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The Burning Forest is an empathetic, moving account of what drives indigenous peasants to support armed struggle despite severe state repression, in which lives are lost, and homes and communities destroyed. Over the past decade, the heavily forested, mineral-rich region of Bastar in central India has emerged as one of the most militarised sites in the country. The government calls the Maoist insurgency the “biggest security threat” to India. In 2005, a state-sponsored vigilante movement, the Salwa Judum, burnt hundreds of villages, driving their inhabitants into state-controlled camps, drawing on counterinsurgency techniques developed in Malaysia, Vietnam and elsewhere. Apart from rapes and killings, hundreds of “surrendered” Maoist sympathisers were conscripted as auxiliaries.
The conflict continues to this day, taking a toll on the lives of civilians, security forces and Maoist cadres. In 2007, Sundar and others took the Indian government to the Supreme Court over the human rights violations arising out of the conflict. In a landmark judgment, the Court in 2011 banned state support for vigilantism. The Burning Forest examines this brutal war in the heart of India, and what it tells us about the courts, media and politics of the country. The result is a granular and critical ethnography of Indian democracy over a decade.
“A very important and interesting book which should be widely read … A deeply disturbing analysis of the sacrifice of tribal lives and communities caught between the camouflaged barbarity of the security forces and the violent arrogance of a deflected rebellion. The appeal for reasoned humanity cannot be any stronger—or more eloquent—than this.”
“How does democracy affect the prosecution of civil war? Nandini Sundar explores this question with untold courage and fierce determination in her remarkable extended ethnography of counter-insurgency in Chhattisgarh (India)—a desperate struggle to clear the land for mineral exploitation. Starting from poor adivasi villagers, aided and abetted by Naxalites, Sundar lays out in dispassionate detail the history of escalating violence, spurred on by the atrocities of a state-sponsored vigilante group and special police force. Stung by the lack of interest in the Indian media and parliament, she and two collaborators pursued and finally won a Supreme Court case against the state of Chhattisgarh. But, again, with no obvious effect. By multiplying opportunities to contest state violence, democratic institutions may have moderated but also extended the civil war. A rare and brilliant treatment of a topic few social scientists would dare to touch, let alone examine at such close quarters and for over two decades.”
“The Burning Forest is vivid, challenging and informative—an exemplar of engaged sociology and anthropology. It is a stellar account of the tension between villagers, insurgents and the multiple levels of state action and inaction, the intricate complications of the legal system and of course, the politics of it all. Nandini Sundar’s empathy for the people of the forest and their struggles for a dignified life and livelihood is heart-warming.”
“Every thinking Indian, every citizen who is concerned about the present and future of the Republic, should read The Burning Forest. It is an impeccably researched and finely written work of scholarship, redolent with insight, and displaying enormous courage as well.”
“If many places are like Bastar, few books are like The Burning Forest. It resonates with classics on frontiers and dispossession.”
“Sundar’s book is an exceptional expose of the scandal of rural governance in India, a chronicle of State excesses, an anthropologist’s view about how conflicts perpetuate themselves and an account of how India’s democracy is degraded when few are watching. Policymakers ought to take away one the key lesson from it that there really are no military solutions to social conflicts.”
“Sundar’s book is a must-read for those interested in the genesis and the nature of conflict in Bastar.”
“The work needs to be celebrated for its scholarship, for its independence and for its courage.”