The Present of the Absent State

[An edited version of this review has appeared in Biblio.]

The Absent State: Insurgency as an Excuse for Misgovernance
by Neelesh Misra and Rahul Pandita
Hachette India, 2010
272 pages, 495 Rs

Indian journalists have written books on conflict as diaries of their years of reportage, putting together their stories and experiences. The task of looking at conflicts with a broader perspective has been left to the security experts who mostly write from, well, a security ‘angle’. It is great, then, to see a book by two journalists, on the conflicts in Kashmir, the north-east and the Maoist belt. Journalists won’t give you footnotes but at least they can write lucid prose.

You would think this book would leave you with comparative insights between the three conflicts, but you will have to be disappointed about that. There is not even an introduction or an epilogue that would draw out their theory that the ‘insurgents’ filled the governance vacuum left by the state, but there is only a five pages-long unremarkable prologue. The book is sub-titled Insurgency as an Excuse for Misgovernance, an idea argued unconvincingly through the pages. How could the state be absent and ‘misgoverning’ at the same time?

The Naxal section begins with the story of an adivasi in Jharkhand who commits suicide because he hasn’t been paid NREGS wages. NREGS reached but not its wages – does that make the state half-absent? This village becomes for the authors “an enduring image of the defeated citizens of India, the dispossessed who populated the places where the governments had stopped functioning out of fear of rebel terror.” They show at great length how in the Maoist-affected areas, the non-existent welfare state and its officials happily ceded space to the Maoists. Yet, it can’t be a black-and-white truth that the fear of Maoists has been used as an ‘excuse’, because as the authors show elsewhere, many lives were lost to the Maoists d just to build a road.

In this village, the villagers have rejected the Maoist call to join them. One wishes the authors had asked them why. More than once the word “autopilot” is used to describe how these places are run, making you wonder about the larger debate on Indian liberalisation. We have been told that the mai-baap state must leave room for the market, and its not as if the market is absent in the Maoist belt. The libertarian think-tanks and op-ed writers in Delhi should only be happy with the absent state! They should read this book – and the authors are anything but leftist ‘jholawallahs’ – to see how the rise of the Maoists in these areas began getting a foothold along with the mining companies and their exploitative land-grabbing policies. One wishes that in a book like this, these companies and pro-market intellectuals were questioned about this lived reality of economic liberalisation. It is damning indictment when a man living on the Jharkhand-West Bengal border says that life was better 20 years ago, even as globalisation’s defenders in Delhi insist on speaking on his behalf that his life has become better.

The “New India” has not reached here, the authors write. They describe, travelling mainly in Jharkhand but also in Chattisgarh, the abysmal state of poverty, the absence of health care and education. But do adivasis want the New India, as we understand it in the neon-lit metros of India? This question, unasked here, kept recurring to this reviewer at several points. For example, they writing of the adivasis of Niyamgiri that they won’t part with their land even for a helicopter each, but don’t tell us that it is not only because of exploitative land acquisition policies but because the Dongria Kondh adivasis see that hill as their god. The difficult question of whether or not mining should take place at all is not asked here – we in the cities need the metals but do the adivasis have to give it to us? The adivasis are not a homogenous group and there are no simple answers, but the question must be asked.

Various key points that show us why the people of India’s east make for fertile ground for the Maoists. Yet, it is not the absence of the state, but its inefficiency, insensitivity and even malevolence that comes through. The state is not absent when the authors show us corruption in the public distribution system; or when police extortion turns people into militants; the state is not absent when it allows companies to take away all the mineral wealth of these areas with little in return; or when the bureaucracy that is charged with looking after the forests let’s trees be cut and the trunks be transported in trucks, or when forest department officials penalise adivasis for taking forest produce for their habitat. Even the first known adivasi rebel movement that they write about, was because the British were trying to grab land, not because they were not running schools. And so it was in 1980, when police firing resulted in another movement. Krishna Chandra Hembrom, a famous Ho tribal leader who led that movement in 1980, is quoted as saying the Kolhan region is not a part of India under the Indian Independence Act! He doesn’t seem too eager to see the presence of the Indian state.

They discuss the history of adivasi resistance movements in Jharkhand, but one wishes they had also discussed the failure of these two states formed on the basis of tribal movements. What is the relationship of the Maoists (who are they? are they themselves adivasi?) with the earlier rebel movements?

Such quibbles aside, the Maoist section gives us good insight into the world they inhabit. It helps that the authors are neither passionate defenders of the Maoists nor of the state. We learn about the development work carried out by Maoists, their party and military structure… and then soon about a village that took on the Maoists, but was soon used by the state to form an anti-Maoist vigilante force. They write about the comedy of the state sending its soldiers into impossible jungle warfare (the start of the military offensive in 2009 was met with guides falling into ditches) when what it needs is development to win over the people. Through internal Maoist letters we learn of a complex world of dedication and ‘civilian casualties’ alike. We end with a gripping chapter on Lalgarh, where the people bring down what was practically a symbol of the malevolent state – the huge house of the local CPM functionary.

The Maoist section is reported with empathy for the people; the authors’ Delhi eye is for the most part discarded (but why should Lalgarh be called an unknown place? It has been known to its people forever). In the Kashmir section, people are mis-represented to such an extent that I was reminded of people in Kashmir – ordinary people on the street – telling me that one of the reasons why their conflict continues is that the Delhi media misrepresents them, the people.

We begin with the state’s inability to save the Dal Lake from pollution and run, as if that is the cause of the Kashmir conflict. One could not help but chuckle at this, but it soon stopped being funny. It is ludicrous that the authors find it “unfortunate” that the people have “let go of simple duties in the name of insurgency, like paying income tax…” Kashmir 101: people don’t want to pay taxes to a state they see as an illegitimate occupier of their land. The popularity of such a sentiment has come through in various surveys, and is unmistakable to anyone who visits Kashmir.

The question of the legitimacy of the Indian state in Kashmir is dealt with a sleight of hand. We are told about the accession but not that the terms of the accession have been violated with impunity by India; we are told at great length about the brutality of the invading Pakistani tribesmen but not that even today, the day India’s military intervention began in 1947, 27 October, is a ‘black day’ in Kashmir, marked with a popular gneral strike. We are told that “contemporary writers and historians put the Hindu Dogra rulers in the same league as many of the oppressive Muslim rulers of medieval India,” a gross misrepresentation of Mridu Rai’s work, which of course is not cited. From such high history, we jump straight into the ‘Islamic jihad’ that began with a rigged election in 1987, as though nothing of political significance happened in the 30 intervening years! Words like ‘allegedly’ (missing in the Maoist section) start making their appearance at inconvenient places. The political grievances of the people are at best caricatured: we are not told why the 1987 election was ‘allegedly’ rigged, or why the losing Muslim United Front leaders were jailed after having been cheated, or why one detention in jail should start a whole militant movement to liberate Kashmir from India.

The dishonesty in these pages is incredible. The gravedigger they meet speaks against separatists, the man they find to quote from downtown Srinagar is unhappy about Syed Ali Shah Geelani; they talk about the Pandits at length without even mentioning that the facts of the events that led to the Pandit exodus are disputed by Kashmiri Muslims; they don’t ask why Pandits haven’t got justice. There’s no talk here of torture camps or mass rapes, draconian laws or the denial of the right to protest (one of the causes of stone-pelting) and the criminalisation of dissent. Amidst such deliberate omissions, is the state present or absent? One is left confused. The authors talk so much about development – for instance, a good few pages are devoted to the problems of the apple growers in the bastion of the Tehreek (movement), Sopore. It doesn’t strike the authors, and no one seems to tell them, that the lack of roads and cold storages here is seen by the people as the state punishing ‘disloyal’ subjects. After themselves talking about the state not helping the apple traders export their cartons to Pakistan, they write, without a hint of irony, “the traders’ hearts are in their main market, India.”

Geelani is shown as an opportunist politician who exploited the Amarnath land row, not mentioning that that movement in 2008 was started by lawyers and traders and the people on the street. When a boy throws a stone at a CRPF armoured vehicle in Nawhatta, they don’t ask the boy why he did so, they talk to the CRPF soldiers!

They quote someone as saying unemployment was one of the factors behind militancy in 1989 (but I thought this was an ‘Islamic jihad’?), they don’t tell you that in fact Kashmir’s per capita income is higher than the Indian average. When they talk, in the language of the state, about setting up more colleges to “channel the frustration of the youth,” it is clear that they are not interested in telling you the truth. The women they meet want transformers and not azadi, the ex-militants they meet regret the years they wasted, the madarsa teacher they meet is well-integrated into India, having learnt all about Hindu scriptures during his stay in Kerala. Azadi is but a dream “sold” to the people by “separatists”, not a popular sentiment to which leaders respond. In the post-script they regret the “impression” given by the Home Ministry which did the talking last summer, rather than letting chief minister Omar Abdullah appear to be in-charge. “Impression,” and not reality, is what the authors are concerned about. It is apt that the Kashmir section is called ‘The Valley of Denial’.

Once when I criticised a news report from Kashmir for obfuscating facts, a friend from Guwahati said, ‘At least you have a news report to criticise!’ While the Maoist section is 126 pages long, and the Kashmir section less than a hundred pages, the north-east gets only 34 pages. The Maoist section is about the people, the Kashmir section about misrepresenting the people, and by the time we reach the north-east the people are absent. The three chapters on Manipur and Nagaland are a snapshot into the parallel administrations the rebels run there, and unlike in Kashmir and the Maoist belt, they do so without contestation from the state. In fact, the chief ministers are said to collude. In this ‘ethnic’ insurgency, we don’t hear about Delhi’s historical role and the issue of people’s inability to identify with the Indian nation-state.

This is clearly a rushed book, valuable only for its Maoist section, which reads like a precursor to the next book of one of the co-authors, Rahul Pandita, called Hello Bastar. One eagerly looks forward to it.

9 thoughts on “The Present of the Absent State”

  1. “One wishes that in a book like this, these companies and pro-market intellectuals were questioned about this lived reality of economic liberalisation.” Is it necessary always for a book about lived realities to engage in Delhi drawing-room disputation? This comment goes against the grain of the rest of the review.


  2. A British reviewer in early nineteenth century England is said have written about a book, quite like The Absent State…. that a “naked monkey will not deign to piss upon it.”


  3. In a series of tweets Neelesh Misra has responded to the review:

    1) Voila! First bad review of “The Absent State”, my 2010 book with @rahulpandita We accept criticism with humility – but not stupid, ignorant, misplaced, uneducated criticism.!/neeleshmisra/status/64632115391770624

    2) You can criticise “The Absent State”, my book with @rahulpandita I respect your right to do that. But you are lying if you find “dishonesty in these pages” #stupidreview!/neeleshmisra/status/64633384965644288

    3) I had a great laugh today reading @DilliDurAst review of “The Absent State”, my book with @rahulpandita We speak the LANGUAGE OF THE STATE!!/neeleshmisra/status/64638322517098496

    4) Believe it or not, I respect criticism of my work in books/newspapers/radio/ films. But I hate selective, misplaced, stupid criticism.!/neeleshmisra/status/64639221205446656

    5) [in a reply to someone] If a reviewer says that a book that rips off the state (as well as non-state elements) speaks the “voice of the state”, what do you want me to say except “grow up, reviewer!”!/neeleshmisra/status/64651742712836096

    The second and third were retweeted by Rahul Pandita.

    I want to assert here that my review does not say that the authors speak the language of the state. I say that only about a particular phrase. I write: When they talk, in the language of the state, about setting up more colleges to “channel the frustration of the youth,” it is clear that they are not interested in telling you the truth.

    I wrote what I felt and I wish that instead of name-calling I had got answers to the many questions I have asked – such as, for instance, why they ask a CRPF jawan about stone-pelting but don’t ask stonepelters why tey are pelting stones. Or what that has to do with ‘misgovernance’.


  4. Thanks for the good review, and for calling out more of the reckless “journalism” of brainwashed Indians about Kashmir. Name calling is perhaps their most refined verbal skill.


  5. much needed review. as you note, one needs to ask what exactly is it about Kashmir that smart and conscientious observers–like the two gentlemen who wrote this book–lose (or suspend?) their critical faculties when confronted with the set of issues there?
    Perhaps the way battles have been represented in Chhattisgarh and similar places as indigenous, traditional tribals vs faceless capital and the state makes critique self evident and ‘solutions’ can be found within the frameworks of justice that the Indian state presents. Kashmir raises more existential sorts of questions about India, and some sort of self-censorship results.


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