Essay based on Sanjay Kak’s documentary film ‘Red Ant Dream’
The state of war exists.
A calm but firm voice, distilling reason to its fundamentals, declares: “Maoism teaches us that self-preservation is possible only through war.” A caption mentions ‘Azad, spokesperson, CPI (Maoist).’ We never see him. We learn about his death later, death in custody. Azad’s words about self-preservation, which reach us now after his death, acquire a decisive clarity. The devastating collusion between the State and big capital has left no other possible way to preserve a life of dignity than to fight for it. This is the resounding call from the bloodied forest in the vast hinterland of central India that has announced a ‘People’s War’ on the Indian state. It is a revolutionary war that hopes to stop the indignity of the ruling elite’s war on the people.
Red Ant Dream, Sanjay Kak’s new feature-length documentary, is a tour de force. The film engages you compellingly with the power of its ideas, while it catches you at the visceral level with the intensity of its images. Appearing amid the din of corporate media’s demonization of India’s insurgent Maoists and Adivasis as the enemies of the ‘nation’ on whom the country needs to be tough, Red Ant Dream shakes you to see that the state of war already exists; it is just that the news has not been allowed to reach your ears. Or you have, like the proverbial three monkeys, refused to see, hear, or speak the ‘evil’ of the bitter truth—the bitter truth of everyday deprivation of the poor upon which the Indian middle class’s self-congratulatory comfort zone has been erected.
It is plausible to suggest that people’s movements are influenced by ideologies. The State experts, and even the mainstream Indian Left parties, see the political thought of Mao Tse-Tung (20th century Chinese communist leader) as mainly responsible for the insurgency in the forests of central Indian states. For the Adivasis, the numerous forest dwelling ethnic and tribal groups in India, and perhaps even for the Maoist insurgents, however, clarity of thought comes from experience and from the critical encounters with the State. They see the State as representing only the interests of the rich and the powerful; and given the spectacular inequalities of wealth the last twenty-two years of neoliberal economic policies have produced in India, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the State’s organizing logic articulates the forcibly accumulative logic of capitalism. As Ladda, an Adivasi activist from Lakhpadar, Odisha, says in the film: “the company giant has swallowed the Indian government giant. They have now become one giant.” For Adivasis, the war of dispossession has been going on incessantly for more than a century now. And so has been the resistance. On the Maoist influence, Ladda, facing the camera, declares, almost tongue-in-cheek: “Lingaraj (Lingaraj Azad, an Adivasi activist and intellectual) is my guru, and if he is a Maoist, then I am too.” The association is more incidental than direct. The real influence comes from a deep sense of justice, which may find echo in stories of Mao’s understanding of the oppression of the countryside by the urban-industrial-capitalist powers. One of the largest bidroh—revolt—in Adivasi living memory took place against pillaging British colonizers in 1910. Mao formed his first armed peasant militias in the 1920s and wrote his texts on revolutionary warfare in the 1930s.
The first remarkable, and immediately noticeable, achievement of Red Ant Dream is that it takes the genealogy of revolutionary war in South Asia out of the ossified narratives of the internal, and often fractious, ideological debates within the Indian Communist parties, and places it firmly within the history of people’s struggles for justice in South Asia. As such, the people’s war in Bastar is closer to the struggles for self-determination in Kashmir or Nagaland, rather than to how it is often represented: as a fringe within the broad spectrum of Left politics in India. No doubt an entire constellation of revolutionary thinkers, from Marx to Lenin and Mao to Charu Mazumdar, form the iconic backdrop of this war, but instead of their thoughts unfolding as reality or practice, it is the present conditions of life that breathe vitality into their mode of thinking. It is the people’s war that clarifies their thought and makes them relevant for contemporary understanding. That is why, while the ‘mainstream’ Left may see the people’s war as the ‘fringe,’ and wait for the ideal proletarian subject to emerge, or for capitalism to destroy itself, in the forests the actual grueling task of the war against capitalism has already begun, and taken off without so much as a vanguard.
At the same time, the film takes the war out of its enemies’ scope of vision. While the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the ‘Maoist insurgency’ as the “single biggest internal security challenge” to India’s security—the enclosing metaphor being a constant refrain among the State’s political and military leaders to domesticate challenges to its sovereign image—the film shows how the revolutionary war continuously deterritorializes the State’s metaphoric and real reach. The Indian state is not fighting a war with its citizens, but with subjects who, having been denied full citizenship rights, may lie within its nominal boundaries but remain outside its apparatus of capture: both the police apparatus as well as the constitutional parliamentary one. The State may think of adivasis as bubbles on the surface of water that modernization will cruelly break, or even affect commiseration about this ‘necessary’ loss for the sake of the nation’s superpower ambitions, but Adivasis (and others who are being dispossessed) understand capitalism at its most raw and bare level, and have taken the most logical route possible under the circumstances. The real power, the film asserts, lies ultimately with the population. As the fundamental contradictions of caste, class, and nationality widen in India, contra the optimistic assessments of elite votaries of India’s neoliberal ‘democracy,’ it may make it painfully visible that the population of dispossessed subjects actually constitutes the majority of the people—and they may well take the revolutionary route.
Kak’s own voice, measured, strategic, and unobtrusive, suggests: “They fight to protect a life that the modern world has pronounced obsolete, unfeasible…it is a war of defense.” He points out that the Adivasis see the present bidroh as a continuation of the old ones—the rapacious Indian ruling elite somewhere having replaced the pillaging British colonizers. The film connects the dots between ecological destruction wrought on the forests, for instance in Niyamgiri hills by giant bauxite mining companies like Vedanta, its justification under the broad mainstream neoliberal nationalist consensus, and the assistance provided by the State’s armed forces to suppress any dissent against this national-capitalist common-sense. Early 20th century socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh’s statement that ‘the state of war does exist’—which is the point of departure for the film—aptly expresses how the revolutionary war is not a war of choice, but a war to stop the already existent war that imperialist and capitalist powers have launched on the people. Kak states that between the insatiable resource exploitation of market forces and the ideological and moral debates about violence on the Left, it is the existence of fragile Adivasi communities, which is most critically at stake now.
With immaculate clarity, however, the film also points toward what remains intrinsic to war itself—that, while scenes of war may appear in isolated theatres, from eviscerated hills of Niyamgiri to the submerged fields in the Narmada valley, the logic of war is totalizing and engulfs all. Drawing adroitly from early 19th century German-Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, whose ideas on war and military formation remain popular with the State politico-military elite, the film reveals how Indian counterinsurgency logic is directed at denying a stable popular base to armed insurgents. So, while the erstwhile Maoist leader Azad, using the well-known metaphor from Mao’s On Guerrilla War argues that “we rely on the support of the sea of people in which we swim like fish,” the counterinsurgency military commander in the region declares that the anti-Maoist campaign is “a politico-military-socio-economic-psychological” one, which in Kak’s analysis replicates Clausewitzian understanding that the State must launch all the forces against the enemies’ ‘center of gravity’—the population. At the psychological level, says the counterinsurgency commander, the war must “make the other side feel that their end is near.” True to this logic, wholesale burning of Adivasi villages, spectacular brutalization, punitive containment, and production of proxy counterinsurgents, like Salwa Judum, mark the anti-Maoist/anti-Adivasi counterinsurgency.
While it maintains a persuasive focus on the fundamental battle line between the State and its subjects, with lateral shifts from one tense point of symbolic confrontation or appropriation to another along this line, Red Ant Dream subtly draws attention to how Indian military thinking might be unable to comprehend the primary raison d’être behind the people’s war in these forests. The State experts may create a Jungle Warfare School to fight wars in forests or a High-Altitude Warfare School to fight in Kashmir, but their principle mode of thinking remains tied to stereotypes about their opponents. The counterinsurgency commander, taken in too much by military manuals (and no less by the British era sartorial and equestrian style), keeps repeating to his soldiers that Maoists believe “power flows from the barrel of gun.” This could be a perverse attempt to project one’s own deepest desire and beliefs onto one’s enemies. It is also likely that he is only lying to his soldiers, who, after all, come from the dregs of Indian poverty much like the insurgents, and very much unlike the commander.
Mahendra Karma, the venal pro-State Chattisgarh politician of Adivasi background, who set up Salwa Judum, perhaps understands the unconventional aspects of the people’s war better, which makes him too dangerous for the Adivasis, if not the Maoists. Salwa Judum, which means “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, has been the violent proxy in the State’s war on Adivasis in the forests of Chhattisgarh. Part of the counterinsurgency war-machine, it acts as a blunt cover on the barely hidden bayonet of the State. If the State is ever called to reveal its account books of the war, Salwa Judum will serve the function of plausible deniability for the State. Salwa Judum also purports to change Adivasi consciousness. In the film grainy footage from a ‘found video’ tellingly reveals how Adivasis are forced to join the Salwa Judum, beaten into submission, and to say Ram Ram (a Hindu greeting) instead of Lal Salaam (Red Salute!), while in attacks on their homes their cultural objects, alongside their instruments of livelihood, are violently razed. Their resemblance with Ikhwanis in Kashmir is uncanny (and, why not, both are products of the same thinking). In mid-1990s Ikhwanis, with full backing of the Indian state, unleashed a reign of terror on Kashmiris in the countryside, even though their elaborate assault on Kashmiri consciousness may have only had limited consequences.
The hope of success
Beyond the tactics of war that might not succeed—for instance, the Maoist tactic that the revolutionary forces should only fight at moments of their choosing fails as Maoists are regularly drawn into battle to avenge wanton destruction caused by counterinsurgents—the hope for the success of people’s war may lie elsewhere. While the State sees people as fickle consumers whose politics can be cheaply bought with cash or silenced with violence, among the Adivasis there is a much deeper sense of attachment to the earth. (The film’s Hindi title, Mati ke Laal—Beloved of the Soil, expresses this connection well). This attachment, undergirded by a web of Adivasi memory and traditions, remains largely invisible to the State and the capital, which treats earth as a commodity.
At the same time, the guerrillas and the State connect with people differently. The film follows a group of Maoist guerrillas through the forest paths, which they negotiate gently and leave but just a light touch behind—a military tactic as well as an ecological ethic. Their movements in the forest resemble that of ants, close to the ground and collaborative, despite the heavy burdens on their shoulders. They recognize each other, and pass on the revolutionary conviviality to the villagers they meet on their way, through handshakes. The State is incapable of replicating these forms of relationship with people whose substantial rights it does not acknowledge.
In the film red ants are a wartime delicacy for the Adivasi guerrillas, but they can also be seen as a metaphor of a certain kind, a metaphor that might find resonance in certain Kashmiri idioms. Red ants are tiny but pack a powerful bite. They swarm the earth, and truly never go away. When red ants bite, it is hard to find a locus. In Kashmiri, rei names both the red ant and the eruption of unlocalizable itch their bites cause. Counterinsurgency draws its own blood as it furiously scratches the skin. The success of the people’s war is not in its bites, but in the eruption of itch all over the surface.
Thus, the non-commoditized attachments, the spread of revolutionary cordiality, and the proliferation of revolutionary praxis across different regions, may lead to success. But new bhumkaals (Bhumkal memorializes the legendary bidroh of 1910, ‘when the earth shook’) will have to contend with new ground, for the mining companies are disemboweling the earth of its substance at a gigantic scale.
The People’s War is a war for existence. It is war for earth, to maintain the earth as heaven, if not to create a new heaven on earth. In an age of pervasive cynicism, it is no small act to dream such a dream and to work to achieve it, given the power of global capitalist forces against which the Adivasis are ranged.
The strength of Red Ant Dream lies in its intensification of engagement between the aesthetic and the political. But instead of simply evoking an abstract meta-theoretical relationship between the two, the film’s visual scheme is thoroughly inhabited by the political. Each image is an assemblage of power and affect. A frail sari-clad girl in chappals, with an AK 47 slung across her shoulders, flits past in one frame. Her diminutive dimensions make the rifle look too large for her, yet more crucially it shows the magnitude of determination her tiny body carries. The most impressive and metaphor-laden scene from the film is the concluding one. While Indian paramilitary forces practice their guns on sanitized hills and on effigies of the Maoists, raising clouds of dust, the guerrillas—perhaps to save ammunition, perhaps to not hurt the living forest with their shooting practice—train with imagined weapons. As their fingers pull imaginary triggers, their eyeballs move swiftly from one direction to the next in a deadly dance. The practice of revolutionary war is embodied. This is something even a Mahendra Karma won’t be able to find an answer for.
With a conceptual depth that eloquently unfolds and weaves together some of the fundamental forces shaping India today, Red Ant Dream is surely going to become an important milestone in South Asian political documentaries. Noted for picking up the most vexed and potent knots of defiance against the forced enclosure euphemistically called the Indian ‘Union’, the film adds yet another superb accomplishment to Kak’s oeuvre.
This essay was first published in Kashmir Reader, 5 May 2013.