Doomed democracy

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Sanjay Kak. Through his writings and documentaries, he has been exploring the conditions of popular insurgency. Photo: Apal Singh

Niyamgiri axe, Odisha, a still from 'Red Ant Dream'.

A banner with the image of Avtar Singh Pash.

A People's Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) exercise in a forest in Chhattisgarh.

Chhattisgarh: Bhumkal Red Flower.

Bastar, Chhattisgarh: Girl with rifle.

A march in Punjab with a picture of Bhagat Singh in front.

A play about an early 20th century tribal rebellion in Bastar and its hero, Gundadhur.

The burden of Sanjay Kak’s film Red Ant Dream is to underline the necessity of resistance and to show that often in history the responsibility to resist has fallen on the poorest and most innocent citizens.

SANJAY KAK’S new work, Red Ant Dream ( Mati ke lal), is valuable in itself for its subject matter and the range of concerns it expresses and for what it wants to be: a series of case studies of the disconnect between the state and democracy in India. He has been, in his writings and documentaries, exploring the conditions of popular insurgency, which he sees, along with the waves of popular resistance in the country, as the consequence of a systemic crisis rather than its cause, as the neoliberal right wing would like to believe, or just a symptom, as the mainstream liberals think.

Red Ant Dream is a two-hour-long documentary that makes precise connections. It visits locations in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Punjab, and makes one’s mind wander to Kashmir, the north-eastern region, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and all the other places the film-maker has chosen not to mention. He combines observational acuity with political empathy and an anarchist aesthetic which he shares with his editor and co-scriptwriter, Tarun Bhartiya. Both want the viewer of their work to be fully awake and slightly detached. Their approach carries a Brechtian mandate.

The film straightaway moves into the Dandakaranya forests in central India. It was not long ago that the traditional forms of exploitation by contractors, government officials, and the “local” upper-caste elite (which historically made its appearance much later), and the callous neglect of the region by the state, were characteristic of the life in the tribal heartlands of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand when these were parts of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar respectively.

Today, this memory is already tinged with nostalgia: little did the people of this region know what was to come. The dim profile of Verrier Elwin and the shadow of the Shukla brothers and the like have receded from the region; the shadows of the likes of Mahendra Karma, the warlord; B.K. Ponwar, the counter-insurgency instructor; and Vishwaranjan, the police thinker, loom. Bhopal and Patna are too distant, Nagpur and Delhi too close.

With the reconstruction of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand as new States of the Indian Union, the forces of neoliberalism unleashed an unprecedented avalanche of destruction and displacement. The government started selling parts of the new States off to corporate predators and global mining mafias before these States could come into their own. The brute force with which the democratic forms of resistance against displacement and the annexation of the land and mineral wealth were met also reflects a sort of mainstream consensus in the body politic. The brutalisation and disempowerment of the populace seem to be a fair cost to pay for the much-desired “development” and the poisoned weed of “democracy”.

The traditional intelligentsia of the region seems to have thrown in its lot with counter-insurgency, and the organic intelligentsia—that much-mythicised Gramscian construct—is yet to find its feet and its genius.

The Maoist cadre has organised a popular resistance that is determined and calm, amidst the terrible onslaught by the state, the corporate sector, the hostile intelligentsia and the media. Sanjay Kak’s film expresses this moment. It alternately flies two flags: a flag of deep depression and a flag of wild hope, much like his subjects from the tribal people and the poor peasantry. We are taken to Odisha, to Niyamgiri Hills, where a multinational corporation is destroying the ecosystem and the centuries-old settled life to extract bauxite, which will leave behind a desolate, flattened landscape in a few years’ time. People’s resistance here takes the form of refusal to leave. They use all forms of traditional resistance, including their bows and arrows, their faith and sacred beliefs. The Maoist alternative of underground armed resistance is not available to them. Different forms of popular mobilisation are at work here. The majority of the poor here too are prepared to die for the cause.

In east Punjab, people continue with the political and cultural traditions of the Left by organising the poorer sections of the peasantry and subaltern classes against the consolidated power of the landed classes, the political establishment and the state machinery. This is the classic land of ethnic cleansing and historical fractures—socio-religious, cultural and geopolitical, with a huge load of guilt and a memory backlog. The small Left groupings are building and practising a cultural idiom that transcends the sectarian divisions and preserves the legacies of class struggle. They link the memory of Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh with the recent one of Avtar Singh Pash.

The burden of the film is to underline the necessity—and inevitability—of resistance and to show that often in history the responsibility to resist has fallen on the poorest and most innocent. However unequal the fight, it has to be carried on. The struggles create new solidarities and provide meaning and continuity to the social existence of the oppressed and the marginalised. It is also their destiny. There are millions among them ready to stake their lives for a struggle that is noble and mundane at the same time. The voices of two martyrs quietly run parallel to the commentary: the voice of Pash, the slain revolutionary poet of Punjab, through recitations and memorialisation by the Left movement, and that of the Maoist leader Azad, who speaks about the objectives of the armed resistance with great economy and deep emotion. Azad’s voice leaves an indelible imprint on one’s mind and is one of the unexpected achievements of the film. Azad’s extrajudicial execution by the state not much after this recording was made adds poignancy to the film.

Everywhere in the film, people move slowly, often burdened with the worries of daily living or preoccupied with the job at hand, but they are not demoralised. Neither are their critical faculties dulled. They exude a kind of patience and fortitude that contrast well with the urban radicalism on a short fuse. The language of repression can be scripted but the dialects of resistance cannot; these are put together and used by the protagonists themselves. Maybe for this reason, the film-maker suppresses all sorts of creative or cinematic temptations, including a legitimate urge to put an authorial stamp on his work. The emotions are there but they move behind a curtain.

Despite the Brechtian caution, and the rough welding of its narrative metal, one cannot avoid becoming an insider while watching Red Ant Dream. For instance, one worries about the people who are seen on the screen—something might happen to them sooner or later. Will we hear from them again? It is as if Sanjay Kak, Tarun Bhartiya and the members of their team are already memorialising something that in their subconscious they know could be heading towards erasure. Are they creating precious, archival footage? Are we then complicit witnesses? The answer, I am afraid, is yes. We, who are generally averse to being identified as tools and objects of ruling class hegemony but are eager to be seen as part of “civil society”, need to put our minds and bodies between the Darwinian state and the oppressed humanity if a turnaround has to come in this doomed democracy of ours. This perhaps is the message and the challenge of the film. This too is left for the viewer to figure out. There is a deep morality silently at work here. It underlines the impossibility of neutrality and seems to ask the question once asked by an old Irish partisan: whose side are you neutral on?

Asad Zaidi is a well-known Hindi poet and critic. He also runs Three Essays Collective, an independent publishing house.