India’s Revolutionary Foot Soldiers

Nightmarch, A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands
by Alpa Shah (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2018)

Montréal Serai invited me to comment on this book, not as someone with any particular expertise on India, Maoism, or the Adivasi (Indigenous peoples in India), but as an interested member of the public.

In the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate at McGill, small dribbles of information became available about a rebellion in Naxalbari (West Bengal) led by Maoists. In subsequent years, the activities of Peru’s Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ZANU in Southern Rhodesia were all described as being influenced by Maoism. Most Western commentators condemned these movements rather than offer explanations for their beliefs, their intentions and their accomplishments. Questions remained for me about the application of theoretical revolutionary principles to day-to-day activities and strategy, especially in the midst of a guerrilla war.

In 2011, the world-renowned novelist and political activist, Arundhati Roy, published her account[1] of her recent visit with Maoist guerrillas in India’s Adivasi-controlled territories, who have become known as Naxalites, prompting a renewed interest in the West in this ongoing, rarely discussed armed struggle.

A little earlier, anthropologist Alpa Shah (at the London School of Economics), who had lived in an Adivasi village from 1999 to 2003 doing her doctoral research, returned to the same region and spent a week marching with a platoon of Naxalite insurgents as part of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). Her book Nightmarch, A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands was published in English to wide acclaim in 2018, and has recently been translated into French.[2]

Shah, of Indian ancestry, Kenyan upbringing and British residence, is primarily an academic anthropologist. Her early impressions of the Naxalite brigades, gleaned during her first stay in an Adivasi village, were that they functioned as a form of “protection racket,” extorting funds, food and other forms of material support from the local population in exchange for protection against the military, the police and the private militias that threatened the Adivasi. It was somewhat later that a professor invited her to examine more deeply if there was a more important political meaning to their activities and whether or not it was true that the villagers were unwillingly caught between two competing armed forces.

In 2010, Shah returned to the same area. In order to meet a Naxalite leader, she participated in a week-long march with a unit of Naxalite soldiers, walking at night (hence the title Nightmarch) to escape the authorities’ surveillance.

The book examines two interweaving threads and, at another level, tells a tale of two communities.

The first thread is Shah’s description of the march – a sometimes exciting, always exhausting trek through the jungle with Naxalite soldiers ­– where, dressed as a man, she was the only marcher not carrying a gun. There were the challenges of walking, eating, sleeping and crossing dangerous open spaces (highways, rivers), and many new things for a London-based professor to observe and to experience.

The second thread is a discussion of what the anthropologist has learned: the functioning of the insurgent units, the place of class and caste in the decision-making, the extent to which women have been emancipated in the Naxalite forces, the politically “deviant” behaviour of some soldiers, etc.

The book involves a constant changing of gears between these two threads: a diary of activity and a social-science analysis. One moment we are reading about calloused feet and the next about factional debates of the past. Shah explains that one of her intentions for the book was to present to a general audience some of the material she had previously produced in academic publications. While this intention is laudable, the continuous back-and-forth between descriptions of a day’s march and the discussion of a social issue is sometimes distractingly bumpy.

Much of the book discusses the interaction/overlap between the two groups – the Adivasi and the Naxalites. The tribal peoples have long been ostracized and discriminated against in Indian society and disregarded by state services. Those living in the villages that Shah describes have a highly-developed culture of mutual assistance and have learned to survive with little of the “rewards” of Western capitalist society. As the lands they inhabit are often rich in mineral resources, large corporations – with the connivance of the state and its security forces – would be happy to remove them from their lands, even though there are some legal protections against expropriation. There is a long history of Adivasi resistance to the invasion of their territories.

In recent decades, the Naxalites – through deliberate political strategy and as a result of state repression in the cities and agricultural zones – have moved into the forests inhabited by the Adivasi. Are the Marxist fighters and the oppressed Adivasi natural allies? Does the secular, disciplined, military culture of one blend with the communal society of the other? How is it that a significant number of Adivasi have joined the Naxalites? To what extent do these groups retain their separate identities and to what extent have they become one?

While the upper-caste urban recruits to the Maoist forces are often highly motivated by political conviction, the motives of the Adivasi, as Shah discovers, are varied. Some are driven by their class and caste analysis. Some are seeking a means to defend their traditional way of life and culture against the aggression of mining corporations. For some, the guerrilla life may offer an alternative to conflict with their family. For others, participation in the armed struggle opens doors to education, adventure or opportunities to amass wealth otherwise not accessible in the villages.

Shah delves into the lives of a half-dozen representative characters, including:

  • an upper-caste lifelong revolutionary who has abandoned his family and risked his health and safety over many decades. Shah admires his devotion, purity, intellectual prowess, and influence on the group;
  • a young Adivasi militant who, like many of his comrades, may spend some of his time with the insurgents in the forest and part of the year working in the cities;
  • a mid-level soldier who has found ways to surreptitiously skim personal profits from transactions he undertakes on behalf of the collectivity; and
  • a woman who works in the forest to politicize other women’s organizations.

Shah tells us that the Naxalites’ consistent intention has been to raise the political consciousness of the people amongst whom they live. To be sure, the Naxalites have provided opportunities for many of the Adivasi to learn to read and write, and their attempts to operate without caste, class or gender hierarchies has had a positive influence. One result of the constant state repression, however, it that the insurgents always seem to be on the run. They are capable of occasionally carrying out successful military actions to prevent incursions into their territory, but have little opportunity to concentrate on the Adivasis’ political education to the extent that is necessary to ensure on-going understanding and a commitment to the cause.

What I found somewhat frustrating about Shah’s text is that there are a great number of facts presented about the two groups, but comparatively little explanation of the details of background context, history and the structure of activities. And there is little to help readers evaluate what might be of particular significance. (I realize that a single book cannot deal with every aspect, but nonetheless …)

For example, in tracing the history of the Naxalites, we are told that in the mid-20th century, major disagreements amongst communist groups about whether Indian society was semi-feudal or not led to (sometimes internecine) splits in the groups, which eventually prompted some to abandon political action in the cities to take up guerrilla work in the forests. But there is little discussion of what analysis or evidence bolstered the beliefs of the different groups, nor any discussion of possible sociological changes in Indian society in the last half-century.

In another example, while political decision-making meetings amongst different Naxalite groups are often referred to, Shah does not discuss the process or any aspects of their evolving political strategy. Life in the forests for the insurgents is highly isolated, and from her description, seems to unfold on a day-to-day basis, without a sense of time. It seems somehow surprising, then, when in a discussion of the circumstances in which political violence can be legitimate, a knowledgeable Naxalite leader discusses the attacks on 9/11. Clearly, detailed information about the other side of the world seems to be pertinent in the jungle. (The leader disapproved of the attacks on the Twin Towers because they involved the intentional killing of many civilians.)

Luckily, in addition to Shah’s chapters on the march, there are several supplementary articles included in the publication that I found particularly helpful in providing background.

1) An extensive bibliography discusses over 70 different publications on various aspects of the Naxalite insurgency, including political analyses from different perspectives, discussions on the legitimate use of political violence, the experience of other outside observers, the writing of some former Naxalite militants, an examination of the role of women in the insurgent communities, and the portrayal of the Naxalite movement in literature over the last several decades.

While most of the publications discussed are in English (and most of them appeared after Shah’s 2010 visit that she writes about), this French-language edition also includes a list of documentary resources published in French, on both the Naxalite movement and contemporary Indian politics. (As well, it provides a glossary of French translations of some of the words from India that appear in the text.)

2) The Note de l’éditrice by Naïké Desquesnes in the French-language edition provides a valuable overview of the activities and the impact of mining companies on Adivasi-inhabited regions.

3) The Préface à l’édition québecoise by Adavisi writer Akash Poyam discusses the historical attitudes of the British colonizers and the Hindu elite to the Adivasi, detailing the efforts to dehumanize them through social exclusion, brutal occupation and various attempts to bring about their assimilation and the destruction of the foundations of their culture and way of life – notably through widespread failure to respect the basic legislated human rights of minorities and systematic interference with sovereignty in the regions with considerable Adivasi populations. The author draws various parallels between the treatment of Indigenous peoples in India and the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

I would like to note that I found the book easy to read. There is a complete absence of academic jargon, and Shah has not assumed that the reader possesses any arcane knowledge.

After reading the book, I still do not feel that my understanding of Maoism in the field has significantly deepened. This book, I remind myself, recounts one week with one group in one region. Shah has nonetheless succeeded in raising a multitude of issues that are important to explore regarding India and our own society:

  • the respective role and importance of class, caste, gender, etc., in the analysis of society and in determining tactics in the struggle to change it;
  • the motivation for political revolutionary engagement and the space it can occupy in the lives of progressive people; and
  • how to evaluate the political impact of a movement and its strategy.

If, after a half-century of combat, the Naxalite insurgence has protected certain Adivasi lands but has not been able to enlarge the territory under its control, how do the Naxalites see their future? While the government regularly accuses the Naxalites of being the greatest threat to Indian society, as a means of justifying increased repression and military spending, are the insurgents having any significant impact on the rest of Indian social and political life? As we observe massive farmers’ strikes and the resurgence of the anti-Muslim Hindutva,[3] to what extent are the skirmishes in the forests contributing to change in today’s India?


[1] Published in English as Broken Republic or as Walking with the Comrades

An unofficial French-language translation is available at: secoursrouge.org/ma-marche-avec-les-camarades/

[2] The book is also available under the title Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2019; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). The French edition was published collaboratively in Québec and France under the title Le livre de la jungle insurgée: plongée dans la guérilla naxalite en Inde (Tiohtià:ke/Montréal: Les Éditions de la rue Dorion Montreuil: Éditions de la dernière lettre, 2022).

[3] Hindutva is a contemporary ideology that conflates the religious, cultural, historical and national identity of India with Hinduism. It is a right-wing political trend that reinforces its ideology by instigating intolerance towards minorities in general and inciting Islamophobia in particular.