On Nandini Sundar’s “The Burning Forest”

 The caption to The Burning Forest says “India’s War Against the Maoists”. When I read the Introduction, I was immediately filled with hope with this one line:

This book is written against both the government’s militaristic understanding of the Maoist movement as a law and order problem that must be crushed, and the revolutionary certainties of the Maoists and their sympathizers.

This is exactly what my own broad opinion is on any armed uprising against the state anywhere in the world, and I was extremely excited about this book offering a detailed discussion on this. But, after reading the book, I can categorically state that there isn’t even a cursory discussion of the conflict in the above quote’s framework.

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The book’s focus maybe on the Indian government’s attempts to tackle the Maoists. But there is actually zero discussion of who the Maoists are, what their history is, their ideology or what their specific objectives in Bastar are. There is one small chapter discussing how the Maoists came from Andhra Pradesh and got themselves involved with the Adivasis and villagers of Bastar in the 1990’s. That was definitely an informative piece. But there is simply no mention of what it is the Maoists and the villagers actually want or stand for. In broad terms, the Maoists want ‘freedom from India’ or something along those lines – without any clarity on the specifics. There is absolutely no discussion on possible solutions, the actual demands of the Maoists and the villagers, or a different perspective to view the conflict in. Due to this lack of substance, I found no connection (positive or negative) to the Maoists throughout the book.

But what really kills the credibility and/or readability of this book is the glaring bias present throughout the book. By bias, I am not simply accusing the author of only focusing on the Human rights violations of the Indian Government’s security agencies, and brushing over the Maoist atrocities. It is more about the lack of objectivity in reporting even the selective facts.  In this book, the author openly quotes the Maoist manifesto to justify their actions, hails the Maoist killings of Indian security forces as ‘victorious’ and ‘successful’, openly creates an Us vs. Them narrative against ‘those capitalists’, randomly invokes connections to the RSS as a way to identify malice – and all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could easily write a book bigger than this one just documenting the bias in the writing.

But what bothered me the most was the blatant lack of ethics in the writing. Passages from the Maoist manifestos, meeting minutes, or other documents are freely quoted to justify or explain questionable actions by the Maoists or to generate sympathy for them. But this author accomplishes this in a surreptitious manner by sometimes not citing the source at all – and instead just relegate it to the references – giving the reader the impression that what is quoted is a hard fact and not a biased opinion. In a few other instances, some of the statements made in the book significantly deviated from what the source material showed – with the deviations always favoring the Maoist narratives. But as I said, these are really just the tip of the iceberg.

Ultimately, this book is a lost opportunity for someone with significant on the ground knowledge to help put this complex social dynamic  into a clear perspective – one that provides the pros and cons of all sides. Instead, this book just degenerates into a series of opinion pieces stacked with an overwhelming amount of information. This book is, quite literally, just a documentation of events rather than an attempt to coherently present the truth on the ground. (The author even says as much in the Introduction). There is a complete dearth of any discussion on the ideologies, objectives, and demands of the Maoists or the villagers. In essence, this book is all about the ‘What’ with little to no discussion on the ‘Why’.  In addition, the author’s bias and lack of ethics manifests throughout the book distorting the truth by highlighting select facts and misrepresenting original sources. Yes, we all can agree that the solution to an armed insurgency is not for the Government and security forces to kill the villagers with impunity. But this book doesn’t go anywhere beyond that very narrow scope.

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