Gandhi taught us that while a political or public victory is possible in war, it however degrades you as a moral being. Think of, say, the Rwandan genocide or the Bosnian conflict. Going by this, the Adivasi Maoists involved in a war in Chhattisgarh, should come across as utterly degraded beings caught in a spiral of violence. With a scribe and a camera in front of them, they should’ve started wailing about their miseries, pleading for exit from the hellish war.
Indeed, what kind of a filmmaker is it who comes back with news that something beautiful and forward-looking is flowering precisely in the midst of all the war and conflict? For God’s sake, why is he not talking about ‘conflict resolution’ or making the Maoists surrender arms, or restoring the government’s writ in the ‘red corridor’ and initiating ‘development’, and so on?
Instead Red Ant Dream — filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s new documentary — starts with Bhagat Singh declaring that “the state of war does exist and shall exist”. The viewer is already pushed to think: what is this war, which goes back to Bhagat Singh and is not just the ongoing war between the armed guerrillas and the security forces?
Brecht once asked what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank. Or as one old saying goes, the law catches the thief who steals the geese off the land, but lets off the bigger thief who captures the land off the geese. Banks and law, among other things, are part of a class war, but they are perceived as normal functioning, business as usual. There is no class war, we are told, only peace and democracy. There is no real structural inequality, only asymmetrical life chances or bad luck for some. There is no corporate land grab, only development and growth, without which India will be left out in the global arena.
Everything is nice, everything is fine, except for some exceptions here and there, some terrorists or violent guerrillas! What we have then is a social order constituted by war, but where the war never appears as war as such, appearing instead as peace and/or democracy, or simply ‘growth’. Because of this, revolutionaries who accept that this war exists and take sides are easily smeared as violent, or as terrorists, as immoral. This film challenges this narrative and establishes that revolutionaries open up real utopian possibilities through war, and renders the existing order less impenetrable, less unchallengeable than it appears. It intimately moves along the pregnant fissures and faultlines revolutionaries have patiently furrowed in the belly of the beast.
Red Ant Dream maps the ongoing dirty war over mineral resources. It opens with big dumper trucks ferrying goods, ores and minerals, with big dusty factories in the background. Next, it sets up the ‘two sides’: armed guerrillas in the forest and severe looking security forces. War over resources morphs into the war between these two sides: this is the purported, perhaps intended, frame within which the film signals its unfolding.
But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that there are no two sides, since they simply do not mirror each other. The guerrillas come across not as warmongering soldiers but, to use Rasta-speak, as souljas, or, in Gandhi-speak, as moral beings. They are not just opposing the enemy. Real opposition is achieved only when you are no longer determined by the conditions set by the enemy you are fighting. The film brings us signs of a real freedom and emancipation, where the Maoists are pointing to a different social order, a different way of relating and approaching life.
Far from being merely one ‘side’ in a dirty war, the Adivasi and the jungle become a metaphor for a rupture and a utopian stirring. From deep within the jungle, a voice emerges: violence is a structural feature built into our hierarchical, oppressive and rotten society. It feels like an infinite judgement on the present order. It refuses to be an ‘opposition voice’, refuses to engage in the rhetoric of ‘democratic opposition’ or the ‘struggle for hegemony’, and instead heralds the dissolution of this order
And then it is the Bhumkal festival. Here the many red flags amidst Adivasi drumbeats and brightly costumed dancers and ‘Gandhians with a gun’ will leave the middle class red radical riveted to the screen. It feels like a dream where you go and touch that other world of freedom. The Adivasi leader Gundadhur is celebrated amidst calls for “death to imperialism” and “long live the new democratic revolution”. You forget that in the melee of the crowds are women People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) soldiers with guns dancing to the drums. Weren’t these soldiers supposed to be atop watchtowers?
There is then, in effect, no two sides, only one side — the side of revolution and life. The big companies live through loot and plunder, through exploitation and terror, trying to live off our land, lives and resources. They, as the Niyamgiri Adivasis explain, only have the pot with boiling water, but “the rice is with us”. And so if we don’t give them the rice and what we have in our mountains, “they are in trouble”. In other words, they need us, we don’t need them.
The philosopher Alain Badiou reminds us that there aren’t two worlds, one of the capitalists and another of the oppressed and marginalised. We must claim that there is only one world and it is all ours: “Ek baag nahi, ek khet nahi, hum saari duniya maangenge”. The same voice is heard from the Adivasis of Niyamgiri, Lakhpadar, Muniguda and beyond, to the activists in Punjab upholding the legacy of Bhagat Singh, and Pash, the poet of revolutionary dreams.
And yet, in the meantime, there are ‘two sides’, for there is a war. Hence the enemy enlists the poor in its ranks, in the army and, worse, you have the Salwa Judum, which has many ordinary Adivasis in its ranks. You see state propaganda videos in which Mahendra Karma (a founder of the vigilante militia) tells us that Salwa Judum is a spontaneous uprising of the Adivasis against Naxalites. And then goes on to boast about the support of the government and the police!
In Red Ant Dream, we see rare footage from the training camps of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker. We hear about plans for the “creeping reoccupation of territory” from the Maoists and establishing the writ of the government. “Towards this aim,” we learn, “the entire spectrum of national power must be mobilised with the security forces at the forefront.” There’s also Maoist video footage that documents torture by security forces.
Overall, the film’s strength is that it wants to go beyond the spatial specificity of the Adivasi struggle as an indigenous movement (in this forest, against this particular mining company, and so on) and tease out a wider revolutionary left current. Hence its basic orientation is not one of romanticising the Adivasi way of life.
There is, however, one major tension in Red Ant Dream: in the way it presents industrialisation and modernity. The factories and plants are rightly presented as scary and oppressive. The long shot visuals of the industrial plants conjure up this image. But then these industries appear as an absolutely repressive deadweight thing and not as constituted by internal social relations (of capital exploiting labour), not as internally riven by class struggle. Hence the fact that there are potential allies of the Adivasis inside those factories — the workers — does not get taken seriously. Or, for example, that striking Maruti workers could be (potential) allies of displaced Adivasis. This would require an inside-out close-up of the industrial plant so that displaced Adivasis and workers can be seen together to form the proletariat — the properly communist perspective. The proletariat demands the whole world, and not just the protection of its own habitat (jal, jangal, jameen).
The film does come close to exploring this dimension. At one point, there is a conversation with two workers of the Vedanta mining company. They are in solidarity with the Adivasi villagers but still work for the hated company. They know that the company exploits them, that the real wealth is in the mountains and not in the city. But they have to work in the factory since they have no other way to feed their family. The jal, jangal, jameen option is not available to them. So what will be their terms of solidarity with those Adivasis who can revert to their jal, jangal, jameen and who want the company out? Only a wider movement can address these questions.
Another tension is with regards to the use of Bhagat Singh’s legacy. Here ‘anti-imperialism’ seems overloaded with nationalist or patriotic fervour. So the three men shouting “bagawat, bagawat, bagawat” to defend and “give our life for the nation” would surely run counter to the Adivasis in Niyamgiri who want to question the nation itself. Those upholding the legacy make tall promises about sacrifice and revolution. This contrasts with the fighting guerrillas who make no such claims.
At another level, the convergence of rebels and forests in the film is of wider provenance. The movie Pan’s Labyrinth has the little girl running away from the fascists only to find support from the rebels in the forests. Here again the fascists are parasitic and vampirish while the rebels stand for the rupture of the status quo, for life and a brighter future. The rebels seem a realisation of the freedom the girl always yearned for. Or think of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, when the dancing spirits of the forest offer boons to Goopy and Bagha. These boons set them on a fantasmatic high, give them a footing as it were to critique or reject existing society for its harshness and inequalities: the impossible becomes possible.
Unlike these movies, there is nothing oracular in the Red Ant Dream: here, the fantastic is snatched from the jaws of reality, of war and class struggle, through patient work among the masses. The imposed reality of war is turned around into the possibility of a better society: what else can be more fantastic!
Red Ant Dream will be screened at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, on 7 May