I joined Jaipur Book Lovers last year and it has turned out to be one of the wisest, coolest things I have done with my time. In a matter of just 12 months, I have come to read far more books than I ever read in my life before. Courtesy of JBL, I have been able to discover gems lying underneath the populist internet. And just like that, at a meet-up themed on contemporary Indian women writers, I came across The Burning Forest. It was an opportunity to taste serious nonfiction around a serious issue—The Naxalite insurgency in India. Being a controversial human rights issue, there are hardly any well-researched books providing a 360-degree view of the conflict zone. Reading it was enlightening but writing ‘book review The Burning Forest by Nandini Sundar’ proved to be even more thought-provoking. The book is so much more than the binary narrative sold in newsrooms. So, here are my 5 reasons why you should read The Burning Forest by Nandini Sundar.
Book Review The Burning Forest
- The Author – Nonfiction reading is responsible-reading. You are exposing yourself to a whole new universe of facts, figures, perspectives, institutions, and political ideologies marking the conflict or simply, the truth of the author which makes his/her credentials to be of paramount importance. It is in this light, Nandini Sundar owns the book completely just by being herself. Graduated in multiple disciplines including, Philosophy, Economics, and Politics from Oxford University and Masters and Research Doctorate from Columbia University, she currently serves as the professor of Sociology at Delhi University. Having won several accolades for her contribution to the field makes Nandini Sundar one of the most heard-over anthropologists in South East Asia. The Burning Forest is the outcome of a research work spanned across decades on a field that’s unforgiving for almost everyone in and around. To connect with people and understand them better, she learned to speak Gondi and made the most out of it by striking delicate conversations with different stakeholders in conflict with each other. It is difficult not to notice the clarity with which she tells the story of a state experiencing the brute of two counteractive ideologies that have gone ruthless in hopes of winning the war. Or, to imagine just how much courage or resilience must have been needed by the author to document the pain and frustration of millions surviving bloodshed, rape, and poverty day after day. It is exactly what gives her the confidence to write a narrative that’s critical of the government’s policies and actions being deployed in the name of counter-insurgency operations in Chhattisgarh. First-hand exposure of the conflict coupled with the expertise of a seasoned anthropologist makes The Burning Forest an important read for every conscious citizen of India.
- Stakes, Statistics, and Stories!
“By 2016 there were to be 0.1 million boots on the ground in Bastar alone for a population of 3.09 million”.
“From 1947 till the turn of the century, approximately one in every four adivasis has been displaced for mines, dams and similar development projects.”.
“The police were keeping tabs on everyone, using voter lists. People rushed to have photos and IDs made at Rs 100 a shot, to prove that they were peaceful civilians and not Maoists.”
“. . . the loss of bio-diversity including, loss of 26 endangered plant species, 22 mammalian species ( 15 endangered), 28 species of butterflies, and 102 species of birds from 38 families.”
Political, social nonfictions run the risk of losing their readers by being too factual or overly passionate or by pitching the narrative without having concrete numbers backing it. The Burning Forest is however smart. It captures the stories of thousands crushed between the two extremes of Naxalism and Anti-Naxalite populism, blending it intricately with the facts without sensationalizing the context—an impressive quality that allows the readers to stay with the book, so they don’t conclude it before the book needs concluding. The sheer scale of the statistics shaken in the book around almost every social, financial, demographical, ecological measure, not only enriches the reader’s ability to identify different stakes at play but also makes him see how human nature reacts to them when the conflict becomes the only measure of human life. Pulling sharp one-liners, translating villagers’ stories, giving shape and meaning to numbers is a routine of this meticulously researched book. Bastar’s mineral zones, state’s prisoner ratio, bio-diversity losses, vacant health centers, state’s expenditure of running the war, war-profiteering from timber and tendu, PILs filed by the victims of human rights abuse, numbers back the construct without failing. It is a harrowing account of how the Bastar crisis has devastated the lives of millions while benefiting only the rich and powerful.
3. Know what is a war? It is the orchestra of vested interests! – I often ask myself what do I get from reading books of these sorts? I know I will never be able to recall any numbers or meaningful information on Bastar’s conflict in my circle of conversations or arguments. I’ll soon forget the state’s geography or its demographical attributes. All I’ll be able to retain in my head is the principal narrative of how different actors respond to a crisis and how this cycle of misery feeds off of human instincts of fear and greed. However, it is important to mention that the book is not merely about numbers. The Burning Forest serves an important purpose of building readers’ consciousness around the genesis of all humanitarian conflicts, raising important questions—how poverty is created and infected with; how violence is institutionalized; how populist ideas of development win over almost any debate in a democracy; how law can easily be trifled with; how generations get consumed in securing the justice that’s too late and too little; how dichotomy can pierce through the secular, liberal heart of a nation and kill it with hostility; how trivial law and order issues can be a flutter of a butterfly in raging tornadoes of destitution for millions. Unfortunately, the answer is not difficult to arrive at. The powerful nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, mining companies, state agencies, and media, has been repeatedly condemned guilty of unleashing horrors on confused, defenseless, and isolated lives in Bastar. The book chronicles countless stories of raped women, burnt houses, poisoned water sources, robbed sacks of rice, to an extent that it gets repetitive after a while which is perhaps necessary to point out that these strikingly similar patterns are nothing but in reality brutal weapons of war. Military strategies of enforced starvation and rape have worked well for the armed forces into terrorizing the natives to flee their lands. The same violence doesn’t spare the CRPF jawans either, as it makes its way back into the families of soldiers ambushed by Naxalites. The book serves as a compelling case study shouting out to all who measure growth with GDP numbers in the vacuum of social, ecological forces playing on the field. It heartwarmingly insists that development may look like roads and electricity but its head and heart lie in the effective strategies and inclusive participation of different stakeholders. The Burning Forest picks one piece of Bastar’s dismantled machinery at a time and rightfully places it for the readers to see the bigger picture.
4. Beyond The Pro & Anti Borders – Dismissing hard work is easy. Name it anti-national, Maoist, anti-development, or whichever divisionary metric is fashionable in the political climate—bigotry works every time. The Burning Forest although being critical of government strategies does not sympathize with the Naxalites either. It covers dozens of accounts of people who have risked their lives just by talking to the author about how terrible or irrelevant Maoism has become. How it started as a passionate leveler of equality and freedom and has now been reduced to a reactive war for existence. What appeared as the Robin Hood heroism, Naxalism now robs its own people by deflecting from the real issues that concern them, by destroying opportunities meant to find a common meaningful ground where tribal culture and society can prosper in the changing times. Sealing their fate without considering the dire need of its people for education and health, Maoism has not only lost their trust but has also rendered them unable to depend on each other. Considering their violent past of bloodshed by bombings and ambushing ill-equipped armed personnel, Naxalism can not come out clean, claiming to be a mere retaliatory force.
“Either we should not suffer at all or suffer equally.”
Beyond the entire debate, what the book essentially pitches is the need to understand how a state becomes a breeding ground for war and what other internal factors complicate and worsen things for its natives. And I came across an analogy called ‘The Bastar Aryans’. It is simply foolish to assume that Bastar’s Adivasis are immune to caste and race politics. Bringing light to issues like encroachment of land by powerful settled tribes from the nomadic ones, the book delivers an insight into what makes their already vulnerable condition, a lot worse. On the contrary, it also throws light on the tribal way of life and helps debunk the myths and taboos about Adivasis being uncivilized and socially backward communities. Adivasis of Bastar do not indulge in dowry exchanges, at least in this instance they are much better than the developed corners of India. Moreover, acute dependence on natural resources has honed their survival acumen over the years, busting yet another assumption that they are wildlings needed to be trained the hard way. The Burning Forest journeys through misery and yet it leaves little hints of hope in the form of influences that can go a long way into shaping the future of Bastar’s indigenous and how this knowledge can be used to solve the crisis with dialogue.
5. To know is to become – Reading The Burning Forest is like opening a can of worms. One needs tremendous patience as it is a long, serious read. It is not easy to read 400 pages of death, rape, and torture since it happens to be an account of Bastar’s people trapped in the politics of their geography. But like any other good book, it does not end for a while. It keeps processing itself in readers’ minds asking tough questions. Do we know about our country? Do we exercise democracy enough? Is democracy about ballot box numbers or more? If yes, what incentives or opportunities do we have to stay invested in it after we have voted? Can GDP be solely relied upon to measure real development? What is development anyway? How relevant is Naxalism today? If not, then how did it mushroom out of soil soiled with blood and poverty? Has communism anywhere been successful? Can it win over human nature that radically conflicts with the notion that social and financial equality can be conjured out of policies? All such questions are no doubt bad for the government’s health but good for the country’s. And The Burning Forest has heaps of them.