Prime Edition

Hello Bastar

Rahul Pandita

Tranquebar, Chennai

Pages: 202 Rs. 250

Unexplained references derail effort to explain Maoism

This book tells the story of the Maoist movement, but it does not display the nuanced understanding one has come to expect from Rahul Pandita’s reportage

DILIP D'SOUZA  14th Aug 2011

Rahul Pandita, PHOTO: NIHA MASIH

irca 2011, a lot of people react to the word 'Maoist' with a kind of hair-trigger revulsion and anger. Say anything about them, anything at all, and you'll have people asking with barely concealed scorn: "Are

you a Maoist sympathiser?" As if "Maoist sympathiser" is in itself an insult.

What this does is effectively shut down any possibility of debate on issues even tangentially related to Maoists. This is the climate in which Rahul Pandita's Hello Bastar makes its appearance, offering as it does 'The Untold Story of India's Maoist Movement'. Who will swallow their revulsion enough to read this untold story?

Or maybe there is a more pertinent question. What must the writer of such an untold story do to reach beyond the revulsion and anger, to stimulate some debate? For surely that is what this country needs — debate on one of its more intractable problems — and surely that's why Pandita wrote this book. What does Pandita do to spark debate?

Well, early in the book he tells us that in 1967, Communist cadres in north Bengal "forcibly occupied land, seized granaries and burnt land records. Any resistance was brutally put down." In response, landlords turned to the police. In independent India, writes Pandita, it's been a "constant occurrence [that] the police mostly acted and worked for the influential and rich or their political masters."

It's not that I don't believe this: broadly, I do. But I mention it only to say that lines like this, and especially this early, will promptly alienate the very folks Pandita presumably wants to engage. For one thing, where's the proof, besides just stating it, that the police act like this? For another, if those cadres occupy, seize and burn as Pandita says they did (and in passing, where's the proof of that?), why should landlords not get help from the police?

There are other moments like this in this book too, each one driving a nail into hopes of dialogue and debate. Halfway through the book, for example, Pandita has a paragraph that speaks of 'development work' that Maoists have taken up. He gives us two quick examples, then this third one: "After a landlord was killed, a big tank on the land he owned was occupied by the local Maoist platoon."

Excuse me? Who killed the landlord? The Maoist platoon? Why? Should we just gloss over this? Pandita then writes: "In some cases, the police would return and damage such projects." Well, if this platoon has just murdered a man and occupied his property, please explain why the police should not do what they did.

Speaking of killing, the book is filled with mentions of people who were 'later killed', some in police 'encounters'. Gajalla Ganga Ram. Jagdish Mahto. Rameshwar Ahir. Sande Rajamouli. Mangtu. One Eiatu's unnamed brother. These people are mentioned, we find out that they were killed, we never hear of them again. One name, two, that's OK. But so many, with no explanation of what they did when alive, none of how they died: this makes for frustrating reading. I can imagine that plenty of readers will inevitably wonder: is he just being gratuitous with these mentions?

And there's other frustrating reading too. One odd account is about five men who have been walking in Bastar for days. They are exhausted, the sun is hot, food scarce, they "rarely encounter a single human being." One threatens to "return" if he can't get food. They find a chicken and eat it. This is a turning point. "The man who had threatened to return became one of the leading lights of the Naxal movement in this area. His name, however, is not known."

And that's it. No further mention of these men, not even of this 'leading light'. No explanation of why this story is in this book.

Elsewhere, Pandita has an account of internecine battles between the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the militant upper-caste Ranvir Sena. The MCC massacres people, the Ranvir Sena massacres people, on and on. Then:

"Although the MCC maintained that it killed only men, in some actions women and children would also become victims. On the other hand, the Ranvir Sena would not spare even children and women during their attacks."

I don't understand that 'on the other hand'. Do you? What's the difference, at least as far as women and children go?

Rahul Pandita is no neophyte journalist. I've read and liked his writing in the past. Which is why I am baffled by this book. With the time he has spent in Bastar, I expected to learn from him the complex Maoist story, with all its nuances. To an extent, it's here: but in an oddly hurried, haphazard way.

Here was Pandita's chance to persuade so many hostile people that we should at least pay attention to what is going on in a broad belt across the middle of our country. We don't have to agree with Maoists, let alone 'sympathise' with them, but we can at least get a sense of what drives them. Of how people live, what the conditions are, in the areas we so easily dismiss as 'Maoist-infested'.

Sadly, this book misses that chance.

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