Contemporary journalists Neelesh Misra and Rahul Pandita, one fine day, decided to pursue the rigorous quest of reality. Travelled into the hearts of India’s battle zones, and dug out the vulnerability that stopped the revenue collectors from frequenting those places since, wait, Akbar’s reign. The remote corners of the country which yearn for some form of authority, official surveillance, or at least a frame of management are given lemons in lieu of democratic justice. When the authors ventured into these anonymous hamlets, the villagers mistook them for government officials, wanted their complaints heard – their names written down in ‘official’ logbooks.

The book covers the three primary political and administrative casualties – the Naxalite surge, the Valley of Denial (Kashmir insurgency), and, the Collapse of the North-East. The quintessence being – Insurgency as an excuse for misgovernance. The authors managed to stick to this core throughout. Not offering solutions, but being investigative around and about the inference line.

From the depths of Jharkhand to the dark of Chattisgarh – the authors took a crack at each of the imperilled firing lines and brought out the raw, pragmatic thread, leading from one truth to another. Seventeen years ago, on the morning on which Turiya Munda’s body was discovered hanging lifeless from the berry tree, numerous dreary realities were being enacted in other parts of the world. It was the 24th of July 1991 – on the other side of the globe, in room 118 at the office of the Texas Water Commission, government officials were bickering over minor sewage issues. In India, sporting the light blue turban that was to make fashion statements in the near future, Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was getting ready to make his speech, a speech in which he would present an epochal Union Budget to a grey, despairing nation. In the midst of this lull, Turiya Munda decided to end his life with that single action, translating the grief of his poverty, his inability to educate his sons, into extinction.

'The Absent State' an insight of national inaction

He was the first man to die because he had not received wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), purported to be the world’s largest social security set-up. The deliberate void created by the successive elected governments is now filled by the Maoists. They run the show in areas like Dandakaranya – a sprawling, ‘liberated’ zone, extending over 100,000 square kilometres, incorporating parts of the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, with a population of over 2 crore. No welfare schemes, no Nehruvian Five-Year Plan ever came within whistling distance of it. More than ninety-percent of the population was illiterate, until their introduction to the ideologies of Marxism and current. They came to know about Mao Zedong before they figured out the concept of alphabets. Yes, this was the scenario. A bleeding example of veracity compared to the Indian boom on display at global forums.

A close look at the placid waters of the 314-square-kilometre stretch of the Dal lake, one of the most magnificent and most photographed water bodies in the world, would reveal that the lake was rotting and shrinking despite the 240 crore spent on cleaning it. In Kashmir, the malfunction of the government had for years been masked behind the facade of a twenty-one year old insurgency. No militant had ever attacked a civic official or seized a dredger meant for cleaning the Dal Lake. It was Kashmir’s government that was struggling to meet ends, choking on administration.

The amount of money streaming in from the Centre is whopping, but the capacity to spend it and spend it well is something to ponder on. Militancy is another factor that supposedly, going by the account of the authors, brewed right under the nose of deficient governance. From the ousting of the Kashmiri Pandits to the desire for an independent Kashmir, the book covers it explicitly. It aptly points out how the man who killed scores of Pandits in the valley and declared it openly on television is roaming freely today. Some of them were murdered gruesomely in front of their children and the women of their household. A judge of an anti-terror court had remarked (about Bitta Karate – the Pandit slaughter): The court is aware of the fact that the allegations levelled against the accused are of a serious nature and carry a punishment of death or life imprisonment, but the fact is that the prosecution has shown total disinterest in arguing the case, which is in complete violation of the Article 21 of the Constitution.

Although it is a state deeply divided on the basis of regional aspirations, Jammu and Kashmir has a few milestones of pride, which are also probably the bulwark of its future. Multiculturalism and religious tolerance have survived in the valley – and this does not include loonies like Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The context represents the general populace of Kashmir, the Madrassa teachers, the shop-owners, the vegetable vendors at the corner of the streets. In the postscript, the authors take a dig at India’s youngest chief minister, Omar Abdullah, attacking his stand as a pseudo driver of events, presenting him as a figurative character, capable of and handling nothing.

There is a parallel government running because people are not getting what they want – says the subtext of Part Three – The Collapse of the North-East. To quote the man named Peter, who candidly gave his version for the condition of governance in Manipur: Governments in Manipur are run by two opposition parties – the government itself and the underground. All government contracts are issued by the Underground – government officials are just rubber stamps.

The greatest drawback of the North-East is its crippled infrastructure. Other factors include unfenced borders with Myanmar, Bangladesh, inapproachability and economic blockade. The state-heads are accused of collaborating with militants for furthering their own personal agenda. I.K. Gujral and Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to break the nexus between the bodies of power and those of the militants, but without fruitful results. The state, evidently, is not only absent, but truncated and rusted to its roots. But given all the research and thorough surveys conducted by the authors, what largely disappoints in Part Three is the complete ignorance of Assam and its affairs. The crux of the North East mêlée – a perennial gurgle of political instabilities and rabid insurgencies.

While the book gives a purely journalistic insight and blunt images of national inaction, it has been, I am afraid, partly partisan by not revealing the entirety of the resolutions taken up in the Centre. The content is more exploratory than analytical. ‘The Valley of Denial’ took off fine until this inquisitive assertion – could India be blamed for responding to the campaign of terror with terror of its own, a ruthless state response backed by half a million people, which had been unable to crush the militancy or Pakistan’s support for it but had instead routed the lives of thousands of innocent people? Many such suggestive accusations follow as the pages go by, some baseless, some hypothetical. But the highlight of the book is in its portrayal of the rash reality, the inflamed state of affairs that leads to or precedes from the fungus of corruption, absolute negligence and internal disregard.

This book is highly recommended for its sincerity towards the voice of the muted, for the inner foul that shrouds our peripheral glory, for the bravado of the authors who took the nerve-whacking journey and turned it into a directory of India’s other existence.

One piece of advice that would come handy while reading the book: Keep the brain and the heart in their respective places. A merger would prove costly for perception.

Book: The Absent State; Author: Neelesh Misra and Rahul Pandita; Hachette India: Rs. 495

Written for IBNLive