Inside a Maoist camp: The ‘city’ in the middle of a Jharkhand forest

In 2010, Alpa Shah, an anthropology professor joined a Naxal platoon that set out on a seven-night march across 250km through Bihar and Jharkhand. An excerpt from her journey.

After an hour and a half of walking, a young man dressed in an olive-green uniform, with an old rifle slung across his shoulder, appeared among the bushes. Behind him were five similarly dressed men, several metres apart. The first sentry post to our destination, I suspected.

‘Lal salaam, lal salaam (Red salute, red salute),’ we greeted them one after another, as they shook our hands and raised their clenched fists in the air. The last soldier was wearing a printed black T-shirt bearing the legend, ‘I’m unreliable, inefficient, unpredictable, unorganised, undisciplined, immature, but I’m fun!’ A message in stark contrast to the disciplined line that the soldiers had formed to greet us, it made me smile.

We walked on, passing two more sentry posts, and then we plunged back into forested terrain. Suddenly the early morning light burst through a clearing in the trees. I blinked my eyes in disbelief. In front of us, bathed in sunlight and framed by the granite hills on three sides, lay a colourful spectacle of interwoven trails reaching out like a spider’s web. Carved out of the shrubbery, the trails were lined at waist height by garlands of rainbow bunting. Crepe paper, carefully cut into triangles, neatly glued on to jute rope by dozens of hands. The trails led from one large tent to another.

I had met the Maoists in their camps many times in the forests of Jharkhand but nothing could have prepared me for this. It was a small, festive city in the middle of the hilly forests. I felt as though we had stumbled upon Lindon of Gil-galad, haven kingdom of the elves in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A far cry from the dazzling skyscrapers and shopping malls of Gurgaon erected to permanently tower over New Delhi, it was equally impressive for its grandeur and impermanence. It could be taken down within a couple of hours and not a trace of it would be detectable to the unfamiliar, untrained eye.

The tents housed the various sections of the guerrilla army. There was also a medical tent, a tailor’s tent and a ‘computer room’ consisting of a dirty, battered, chunky Dell laptop and a bashed-up grey printer all wired to run off a tractor battery. At one end lay a series of small-tented cubicles. Pits were dug for latrines; one even had a white porcelain squat lavatory seat.

In the centre of the web stood a large bright red and yellow tent with a green roof. Seating at least a hundred people, this was the central meeting room. Seven framed black and white photographs hung on one wall of red cloth. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong all in a line. Below these international gurus were Charu Majumdar and Kanhai Chatterjee, the two Naxalite leaders of the 1960s whom these Maoist guerrillas now commemorated as the instigators of the Indian struggle. All the photographs were garlanded with marigolds. In one corner of this wall of photos, someone had pinned a rudimentary handmade drawing of a person holding a gun to the head of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Next to this was a similar portrait of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of the Congress Party, who had married into the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that had, with the exception of a few years, presided over Indian politics since the country’s separation from British rule.

At one edge of the camp, there was a large open space – a field – where at least 200 young men were gathered. One group was running around the field in an anti-clockwise direction, side-stepping every ten metres. Another group was doing the same but running in the opposite direction. Those in the middle were in ten disciplined lines, throwing themselves into the air in a synchrony of star jumps. This was the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army performing their daily morning exercise drills.

The kitchen was perhaps the most striking because of its organisation. Sacks of rice and lentils stacked high on top of each other formed two demarcating walls, while a trickling stream was a third boundary. To provide clean drinking water to the camp, a well had been ingeniously dug into the side of the stream, fortified with large rocks, and was worked by a pulley system. In the middle of the kitchen three trenches of varying lengths had been dug. Each had roaring fires with large aluminium vats atop. Rice and dal or potato curry on the boil, I suspected. Young men were sitting cross-legged on the ground, rolling out chapattis for those who would not eat rice.

We had walked into the conference of the State-level Committee of the Maoists, a meeting that took place once every five years, and which brought together all the guerrillas from the neighbouring districts of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. For some it had been a fourteen-night-long trek to get here. It was hard to know how many of the total People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army were at this meeting, perhaps about 400. I was told that similar conferences were simultaneously taking place across the country in other parts of Jharkhand and across the forests of central and eastern India in Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

At each conference, the Maoist activities of the previous years would be analysed and evaluated, future plans generated, and solutions to problems found. This was the place where crucial decisions would be collectively discussed, with exhaustive debates, to eventually be put to the vote, with the majority decision binding on all. That was the theory of it at least. Germinated in the Paris Commune, it was called ‘democratic centralism’ by Lenin, who used it to build the Bolshevik Party.

The conferences were also where the Maoist practices of criticism and self-criticism unfolded. These were the elaborate public confessions and denunciations of mistakes that each soldier had made; an attempt to reinforce group cohesion and discipline used by many Maoist-inspired parties, from the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army to the Khmer Rouge. The conference was also where promotions were decided and political and military training delivered to the cadres.

Above all, for the Maoist leaders, it was a space in which to redevelop the feeling of a community and commitment to the cause that united the guerrillas, to renew solidarity. Dispersed fighters, working in various parts of the country and sometimes in isolation, came together for a few weeks, ideally to strengthen, form and reform bonds between them. The hope was to create a casteless, classless microcosm of the future utopian community that they were all fighting for.

In contrast to the surrounding caste-divided villages of India, in the guerrilla community caste names were eliminated – every individual became a comrade, born with a new name. While respect for elders was to be shown by calling them ‘dada’ or ‘didi’ (elder brother or elder sister) or by adding the suffix ‘ji’, material differences were to be erased. The idea was that people came to the guerrillas with nothing and were given everything deemed necessary for their existence. One uniform and a set of plain clothes, one blanket, one bedsheet, one plastic sheet, one rucksack and a bar of soap. The division of labour according to the caste, class and gender hierarchies that existed in the world outside was also to be eradicated. Cooking rotas were to involve all, men and women alike. And while lower-level cadres were to learn to read, leaders were to dig the toilet pits.

(Excerpted with the permission of HarperCollins from ‘Nightmarch: A Journey Into India’s Naxal Heartlands’ by Alpa Shah. You can buy the book here.)

C. Kistler

Also editor of Nouvelle Turquie.