Thursday, 5 January 2012
Book Review: “Hello Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement” by Rahul Pandita
Rahul Pandita is a journalist based in Delhi and he reports for Open Magazine. Pandita has an enviable record of reporting from the frontlines of various conflict zones – Kargil, Iraq and various tribal areas in Central and Eastern India where a Maoist insurgency flourishes. It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who in 2006 referred to Maoists ‘as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by this country’. It made the entire country sit up and take note. However, India’s Maoists, also referred to as Naxals, have been around since the mid-1940s when peasants in Telangana who were severely oppressed by the Nizam took to the gun. They acquired visibility when in 1967, a few disenchanted young men and women in the Naxalbari district of West Bengal picked up arms and challenged the might of the State. The Indian government has by and large treated the Naxals/Maoists as a law and order issue. Within 2 years of the Naxalbari incident, Operation Steeplechase, a combined operation of the army, paramilitary and various state police forces was launched in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The current Home Minister P. Chidambaram too has followed the same approach. In August 2010, a few weeks after 75 CRPF men were killed by Maoists in forests near Chintalnar-Tarmetla village in the Dantewada district of Chattisgarh, Chidambaram declared that “that the problem of Left wing extremism will be overcome in the next three years.” Chidambaram’s prediction is yet to come true and by the looks of it, is unlikely to be fulfilled in the immediate future.
Pandita’s grassroots research in the jungles of Chattisgarh, Bihar and other parts of India where the government’s authority has faded or never existed in the first place and where Maoists guerrillas (who owe allegiance to Chairman Mao and the Revolution he has espoused) rule the roost, is path breaking to say the least. Hello Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the Maoist insurgency has taken root in the jungles of central and eastern India. Pandita adopts a sympathetic tone as he tells us about the Maoists. The reason why Maoists have survived for so long despite so many setbacks is obvious, though Pandita does take the trouble to spell it out. Poverty, abject poverty of the sort which doesn’t exist in any other part of the world other than Sub-Saharan Africa, is the main cause for the continued existence of Maoists in India.
Initially, India’s Maoists owed outright allegiance to Chairman Mao and China. ‘China’s Chairman (Mao) is our Chairman’ was the Naxal slogan. This in a way backfired since India’s exploited peasants did not have an Indian leader who could motivate and lead them. In West Bengal, Jangal Mahal area, an organisation called Dakshin Desh was started – India being referred to as ‘Dakshin’ as opposed to China which was called 'Uttar Desh'! Do India’s Maoists still owe allegiance to modern-day China which is more capitalist than many countries in Western Europe? Pandita is not very clear on this point. Pandita also doesn’t refer to weapons or arms being provided to the Maoists by foreign countries.
Hello Bastar has detailed descriptions of various Maoists leaders which is invaluable for a student of the Maoist movement in India. One of the leaders so described, Kishenji, was killed by the CRPF in November 2011. Many of the Maoist leaders described by Pandita - men and women like Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy nee Shanbag - come across as committed individuals who are much more concerned about improving the lives of tribals and other marginalised people than in imposing Maoist rule in India. Pandita does make references to killings and massacres carried out by Maoists, but Pandita doesn’t show them to have ruthlessness that is in anyway comparable to the legendary ruthlessness of men like Mao Tse Tung or Chou En Lai.
Pandita makes the very valid point, something which the Maoists themselves are aware of, that they have made very little headway in urban areas, though most large Indian cities have huge slums and a very large percentage of people live in those squalid slums. Then, why is it that Maoists haven’t been able to make their presence felt in India’s urban settings which have so much poverty and inequality? Also, why haven’t the Maoists been able to attract college students the way they used to in the 60s and 70s? Pandita asks Ganapathi, a Maoist leader, whether he thinks Maoist movement will ever be as successful in Gurgaon as in Giridih (a Maoist stronghold in Jharkhand). He replied: “All the riches between Giridih and Gurgaon have been produced by people from poor areas like Giridih. It is the poor Dalit and Adivasi labourers who are spilling their sweat and blood for the construction of huge mansions and infrastructure by Indian and foreign corporate lords. The majority of the workers and employees who work in the shopping malls and companies are from these areas. In terms of social, economic and cultural ties or in terms of movement relations, Gurgaon and Giridihs are not two unconnected islands as such. They both are influencing each other. This is creating a strong base for our extension. If Giridih is liberated first, then basing on its strength and on the struggles of the working class in Gurgaon, Gurgaon will be liberated later." To me, this statement sounded farfetched. Places like Giridih have been ‘liberated’ by the Maoists for many decades, but they have had little bearing on the various Gurgaons of India. Pandita comments ‘that may be a far cry, but not as far as it may sound to the government.’