Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Interview

“We Really Need Orwell’s Spirit of Fighting Back”: Interview with Alpa Shah

Anya Pearson


Mukil Menon

| 10 mins read

Alpa Shah has always striven to understand inequality, and how to address it. When we meet at her home in North London on a damp day in Autumn, my head is full of shadowy imagery from the anthropologist’s book, Nightmarch: Among India's Revolutionary Guerillas. It’s a gripping first-hand account of the time Shah spent living with the Naxalites – an armed, Marxist Leninist and Maoist inspired guerrilla revolutionary group – and Adivasis, the indigenous communities of India.

Nightmarch is framed around Shah’s dramatic 250-kilometre seven-night march with the guerrillas across hostile territory under the cover of darkness. It is a meditation on inequality in modern India, and the contradictions inherent in revolutionary ideals. This year, Shah was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

I’m interested in hearing about how the book came to be. After reading Geography at Cambridge, Shah tells me that she thought her concerns for a better world would be best addressed through involvement in international development projects. However, seeing a “mismatch between policy decided in ivory towers and what was happening on the ground”, she decided to become an anthropologist in order to better understand the experiences of ordinary people.

“Many things happen to us because of chance”, Shah posits. But I have a feeling that Shah’s deep mistrust of modern capitalism was also a guiding light.

Capitalism and revolution in India

Taken as a whole, her body of academic work explores the dark underbelly of India – one of the fastest growing large economies in the world – where capitalism has entrenched social difference to appalling extremes.

Since 2013 Shah has been leading a programme of research exploring why India’s low castes and tribes, the Dalits and Adivasis, remain at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy despite economic growth. Seasonal migration is used to “super-exploit labour” in India, Shah tells me. Inherited inequalities of caste, class, gender and religion still matter greatly, even in the new economies. “There is a lot of state complicity” in the perpetuation of inequality, she observes.

Earlier in her career, Shah became particularly interested in the Adivasis, India’s tribal people. Along with the Dalits (previously ‘untouchable’ groups) they are the most oppressed and disadvantaged people in India, stigmatised as ‘wild, savage and barbaric’, yet together accounting for an incredible one in twenty-five people in the world. She ended up living with the Adivasis in the forests and hills of Jharkhand in eastern India, becoming “deeply immersed into their lives and bodies” for over four and a half years. It was the Adivasis who first introduced Shah to the Naxalite rebels, and their endless dance of death between repressive state forces and their revolutionary dreams. She learned their language and lived among them as one of their own. 

The journey in Nightmarch was born of necessity – walking at night is the only way that Naxalite troops can travel undetected over state-controlled territory. “The reason why the Naxalites are painted as such a big threat by the Indian state is because the state wants access to the mineral resources beneath the land that they and the Adivasis occupy.”

Reaching beyond the academic enclosure

After those years spent in the forests, Shah carried the “burden of the stories for a long time”, she explains. “Most of the people I met are either in prison, killed, or disappeared.”

As an academic, figuring out how to lay that burden down was a significant challenge. With the intense polarisation of debate on the Naxalites and Adivasis depicting them as either rebels with a cause or terrorists, “so many lives were at stake that I felt compelled to try and tell the complexity of those stories to a much wider audience – without dumbing down my scholarship.” Shah needed to balance this urge with the fact that attacks on academic freedoms and the pressure of research evaluation frameworks have coalesced to form “a kind of scholarly enclosure” where “academics cease to be public intellectuals”. In the end, she decided to reach beyond that enclosure.

Shah doesn’t take easy sides in Nightmarch, no more trusting of revolutionary dogma than she is of unbridled capitalism. The guerrillas’ ranks are swollen with people drawn by promises of a casteless, classless world: downtrodden tribespeople, lost young men in search of belonging, women attracted to principles of gender equality, and intellectuals from higher castes prepared to die for the revolutionary cause. But Shah emphasises in the book that many members will defect, be imprisoned, or die. The central characters of Nightmarch – Gyanji, Kohli, Vikas and Somwari – “have all come together for very different reasons to take up arms to change the world but who, in that process, also fall apart”.

Rice beer and gender politics

The mechanics of how things fall apart – how “such movements carry within their own ranks the seeds of self-destruction” is a key question for Shah. The “contradictions of class, caste, gender, religion and capitalism” are threads she weaves throughout the narrative of the rebels’ march through India’s nocturnal landscapes.

Of the several contradictions Shah highlights, two stand out. First, despite their Maoist intentions, the Naxalites are forced to engage with in the capitalist economy to sustain themselves, she explains. “They get their funding through what they call 'taxation' (I once called it 'extortion') of development programmes in the area. It's meant for the revolutionary movement, but pocketing this money becomes a way for the Adivasis to rise up the caste and class hierarchies… As Maoists, they maintain the economy is semi-feudal and semi-colonial. [But] they fail to recognise that they themselves are accelerating the spread of capitalism in their region”.

Second, “the Naxalites consider themselves as empowering for women. But despite this, the patriarchy that is common in high caste households manifests itself within the movement.” Shah describes how – in a mark of gender egalitarianism unusual for most Indian communities – Adivasi men and women will drink openly together. Sadly, this custom was not valued by the Naxalite rebels, who “had anti-drinking programmes, where they'd come and smash the beer pots used to make rice beer and mahua flower wine, and thereby do great violence to the Adivasi women (and gender relations)”.

Nightmarch and the influence of Orwell

While writing the book, Shah’s unique position as participant observer allowed her to “see the links between seemingly disconnected aspects of life” – such as those between rice beer and gender politics. Nightmarch is hugely inspired by George Orwell, she reflects. Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, or even Homage to Catalonia, were all based on Orwell’s own deep, bodily immersion into the lives of the people he was studying in order to write compellingly against the conditions which had created their circumstances.”

The similarities with Orwell are marked. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell puts on shabby clothes and feels he is instantly transformed into a homeless person to the point where he does not even recognise his own reflection. In Nightmarch, Shah dresses up as a male soldier. “The guerrilla leaders asked me to and this was purely for security reasons – the march with the guerrilla platoon took place at the peak of very oppressive counterinsurgency operations”. But for Shah, unlike Orwell, she feels her different background is written on her body. “You can only disguise yourself up to a point… it’s not only bodily differences but everyday practices that perpetuate what we’ve inherited”.

Although the contradictions of the Naxalites leads to their decline, Shah still has great respect for the way of life she experienced while living amongst the insurgents. “You could say that kindness was a revolutionary act”, she agrees. The Naxalite sense of solidarity, neighbourliness, and egalitarianism towards lower castes “guided their humanness and nurtured easily-overlooked subtle interactions between people”. In contrast to the hard-edged consumerism and exploitation of wider society, “it was a radically different way of being in the world.”

A final thought crosses Shah’s mind. Had the Nightmarch walked 250 kilometres north, rather than south, Shah and the Naxalite army she marched with would have ended up in Motihari, Bihar, where Orwell was born.

“We really need Orwell’s spirit of fighting back, and to keep alive the idea of a more equal and just world” she says. Ultimately, Shah sides with the underdog. Despite brutal police repression in India, “I take hope from the struggles on the ground. People aren’t just silently watching. They're protesting across the country in different ways. The problem is how to unite the struggles. Unless you build alliances, you don't have hope of a wider structural change.”