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Maoists take on Indian government in A Rifle & a Bag

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

A Rifle and a Bag is an intimate look at a former Naxalite couple who have surrendered to a system that still works against them.

The documentary begins with an explanation:

The Naxalites, an armed Maoist rebel group, have been fighting the Indian State for the rights of tribal people for the last 50 years.

The Indian government considers them the biggest threat to India’s internal security.

Under the Indian government’s Surrender Policy, individual Naxalites are granted pardon in return for deserting the movement.

The film, like Writing with Fire, gives us an idea of how a caste system functions in today’s world and leads to questions about recent US rhetoric about racism. 

A fire burns in the forest. We hear the call of wild animals. We’re not going into the jungle. We’re  following a couple, Somi and Sukhram. The two met while in a commando unit of the Naxalies and surrendered together.

Somi and Sukhram surrendered to the government. They resettle in Maharashtra, but their past comes back to haunt them. The parents need to get the father’s cast/tribal certificate. In order to do so, they would have to go to Chattisgarh, the place that Sukhram and Somi escaped. Going back there would put them in imminent danger. 

The documentary was shot over a period of three years, with about 50 days between 2017 and 2019. In order to build up trust, the directors, Asian Indian Arya Rothe, Romanian Cristina Hanes and Italian Isabella Rinaldi spent five months to get to know them. Much of what we see is the family going about their daily lives and some of this seems indulgent. Although the film comes in at 87 minutes, it seems overlong for the content presented.

The value of this film, in its striking visuals and presentation of frustrating social dilemma, is to present an aspect of a caste system as it exists today. With the publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author “says racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of Black people in America,” and she “prefers to refer to America as having a ‘caste’ system,” according to an article in NPR.

The book sparked national debate, and while the NPR article touches on going outside the binary of Black and White, an Asian Indian American anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, who was born in Mumbai, wrote a thoughtful critique for Wire, Comparing Race to Cast Is an Interesting Idea, But There Are Crucial Differences Between Both.   Appadurai notes that Wilkerson’s thesis uses anecdotes and allegory, but does not stand on a strong structural foundation. 

While Appadurai notes there was a flow of ideas between Dalits and African Americans, the “mutual admiration cannot be the basis for the sort of deep structural comparison that Wilkerson is keen to make.” 

The documentary, A Rifle and a Bag, provides an example of the caste system at work in India from the viewpoint of three female documentarians as well as showing one strategy of dealing with domestic ethnic strife with both the good intentions of inclusiveness as well as the systems failings. 

A Rifle and a Bag premiered in January 2020 in the Netherlands. It was part of the AAIFF 2021 programming in August.

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  1. Maoist or Marxist?

    Your title, “The Naxalites, an armed Maoist rebel group…” gives me pause. I looked up Maoist and google says: “What is the difference between Marxism and Maoism?
    The philosophical difference between Maoism and traditional Marxism–Leninism is that the peasantry are the revolutionary vanguard in pre-industrial societies rather than the proletariat. … The term “Maoism” (毛主义) is a creation of Mao’s supporters; Mao himself always rejected it.”

    Your articel gives no information as to how or why the Naxalites are Maoists, it’s only in the title. Why was “Maoist” used? “an armed Maoist rebel group” did not clarify anything but immediately put the cause and blame on Mao and the Chinese, who have nothing to do with what’s going on in India. Why don’t you use the Marxist??? That’s where all the ideologies and tenets of Socialism and Communism originated.

    According to Wikipedia, citing an Al Jazeera article: “The Naxalites have frequently targeted tribal, police and government workers in what they say is a fight for improved land rights and more jobs for neglected agricultural laborer and the poor.” The Naxalites are Laborers, not peasants. By definition, a Maoist who subscribes to Mao’s ideals are peasants fighting for their rights. Hence, the Naxalites are Not Maoists.

    Why am I nitpicking on this point? There have been over 9,000 reported hate crimes against East Asians in America since March 2020. SinoPhobia has reared its ugly head in America. Anything having to do with or looks like or related to China or Chinese is subject to racist hatred. Now, you are labeling a movement in India where the Bengaliese subscribe to Marxism–Leninism, which is European, as having an East Asian/Maoist origin. Please do not blame the Chinese for something the Indians have been doing which originated from Europe. The East Asians are already suffering a lot here. East Asians do not need more blame for something they have nothing to do with or started.


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