Shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing
and the New India Foundation Book Prize
New Statesman Book of the Year list
History Workshop Radical Book of the Year list
Hindu Year in Review book list
Scroll India Book of the Year list
Hong Kong Free Press Best Human Rights Book list
A Public Anthropologist Must Read Book
London: Hurst Publishers; Chicago: University of Chicago Press;
Delhi: HarperCollins India; Italian translation: Meltemi
In one of the world’s most intractable and under-reported rebellions, the Naxalites have been engaged in a decades-long battle with the Indian state. Presented in the media as a deadly terrorist group, the movement is made up of Marxist ideologues and lower-caste and tribal combatants who seek to overthrow a system that has abused them.
In 2010, just as the Indian government was stepping up its counterinsurgency operations in the country’s guerrilla affected areas, Alpa set out on a seven-night march with a guerrilla platoon across the same territory. An anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, she wanted to understand how and why, against the backdrop of a shiny new India, the country’s poor had shunned the world’s largest democracy and united with revolutionary ideologues.
Dressed as a man in an olive-green guerrilla uniform, Alpa was the only woman and the only person not carrying a gun. Her gritty journey reveals how and why people from very different backgrounds come together to take up arms to change the world but also what makes them fall apart.
Unfolding like a thriller and brought to life by Alpa’s years of research and immersion into the daily lives of the tribal communities in a Naxal stronghold, Nightmarch is a reflection on economic growth, rising inequality, dispossession and conflict at the heart of contemporary India.
‘An exceptional undertaking ... one of the most nuanced, informed accounts yet of a strange and awful conflict.’ Julia Lovell, The Guardian
A careful, rich, sympathetic account of the Maoist insurgency in India ... a brave and necessary work.’ – Neel Mukherjee, The New Statesman’s list of best books of 2018.
'Subtle and moving ... It combines powerful first-hand description – as gripping as any novel – with analysis which understands the rebel’s motivations and backgrounds without ever falling into simplistic political binaries.’ – Yasmin Khan, History Workshop’s Radical Books of 2018.
‘A powerful, emotional and painstakingly detailed analysis . . . a rare insight. . . the book is engrossing and its characters will haunt you…a very nuanced study that seeks to understand and point towards solutions to one of India’s most intractable conflicts.' Vidya Ram, The Hindu
‘An astonishing journey. A rare, granular portrait.’ Amrita Dutta, The Indian Express
‘Vividly evocative, weaving descriptions of the journey with five character-portraits, to some extent archetypes, that help to illuminate Shah’s thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the uprising’s social and cultural background...a powerful synthesis, warm but never uncritical, a distillation of her own scholarship and the experiences of her subjects, that immerses the reader in a lifeworld. ’ Kheya Bag, New Left Review
‘A thoughtful and balanced account.’ Marco Aime, La Stampa
‘By far the best book I’ve come across on the Naxalite rebels and the Adivasi communities where they operate.’ – Kong Tsung-gan, The Hong Kong Free Press.
‘One of the most extraordinary works of research and reportage to be published in India last year.’ Supriya Nair, The Voice of Fashion
‘Can an academic study also double up as a riveting thriller? … Alpa Shah has managed this seemingly impossible amalgam.’ Ajith Pillai, The Asian Age
‘Critical, analytic and compassionate, Nightmarch is also an extraordinary feat of social science research ... Shah introduces us to people who are often branded as terrorists by the state, and tells us their individual stories with texture and nuance, to show us their reasons for picking up arms against the state, while never romanticising these narratives or the movement.’ Simantini Dey, News18.com
‘Nightmarch isn’t just a journey into India’s Naxal heartlands, it’s a journey into your minds and hearts … and for this and this above all, it must be read … lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone—and that’s what takes this book right to the top of political writing in narrative non-fiction.’ Pallavi Singh, The News Laundry
‘With great empathy and superb narrative ability, …[Shah] analyses, documents, reflects.’ Marina Forti, alphabeta2
‘The level of commitment that Shah has shown towards her research is commendable. She emanates the true spirit of ethnographers and anthropologists such as Verrier Elwin. Her experience of the conflict is therefore more nuanced and complex than generally portrayed in the media.’ Sonia K. Kurup, Sakal Times
‘As [Alpa Shah] describes how she walked, sometimes sleepwalked, with the Naxalites, we, the readers march along with her, alert and in awe as we turn each page.’ Souradeep Roy, Business Standard
‘Draws urgent attention to a zone whose continued neglect reflects the collective pathologies of society.’ Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Financial Express
‘This social scientist has done something that many of her peers and contemporaries never even dared to consider’ The Assam Tribune
‘An insightful book ... focuses primarily on the lives of Naxalites and Adivasis in Jharkhand and Shah’s knowledge of this place and her people shows in her writing. This book exposes the contradictions within the Naxalite movement and tries to decide if the movement is good or bad for the Adivasis.’ Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, ‘Favourite Reads of 2018’, Scroll
‘A gritty and revelatory journey.’ Sri Lanka Guardian
‘[A] vibrant piece of anthropological work… written in a way that provides food for thought and, at the same time, moves hearts, this book is an example of the unique contribution anthropologists can bring to understanding the world we live in.’ Public Anthropologist Blog
‘Shah’s powerful, reflective and deeply engaged scholarship recognises the innumerable social, economic, political and personal forces that drive the most marginalised into the Naxalite struggle while also acknowledging the movement’s many contradictions … a perfect illustration of the unique contribution that anthropologists can bring in comprehending the world we live in.’ Anwesha Dutta, LSE Review of Books
‘Alpa’s discussions and analysis of the movement and its role amongst a rural community is fascinating… Nightmarch is a fascinating insight into a war going on in one of the world’s largest democracies.’ Lipstick Socialist
‘With Nightmarch, Shah has fully met her obligations to the people (both the Adivasis and the Maoists) she has studied; to social anthropology and her colleagues in that branch of social science; and most importantly, to her students and the intelligent public at large.’ Bernard D' Mello, Journal of Agrarian Change
‘Beautifully crafted and highly engaging.’ Kaya Uzel, Journal of Legal Anthropology
‘Compassionate, courageous and uncommonly observant. This is an extraordinary work of rigorous, reflective and deeply engaged scholarship, full of unexpected insights. At the same time, it manages to be haunting, lyrical, occasionally harrowing—more compelling than some of the best fiction writing.’ Harsh Mander, human rights worker and author of Fatal Accidents of Birth, Looking Away and Ash in the Belly
‘Riveting, finely textured, and acutely perceptive, Nightmarch is a model of what ethnography can offer. Shah captures both the Naxalite insurgency’s contradictions and its human promise against the background of the crippling indignities and exclusions of Indian society.’ James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain, the Art of Not Being Governed, Weapons of the Weak
'A story that could not be more important, told with the perfect balance of clear-eyed realism, thoughtful criticism, and abiding love. Shah brings the Indian forests to life, from the terrors and intimate details of daily existence to the visions of the future that move rebels to risk everything. Nightmarch reveals what anthropology can do in the hands of a master willing to take genuine risks in the name of human freedom.’ David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt: The First 5,000 Years
‘It is hard to imagine a work of social science as a page-turner that you cannot put down. But this intrepid author has produced that rare find: a gripping, incisive, and nuanced account of the nature of Maoism in central India, with an empathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of the complexity of its individual stories. A beautifully written and absorbing book that disturbs, moves and educates the reader all at once.’ Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
‘One of the most gripping, engaging and accessible books I’ve encountered on the Naxalites. Shah fearlessly bears witness to the upheavals caused by India’s rising inequalities, while also asking many urgent, difficult questions.’ Meena Kandasamy, author of When I Hit You
‘Brave, brilliant and beautifully written, Nightmarch is an anthropological tour de force. Shah portrays the Naxalites’ revolutionary dedication with love, respect and analytical acumen, while laying bare the tragic contradictions of their armed struggle.’ Philippe Bourgois, author of In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio and Righteous Dopefiend
‘An eloquent and compassionate account of revolutionaries whose voices are rarely heard. Shah skilfully analyses the individual motivations for the Naxalites’ radical commitment, their failures, and the deep history of exploitation and neglect that has provoked their struggle for liberation.’ David Lan, theatre producer and author of Guns and Rain
‘Intimate and insightful. Shah elucidates why Adivasis become Naxalites … brings out several contradictions in the Naxalite movement; breaks stereotypes … asks one vital question: Is the Naxalite movement doing good for the Adivasis?’ Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, author of The Adivasi Will Not Dance
‘Nightmarch is an outstanding work, combining ethnographic depth with almost cinematic vividness. From an extraordinary inside perspective, Shah reveals a complex interplay among the Naxalites of political ideals, cultural values, personal attachments, and the lure of money.’ Sherry B. Ortner, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, UCLA.
'An admirable example of doing serious social science research-writing , this book exhibits the potential of ethnographic research with a comparative angle, which is grounded, accessible, yet still theoretically rich.' Surinder S. Jodhka, Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
'Bold and courageous, humane and sensitive, Nightmarch is an extraordinary ethnographic account of social inequality as seen through the lens of Adivasis, guerrillas and the State.Shah is at her insightful best with gripping accounts of the adivasi mind, life and ethos that beautifully captures the nuances of the Adivasi guerrillas. Brilliant in texture, style and narratives, it is excellent illustration of how to take ethnography beyond the confines of the academic world.' Virginius Xaxa, author of State, Society and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India.
‘“Sleepwalking” with India’s Maoist guerrillas.’ BBC News
‘As India’s police conjure up the specter of urban Maoist terror, the real insurgency remains deep in the jungle.’ Foreign Policy
‘The “city” in the middle of a forest.’ The News Minute
‘I asked Gyanji if I could return to Lalgaon with him in the platoon. I wanted to experience what it was like to be continually “on the move”.’ Scroll
‘It seemed that the emphasis on marriage – as the only legitimate way in which two people could be close – was about controlling women.’ Hindustan Times
‘Staying in the shadows, I followed the rules we had agreed upon to draw as little attention to myself as possible.’ Readers Digest India
‘The camp tailor stitched a uniform for me on the day of departure. Olive-green shirt and trousers, too large for my waist, were held by a belt. Would Bimalji approve of this attire that drowned my femininity?’ Shethepeople
Indian Express interviews Alpa Shah on Nightmarch after its shortlisting for the Orwell Prize.
‘ You can preach as much as you want against exploitation, oppression and inequality but if you still behave as a person demanding privilege, one who maintains caste and tribe prejudice in verbal and bodily language, no matter what ‘development’ measures you bring it will be hard for you to be accepted by the locals’.
Firstpost interviews Alpa Shah on Nightmarch after its longlisting for the Orwell Prize:
‘Today, the forms of inequality, oppression and repression may have changed, but I think Orwell’s words ring as true as ever that in fact, “Everyone writes of them in one guise or another”.’
Alpa Shah discusses Nightmarch with novelist Neel Mukherjee and Professor Beverley Skeggs
‘It’s a complex story — of people who have meant well for Adivasis but who have also increasingly destroyed their communities from within’ Times of India
‘I went to live among the Adivasis by chance. But later I realized how lucky I had been because as single woman I had the freedom to move and do research that I could not have done in most other parts of India.’ Sri Lanka Guardian
‘I often thought of leaving. But I was so moved by the lives of the people I was living with that my primary concern was to try to understand them as best I could…This required time and commitment’ News 18
Alpa Shah discusses ‘The changing face of Maoism’ with Laurie Taylor, Professor Julia Lovell, and Professor Dennis Tourish BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed
‘As long as we have governments that support and exacerbate inequalities, rebel movements like that of the Naxalites will find supporters.’ National Herald
‘The hopeful dreams of beautiful futures can easily turn into nightmarish power battles between warring elites leaving behind the destruction of countless lives in vicious cycles of violence.’ LSE Connect
Raymond Selvaraj interviews Alpa Shah Australian SBS radio
BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents. Alpa Shah presents a 30 minute radio documentary on India's Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgents. Also broadcast on BBC World Service ‘Assignments Series’, 2010.
BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent. Alpa Shah reports on Adivasis driven out by anti-Maoist militia re-building their lives in the forests of Central India. Also broadcast on BBC World Service, 2015.
BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent. Alpa Shah reports on life within India's Maoist guerrilla platoons. Also broadcast on BBC World Service, 2010