I joined Jaipur Book Lovers last year and it has turned out to be one of the wisest, coolest things that I have done with my time. In a matter of just 12 months, I have read more books than I read in my entire life before. Thanks to JBL that I get to find real gems of literature that remain hidden or forgotten in the otherwise overloaded, populist world of internet. And just like that at the meet up themed to contemporary Indian women writers, I came across ‘The Burning Forest-the war in Bastar’. It was an opportunity to taste serious non-fiction around a serious issue – Continuing Naxalite Insurgency in India. Being a controversial human rights issue, there are hardly well-researched and committed works that provide 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 and beyond the bigotry narrative sold in newsrooms. I have compiled the review for Nandini Sundar’s book as and in five reasons why every Indian should read it. 

Book Review The Burning Forest 

5 Reasons to read The Burning Forest by Nandini Sundar

  1. The Author – Reading nonfiction is responsible-reading. You are exposing yourself to a whole new universe of facts, figures, perspectives, institutions, and politics marking the conflict (if it happens to be one) or simply the truth of the author, hence his/her credentials are of paramount importance. Nandini Sundar owns the book completely by being herself. Graduated with Bachelor’s in Philosophy, Economics, and Politics from Oxford 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 and the Western world. The Burning Forest is the outcome of her research work spanning across more than two decades on a field that’s unforgiving for almost everyone in and around it. In order 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 ruthlessly in hopes of winning the war. Or to imagine just how much effort, courage and resilience must have been needed by the author to document the pain and frustration of millions of broken souls surviving bloodshed, rape, poverty, and existence, one day at a time. It is exactly what that 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 Chattisgarh. First-hand exposure to the conflict coupled with the critical outlook of a seasoned professional makes ‘The Burning Forest’ an important read for every conscious citizen of India.
  2. 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 the readers on the way by being too factual or overly passionate or 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 and blends it intricately with the facts without sensationalizing the context. An impressive quality that allows the readers to stay with the book for a while more so they don’t conclude it before it needs concluding. The sheer scale of the statistics shaken in the book around almost every social, financial, demo-graphical, 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 has sadly become the only measure of their lives. Pulling sharp one-liners, translating villagers’ stories, giving shape and meaning to numbers is the routine of this very well 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, the numbers back the construct without failing. It is a harrowing account of how the 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 by reading books of these sorts? I know I will never be able to recall and put up 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 demo-graphical attributes. All I’ll be able to retain in my head is the basic narrative of how different actors respond to the crisis and how this cycle of misery feeds off of the basic human instincts of fear and greed. But it is not merely about the figures. The book also serves a higher meaning of building readers’ consciousness around how this loop sets off in the first place. 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 the law can easily be trifled with and how many generations of war crime victims 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. Powerful nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, mining companies, state agencies (legal or executive) and media, have been condemned guilty of unleashing the horrors of war on confused, defenseless, and isolated lives in Bastar. The book chronicles countless stories of women being raped, houses being burnt, 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, penetrating further into the homes of victims’ families and the rest of the nation. It 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, pro-Naxalite, anti-development, or whichever divisionary metric is fashionable in the political climate; bigotry works every time. ‘The Burning Forest’ although being critical of the government’s strategies does not sympathize with 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 how it has 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 and salvaging opportunities to find a common meaningful ground where tribal culture and society can prosper in the changing times. Deciding people’s fate without considering their dire need for education and health, Maoism has not only lost the trust of people but has also rendered them unable to depend on each other. Considering their violent past of bloodshed by means of bombings and ambushing ill-equipped armed personnel, Naxalism can not come clean out of this mess, 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. Encroachment of land by one or more clans of settled tribes from the nomadic ones as cited in the book delivers an insight into what makes their already vulnerable condition, a lot worse. On the contrary, the book 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. 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 the misery and yet it leaves little hints of hope in the form of influences that go into shaping tribal of Bastar and how this knowledge can be used to solve the crisis with dialogue and not by bloodshed.

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, torture, or violence as it happens to be an account of Bastar’s own people trapped in the politics of 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 country’s. And The Burning Forest has heaps of them.

1 Comment

  1. What a beautiful read! Congratulations and thanks for this great book review of The Burning Forest. I am sure Nandini Sundar would be blushing with this appreciation 🙂 Look forward to her commenting on your blog and me picking up this book soon!

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