Shruti Kapila: I’ve just seen the banner [of your new film Chakravyuh]. Could you describe how you’ve translated the word?
Prakash Jha: Well, Chakravyuh, as you would know, derives from the great Mahabharata, where Abhimanyu, in his mother’s womb, was listening to war formation stories being narrated by Arjuna. It just so happened that Arjuna went upto the point when you could go inside the war formation, and he was called away to do something else, so Abhimanyu never knew how he would come out of the war formation if he ever got in, and that’s exactly what happens. [The Mahabharata] is a great work of literature, of fantasy, of strategy. So sure enough, there comes a time when Abhimanyu has to penetrate this war formation formed by his uncles and the Kauravas, and he is not able to come out of it.
Chakravyuh, in my film [due out on 24 October], is a situation wherein we are interlocked in a battle with our own people, [from which] we don’t know how to come out. The tagline says: ‘A war you cannot escape.’
Hartosh Singh Bal: If I can take you back to the parallel you made, which was the Mahabharata, is this a war that has to be fought?
PJ: Very difficult to say, but so long as disparity increases… I’d like to cite a couple of recent examples of violence, like what happened in Manesar, the Maruti factory, or to these bunch of kids who were arrested in Calcutta, some of whom were found to be studying in IIT. The idea of Naxalism, apart from the physical structure of Naxalism, is spreading and becoming attractive [to] some intellectuals. Now ideologically, what do they want? They want a classless society, where everybody will have equal opportunities, which is fantastic. But the people who know Indian democracy, the way it is used or misused, they know that is never going to happen. So they are using this as a means to attain power. Physical, brutal power.
So [the question is] whether this whole process is to an ideological end, or it has become a power game. It’s something which has to be seen, so this seems like a war which is not intended to be finished. If you simply say ‘Achha, development abhi tak nahi gaya hai, so let’s send some funds over there so that they can build schools, they can build roads, and they can have hospitals’... now, that has not happened even in non-Naxalite areas; we sort of make sure that the development process that is initiated in Parliament never gets executed in the villages.
SK: Money is not going to resolve this so-called endless war, or are you saying that it is? I’m not quite clear.
PJ: I find it very difficult to understand how it can be resolved. First and foremost, the whole idea of growth has to change in this country. When we are talking about Shining India or enormous growth, we forget that 75 per cent of the population lives below Rs 20 in a day. Seventy-five per cent of 1.2 billion people. Two kilometers down any national highway—seven lanes as they are called these days or four lanes or expressways—you start experiencing real India.
HB: Is this an idea that tribals are actually fighting for or is this an ideology to which Maoists have been drafted because they are convenient?
PJ: It’s convenient. The whole idea has been implanted. Now it has been taken over by tribals, who some enlightened leaders find easy to mobilise, kind of emotionally move them towards some kind of utopian freedom. Now it is in their interest that they don’t align with the mainstream and they try and declare districts as ‘free zones’ and they print their own books or they start their own system. But that is not going to be successful. How these people, or that 75 per cent I am talking about, how they can be aligned or included in India’s growth process is going to be the answer to the end of this violence.
SK: Can I ask you to locate this film within your own recent set of films? Rajneeti, Aarakshan and now Chakravyuh feel like a trilogy of contemporary [India]. They take three cuts into different bits of the Indian political landscape. Elite politics is Rajneeti, Aarakshan deals with reservation as the thing which is associated with what we academics like to call the ‘second democratic upsurge in India’, and it is related to caste, politics of recognition and entitlement, and now Maoism.
PJ: Well, I can’t find the relationship or connection except that what excites me about this country called India is that amazing social changes continuously keep happening.
You bring in one thing, and it creates ripples which turn into huge storms. When the British left India, they left a very confused society, which didn’t exactly know what democracy was.
SK: But it embraced it. I don’t think knowledge was a precondition to it.
PJ: A handful of people, the upper middle class, direct participants in the process of that movement, they embraced it and they told the masses, ‘It’s right for you’.
SK: 1947, you don’t think that was a bold experiment?
PJ: In 1947, the whole village used to come to my grandfather and ask who to vote for, and my grandfather used to point a finger at somebody and say ‘Isko vote de doh’. So these people [were] the thekedars, the contractors of independence.
SK: You don’t think of people like Gandhi as contractors... Are you really saying that?
PJ: They negotiated and got a deal with the British.
HB: Even if we agree to the formulation you give independence, aren’t we being impatient in the sense that if we look at caste itself, we have achieved much more in 65 years than we have in 5,000 years?
PJ: I agree with you. I say democracy will probably take 100 years [to take shape], you know it’s maturing, it’s taking its little shape. [But] don’t forget that even today in Delhi University, or even in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there is not even one SC/ST professor.
PJ: There is not one SC/ST professor, even in Banaras Hindu University or Allahabad University. There are several associate professors, but no one gets to the top. So the sum total of the matter is, yes affirmative action was a must. I support it, I made a film on it and it will take time, and the chapter is closed. There is no debate on it. It has to happen.
SK: I want to get back to the question of violence and economics. The districts where people are dying of malnutrition and disease, why is it that some districts get violent, Maoist politics is produced in certain areas and not in others? Hartosh, you want to come in? You know much more about it.
HB: Certainly. If you look at tribal regions of, say, Mandla in southern Madhya Pradesh, the tribal response has been a democratic one. They floated their own Gondwana Gantantra Party, they have elected members to the legislature, they are intervening to reintroduce Gondi as a language, they are reinventing history. They are creating an identity for themselves, which I find in many ways is a far more fruitful way of engaging with what is happening around us than what Naxals are providing. If you take the question of money, Naxals are as enmeshed with money as Indian politics is.
PJ: Absolutely right. In fact, I have dealt with it in my film. I mean the corruption which has been brought in the whole system of Naxal hierarchy. You know they are all the same, but I always take any kind of social disturbance as a process of churning, whether it happened with the Mandal Commission, or whether with economic reforms, or let’s say the market economy that we adopted... it brought about huge change in this country.
SK: In terms of the inequity and social injustice of caste, Ambedkar put affirmative action right at the centre of the table of Indian democracy. When it comes to Maoism, what we have is states of emergency laws, all liberties being taken away. Why do you think the State has taken such a hard [stand]? Why are there no dialogues being opened up?
PJ: It’s not a question of dialogues. The Government creates a semblance of opening up dialogues or having some kind of development work in that area, but it never gets translated [into action]. At this point of time, more than 100,000 of your armed forces are surrounding the entire red corridor. Air Force bases are being built and all kinds of modern technology like unmanned aerial vehicles are being employed. I have lived with them, I have moved around with them, so I know what kind of difficult lives they live. They don’t stay in a place for more than three hours, they are on their foot all the time.
HB: I’m always perplexed when the question of dialogue comes up. If you look at affirmative action and the Dalit struggle for rights, it is very much within the framework of Indian democracy. They are looking for rights in terms of participation in the democratic system. And if you look at the Maoist constitution or any of the Maoist writings, you will never see the question of tribals addressed as a tribal question. There is nothing in the Maoist writings which looks at their problems as cultural, of identity or otherwise. For them, this is a struggle about the very nature of power in India, in which these tribals are an enlisted army.
PJ: [Whether it is] lower castes in Bengal or peasants in Telangana or tribals in the red corridor, Naxals have an ideology of a classless society or opportunity, as they call it, for everyone, and they have a process of wealth distribution and they have a utopia of a different structure of governance. It’s a struggle for power and they are promising a dream of having a red flag over [Delhi’s] Red Fort in 2050.
SK: How likely do you think it is?
PJ: This is a sort of thing that is never going to happen. You know it and I know it and they also know it.
SK: So why the fixation with this date?
PJ: Well you have to give a definite aim. There is the Himalaya that you have to climb, there is this flag that you have to hoist.
SK: Obviously, to return to your film, it is an endless war?
PJ: No, in its present form, this physical form of war, is endless. This has to be solved not on the battlefield, this war has to be solved somewhere else and I very clearly point it out in the film by bringing in all the points of view and making people understand it’s not here that we are really fighting the war. When I went to a CRPF camp—you know life is not easy for the armed forces—I asked these guys, “How are you guys living?” They said, “Kya saab, yeh to murge lada rahein hain.” You know, it’s like a cock fight which is happening out there and they don’t know who they are killing.
SK: But are they spectators?
PJ: You know, if they don’t die of a Naxal bullet, they die of malaria.
Shruti Kapila is a historian of ideas and political thought and modern India at Cambridge. Her forthcoming publications include Political Thought in Action: The Bhagavad Gita and Modern India (with Faisal Devji), Cambridge, 2012. This conversation took place at the India Cambridge Summit in New Delhi