Cycle of dispossession

Part memoir and part political history, the story lays bare the deep conflict in Odisha’s tribal belt

Published: 09th December 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 09th December 2017 05:17 PM   |  A+A-

Odisha and its inner turmoil

Every journalist has that one story that stands out, in all the reams of newsprint and all the hours of video footage generated from their work. A story that seems to have changed the way they view their craft and their role as social and political actors.

For Kishalay Bhattacharjee, this defining story is set in the forests of Kandhamal in Odisha. The triangle that is the very opposite of love has been one of the ongoing themes in stories emerging from this region: the State, the Maoists, and the Tribal. Alignments and misalignments, deep fractures in the way each sees their relationship with the land and all it contains, and the resultant violence—long drawn and seemingly unresolvable.

The origins of armed conflict in Odisha’s tribal belt, along with Adivasi resistance movements in West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh-Telangana, go back many decades, with one flashpoint dating as far back as the late 18th century. These isolated, homeland-focused resistance movements were reframed—and ideologically re-armed—following the Naxalbari uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s. The cycle of dispossession, state repression, and armed resistance continues into our century, with no clear end in sight.

It is in this context, in March 2012, that a small team of television journalists—Bhattacharjee among them—found themselves participating in a rescue mission following the abduction of two Italian travelers, by the CPI (Maoist), an extreme left-wing radical group operating in Kandhamal. An Unfinished Revolution is the narration of the team’s journey into the Maoist camp, their four-day interaction with the rebels, and the ultimate release of one of the hostages.

The story unfolds in four parts—in fact, only of these is a journalistic retelling—and works as part-memoir, part ethnography, and part political history of Adivasi resistance. The book begins with the video team’s trek into the Maoist heartland, and the arduous walk is described in excruciating detail, perhaps to give the reader a sense of the desolation and anxiety the team experienced as they were taken further and further away from the familiar.

The long conversations with the Maoist leader, Sabyasachi Panda (described only as the “Commander” in this section), form a large chunk of this section, and it is through these conversations that we begin to understand the drivers of the movement. Bhattacharjee also brings in first-person accounts from Claudio Colangelo, the hostage, and his family in Italy, filling out the story from different angles.  The last third of the book is in the nature of an explainer; the historical roots of Adivasi struggle, the continuing tensions between forces of the state and that of resistance, and ultimately, the despair of the tribals, who ask for nothing other than control over their own “Jal, Jungal, Jameen”.

The book offers much of value in terms of clarifying the often-confusing politics of tribal resistance, particularly in differentiating Adivasi struggle from the Maoist movement, with an illuminating essay (a “Postscript”) by Satyabrata Pal of the National Human Rights Commission that adds to Bhattacharjee’s observations from two decades of journalistic engagement. But as a narrative it lacks flow and elegance, the prose distractingly choppy at times.

The long conversations with Panda, first with Bhattacharjee and then Colangelo, tend to get tedious and come in the way of the human interest story that forms the anchor of the book.

But what Bhattacharjee does succeed in doing is in conveying his deep engagement and understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, and its human side, with all the attendant ambiguities. And while the story within the story—that of the abduction and release—had a happy ending, that larger narrative of tribal rights seems to have no neat conclusion in sight.

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