompanied the State’s efforts to assert control over the region. It focuses on the activities of Salwa Judum, a paramilitary militia formed in 2005. The Judum—often accompanied by security forces—would march on villages and attempt to force inhabitants to relocate into roadside camps. This was similar to the counter-insurgency strategy used by the British in Malaya and the Americans in Vietnam. The aim was to undermine the Maoists’ source of food, shelter, intelligence and recruits. But it had disastrous and lasting effects on Bastar. In the process of forced removals, villages were burned to the ground, those who protested were killed, and sexual assaults were rife. Conditions in the camps were cramped and unsanitary, and inhabitants were frequently subjected to gratuitous and brutal violence at the hands of the Salwa Judum. Those who refused to live in the camps were assumed to be Maoists. They were unable to return to their villages and either tried to live in the forests without being detected or left the area.
Those involved in the Judum were driven by either greed or desperation. Mahendra Karma, an Adivasi leader and Congress MLP, played a key role in Salwa Judum. The money that flowed into Bastar to finance the counterinsurgency provided him with resources to maintain his patronage network. Most Judum leaders were either Karma’s acolytes or opportunist non-Adivasi immigrants, many of whom had previously made money working with the Maoists. Local Adivasis—many of whom were under sixteen—were recruited into the rank and file as Special Police Officers (SPOs) and paid Rs 1500 a month. Only a few had genuine grievances against the Maoists. Some signed up because of the regular salary, while others were former Maoists who either defected or were forced to surrender when the Judum attacked their villages. Some SPOs rose to become powerful leaders in their own right. For example, Kartam Surya was reputed to be making Rs 10 lakh a month from extortion and corruption.
Another important contribution of The Burning Forests is its account of the dysfunctional nature of the Indian justice system. The police allowed Salwa Judum to operate with impunity. They refused to register FIRs against SPOs and made no effort to trace the accused. At the same time, all sorts of people in Bastar were incarcerated for supposed links to the Maoists. Sometimes these were genuine sangham members but many are not. Scores of Adivasis and non-Adivasis were arrested arbitrarily or based on spurious evidence. Bail was routinely denied and cases delayed, so even when acquitted the accused spend years in squalid jails awaiting trial. As Sundar points out, Binayak Sen and Soni Sori’s widely publicized miscarriages of justice are merely the tip of the iceberg.
The reader also learns about the author’s experience of India’s legal system. In 2007 Sundar registered a Public Interest Litigation case with the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop the violence in Bastar. The petition argued that State support for vigilantism violates the Constitution and provided exhaustive evidence. Conversely, the State’s lawyers repeatedly accused Sundar of being a Maoist and, when asked to provide evidence, would produce the same documents many times over but with altered dates and headings. Nevertheless, in July 2011 the court ruled in favour of the petitioners and ordered that the SPOs be disarmed and disbanded. The story did not end there. Within a month the Government of Chhattisgarh passed a law that regularized SPOs—in the process increasing their pay to Rs 9,300 a month—in order to circumvent the judgement. Farcically, SPOs received better pay, guns, and job security as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling that they were unconstitutional. Yet another bizarre twist occurred after the publication of the book. In November 2016 the police in Chhattisgarh accused Sundar of involvement, alongside the Maoists, in the murder of an Adivasi in Bastar despite her not having been in the area for months.
The Burning Forests documents in painful detail how the Indian state has failed the Adivasis of Bastar. It catalogues relentless gore that would rival any episode of the Game of Thrones and reveals a justice system that evokes Kafka. It is, however, important to point out that the significance of these failures are not limited to the Dandakaranya. It is a truism that India is the world’s largest democracy, but the Indian state currently employs 1.4 million armed forces to fight its own citizens in Kashmir, the North East and Central India. While India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, this growth is achieved at the expense of some communities and fails to benefit many more. My two main critiques of the book are motivated by a desire to know more. First, Sundar clearly sees ‘neoliberalism’ and its legitimization of ‘corporate and political greed and official indifference’ as the root cause of the problems that she describes. But she does not explore the underlying political and economic determinants in any real detail. Secondly, it would have been interesting to read Sundar’s thoughts regarding practical solutions to the situation in Bastar. The epilogue provides a dreamlike vision of an alternative world in which the forests are peaceful, those who have committed crimes are held to account, local communities control the area’s natural resources, and Adivasis benefit from education and healthcare. But Sundar presents this as an unattainable utopia, which is a disheartening way to finish a rather gloomy story.
Jonathan Kennedy is Lecturer in Global Health at Queen Mary University of London and Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.