Hello Bastar: The Untold Story Of India’s Maoist Movement
For someone like me who is an implacable ideological opponent of macabre left wing terror, “Hello Bastar” starts off by striking a strong discordant note. Rahul Pandita commences his chronicling by thanking Naxal ideologue Varavara Rao, a certain red comrade T and Arundhati Roy, the fashionable anarchist-activist. This poisonous polemicist has effortlessly turned out as prima diva of Naxal cheerleaders. But setting side my deep distaste for the overground sympathizers of underground movement, I continued reading the book. I must say I was duly rewarded for this. This riveting book is worth every paisa I spent on it and some more.
In writing a book like this, author faces an unenviable task of needing to judiciously juggle between 2-3 onerous and seemingly contradictory tasks. At one level a dramatized narrative is required to capture and sustain ordinary reader’s attention. At another level for catering to the uninformed, there is a need for an elementary elucidation of history and geography of this deep rooted problem. And lastly, there are also those nuggets of true insights, beyond the facile reportage and simplistic analysis, that many perceptive readers will be hoping to find.
The book is certainly not a balanced narrative that seeks to provide the perspective of all parties involved such as politicians, bureaucracy, police and others. The author makes no such pretensions. Apart from a few “intelligence” inputs, Pandita’s sources seem to be exclusively from among the underground Maoists and their over ground sympathizers. While this is certainly a shortcoming, it is also the book’s USP. For far too long, regurgitation of Home Ministry handouts, quotable quotes of belligerence from Chidamabaram or a random soundbyte from a retired former DG of CRPF was all that we got as strategic punditry on Naxal issue. The gun-toting Tarakka on the other hand is the person all of us interested in this issue need to hear and understand. The book has done a tremendous service in doing that
The main-stream media coverage of radical left movements gives us an impression of periodic outbursts of violence with no apparent change in ground conditions that abruptly go quiet after some conflict with the state. This is again followed by another random violent orgy that erupts in a different place and time. Even the actors involved are different. It’s hard to get a sense of continuity and a historical perspective from this kind of narrative.
Pandita has done a fantastic job of tracing the evolution and beginning of the violent-left movement from the late stages of the British rule to the very present. For me, it was a revelation how intimately the uprisings of Naxalbari, Srikakulam, Bihar and Dandakaranya were connected with each other. The evolution of doctrines and tactics has been presented in a very lucid narrative. Particularly, he highlights individual contribution of Kondapalli Sitaramiah. After Charu Mazumdar’s attempt do a Bengali version of Mao failed, it was Kondapalli Sitaramiah who came up with 2 strategies that kept the movement alive. The use of over ground frontal organizations for both propaganda and recruitment was brilliant. The simultaneous establishment of Bastar forests as a “safe zone” to retreat and regroup was a military masterstroke.
Couple of things becomes very clear regarding the genius of Kondapalli Sitaramiah as well as the dismal failure of the Indian state’s machinery. The IB that crushed revolutionary movements in British India with infiltration and pin-point intelligence had evidently lost its edge by 70s. Was it turned in to handmaiden of the ruling dynasty and kept busy in predicting election results and watching political opponents? How did it not pick up the trend when hundreds of medical and engineering students were abandoning studies to join these radical movements?
When it comes to actual control on the ground, the central and state police forces come off looking distinctly amateurish with the honorable exception of the AP Greyhounds).If we were to search for parallels, the campaign against Maoists using central forces distinctly reminds us of the futile campaigns against the Marathas by Aurangzeb. It’s a cruel irony that the democratic Indian state resembles the declining Mughal tyrant in tactics, cruelty and strategic stupidity.
Pandita is at his best when he describes individual Maoists like Peddi Shankar, Kobad Ghandy or his wife Anuradha. But, there is something that I find missing here. I can understand Jangal Santhal, Ram Pravesh Baitha or Tarakka taking to arms. Coming from dalit or tribal backgrounds in an oppressive environment, armed struggle might have appeared as a dignified alternative to most people. But, there is entirely different class of people who had no such disadvantages. Charu Mazumdar was himself born in a landholding family and had decent education. I guess Kanu Sanyal had a good upbringing too. Kobad and Anuradha had a lot going for them. Was it just idealism that attracted them to the philosophy of violence? Was it their sympathy to towards the poor and oppressed? Was it an ideological commitment of the highest order? I guess there’s a deeper cause here that needs explanation. Even with the Bollywood script style narration of Kobad and Anuradha’s life, this question remains unanswered. The answer I believes lies in the nihilistic value system they internalized that left them constantly searching for meaning in life. An intelligent and active woman like Anuradha eventually ends up shooting at police in the middle of the jungle. Kanu Sanyal committed suicide and Seetaramiah died unmourned. It all seems so futile in the end.
However, I was totally disappointed with the treatment of leaders like Ganapathi and Kishenji in the book. It gives no insight into either the lives or the minds of these important people. Ganapathi is a 60 year old born in Velama caste who was a school teacher before he became a Maoist. These details look like a description in a dusty old police file. Are they Mao-like killer-despots? Are they idealistic Robin Hoods rebelling against the system? After reading the book, I don’t have a clue either way.
The Maoist organization is explained in detailed terms including their political and military wings. However missing details are intriguing. In a nearly 200 page book, you have just 1 page devoted to funding details of the Maoists. Even that contains no definite information except some conjectures and statements open to interpretation. The extortion racket run by Maoists is no hidden secret. Are our friendly neighbors involved in anyway? What are their linkages with other international or separatist organizations? Was this glossing over deliberate or a result of author’s ignorance? In either case, it is vital missing piece of the overall picture.
The book contains a few important photographs of the Maoists and their daily life in the forests of Dandakaranya. The most interesting ones were those of the Unity Congress in 2007 and that striking woman Tarakka. There are absolutely no maps in this book. This is a gaping hole that the author should strive to fix in a later edition. The places, areas and the terrain mentioned in the book could have come to life magically with a few good maps. So, if you’re geographically challenged, this book will leave you slightly confused.
Pandita offers no solutions to the problems. Instead, he illustrates the incompetence and brutality of Indian state in an unbroken chain of incidents. The contrast is made stark by the near heroic portrayal of Maoists and by neatly ignoring victims of their violence. It almost degenerates to Arundhati Roy style essaying at places. But the brutal truth has to be faced. Exploitation and oppression is not propaganda but a fact of life. The Nehruvian state that replaced the British continued to act as a neo-colonial master. We should collectively hold ourselves responsible to fixing this problem. However, there are rays of hope. The Maoists are evidently facing a problem recruiting educated youth nowadays. Their penetration into urban areas hasn’t worked as well. Increasing urbanization and burgeoning employment opportunities for the educated youth are going to make this even more acute.
The determined response of the AP state police under NTR and CB Naidu nearly wiped them out at a point. This is acknowledged by no less than Ganapathi, the chief of Maoists himself. So its certainly with realm of possibility that Naxals can be defeated. The Indian state has conquered many such rebellions before. The ongoing Telangana movement gives me a few ideas. The divided and uncoordinated response of the 4 -5 state police forces is creating these safe zones. At the same time, the people living in the forests of Central India do need their share of governance, justice and prosperity. Maybe the solution is to create a new state or states of Dandakaranya where the Vanavasis can run their lives according to their wishes.
On a concluding note, here’s a quote from the book
“In Chhattisgarh, the guerilla zone of the Maoists was called Maad division. For outsiders, it was Abujhmaad…… The name of this area itself signified what it meant to India: Abujh in Hindi means something that cannot be figured out.”