Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley-Stories from Bastar and Kashmir By Freny Manecksha 

Flaming Forest Wounded Valley Stories from Bastar and Kashmir‘Flaming Forest, Wounded valley- stories from Bastar and Kashmir’ is a gripping account with lively narratives of first hand experiences in Bastar and Kashmir, where neo-fascist state repression has simmered to a boiling point, since 1947. Manecksha illustrates how the fabric of human rights has been ripped apart, violating the laws of the Constitution.

More than the commentary — of violence and atrocities, death and turmoil and also resistance and tenacity — what is remarkable is the in depth portrayal of how people are besieged in their day to day life. These project the bigger, grim picture. Each tale touches upon injustice or intimidation, ranging from the stark oppression of Adivasis in Bastar withstanding bodily violations for their rights to jal, jangal and zameen; to the subtle way in which journalists and activists are discouraged from visiting Bastar. The only hotel in Dantewada  can turf out guests at night, claiming the hotel is needed for wedding guests.

In Kashmir, a poet remembers the burning flames of what was once his home which was blown up by armed force when militants rushed in, as a necessary part of poetic folklore; a woman is woken to the terror and humiliation of soldiers in her own room during a night raid.

The stories illustrate the continuities in the State’s militarisation policy. For instance, the ancestry of Chhattisgarh’s Salwa Judum and its depravity could well be traced back to the way the State created and nurtured Kashmir’s rogue Ikhwanis; the battle to preserve pastoral land in Kashmir would also be a parallel of the Adivasi struggle for forested land in Chhattisgarh. The aged and infirm were not spared from the atrocities. This happens even as India is showcased as the world’s biggest democracy. It also shows how colonial concerns are superimposed with corporate ones.

The mainstream media represents Bastar and Kashmir and parts of the North East as zones of insurgency and/or terrorism.

But, as the book points out, these are in fact highly militarized zones where failing to stop at a check post can get one shot.

In the Bastar section, the book looks at how the Adivasi’s holistic view of the forest as an entire ecosystem with its cultural and spiritual values, is vastly different from that of the State, which sees it only from the commercial angle. The nature of the economy defines the classification of forest produce. The merciless displacement drive during the Salwa Judum years  was undertaken to champion the mining interests of corporate honchos. Repressive measures of the Salwa Judum placed the lives of the Adivasis in peril.

The book looks at why there are many demonstrative acts of dissent staged against this ‘development’ agenda, which flow from this crucial difference between the Adivasi vision and that of the State.

Through her field trips Manecksha discovered that Adivasis suffered great feelings of insecurity and alienation because they associated the security camps as centres of illegal incarceration, torture and humiliation. She narrates several incidents of sexual brutalisation, rape and intimidation and the Adivasis’ struggles to pursue justice for the same  in court. Sexual violence as a weapon of war was deployed in conflict zones as a means to crush the resistance movements.

Manecksha’s book is critical in manifesting the humiliating injuries perpetrated by the State. It is significant to note Chhattisgarh’s complex political history and blurring of party lines. Both the BJP and the Congress are united in efforts to aid industrialists and business entities to displace indigenous habitations and lifestyles.

In a crucial chapter on Bastar’s judicial proceedings and the criminal justice system, Manecksha looks at how under the guise of security, a vast section of Adivasi society is labelled as “Naxali.

The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, which has broad and vague definitions  of what is unlawful and the indiscriminate use of the NIA Act, has enabled the State to incarcerate thousands of Adivasis in fabricated cases. The high occupancy rate in jails as against the extremely low conviction rate illustrates the injustices being done to people spending lengthy periods in jail for no crime at all.

In the Kashmir section, Manecksha probes into how the most autocratic measures of the State, stripped Kashmiris of all rights, even those of an election as the hallmark of democracy, with the patent rigging in 1987. This paved the way for armed struggle. The book looks at the huge violence during the militancy years with internecine battles between various groups of militants  and counter fighting, as well as targeted killings of Pandits leading to the sizeable departure of the community.  India’s reply to the armed struggle, was an unleashing of a brutal counter insurgency operation, with enforced disappearances, custodial and extra-judicial killings,torture and sexual violence. Instances of heroic retaliatory protests are described in vivid detail.

The latest events of 2019 with eradication of Article 370 and the months of oppression that followed are recounted in detail with narratives on the mass incarcerations of people, telecommunication blackout and the return of night raids. In the first few weeks in August operations were carried out at night whereby troops entered people’s homes, made arrests, took away youths to camps where cases of torture were reported. In one instance, widely reported in international media, the instrument of subjugation was a loudspeaker. It was placed in a camp so as to ensure that villagers of Heff Shirmal in Shopian district could hear the shrieks of tortured persons as a warning message.

The book also examines spaces of dissent which highlights the role of funerals as a political statement and is the reason why lakhs gathered for prayers for Burhan Wani. This was also evident in the nineties when thousands had congregated for the funeral of a militant Ashfaq Majeed Wani, commander in chief of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

Funerals have also become gender inclusive spaces. Many women, who are traditionally forbidden from attending final funeral rites, were present for Wani’s funeral.

The funerals of civilians killed by security forces had also become a very public affair. When Tufail Matto, the 17-year-old schoolboy was killed by the canister of a tear gas grenade whilst returning home from tuitions public outrage broke out. Ashraf Mattoo, his father, was persuaded by the public to let him be buried in the Martyrs’ Graveyard in Eidgah instead of the family graveyard. He said that although Tufail was his son, in death he belonged to all of Kashmir.

The State, which has become conscious of the emotive power of funerals, used the corona pandemic to prevent handing over bodies of militants and civilians killed in gunfights to the families, denying people the most basic right to mourn.

The historic dimensions of Kashmir’s political struggles have been largely ignored and the book makes a small attempt to examine the complex and volatile interaction between external forces and internal struggles, from the colonial and the time of Dogra rule up to present times..Various form of oppression like begar or forced labour can be traced back to these times.

Since the Abrogation a series of repressive laws have been pushed through.  These range from legislation that strips hundreds of pastoral communities of their right to live in their ancestral homes, the sanctioning of mining leases that allow non Kashmiris to destroy and ravage the land, the amendment of laws that pave the way for heavy influx of non Kashmiris etc.The Hindu Right wing openly asserts that it aims to convert 69% of the Muslim majority of Jammu and Kashmir, into a disempowered minority.

Kashmiris themselves have compared this state to ithe naqba or permanent displacement of Palestinians.

The author surmises that the ominous calm and enforced silences don’t provide neat answers.

Harsh Thakor is a Freelance Journalist

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