Among the Guerrillas of India's Revolutionary Movement

August 2018 9781849049900 342pp, 8pp b&w illus
November 2021 9781787385993 342pp, 8pp b&w illus
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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, anthropologist Alpa Shah embarked on a seven-night trek with some of these communist guerrillas, walking 250 kilometres through the dense, hilly forests of eastern India. Speaking to leaders and living for years with villagers in guerrilla strongholds, Shah seeks to understand why some of India’s poor have shunned the world’s largest democracy and taken up arms to fight for a fairer society—and asks whether they might be undermining their own aims.

Nightmarch is a compelling reflection on dispossession and conflict at the heart of contemporary India.


‘One of the most nuanced, informed accounts yet of this strange and awful conflict. … a considered, sympathetic and balanced analysis.’ — The Guardian

‘I’ve enormously enjoyed and admired Alpa Shah’s careful, rich, sympathetic account of the Maoist insurgency in India . . . a brave and necessary work’.Neel Mukherjee, New Statesman Books of the Year, 2018

‘This remarkable account offers unprecedented insight into the Naxalite movement …. skilfully sketching characters such as Gyanji, the intellectual elder, Kohli, the tribal teenager ‘adopted’ by the guerrillas, and Vikas, the corrrupt commander … What emerges is a portrait of India’s diminishing democracy, under the yoke of its ultra-Hindu nationalist government.’ — Le Monde diplomatique

‘An astonishing journey. A rare, granular portrait.’ — The Indian Express

A thoughtful and balanced account.’ — La Stampa

‘[Alpa Shah] treats the groups she is living with as equal social and political beings … The result is 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.’ — New Left Review

‘Powerful, emotional and painstakingly detailed analysis . . . a rare insight. . . the book is engrossing and its characters will haunt you.’ — The Hindu

‘A subtle and moving portrait . . . Shah 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.’ — History Workshop, Radical Books of the Year 2018

‘Powerful, reflective and deeply engaged scholarship . . . the work is a perfect illustration of the unique contribution anthropologists can bring in comprehending the world we live in.’ — LSE Review of Books

‘A brilliant work of social anthropology that feels like watching Pontevecoro’s masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, seamlessly illuminating the wider conditions that lead to insurgency with moving personal stories of those on the ground.’ — Steve Chandra Savale, guitarist/composer/producer, Asian Dub Foundation

‘A beautifully crafted and highly engaging narrative that draws the reader into the secretive world of one of today’s forgotten revolutions . . . [an] ethnographically rich and vivid rendering.’ — Journal of Legal Anthropology

‘Simultaneously a major contribution to scholarship and at the same time written to entice a wider readership to care about the poor and their insurgent politics.’ — Journal of Peasant Studies

‘[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 brilliant, careful research and writing is not meant to be an apologia for her subject. It’s quite the opposite. . . . a book that dwells on the electrifyingly complex battle between ideas and experience.’ — The Voice of Fashion

‘As a committed independent observer and researcher, [Shah’s] experience has endowed her with a genuine understanding of the Naxalite revolutionaries.’ — Journal of Agrarian Change

‘A story that could not be more important, told with the perfect balance of clear-eyed realism, thoughtful criticism, and deep and abiding love. … 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

‘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 BirthLooking Away and Ash in the Belly

‘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

‘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

‘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 beautifully written and absorbing book that disturbs, moves and educates the reader all at once.’ — Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University

‘Intimate and insightful. Shah elucidates why Adivasis become Naxalites … brings out several contradictions in the Naxalite movement; breaks stereotypes … and asks one vital question: Is the Naxalite movement doing good for the Adivasis?’ — Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, author of The Adivasi Will Not Dance

‘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

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

‘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

‘An admirable example of serious social science writing, this book exhibits the potential of ethnographic research with a comparative angle — grounded and accessible, yet still theoretically rich.’ — Surinder S. Jodhka, Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University

‘Bold and courageous, humane and sensitive, Nightmarch is an 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

‘Woven into a fascinating account of her walk through the Maoist heartland, Shah tells a scorching story of dispossession, displacement, exploitation, intense inequality and state violence in India.’ — The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology


Alpa Shah was raised in Nairobi, studied at Cambridge and completed her PhD at the LSE, where she now teaches anthropology. She is the author of In the Shadows of the State and a co-author of Ground Down by Growth. She presented the radio documentary ‘India’s Red Belt’ for BBC Radio 4’s 'Crossing Continents'.

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