On a Long March: Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream


Red Ant Dream / Maati Ke Laal (2013)
120 minutes; English version, with subtitles
Direction: Sanjay Kak
Photography: Ranjan Palit, Sanjay Kak and Setu
Sound Design: Madhu Apsara
Writers: Sanjay Kak and Tarun Bharatiya
Editing: Tarun Bharatiya

You are far away from the sterile atmosphere of much of academia with its politically correct but spineless professors.  You are miles away from intellectuals who detest both the Indian state and those who live by the revolutionary ideal.  Just as well to be nowhere near those who run with the hare and hunt with the hounds — say they abhor the status quo but despise those who have embraced the political means necessary to get rid of the existing state of affairs.  You are also insulated from propaganda of the kind that is around every day on the TV news channels.  Their careful placement of the camera keeps the real, wholly different, story from reaching the public.  In sharp contrast, Sanjay Kak’s new film, Red Ant Dream, takes you right to where you’ve been denied access — the political world of “those who live by the revolutionary ideal in India”.

The darkness is illumined by the headlights of heavy vehicles, huge dumper trucks; there’s an industrial complex in the background as two fugitives (our presumption) meet.  The camera moves to the forest where the Maoist guerrillas are on the move in the darkness of night.  With the approach of dawn, they are exercising.  On a well-paved highway, security-force personnel are jogging.  Not too far away, preparations are on for a public meeting; a Hindustani revolutionary song plays in the background.  The All-India Radio (AIR) announces that operations will continue till the Maoists “halt violence and come forward for talks”.

The words of the anti-imperialist, socialist revolutionary, Bhagat Singh (in 1931) appear on screen: “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist . . . that war shall be incessantly waged.”

The Revolutionary and the Angry Poet

The camera is focussed on an armed squad of Maoist guerrillas on a trail in the forests of the erstwhile Bastar division in southern Chhattisgarh.  Their transistor radio tells them what they very well know — that “the government is more or less prepared for a long-drawn battle with the ultra-leftists”.  The camera then switches its location to Punjab.  There are portraits of Bhagat Singh, just 23 years of age when he was hanged by the British on 23 March 1931, and the Punjabi radical poet, Avtar Singh Pash, 38 when he was assassinated by religious fanatics in 1988, by a strange coincidence, on the very day that Bhagat Singh was killed.

It’s the 23rd of March 2011, the double death anniversary, and people are on the march shouting “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long live the Revolution) and “Death to Imperialism” (Samrajyawad Ka Nash Ho), the very slogans Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt — who while throwing harmless bombs in the central assembly on 8 April 1929 to “make the deaf hear” — first raised.  Revolution has “been a long time coming”, but surely it’s going to be a “long, long time before the dawn” (the lyrics of that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, “Long Time Gone”, seem to cross my senses).  Unlike much of the academic discourse that has made its peace with the status quo, the degenerate, unscrupulous and callous system, Kak’s film doesn’t prevaricate — it’s in solidarity with the Revolution.

Pash, “the angry poet for a generation” who was inspired by “the armed uprising that flared briefly in the village of Naxalbari in far away Bengal”, has harsh words for the security-centric ruling classes, for whom the biggest threat is internal.  As he puts it (recited by the Punjabi revolutionary intellectual, Satnam, author of the Penguin tract, Jangalnama):

If the security of the land
calls for a life without conscience
. . .
then the security of the land
is a threat to us.

“The insurrection in Punjab”, inspired by Naxalbari, “was violently snuffed out”, but the revolutionary spirit can never be extinguished.  The camera follows a procession to Pash’s village, Talwandi Salem, in the district of Jalandhar.  At the venue there are revolutionary songs.  Elsewhere, security forces are on the move; the AIR Kolkata correspondent reminds listeners that “the Prime Minster Manmohan Singh has repeatedly pointed out that the country’s greatest threat to internal security has been from the Maoists”.  The camera is again on the Maoist guerrillas on the move.  The film’s narrator tells us how the Dandakaranya forests emerged as “the centre of what is known as the Maoist insurgency”.  As the camera follows the trail of the Maoist guerrillas, the voice of Azad speaks of established violence, the violence of the oppressors and the terror it has unleashed.  In his view, “self-preservation is possible only through [people’s] war”.

No Way Out But To . . .

The guerrillas decide to rest; they are relaxed, smiling and laughing; some of them are telling the interviewer their stories — how their induction began with the coming and going of the Maoist militia, becoming a part of the Bal Sangham (children’s squad), then the Chetna Natya Manch (the cultural front), later the Gram Raksha Dal (village defence militia), and from there, to the pinnacle, with obvious pride, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) and participation in an ambush.  A young woman guerrilla, speaking of private vigilante and state repression, says: “I’ve seen all this with my own eyes, the rapes and beatings, jungles being combed by the police.  We realized there’s no way out but to fight, to take up a gun, and fight”.

Initially, these young guerrillas, men and women, knowing that they are on camera, seem to be making the adjustment, just like any of us would if we were placed in front of a webcam.  But very soon they seem to feel as if they are in control; that metaphorical wall between the maker of the film and the guerrillas seems to have vanished.  The latter are no longer that conscious of the camera.  Their real personalities begin to appear, and from then on one begins to get a feel of the life they are living, the way they are thinking, for they are now no longer self-conscious before the camera.  This was a very precious moment for me, as if I was in the company of those guerrillas and they were feeling comfortable giving me a glimpse of their real selves.  This is really one of the film’s high points, something very precious.  I was particularly touched by the woman’s narrative, her description of ongoing, almost daily, happenings.

The female comrades are touching, indeed, inspiring.  One can imagine what they do, and no less, alongside their male comrades — their bravery, their tenacity, and the unimaginable hardships they willingly undergo and seek to overcome.  Dandakaranya Red Culture seems to be really something that has taken root in these young women and men, shaping their thinking and their conduct.  They have left their families for a new home — they have become a part of the big revolutionary family where there’s warmth, where there’s mutual help, where there’s a spirit of sharing joy and sorrow.  If you were to ask me, I would say that all of this reflects the spirit of a people fighting for what they believe is right.  Marvellous!

The camera switches to Punjab again.  It’s 22 March 2011 and we are in Khatkar Kalan where separately the Congress Party and the Akali Party are holding rallies to commemorate, indeed, “lay claim to the dead socialist revolutionary”, Bhagat Singh.  The Congress has all along used the public memory of the revolutionary martyrs, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev to gain political ground, yet the fact remains that it unequivocally disowned the political practice of these revolutionaries who are revered for upholding the dignity of the people of India.  Bhagat Singh really hit the nail on the head when he said — and in this, he has proved prophetic — in a communication to young political workers on 2 February 1931, at a time the Congress was contemplating a compromise with the British government:

[W]hat difference does it make to them [workers and peasants] whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas?  What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin!

The camera quickly leaves the establishment parties’ rallies and comes to a procession and gathering of the Lok Sabhyachar Samiti (People’s Cultural Front) where there are speeches and revolutionary songs.

‘Nature Too Awaits the Revolution!’

We are then taken to the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha in eastern India in the midst of the Save Niyamgiri Movement against the mining of bauxite over there.  “This Vedanta [the transnational corporation, Vedanta Resources] . . . [is] going to consume this mountain . . . Niyamgiri is under attack”.  There’s a shot of the company’s industrial installation, presumably the alumina plant with a tall chimney from which a white smoke clouds the green hills.  “[W]e’re not going to let go.  There’ll be a fight, a fierce one.  Be sure of that!”  There is an attempt to explain with the help of metaphors: “See, what they’ve [Vedanta has] done is put a pot of water to boil.  [Now] they have to put rice [the alumina] in it to cook.  [But] the rice is with us; they only have the pot.  The precious thing inside the Niyamgiri mountain — if we don’t let them have it, they’ll be in a lot of trouble. . . .”

The camera goes to the Gandhamardan Hills, also in Odisha where the company, then government owned, was forced to withdraw.  The anniversary of that people’s movement brings the adivasis of Niyamgiri to Gandhamardan.  One hears the sweet sounds of a stream as the adivasi leader Lingraj Azad of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS, translated as Save Niyamgiri Committee) pleads: “Learn from history; partake of the present; anticipate the future . . . We have a slogan — If you want to live, be ready to die; at every step be ready to fight.”

The scene shifts to Lakhapadar at the crest of the Niyamgiri Hills.  We are in an adivasi hamlet . . . “that is stubbornly refusing to be displaced.  There’s no guerrilla army over here but war is still being waged”.  A determined, defiant villager, Ladda Sikaka, local leader of the NSS, speaks:

[W]e fought earlier too, with foreigners; we are not afraid of the fight.  If we die our children, our grandchildren will continue the fight.  We’ve survived the ages because Niyamgiri is there, mother-earth is there.  Only if she survives will we survive . . .  This struggle . . . it’s not about our survival, no, it’s about everybody’s survival. . . .

By the side of a road, trees are laden with dust, what with the steady stream of dumper trucks.  It is clear that the authorities and the company have little concern for the preservation of the natural and the socio-cultural environment, no concern for the rights of the people.  We might soon be witness to scarred landscapes, ruined streams, polluted air and deforestation here too — the costs of capitalist progress and development.  India’s new financial aristocracy is callous and rapacious; it’s heavy handed; it insists on operating on its own terms; it wants to make as much profit as possible, grow as rapidly as possible.  Nevertheless, what one is witnessing is not unique — it’s all about capitalism’s unsustainable appropriation of use values from nature and its unsustainable dumping of the resulting “waste” of production and consumption on to nature.  But if we have anything to learn from the morally sensible Ladda Sikaka and his ecological awareness, nature has to be regarded as a subject, like a human being, with rights that have to be respected.  In the words of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse: “Nature too awaits the Revolution!”

Bhumkal and the Commune

The camera takes us to Bastar once again.  The celebrations are beginning; witness the song and dance, the drums beating away in rhythm, the blowing of the horn, and drama.  It’s the Bhumkal centenary festivity being organised by the Janatam Sarkar (people’s government) of the Dandakaranya wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).  The legacy of Gunda Dhur, the inspirational adivasi hero who had fought against British imperialism (colonialism) as the leader of the Bhumkal Rebellion of 1910, is evoked for inspiration.  This revolt is particularly important for the Gondi Maoists, because the adverse impact of colonial land and forest administration policies on the tribal peasantry of Bastar was its proximate causes.  The zamindars and tribal headmen had then mostly collaborated with the British colonialists for they had gained from the land revenue system that the latter had instituted.  And the transfer of power in 1947 brought almost nothing in terms of recompense for the Gondi peasants.

A poster with a quote from Mao’s Little Red Book reads: “Without a People’s Army the masses will not achieve anything”.  The Maoist insurgency reclaims the history of adivasi revolt against the British and “fashions it into a weapon”.  The birds too seem to be celebrating; they’re chirping as the drums beat away.  Smoke from a chimney of the industrial complex is sucked back into it.

School of Counterinsurgency

It’s time though for the dramatic entry of a counterinsurgency expert.  A trumpet blows.  We are in the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College (CTJWC) in Kanker, Chhattisgarh.  As the jungle warriors in the making are being trained, a forceful voice, that of Brigadier B K Ponwar, Ret’d, Director of the CTJWC commands our attention:

[O]ver here in Bastar where almost 10,000-15,000 sq. km of territory across the Indravati River [has been usurped] . . . [where] the Naxalites have been running their own kind of Jan Adalats and . . . other kinds of activity . . . land allotment . . . [they] say “the water, forest, land is ours”. . . .  [U]sage of territory becomes ownership of territory . . . [W]e have to bring order in this disorder . . . the Security Forces [have to lead] the advance because the philosophy of the Naxalites is that “power flows from the barrel of a gun”. . . .  [P]opulation is the centre of gravity.  Whichever side the population tilts [towards], that side wins.

The Brigadier obviously knows Karl von Clausewitz’s On War (1932) well.  Footage of a Maoist video of 23 October 2005 shows the destruction of homes and hearths.  Nothing is spared, not even the traditional musical instrument.  “[T]he Salwa Judum thugs turn their fury on this too”.

The camera is again in the Counter-Terrorism College.  The jungle warriors to be are being trained in the ambush of a Maoist camp.  But footage from a government propaganda video interrupts the “ideal war” being “fought” in the “clinical neatness” of the training camp.  The video is about the Salwa Judum and it is “meant to underline the spontaneity of this counter-revolt against the Maoists”.  But unfortunately for the government, as Mahendra Karma (the founder of the vigilante group, Salwa Judum) addresses his followers, he lets the cat out of the bag when he says:

You are not alone in this movement.  [The] administration is with us, government is with us. . . . [T]he Militia people . . . if they don’t come, then burn their village. . . .  [I]f they don’t come here, then we will have to kill them.

As Karma talks of the administration, there is a shot of K R Pisda, the District Magistrate of Bijapur, sitting there.  R S Dwivedi of the Chhattisgarh Police is also there and he says:

The Naxalites . . . their strength is the people, [but] if the people are not with them, where will the Naxalites be?

Those Devils of Established Violence

The scene shifts once again to the Maoist guerrillas on the move in the forest.  I must admit, though I’m now a senior citizen, when I watch these guerrillas wandering, it gives me the feeling of freedom from a lot of millstones that tie me down and there’s something romantic about that kind of freedom.  Wish I were there with the guerrillas and the swallows!  Meanwhile comrade Azad, member of the Party’s Politburo and its spokesperson, is being interviewed.  He’s talking about Operation Green Hunt (the Indian state’s latest armed assault on the Maoist movement) and the movement’s resistance to it.  And, there’s some footage of a Maoist video of 20 October 2005 that takes you to Mankeli village in Bijapur block.  The popular Maoist leader Koval has been killed and his wife is describing what happened:

[H]e was unarmed and had my son with him.  They grabbed him too.  They beat up my husband very badly.  Then they attacked him with axes and knives, gouged his eyes out, and ripped his chest open . . . they chopped off all his limbs; the head was badly crushed. . . .

We’re back to the guerrillas being interviewed.  When they got wind of what had happened, they began to pursue those devils of established violence that had by then moved on, burning another village along their way.  “We followed them . . . surrounded them . . . 24 cops fell in that incident . . . we left after that, taking our injured comrades with us. . . .”

The camera switches to the Chetna Kala Kendra, Barnala, Punjab where a play on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 is on, but soon goes back to Brigadier Ponwar and his training of dogs (assisting the jungle warriors) to fight the guerrillas.  But before long, thankfully, we’re back with the guerrillas and they’re talking about an ambush they set up in which three policemen surrendered.  “On behalf of the Party we explained to them that you too have come from amongst the poor.  We don’t kill those who surrender. . . .”  Footage of a Maoist video shows a guerrilla interrogating two cops who had surrendered.  “We’ll let you off . . . you’re not our enemy . . . Where were you hit?  I’m a doctor I’ll treat you. . . .”  The guerrillas do not engage in unnecessary and indiscriminate violence; for them, even the cops are not beyond redemption, this, even as they know what the counterinsurgents do when they capture one of them, for instance, the utter cruelty and callousness with which comrade Koval was killed.

‘Just Kill Him, Is That Clear?’

The camera moves back to the Bhagat Singh anniversary at Rampura Phul.  A leader of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Punjab is speaking: “This is not the world Bhagat Singh dreamt of . . . that freedom hasn’t arrived. . . .”  Then at the Deshbhakt Yadgar Hall in Jalandhar, Amolak of the Punjab Lok Sabhyachar Samiti blends the past with the present, Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the Ghadari comrades and the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946, with the people’s resistance of today.  Pash’s “We Shall Fight” is recited by Satnam as the guerrillas are on the move, again in the forests of southern Chhattisgarh.  As they reach a village, there are greetings, the shaking of hands, Red Salutes.  In the company of the villagers, they are explaining the intricacies of a particular ambush they had executed.  Next, they are in Ongnar, a village where five residents have been killed.  The camera shifts to Brigadier Ponwar holding forth on “The Naxal Challenge”, with a PowerPoint presentation, and quoting one of the founding leaders of India’s Maoist movement, Charu Mazumdar.  But soon we hear the voice of Azad again, for the last time, taking about the victims of the so-called development process and making demands that “fall within the ambit of the Indian Constitution” but which he knows the Indian rulers will never accept.  So, in his view, armed resistance with the support of the people is the only way out.

The camera moves to a seminar hall in Delhi on 3 August 2010 where a public meeting is demanding a judicial inquiry into the assassination of Cherukuri Rajkumar, alias Azad, 58.   Satnam is speaking: “I knew that when they lay their hands on someone like him, they will not let him go”.  And, there’s Satnam again, this time reading Pash’s poem “The Constitution”:

[D]on’t read it
Its words exude the chill of death
. . . If you read this book now
you’ll become an animal —
a sleeping animal.

“A seditious poet he certainly was, Satnam adds.  What follows is an audio of a “Police Wireless”.  A cop in the field is receiving instructions from his headquarters: “[J]ust be on high alert and if any journalists come by to cover the Naxalites, just get them killed [my emphasis].  Is that clear?”

Guerrillas among the People

We are in the Niyamgiri Hills.  Water from a stream gently flows by.  The drums beat away, there’s dancing, and singing.  But Vedanta’s demand for “a million tonnes of alumina in a year, that’s an appetite that can level a mountain top in a few years”.  Guerrillas are on the move once more.  They are at the village where a memorial to the martyrs of Ongnar is set up.  People are paying their respects with flowers . . . with tears.  A female guerrilla is remembering the martyrs, their good deeds.  Onward to Punjab where Amolak is talking about Pash’s recounting of Bhagat Singh reading Lenin’s State and Revolution in his cell at the time when his hanging was due — “one revolutionary is in dialogue with another”.  Revolutionaries killed in police “encounters” (cold-blooded murders) in Punjab in 1970 are being remembered.  The voice of Gudsa Usendi, the Maoist spokesperson in Dandakaranya, is announcing a major victory of the PLGA over the police forces in Gadchiroli district.  The guerrillas and the people are dancing, celebrating into the night. . .  It’s dark . . . a torchlight is illuminating the pictures of the martyrs.  Elsewhere, Brigadier Ponwar’s jungle warfare training is in progress.  But, not to worry, the guerrillas are among the people. . . .

In Solidarity with the Revolution

There’s no resolution, so to say, at the end of the film.  One can almost recognize the loose ends.  Perhaps the way the film ended, that’s how it should have ended, for frankly, there is not going to be any near-term resolution of the major contradictions that plague Indian society.  If I were to be pinned down into deducing the politics of this film, I would no doubt say that it is in solidarity with the Revolution.  The film, when the camera is in Bastar and in the Niyamgiri Hills, brings to us the culture of vitality over there, a way of life that is rooted in nature and in the struggles of the adivasis who are closest to nature, this culture blending with that of the Maoists who have brought to the adivasis memory and dreams of “far away insurrections and revolutions — Naxalbari, China, Russia, even the Paris Commune of 1871”.  These struggles, as the film makes clear, are about survival and about creating new worlds.  From Bhagat Singh to Azad, it’s truly been a long march without end.  And, it’s going to be “a long, long time before the dawn”.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly.

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