The freedom to move around the country without being watched or questioned has over the years resulted in books that have brought out the gross inequities of the Indian state. The latest one, reviewed here, is Bela Bhatia’s 2024 collection of her writings Forgotten Country - A View from the Margins.

Bhatia’s writings reflect not just her thinking as an involved activist, a concerned citizen, and a scholar, but also those of other perceptive observers of India, among them Ronald Segal in his 1965 tour de force The Crisis of India, the Nobel Laureate, VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness and M Rajashekar’s 2021 work Despite the State: Why India Lets its People Down and How they Cope.

Most of the 25 essays appearing in Bhatia’s volume were published between 2000 and 2011, a bulk of which - ten in all – first came out between 2000 and 2006. Very few are from the late 1990s and just five were published between 2013 and 2020.

Future relevance

Dated as most of Bhatia’s writings in this volume are, they have current and future relevance. Almost all her essays have well-documented accounts of individuals and communities who have been at the receiving end of state directed violence and arbitrariness.

Her essay Forced Evictions in Narmada brings out the coercive nature of resettlement programmes associated with large dam projects that rarely get sustained attention in the media. Bhatia’s piece on bonded labour in Baran - Rajasthan - Of Human Bondage in Baran first published in 2012, is not out of date. It might surprise most Indians to know that bonded labour persists in the country to this day, with more than a crore of labourers yet to be released and rehabilitated from bondage.

The plight of the poor in Bihar and especially its agricultural labourers, is brought out movingly in her essay The Mazdoors of BiharIt is based on her doctoral thesis. Anyone who has worked in Bihar - and this reviewer has - cannot deny the power of the zamindars who have successfully subverted land reforms or the near-slave like conditions of the Dalits and landless agricultural labourers of that state.

Naivete and far-left bias  

However, several of Bhatia’s essays such as the one on violence in Kashmir, the insurgencies in different parts of India, including the Naxalite movements, reflect a certain naivete as well as far-left bias. Her piece A Stone in My Hand on violence in Kashmir is a case in point. She goes too far in stating that such violence was “a struggle for self-determination,” going back to “the early days of India’s independence,” failing to highlight that neighbouring Pakistan and, perhaps. even China might have had a lot to do with it.

Likewise with the Naxalites in her essays On Revolutionary Violence and Salwa Judum and After. While it is true that the Naxals and other extremist elements have some support of the communities in which they operate, there is enough evidence to show that such solidarity is neither spontaneous nor just a reaction to state interventions. It is well-documented that external forces have played their part in fomenting unrest and rebellion. But, of course, Bhatia ignores these aspects altogether.

Bhatia’s book is well worth reading if only to get a better understanding of how influential social, economic, and political forces in India have harnessed the powers of the state to their greatest benefit. There are simply too many instances of state directed violence against the poor and the marginalised to ignore. However, Bhatia seems to live in denial of a universal phenomenon, the power and right of the state to preserve itself with all means at its command. One wonders what would have happened to India if the state had not repeatedly intervened to preserve its unity and territorial integrity.

Sacrifices not in vain

India’s police and armed forces have battled revolts and insurgencies ever since Independence to hold together a diverse country like ours. This has come at the great cost of thousands of lives of young policemen and soldiers from all parts of the country over 76 years. Such sacrifice remains unacknowledged by Bhatia. However, the outcomes of such sacrifices have not been in vain for India survived well enough for people to take advantage of a large relatively stable democratic state with a growing economy.

Reading Bhatia is instructive. One wonders what the different parts of a fragmented India – the end result of caving in to every separatist demand – would have achieved. To visualise what an independent Nagaland or Manipur would have been we only need to look at the plight of hopelessly impoverished break-away countries such as Timor Leste and the Republic of South Sudan.

Bhatia’s book is well worth reading for its brilliant documentation of the many inequities of the Indian state, but not for her standing up for entities that seek its fragmentation.

(The reviewer taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc. Bengaluru)

Check out the book on Amazon

Book title: India’s Forgotten Country - A View from The Margins
Author: Bela Bhatia
Pages: 635
Publisher: Penguin Viking