The Naxal Novel

The Naxal Novel

A series of novels captures the moral and political ambiguities of India’s Maoist insurgency.

At a Maoist commemoration in Chhattisgarh. From the film Red Ant Dream, by Sanjay Kak.

The Lowland—Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel—opens on the grounds of the Tollygunge Club, a British-built country club in Calcutta, West Bengal. The year is 1956, and although a decade has passed since India won its freedom, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth graces the club’s main drawing room. Two Bengali brothers have snuck over the boundary wall of the club and are gazing at its golf course in awe.

Subhash and Udayan Mitra belong to a middle-class family. They live in a modest enclave of houses near the titular lowland, a marshy sprawl that floods during the monsoon. On its periphery, hundreds of Partition refugees from East Bengal have erected huts of sackcloth and bamboo between growing piles of garbage. The club’s walls have been raised to block out the squalor but also to prevent the poor from seeing how the elite live. The contrast is stark. Inside the club, children ride ponies, bartenders mix “pink ladies,” and the grounds are scented with eucalyptus. Subhash, the elder brother, simply stares at the velveteen grass. But Udayan, whose name means “rising sun,” brandishes “like a sword” the bent putting iron they’ve brought along and begins to break apart the “pristine turf.” Meanwhile, Subhash listens to “the faint strikes of a sickle as a section of grass elsewhere in the club was trimmed by hand.” The two brothers soon hop back over the wall into their own world, but not before they’re caught by a policeman. The policeman beats Subhash with the putting iron before disinterestedly walking away.

Trapped as he is between India’s new elites and the squalor of the lowland, Udayan is a fitting recruit for the movement—Maoist in philosophy, guerrilla in practice—that is the main subject of Lahiri’s novel. The Tolly Club’s walls can only conceal its excesses for so long; soon peasants will wield their sickles and scythes, but not to trim grass. Udayan joins them, quoting a former golf caddy, Che Guevara, who dismissed golf as a game of the bourgeoisie. (“Getting rid of the golf courses,” Udayan notes, “was one of the first things Castro had done.”) Subhash does not join his brother but travels, instead, to the United States on a student fellowship, “a guest of Richard Nixon,” as he puts it, at a time when America is bombing Vietnam. He will reflect ruefully on how clean, green America is like the Tolly Club, and how he is an outsider in both spaces.

Who is the better brother, Subhash or Udayan, or is that too crude a question? Udayan is the idealistic one, who was moved to revolution by the poverty he saw in the villages of Bengal, but he also does something so ugly for the cause that he feels he has lost the moral right to raise a child. Dull and worthy Subhash cares more about his parents than the peasants but he, in turn, proves a loving father—bringing up Udayan’s daughter as his own after his Naxalite brother is captured and shot by the police. Subhash is an unknowing proponent of George Eliot’s last line in Middlemarch: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” And through the tragedy of Udayan, Lahiri explores with great tenderness the Yeatsian inversion that marked the Naxal high noon: the best did not lack all conviction but were so full of passionate intensity that it blinded them to the extremism of the party line.

The question of how to judge the brothers’ political and personal commitments is at the center of Lahiri’s novel; so is the act of jumping boundaries. In this novel, as in all Lahiri’s fiction, the story and its boundary-crossing reflect the author’s own past. Lahiri was born in 1967, the year that landless tribal peasants in the village of Naxalbari, West Bengal rose in revolt. Organized by Bengal’s communist cadres into a ragged resistance, the farmers attacked and killed landlords and policemen, redistributed hoarded grain, ransacked homesteads, and set up people’s courts to mete out the rough justice of revenge. They called for the overthrow of the Indian state and aspired to build a society in the mold of China. From across the Himalayas, Mao predicted that Naxalbari would be “the spark [to] start a prairie fire” in India. The main architect of Naxalism was the asthmatic son of a landlord, Charu Mazumdar, who broke with the Communist Party of India to preach what came to be known as the “annihilation line”: the notion that the revolution should, if necessary, kill its way to utopia. Hundreds of students in India’s largest cities—Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay—dropped out of college to fight for and with the peasants. In Calcutta, the movement’s nerve center, students marched with posters of Che and Mao, painted blood-red slogans on the walls, organized peasants, and even participated in individual killings of landlords, policemen, moneylenders, businessmen, and other Class Enemies.

Though she was born in far-away London and raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri grew up hearing her parents and their friends talk about the Naxalites. One story that remained with her, she told the New Yorker, was about two brothers from Tollygunge who had joined the Naxal movement and were killed in front of their parents by paramilitaries. A decade’s worth of reading, research, trips to Calcutta, and conversations with family elders and friends turned their story into Lahiri’s most ambitious work to date.

The Lowland marks an important addition to the growing canon of literature that has emerged from, and in response to, Indian Maoism. Some of this literature has come from within the movement itself: cadres carry pamphlets and songbooks, and fellow travelers have written plays, films, poems, and ballads in several Indian languages. Among the movement’s bards are the eminent Telugu Marxist poets Varavara Rao and Gaddar, both of whom have acted as spokespersons for the Maoists, even as their writings have earned them international acclaim.

A parallel body of literature has come from outsiders looking in. Among the great Indian novels of recent decades, at least a half-dozen, including Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, and, most recently, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, have offered glimpses of the Naxal movement. But the movement’s defining fiction is Mahasweta Devi’s 1974 novella Mother of 1084. Like The Lowland, Mother of 1084 is both a public fiction and an intensely private one. It is the violence perpetrated by the state that helps the upper-class, apolitical mother of Corpse No. 1084 understand what drove her beloved twenty-year-old son to become a Naxalite. In a harrowing scene at the police morgue, she reaches out to caress his bludgeoned face only to find no skin to lay her fingers on. Slowly she realizes why he had lost faith in the system into which he was born, a system epitomized by his corrupt father. Mother of 1084 is a grisly index of the excesses to which India resorted to crush the rebellion. Yet it makes no mention of Naxal brutality, and “the movement” is referred to only abstractly.

The Naxalbari uprising was the first major event to confront Mahasweta Devi after she became a writer, and she has said she felt morally compelled to record its dreams and betrayals. “In the seventies, in the Naxalite movement, I saw exemplary integrity, selflessness, and the guts to die for a cause,” she said. “I thought I saw history in the making, and decided that as a writer it would be my mission to document it.”

“Draupadi” tasks the conscience of society in the way only a great work of fiction can. What sort of system, it asks, resorts to such measures to crush the demand for justice?

This mission continued with “Draupadi” (1976), a short story about a young tribal Naxalite who is first widowed and then gang-raped by the police. Like Mother of 1084, “Draupadi” hinges on an unsparing image of state brutality. In an inversion of the Mahabharata story, where Lord Krishna saves Draupadi from her assailants by ensuring she stays clothed in a sari of infinite length, the tribal Draupadi refuses to clothe herself. She stands defiantly naked—“Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds”—and butts the security chief with her mangled breasts. For the first time, the suave chief “is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.” “Draupadi” tasks the conscience of society in the way only a great work of fiction can. What sort of system, it asks, resorts to such measures to crush the demand for justice?

“Ruthlessly, systematically,” as Lahiri puts it in The Lowland, the Naxal movement was brought to heel. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the government responded to Charu Mazumdar’s “annihilation line” in kind. The police openly resorted to gangster vigilantism, mass imprisonment, and torture. By 1972 the movement was in retreat. Far from being extinguished, it went underground, surfacing again briefly in the 1980s and 1990s before exploding once more in 2004. The most recent reconstitution, operating under the banner of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), is the most organized and powerful since the original Naxal movement of the 1960s. In the final pages of The Lowland, which bring the reader to the present day, Udayan’s widow, now grey-haired and alone in California, reads about the new guerrilla war: “Maoist insurgents blowing up trucks and trains. Setting fire to police camps. Fighting corporations in India. Plotting to overthrow the government all over again.” The “embers of the doomed Naxal movement,” she muses, not without a reluctant admiration, had managed to “ignite another generation.”

The Maoists presently operate out of the dense forests of central India, having moved south from West Bengal. The overthrow of the Indian state is still their stated goal. Their root grievance—gross economic injustice—is the same as that of the original Naxalites, but now they are also fighting more direct threats: mining companies eager to extract the billions of dollars’ worth of minerals in the forests where millions of adivasis (as India’s indigenous tribal people are collectively known) subsist without basic services. In the forests, chronic hunger, malnutrition, malaria, infections, and typhoid are as rampant as the bauxite, iron ore, uranium, granite, and copper that are now up for grabs.

Arundhati Roy, the author best known for her Booker prize–winning 1997 novel The God of Small Things, whose hero is an untouchable carpenter accused of being a Naxalite, is one of a handful of outsiders who have sought to see the conflict through the rebels’ eyes. “Here in the forests of Dantewada a battle rages for the soul of India,” she writes in Walking with the Comrades (2011), her powerful account of the two weeks she spent with the guerrilla army in what the media calls the “Red Corridor.” The journey begins when a boy with a Charlie Brown backpack and chipped red nail polish leads her into the forest to meet the comrades. There, she travels with teenage girls and twenty-something young men like Chandu, who cheerfully informs her “that he could handle every kind of weapon, ‘except for an LMG.’”

On the other side of the conflict are the government’s paramilitary forces, with unit names like Cobra and Greyhound, joined by a state-sponsored vigilante army of tribals called the Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt). In the half-decade they were active, these vigilantes unleashed sheer terror—killing, raping, and burning their way through hundreds of villages, forcing many tribals to turn to the Maoists for protection, and thus ratcheting up the violence. The Supreme Court of India banned the Salwa Judum in 2011. But the Indian state continues to stand behind mining interests with guns at the ready.

Arundhati Roy argues that in the heart of the forest, without TV cameras or an audience, Gandhi’s peaceful sword of satyagraha just won’t cut it. Adivasis, writes Roy, “have been mercilessly exploited for decades, consistently cheated by small businessmen and moneylenders, the women raped as a matter of right by police and forest department personnel. Their journey back to a semblance of dignity is due in large part to the Maoist cadre who have lived and worked and fought by their side for decades.” The Maoist leaders have harnessed adivasi rage at years of contempt, bullying, and negligence.

The relationship between Maoists and tribals, of course, is far more vexed and less heroically Robin Hoodish than Roy makes it out to be. It’s true that in many areas the prolonged Maoist presence has offered much-needed protection from the state and private interests. But over the last few years, many of the forest’s inhabitants have been ground down by the paramilitary assault and have tired of the Maoist leadership’s grandiloquent goal of toppling the state. Roy, likewise, has been sharply criticized for being credulous about Maoist violence and refusing to unequivocally condemn their killings. Yet she, too, has expressed reservations about the movement. In Walking with the Comrades, she asks: would the Maoists turn into collaborators with the mining companies if they were to come to power?

If three generations of a family can be crippled by a single act of violence, asks The Lowland, what sort of utopia will be built out of blood?

Lahiri, for her part, is unambiguous in her condemnation of the violence carried out by both the state and its guerrilla opponents. “The killings were sadistic, gruesome, intended to shock,” she writes of the Naxalites. “They assassinated Gopal Sen, the vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University. They killed him on campus while he was taking his evening walk. It was the day before he planned to retire.” The police treatment of the Naxalites is no less appalling: “Cigarette butts are pressed into their backs, hot wax is poured into their ears. Metal rods pushed into their rectums. People who live near Calcutta’s prisons cannot sleep.” But sometimes Lahiri is more subtle. For instance, she locates Naxalbari as “closer to Tibet than Tollygunge”—Tibet, which was stricken with famine after being strategically colonized by Mao, whom the Naxal leadership worshipped like a god. But Lahiri’s most forceful rejection of the Naxalites’ use of revolutionary violence lies in her novel’s broader arc—in its plot. Udayan’s family is shattered not just by his death but by what he has done for the revolution. If three generations of a family can be crippled by a single act of violence, asks The Lowland, what sort of utopia will be built out of blood?

Today, a large majority of Maoist leaders have been arrested or killed, or they’ve surrendered. There is also a considerable amount of party infighting. But it would be foolish to assume that Indian Maoism, which at its core emerged out of the country’s grievous injustices, can be jailed away or hunted down with elite combat units.

“You’ll come back to an altered country, a more just society, I’m confident of this,” Udayan wrote to Subhash in 1970, shortly before being executed. Udayan was partially right: India is an altered country today, a more confident, socially mobile, jingoistic and ambitious country for certain, and a more hopeful country for some, but hardly a more just one. Even as economic reforms have brought unexpected consumer wealth to millions of middle-class families, and millions more have entered their ranks—hundreds of millions continue to subsist in extreme poverty. India now has over sixty billionaires, alongside some 300 million citizens living on less than fifty cents a day. Tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide by hanging themselves or swallowing pesticide to escape crushing debt, and 47 percent of Indian children are malnourished.

Because of the well-paying jobs and consumer lifestyles India now has to offer, a number of the Subhashes who left for the West are now making their way back home. The Udayans of today, meanwhile, aren’t dropping out of their colleges to join the Maoist war.

The novel—a vehicle able to carry with it all of these moral and political ambiguities—has opened a window onto the Naxal insurgency that journalists have often preferred to leave shut. Whether quietly condemning the movement (as Lahiridoes), openly sympathizing (as Roy does), or hovering somewhere in between (as Mahasweta Devi does), these novelists offer an intimate view of a world alien to most readers.

Outside the world of fiction, however, a collection of activists and writers are beginning to offer an alternative to the political violence of the past four decades. Among those who advocate a peaceful resistance movement is writer, historian, and former Naxalite, Dilip Simeon. As a student at the elite Delhi college St. Stephen’s, Simeon was among those who joined the Naxal movement. But he soon grew disillusioned and came out of it. “Murder is not a birth pang,” he writes in his semi-autobiographical novel Revolution Highway, which dramatizes Naxalism against the global mood of radicalism that infected the sixties.

Simeon belongs to the school of activists calling for a movement to support nonviolent adivasi resistance against mining interests. In collaboration with these groups, adivasicommunities have already won important, if isolated, victories. In one notable recent case, the Dongria Kondh tribal villages in the eastern state of Odisha prevented the mining giant Vedanta from entering the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills, which the Dongrias have worshipped for centuries as the seat of their gods. The case attracted wide international attention—the Church of England protested by selling its shares in Vedanta, while media outlets compared the plight of the Dongria to that of the Na’vi tribe in James Cameron’s Avatar—and finally, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of the Dongrias.

Advocates stress that the only way to end the violence is to stop the mining, guarantee adivasis land rights, and improve governance at the grassroots level. While undermining the appeal of guerrilla war, this kind of mature political approach would bolster the other resistance movements working systematically to unionize labor and fight corporate encroachment. The government, for its part, has announced economic packages for tribal development—although, as Roy rightly points out, this would never have happened without the Maoists—but they are a far cry from the measures of economic justice, including meaningful land reform policies, that Maoists and adivasis alike demand.

Early on in Simeon’s novel, an older man, a lapsed communist, asks two young firebrands a question from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “If all mankind could realize happiness by torturing to death a single child, would this act be morally justified?” This question comes to haunt the revolutionaries; it is one that comes to haunt us, too.

Simeon has one answer: “When left-wing students asked [Rathin] for advice on Revolution, he would ask them to study circular geometry.” Circular geometry is what we also get in The Lowland, which opens in Naxal India and ends fifty years later in a Maoist one—an indictment as much of the Indian state as it is of those determined to overthrow it.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared, among other places, in the Times of India, the Guardian, the New Republic, and the Missouri Review.

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