Arts

A Long March

By Shuddhabrata Sengupta | 1 July 2013
SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY FOR THE CARAVAN
Through his documentaries, Sanjay Kak, 55, has sought to engage with the state’s responses to challenges to its power

IN THE MIDDLE OF A DAY’S MARCH, a band of guerrillas rests in a clearing in the forests of Chattisgarh. They sit in a circle, without speaking. A young woman with short hair and bright eyes, cradling her weapon, breaks their silence. “I saw what the police did in my village, to the women … and that is why I joined the PLGA”—the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the military wing of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). “At first, whenever we went on an ambush, I used to be scared, but then I would remember…” It takes little to fill in her ellipsis.

Later, we see her among a knot of dancers, in the middle of a Bhumkal celebration, which is held to commemorate an early-20th-century tribal uprising, seen by the Maoists as a precursor to their insurgency. Soldiers, militia recruits, members of  PLGA’s Cultural Squad, and hundreds of ordinary, unarmed forest-dwellers participate in the carnivalesque vigil, which brings the gun, the drum, the flute and the dream of rebellion together to remember common humiliations and a few uncommon victories. This is what the red ants dream.

Red Ant Dream (2013), the latest documentary from 55-year-old director Sanjay Kak, takes us into the world of India’s Maoists, especially the members of the PLGA, who are considered by the Indian state to be its “most significant security challenge”. Here, in the Dandakaranya forests in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, Kak shows the rebels as human beings, not just as faceless insurgents. In doing so, he compels us to confront the conditions that produce the guerrilla who dances, as much as he asks us to think about the dancer who chooses to bear an automatic rifle.

Like much of Kak’s work, the film (which is about more than just the Maoists) takes us to places where aggrieved citizens confront the security apparatuses of the Indian state. In the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, people resisting the devastation of the forests and the displacement of tribal inhabitants for the sake of Vedanta’s bauxite mine are labelled terrorists. In Chhattisgarh, a recording of an intercepted police wireless message coldly instructs subordinates to make sure that no journalists return alive from a foray into a combat zone, where torched villages, destroyed homesteads, and the remains of “neutralised” teenagers can be found. A lot of this material, which makes its way into the film through found footage, seems to point to the reality of India’s massive counter-insurgency offensive aimed at destroying the Maoist presence in Central and Eastern India. This, Kak seems to say, is how the Indian state secures itself against its own population.

There is little doubt, then, that Red Ant Dream shows us something true, though nightmarish, about a time through which many of us may have been sleepwalking. In this respect, it is of a piece with Kak’s earlier films, which have documented resistance movements in Kashmir, the Narmada river valley of Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab, among other places. Kak, who began experimenting with film in the years after Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, is a chronicler of what he calls “the current, ongoing undeclared state of emergency, which began around 2000”. During this emergency, opposition to what many see as the neo-liberal economic agenda of the Indian governing classes began to gather momentum in a series of popular movements across the country. Long-standing battles against military occupation in Jammu and Kashmir and in north-eastern states, especially Manipur, intensified. In many other parts of the country, there were renewed protests against assaults on industrial workers, against forcible land acquisition, deforestation, displacement, urban dislocation, nuclear power plants and big dams.

The Indian state’s response to these movements has been a series of repressive legal and extra-legal measures, such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act—or TADA and POTA, to use their ungainly acronyms. All of this constructed a frame within which judicial harassment, disappearances, preventive detention, torture and extra-judicial assassinations, known as encounters, could be exercised as instruments of governance.

Kak’s work has always been an attempt to engage with and understand the state’s responses to peaceful as well as violent challenges to its power. To do this, Kak and a frugal crew have walked with many thousands of people—to demonstrations, on patrols, to work, to count the living and the dead, to farms, to dam sites, to meetings and rallies, to gatherings, departures and fights. Over the years, these walks have taken Kak a long distance—from celluloid to analog and then to digital video, from being a consummately reasonable young man to becoming an agile and gracefully aging rebel. From being a filmmaker who would stand and watch people walk, he became a filmmaker who began walking with them.

To see how Kak got here, it is necessary to look backwards to Jashn-e-Azadi (2007), in which he recorded the struggle for freedom in the Kashmir valley, and to Words on Water (2002), in which he captured the state’s and judiciary’s responses to a non-violent mass movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement). It is necessary, perhaps, to go even further back in time, to films such as One Weapon (1997), which looked at those who took up the vote, not the gun, as their weapon.

Kak was born into a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit family, and had an itinerant but otherwise unremarkable boyhood following the twists and turns of his father’s army postings and making routine visits to their ancestral home in Srinagar. In 1975, at the beginning of the Emergency, he entered the elite bastion of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. It was a time marked by a climate of suspicion and a strange hybrid of kitsch patriotism and the cult of personality. For Kak, like many young people of his generation, the Emergency was the first event to erode the trust in an ordered democratic society. “The Emergency was a watershed, wasn’t it?” he recently said to me. “It changed the way you looked at everything—at even the smallest of things.”

Kak’s perspective on the world became increasingly focused on the particular. After graduating St Stephens, he did a Master’s degree in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, which helped shape this new way of seeing. “Sociology, or at least the way it was taught in D-School at that time, made it difficult to generalise about any society in broad terms,” he said. “One had to learn to be precise, and to base one’s observations and opinions on actually being with people, on asking them about their lives.”

This concern with other individuals’ lives slowly began to find expression, as Kak moved “in fits and starts” towards what he “later came to understand as documentary film,” he said. “It meant getting away from any notion of privileging the way you think things ought to be. You have to stick to the way things are, instead.”

Kak began making films in earnest in the late 1980s. At the time, the thin tissue of a post-Emergency social and political consensus, a patchwork of half-hearted gestures towards a more inclusive polity, was beginning to rend. In the coming years, Kashmir would erupt; Tiananmen Square would shake many certainties; the Berlin wall would come down; the anti-Mandal agitation would bring the issue of caste out into the open and onto the streets of Delhi; satellite television would bring the Gulf War to the capital; and the mosque at Ayodhya would be demolished.

At the same time, documentary filmmaking in India, which had already been given a definitive political turn just after the Emergency by the activist work of Anand Patwardhan, began to acquire an even sharper edge. The very idea of the “independent filmmaker”—someone untied to an institutional or commercial imperative—was fresh. The first video cameras were beginning to appear in their hands and the first computers on their desks. It was a time of dangerous, sometimes delightful, uncertainty.

In cities and towns across the country, documentary filmmakers, cinematographers and editors began to meet to show and discuss each others’ work and to find new audiences and solidarities that would mature in time to fashion lively and active film-viewing and discussion cultures—on college campuses, in informal gatherings, during impromptu festivals with names like ‘Films for Freedom’ and through new channels of distribution made possible by digital technology.

Kak was in the thick of this change, together with several other filmmakers, including Pankaj Butalia and Ruchir Joshi; Reena Mohan; Vasudha Joshi and Ranjan Palit; Nilita Vachani and her brother, Lalit Vachani; RV Ramani; Soudhamini; the Media Storm Collective, Rahul Roy and Saba Dewan; and Amar Kanwar. As a young graduate from a film school, and a member of a collective—Raqs Media Collective—that had just been formed, I recall sitting on more than one occasion in the South Delhi basement office of Octave Communications, Kak’s production agency. Listening to the talk of our senior colleagues, it was hard not to be infected by the excitement that we were part of something larger than worrying about the funding for our next project. We were all not just making films or dreaming of making films, but we were also thinking about the ways in which we saw the world.

Although this was a period of intense activity, Kak’s films were yet to acquire the political edge that they are known for today. He had already made a television film on everyday life in Punjab during the Khalistan movement (Punjab: Doosra Adhyay, 1986), a television series on the Ganga (Pradakshina, 1987); and documentaries on the post-Khmer-Rouge restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (Angkor Remembered, 1990), and the Indian diasporas in Britain and South Africa, respectively (This Land, My Land, Eng-land and A House and A Home, both 1993).

THE DOCUMENTARY THAT MARKED Sanjay Kak as an explicitly political filmmaker—albeit one at a different point on the political spectrum from where he appears to be today—was One Weapon. Part of a series called India’s Quest that was produced by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility to commemorate 50 years of Indian independence, the film was Kak’s first extended engagement with mass expressions of dissent. It is in this film that he began walking with the people he was filming.

Each film in India’s Quest was meant to handle a different topic, and to provide material for discussions for high school and undergraduate university students throughout India. Kak chose the electoral process, and the way in which polls make a claim to represent the popular will. The film was shot in two widely disparate locations—Tamil Nadu, simmering with the renewal of an assertive Dalit politics, and Punjab, still recovering from the violence of the Sikh extremism and state repression of the 1980s and the early 1990s.

In Tamil Nadu, Kak followed the reformulation of the demand for a separate electorate by Dalit activists, who were trying to renew Ambedkar’s legacy in a political culture riven by the rhetoric of anti-caste movements and the ground reality of continuing caste-based oppression.

In Punjab, Kak followed a range of candidates, from the CPI(M), the CPI(ML), the Akali Dal and the Congress. But his focus was on those who pitched in from the margins: a Dalit Christian who campaigned for the Jat Sikh Congress satrap and then bitterly complained about how every promise was forgotten once elections were over; a CPI(M) candidate who stood up to Khalistanis and lived; a former Naxal-turned-Congress-worker who talked hesitantly, but clearly, about the meaning of state terror; and farmers and landless Dalit peasants who asked Kak whether he knew of any alternative to the vote as a weapon, and whether such an option would work. Through these voices, Kak told the story of a society beginning to use the elections as a means to talk to itself, after years of grim silence.

Watching One Weapon today, 16 years after it was made, the film seems laden with portents of the exhaustion of the vote as a weapon of change, and of the tensions between rhetoric and reality in public discourse about caste. At the time, however, Kak still seemed to assume that representative democracy in India remained a flawed, but perfectible idea. His questioning sincerity was transparent, as was his faith in what he saw as the ultimately democratic ethos of the state. This ethos might suffer distortions, Kak seemed to believe, but it remained open to correction and restoration—if not through electoral results, then at least through the very process by which elections offer various marginal sections of the population a part to play in the unfolding drama of democracy.

Kak’s next film took the walk that he began with One Weapon, as well as its logic, and travelled a much greater distance. Words on Water—a trek across all sorts of terrain—is a rich archive of the work of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), one of the biggest and most organised resistance movements in the recent history of South Asia.

The NBA, led by Medha Patkar (whom we see several times in the film, walking, organising, negotiating, getting arrested and staying her ground), began around 1985 as a small voluntary organisation committed to saving the ecosystems and communities that thrived along the Narmada in Central India from being wrecked by a series of big dams. As more and more people (totalling up to 250,000) began to be displaced by the development projects, opposition to the dams escalated, and the NBA emerged as the most significant and popular activist group within environmentalist politics in India. It attracted not just hardened grassroots organisers, but also dissident engineers, lawyers, and a wide spectrum of non-party Left activists who had reason to be wary of the local as well as global corporate interests that backed the big dams. The movement was confrontational but resolutely non-violent, and was almost obsessively wedded to a legalist confidence in the judicial process.

Words on Water is a kind of mirror to the NBA; through the film, we see the organisation thinking, changing tactics, retreating, advancing. Kak began filming the movement in 1999 and followed it until 2002. Every occupation of a dam site or a corridor of power is followed faithfully, every argument recorded. At every stage, the state’s undemocratic willingness to impose its developmental aims on an unwilling population is scrutinised, sometimes with rage, sometimes with laughter and song. The film showed the little disputes with lower-level administrators; the big tussles with global policy wonks; the protestors agitating in incessant rain; the counting of dead livestock; the vigil as water levels rose in a village; the debate over displacement figures; and the polemics over engineering, electricity and irrigation. In short, it countered a process that made people effectively invisible by reducing them to acronyms and numbers.

Words on Water exposed the daily confrontations between the state and citizens over the question of dams and development. In an especially telling sequence, a bureaucrat surrounded by protestors at a construction site of the Maheshwar Dam on the Narmada hysterically insists that he is a servant not of the Siemens company, which had stakes in the dam at that time, but of the Indian constitution and the parliament—even as the policemen accompanying him bundle protestors into vans to take them to a nearby jail in Mandaleshwar. (Here, we see Arundhati Roy, Kak’s interlocutor and steadfast companion on several of his adventures, being pushed into an SUV that, according to Kak’s voiceover, belonged to the textile company S. Kumars, which was promoting the building of the dam. The vehicle was ostensibly headed for the same detention facility.) Soon, the prison gets so overcrowded that its staff deserts, turning the compound into a vast protest camp.

Throughout Words on Water we see the NBA triumph: it mobilises thousands of people, shapes public opinion, isolates and shames a complicit bureaucracy, and even persuades international agencies such as the World Bank and companies such as Siemens to drop their stakes in the project. The film shows us the movement acting like a model of what democratic civic action ought to be.

Yet, all this was reduced to nothing by one stroke. In October 2000, the Supreme Court, in a majority judgement authored by Justices BN Kirpal and AS Anand, gave the go-ahead to the Narmada dam projects. In their decision, the justices wrote, “the re-settlement and rehabilitation of people whose habitat and environment makes living difficult does not pose any problems.” But the film, which was released in 2002, would show what resettlement and rehabilitation mean. In a striking scene, a government contractor carpets the barren soil of a “rehabilitation site” with a thin layer of fertile black soil.

The Supreme Court judgement on the Narmada issue served as a perverse anti-climax to Words on Water. The cosmetic treatment of the earth and the cavalier treatment of people, approved by a Supreme Court judgement, seemed to break Kak’s confidence in constitutional measures as modes of redress. The possibility of a politics that appealed to the fairness and better judgement of the state began to evaporate.

THE BLOWS OF THIS DISAPPOINTMENT would be compounded just over a year later, on 13 December 2001, with the attack on the Indian Parliament by a group of men whose identity remains shrouded in mystery even today. The spectacular violence, which was captured on television cameras and broadcast to the nation, led, among other things, to the framing of SAR Geelani, a lecturer of Arabic at the University of Delhi, on false charges of terrorism. The 13 December case, as it came to be known, exposed another dark layer in the way the state operated in India. An intercepted telephone conversation in Kashmiri between Geelani and his brother was deliberately mistranslated to English to make it sound like a discussion about the attack on the Indian parliament.

Kak, who had never taken his Kashmiri identity seriously until then, found himself entangled in the case as it unravelled. He was approached by Nandita Haksar and Vrinda Grover, both of whom were associated with the legal defence of Geelani, to act as a witness and translate the phone intercept for the court record. His translation of the intercept, a simple act of matching what was said in Kashmiri to what it actually meant in English, turned the public perception of Geelani’s trial on its head and brought Kak face to face with the duplicity and the terror that the Indian state had been unleashing in Kashmir for decades.

The Narmada ruling and the Geelani trial unfolded against a backdrop of intensifying state control. If the 1980s and the 1990s had been a time of searching, of negotiating an increasingly fractious space, the early 2000s were, in the eyes of Kak and many others, a second 1975. Legislation such as TADA and POTA was used to target a range of vulnerable Indian citizens. Trade unionists in Gujarat and scores of young people from Muslim ghettoes in Mumbai, Hyderabad and elsewhere were booked on terrorism-related charges, most of which went unproven. Although TADA and POTA were eventually allowed to lapse, their mandate was simply transferred to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Meanwhile, the National Security Act, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and various public security acts were already operational, as were standing legislations on sedition and “waging war against the state”. Following 9/11, the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” found ready takers in the Indian security establishment, who used US policy to support and justify a robust agenda of authoritarianism by stealth.

Ultimately, SAR Geelani was acquitted. (It turned out that the infamous phone conversation was about a trivial domestic matter.) But for Kak, the nature of politics and social life in India had been fundamentally altered. “I think I lost any remaining trace of trust I had in the state around the time of the Narmada judgement,” he told me. “I had been making that film for years, and the case itself was being heard for something like six years in the court and then it all changed. I had to examine all my assumptions all over again. And then by this odd set of coincidences, with the whole business of the translation of the Geelani telephone tap transcript, the parliament attack case pivoted me into trying to understand what was happening in Kashmir.” He started work on a film that would widely influence the way Kashmir was perceived south of the Banihal tunnel.

From 2003 onwards, Kak made several trips to Kashmir, but it seemed to him that a film on the region was almost impossible to make. He was a Pandit, an outsider, a person from Delhi. (Kak’s parents had left Kashmir long before the troubles in 1989 started, and didn’t feel they had been compelled to leave. To this day, Kak, who thinks of Delhi as home, has relatives in Srinagar, and says that he never felt like a refugee.) “Nobody knew what I was up to,” he said. “I never hid the fact that I came from a family that had a history in the armed forces, that I had come with an open mind, with no prior conclusions.”

Finally, patience, the greatest virtue for a documentary filmmaker, began to yield fruit. Perhaps his persistence made people trust his intentions. Conversations led to conversations, leads opened up, and footage—an informal archive of amateur videos capturing testimony, funerals, army operations, and resistance actions—began to arrive. Sometimes it came in the form of fungus-laden VHS tapes, which had to be unspooled, cleaned and dried in the sun. Soon, Kak began to make trips with a cameraman, his frequent collaborator Ranjan Palit, and sometimes he shot on his own—interviews, landscapes, interiors, and the sudden staccato burst of gunfire as a shootout began on camera. A mountain of material began to accumulate on his editing table.

Without a story, but with almost epic elements—including competing choruses of mourners, folk performers, people who counted and buried the dead, psychiatrists and poets, soldiers and militants, children and ruins—putting a film together was a challenge. Kak began working with a new editor, Tarun Bhartiya, who examined the footage with an eye not for continuities, but for ruptures. The film, which would be called Jashn-e-Azadi, acquired a jagged, contrapuntal elegance—a style that would also characterise Bhartiya’s collaboration with Kak on Red Ant Dream.

Jashn-e-Azadi had almost no individual characters who carried it on their shoulders. It had no heroes, no bad guys—just the violence of a brutal military occupation, its routines of checkpoints, cordons, and searches. It also showed the everyday life of resistance: slogans, singing, stone pelting, and the hypnotic rhythmic incantation of the words that the film brought south of Kashmir into the rest of India: “Hum kya chahtey? Azadi!” (What do we want? Freedom!)

Despite Kak’s obvious sympathy for calls for national liberation in Kashmir, he was not blind to the damage that the movement wreaked on a fugitive minority, the Kashmiri Pandits, who were displaced in its wake.

Kak handled the Pandit story with grace and dignity—not through the chest-beating exhibitionism of competitive victimhood, not through a demonisation of the majority community, but through a poetic precision enabled by a telephone exchange with a Kashmiri Pandit poet Pyaare “Hatash” (a nom de plume that translates to “the despairing one”). From a refugee camp in Jammu, over a phone line that kept cutting out, Hatash recited poems of loss, of looking at the mirror and finding a stranger, of abandonment and exile. Kak juxtaposed this with images of a derelict Pandit neighbourhood: shuttered windows, the spire of an abandoned temple.

In another remarkable sequence in Jashn-e-Azaadi, Kak comes upon an old man walking through a labyrinth of headstones in the Martyrs’ Graveyard in Srinagar in mid-winter, looking for his son’s grave. When Kak asks him some questions, he responds, in Kashmiri, as if he were not even registering the fact that someone was asking him what he was doing in a snow-covered graveyard. Finally, the father finds his son’s grave. He clears the snow on the gravestone to read the date of his son’s killing, stands silently for a while, and then says, “That’s it, that is enough. It was a feast day, and I thought I would come and spend some time here, that’s all.” Then he walks away. With every passing year, the number of graves in that graveyard only grows. But the act of looking for the headstone, of cleaning the grave—a small, private act—stands out as a mark of the things that need to be done so that the living may remain alive.

Jashn-e-Azadi changed the way Kashmir was looked at and understood in India, and it was no surprise that many groups tried to prevent its screening. Extreme right-wing organisations wedded to the cause of the Kashmiri Pandits (such as Panun Kashmir and Roots in Kashmir) tried to disrupt screenings more than once. They also filed police complaints, which sometimes resulted in the cancellation of screenings, especially at educational institutions. Kak, a veteran of campaigns against the censorship of documentary films, was suddenly faced with the prospect of prohibitions on his own work.

But such attempts at censorship could not succeed in limiting the proliferation of samizdat screenings all over the country—in homes, workplaces and colleges. Copies of the film were downloaded and transferred on hard drives and discs; cheap projectors turned any flat wall into a screen; and Kak spoke with audiences via Skype. Kak realised that digital filmmaking had not only made it possible for him to shoot with an agility and an economy that was impossible to think of before, and to experiment with an entirely new editing structure—it had also enabled a new form of distribution and a new viewing culture for documentaries.

The more efforts were made to prevent people from seeing Jashn-e-Azadi, the more it was seen. Would-be censors tried to take the fight online, maligning Kak and those who endorsed his right to screen his film as “terrorist supporters” and traitors. The paradoxical result was an explosion of writing, discussion and arguments not just about Jashn-e-Azadi, but also about Kashmir—so much so that it could be said that the arguments around the film prepared a generation of young Kashmiris and their friends for the many online battles that were to follow, especially around 2010, when what became known as the stone-pelters’ intifada broke out in Kashmir.

SOMETIMES, despite the most sincere efforts, the momentum that a work finds itself caught up in may impress upon it a very special set of flaws. In a way, Kak’s latest film is flawed because of his over-identification with the subjects. In Red Ant Dream, he has apparently felt compelled to abdicate his natural questioning stance about his protagonists’ political intentions, and the consequences of their politics.

The primary example of this is a recorded interview with Azad, the late Maoist ideologue, which punctuates the film’s soundtrack on two occasions. Instead of a considered exploration of how the Maoists seek to overcome capitalism and transform social relations, the voice offers platitudes about restoring the forests to the adivasis. Kak does not scrutinise Azad and the Maoists’ identification of protracted war with social revolution. The film’s reticence in the face of Azad’s clinical elucidation of the Maoist line could be read either as a sign of hesitation (and perhaps a veiled criticism) or at least a puzzlement in the face of such calmly expressed certainty about the unfolding of complex political processes. Is this a failure of nerve, or a sign that the method of the long observational documentary is itself inadequate to the task? What might this inadequacy be? Can a film that invokes revolution afford to not interrogate its claims?

What the film does is explore what “security” means for the person at the receiving end of the system of state power. At one point, Satnam, a radical Punjabi writer, reads a fragment of the assassinated Naxalite Punjabi poet Avtaar Singh Sandhu (Pash)’s poem ‘Asurakhya’ (Insecurity): “…if the security of the land calls for a life without conscience … and for the mind to prostrate before lecherous times, then the security of the land is a threat to us.” The film also reveals to us the absurd rituals of the state. A commando-training sequence filmed at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Bastar, with its drills, big talk, performing dogs and nervous commandoes, is a superb example of the meaningless theatricality of state power. The meaninglessness becomes transparent when we see soldiers look on in utter incomprehension as their commanding officer expounds theories of counter-insurgency.

Like Jean Genet in the Palestinian refugee camps, Kak in Bastar almost ends up as a “prisoner of love”, mesmerised by the unquestionable dignity of a guerrilla with her comrades or by the simple arithmetic of who suffers when central paramilitaries and Salwa Judum militias go about their work. There is something rare and moving in the film’s presentation of the camaraderie between young men and women combatants, in the ease with which they work and walk together, regardless of the flawed nature of their fight.

But this could have been the beginning of a question: what will the logic of war, its need for command structures and hierarchies, do to the dynamics that are known to follow a desire for revolution? Those dynamics could privilege openness and equality over secrecy and hierarchy, or seek to dissolve power into the hands of popular councils and assemblies, instead of “seizing power” in the formation of a new state. Although Kak invokes the Maoist resistance, he fails to interrogate its claims.

To understand the Maoists, we need more than a detailing, however lyrical, of the lives that cadres lead in the forest. We require a confrontation with the ideas that drive the Maoists. In Words on Water, the circumstances produced such a questioning. The film, although it consistently presented the NBA’s resistance as heroic, could not but reflect the outcomes that the movement’s arid faith in judicial and constitutional processes ultimately produced. The film did not look away from this fact; it opened up the possibility of a discussion of what went wrong. Why couldn’t the same intelligent skepticism have been applied to the politics of the Maoists in Red Ant Dream? We need to think carefully about what the red ants are actually dreaming.

A strange species of fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, found in tropical forests throughout the world, infects ants and alters their behaviour by finding its way into their brains. Once infected, the ants begin to behave erratically, leave their normal habitat and begin clutching the stalks and leaves of plants with their jaws, virtually locking themselves in a fierce death grip. The fungus then pierces through the ant’s head and explodes, scattering its spores so that they can infect more ants.

The Maoists’ fascination with the doctrine of “protracted people’s war” seems to me to be a similar species of contagion—one that will lead to consequences very different from what they imagine. In the short run, they may be inducing an element of fear in the consciousness of a ruling power. In the long run, however, they cannot but be leading themselves, and their dreams of revolution, into a kind of zombie state—compelled to keep fighting not in order to win, but in order not to lose. This does not mean one has to be dismissive of those who opt for the life of the soldier in the “people’s war”; it just means thinking seriously about what the war inevitably does to the people in whose name it is fought.

It is not surprising if vulnerable indigenous people in the path of the state’s development aims find their safety best guaranteed by the armed Maoists in their midst. But war, no matter how just its goals, can only freeze society in eternal combat. The film, however, goes no further than to assert that the war has been imposed by the state. (The Bhagat Singh quotation—“Let us declare that a state of war does exist and shall exist”—with which the film begins, and to which it returns, is one sign of this position.)

Even if the war has been imposed by the state—and let us assume that this is the case—the necessary thing to do is attempt to subvert the state’s war with a kind of revolutionary politics that makes war ineffective. This does not mean an anodyne pacifism; an open, perhaps non-violent, but no less ardent confrontation can worry the state far more than a clandestine war. The ways in which ordinary, apparently leader-less, people all over the world, from Tahrir to Taksim square, are standing up to sovereign power points to the long-term potential of networked revolutionary situations that may yet constitute the most significant challenge that the young 21st century offers to institutions of authority.

The political culture necessary for such processes precludes a secretive underground leadership wedded to the dream of “liberating” a nation-state with a peoples’ army. Perhaps it also precludes the idea of leaders and vanguards altogether. Maoism, however, cannot countenance these possibilities for itself. Instead, Maoists seek to thwart the aims of the state’s war with their own war—but fighting a defensive guerrilla war against a mighty state does not mean the same thing as creating a genuine social revolution.

A FLAWLESS FILM, or work, is a terrifying thing; it can only freeze all conversation in its wake by pointing to its own perfection. It is the flawed film, the film that leaves us moved but dissatisfied and itching, wanting to have a thousand arguments with its maker, that can actually contribute to an alleviation of our present misery. Although Red Ant Dream itself may be something of a missed opportunity, the discussion around it need not be so.

How to be lucid in the fog of war? How to maintain a regard for the clarity of questions in the crossfire of rhetorical claims? How to combine respect for those who are fighting to save their lives and their world with the need to ask those who lead them into the thick of battle a few clear questions? Red Ant Dream does not accomplish this, but it does provoke us to ask these questions for ourselves.

The films Kak has made live and grow because through them he listens to the ongoing conversations of our times. Sometimes they are fractious, sometimes coded in barely understandable signs. But the important thing is that the listening is restless, and the listener eager to go the next mile. Regardless of whether or not we want to make the trip with Kak, there will always be reason to be grateful for the footage that returns with him. The footage never ends because the walking never does.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist with the Raqs Media Collective and writes for kafila.org.

IN THE MIDDLE OF A DAY’S MARCH, a band of guerrillas rests in a clearing in the forests of Chattisgarh. They sit in a circle, without speaking. A young woman with short hair and bright eyes, cradling her weapon, breaks their silence. “I saw what the police did in my village, to the women … and that is why I joined the PLGA”—the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the military wing of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). “At first, whenever we went on an ambush, I used to be scared, but then I would remember…” It takes little to fill in her ellipsis.

Later, we see her among a knot of dancers, in the middle of a Bhumkal celebration, which is held to commemorate an early-20th-century tribal uprising, seen by the Maoists as a precursor to their insurgency. Soldiers, militia recruits, members of  PLGA’s Cultural Squad, and hundreds of ordinary, unarmed forest-dwellers participate in the carnivalesque vigil, which brings the gun, the drum, the flute and the dream of rebellion together to remember common humiliations and a few uncommon victories. This is what the red ants dream.

Red Ant Dream (2013), the latest documentary from 55-year-old director Sanjay Kak, takes us into the world of India’s Maoists, especially the members of the PLGA, who are considered by the Indian state to be its “most significant security challenge”. Here, in the Dandakaranya forests in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, Kak shows the rebels as human beings, not just as faceless insurgents. In doing so, he compels us to confront the conditions that produce the guerrilla who dances, as much as he asks us to think about the dancer who chooses to bear an automatic rifle.

Like much of Kak’s work, the film (which is about more than just the Maoists) takes us to places where aggrieved citizens confront the security apparatuses of the Indian state. In the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, people resisting the devastation of the forests and the displacement of tribal inhabitants for the sake of Vedanta’s bauxite mine are labelled terrorists. In Chhattisgarh, a recording of an intercepted police wireless message coldly instructs subordinates to make sure that no journalists return alive from a foray into a combat zone, where torched villages, destroyed homesteads, and the remains of “neutralised” teenagers can be found. A lot of this material, which makes its way into the film through found footage, seems to point to the reality of India’s massive counter-insurgency offensive aimed at destroying the Maoist presence in Central and Eastern India. This, Kak seems to say, is how the Indian state secures itself against its own population.

There is little doubt, then, that Red Ant Dream shows us something true, though nightmarish, about a time through which many of us may have been sleepwalking. In this respect, it is of a piece with Kak’s earlier films, which have documented resistance movements in Kashmir, the Narmada river valley of Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab, among other places. Kak, who began experimenting with film in the years after Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, is a chronicler of what he calls “the current, ongoing undeclared state of emergency, which began around 2000”. During this emergency, opposition to what many see as the neo-liberal economic agenda of the Indian governing classes began to gather momentum in a series of popular movements across the country. Long-standing battles against military occupation in Jammu and Kashmir and in north-eastern states, especially Manipur, intensified. In many other parts of the country, there were renewed protests against assaults on industrial workers, against forcible land acquisition, deforestation, displacement, urban dislocation, nuclear power plants and big dams.

The Indian state’s response to these movements has been a series of repressive legal and extra-legal measures, such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act—or TADA and POTA, to use their ungainly acronyms. All of this constructed a frame within which judicial harassment, disappearances, preventive detention, torture and extra-judicial assassinations, known as encounters, could be exercised as instruments of governance.

Kak’s work has always been an attempt to engage with and understand the state’s responses to peaceful as well as violent challenges to its power. To do this, Kak and a frugal crew have walked with many thousands of people—to demonstrations, on patrols, to work, to count the living and the dead, to farms, to dam sites, to meetings and rallies, to gatherings, departures and fights. Over the years, these walks have taken Kak a long distance—from celluloid to analog and then to digital video, from being a consummately reasonable young man to becoming an agile and gracefully aging rebel. From being a filmmaker who would stand and watch people walk, he became a filmmaker who began walking with them.

To see how Kak got here, it is necessary to look backwards to Jashn-e-Azadi (2007), in which he recorded the struggle for freedom in the Kashmir valley, and to Words on Water (2002), in which he captured the state’s and judiciary’s responses to a non-violent mass movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement). It is necessary, perhaps, to go even further back in time, to films such as One Weapon (1997), which looked at those who took up the vote, not the gun, as their weapon.

Kak was born into a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit family, and had an itinerant but otherwise unremarkable boyhood following the twists and turns of his father’s army postings and making routine visits to their ancestral home in Srinagar. In 1975, at the beginning of the Emergency, he entered the elite bastion of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. It was a time marked by a climate of suspicion and a strange hybrid of kitsch patriotism and the cult of personality. For Kak, like many young people of his generation, the Emergency was the first event to erode the trust in an ordered democratic society. “The Emergency was a watershed, wasn’t it?” he recently said to me. “It changed the way you looked at everything—at even the smallest of things.”

Kak’s perspective on the world became increasingly focused on the particular. After graduating St Stephens, he did a Master’s degree in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, which helped shape this new way of seeing. “Sociology, or at least the way it was taught in D-School at that time, made it difficult to generalise about any society in broad terms,” he said. “One had to learn to be precise, and to base one’s observations and opinions on actually being with people, on asking them about their lives.”

This concern with other individuals’ lives slowly began to find expression, as Kak moved “in fits and starts” towards what he “later came to understand as documentary film,” he said. “It meant getting away from any notion of privileging the way you think things ought to be. You have to stick to the way things are, instead.”

Kak began making films in earnest in the late 1980s. At the time, the thin tissue of a post-Emergency social and political consensus, a patchwork of half-hearted gestures towards a more inclusive polity, was beginning to rend. In the coming years, Kashmir would erupt; Tiananmen Square would shake many certainties; the Berlin wall would come down; the anti-Mandal agitation would bring the issue of caste out into the open and onto the streets of Delhi; satellite television would bring the Gulf War to the capital; and the mosque at Ayodhya would be demolished.

At the same time, documentary filmmaking in India, which had already been given a definitive political turn just after the Emergency by the activist work of Anand Patwardhan, began to acquire an even sharper edge. The very idea of the “independent filmmaker”—someone untied to an institutional or commercial imperative—was fresh. The first video cameras were beginning to appear in their hands and the first computers on their desks. It was a time of dangerous, sometimes delightful, uncertainty.

READER'S COMMENTS [8]

How surprising the colonizers don't agree with the way the colonized decide to fight. It is not for you to offer your advise to your victims how they should resist you. If you're so concerned for them then get off their land,

Red Ant Dream is a tour de force by one of the world's top documentary filmmakers . It is instructive without being didactic. Weaving three disparate struggles in Punjab, Odisha and Chhattisgarh into a coherent narrative is a remarkable achievement. Red Ant sort of completes his trilogy on resistance and rebellion. It should be seen along with Words on Water and How We Celebrate Freedom. The films interrogate some of the pretensions and depredations of the Indian state. As such they are valuable insights into the darker corners of the world's largest democracy.

Congratulations to Caravan for publishing this ode to Sanjay Kak, a mediocre film-maker who takes himself so seriously that he makes others laugh. After watching his obscenely obtuse and dull Jashne Azadi, it is hard to muster courage for this one. But dude Shuddhabrata, nice try... you're the man!

Ashish, if Jashne Azadi was so dull and obtuse, let it be. Why the anger and sarcasm?

Santosh, the sarcasm and anger, if any, is my view of a major work of the same artist being praised in this article. I don't see my small comment going out of context anywhere. In case you haven't watched it, Kak gives something like 2 minutes in the entire film to the pandit exodus from the valley, which is perhaps THE most significant event in the history of this conflict. Obtuse is a rather mild word for such deliberate obfuscation of facts. But our man Shuddhabrata goes "Kak handled the Pandit story with grace and dignity—not through the chest-beating exhibitionism of competitive victimhood, not through a demonisation of the majority community, but through a poetic precision enabled by a telephone exchange with a Kashmiri Pandit poet..." Who is he trying to fool here?

Oho here comes Jashneazadi stalker - what is with Jashneazadi that it gets so many people's goat - This article atleast shows why jashneazadi is what it is

C Basu, yes you're right. This article is a gem. I am so sorry for being critical of the only voice of reason in India. Where were you all these years?

bastar cant be a tahrir square... because people who live there, dont have digital cameras or facebook. Any peaceful resistance would be/has been crushed and you won't even know.. This film doesn't need a critic. Shut up and watch.

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