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Truth and honesty, as interrelated as they are, are difficult to find in southern Chhattisgarh. In this vast territory of resource-rich, forested lands, where the Indian state remains at war with the ultra-Leftist Naxal guerrillas, it is rare to find a voice that is neutral.
Not that this is easy. Those who have travelled through the ravaged, breathtaking heart of the country will know that fact and fiction coexist here remarkably comfortably. So willingly, in fact, ensconced between the propaganda machines of the rulers and the rebels, that investigations into this curious conflict often turn out to be glossy anthologies with graphic, colourful jackets on them.
Many of these, edited by learned men who have mostly lived away from the burning conflict, fail, because they simply try to cover too much. The Maoist Movement in India, edited by Supreme Court lawyer Santosh Paul, is the latest.
It contains contributions from Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Finance Minister (and former home minister) P Chidambaram and other key players — voices that have been heard repeatedly but remain relevant. Why any such collection must include what banker-turned-author Chetan Bhagat has to say on the matter is, frankly, baffling.
Nonetheless, the anthology claims that it is “an attempt to formulate a possible middle-of-the-road approach that may help the adivasis and the underprivileged”. Yet, there isn’t a single contribution from an adivasi, or a member of “the underprivileged”, though their exact definition remains unclear. That, however, isn’t the sole concern.
Too many tomes have sought to provide diverse perspectives, purportedly also packing solutions within. But far too few have chronicled all that is happening in what is probably India’s most impoverished and violent region today.
And that is why former BBC and Guardian journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary’s 270-page work, Let’s Call Him Vasu, is a relief. It also proves itself a revelation and a riveting read.
Not that Mr Choudhary is an adivasi. But a childhood spent in northern Chhattisgarh’s Koriya district (now apparently part of the Red Corridor) and a journalism career begun in a state that is the epicentre of the Naxal movement have given him an outlook that eludes many external observers.
“Through the stories I heard, I have tried to piece together the history of the Naxal movement in the central tribal region through the 1980s up to the present,” he writes in the prologue, clarifying that the aim, thankfully, isn’t to chronicle and explain it all. “For me, this book is just a step forward in the larger effort that is required to understand the why’ of the Naxal problem’,” he writes.
Eventually, though, Mr Choudhary’s skills as an amateur historian are overshadowed by his simple, clear but detailed and hugely enjoyable writing.
It helps that Mr Choudhary has humanised the war – where nameless, faceless “Naxals” are killed in “successful encounters” by equally indistinct members of the “security forces” – and, through a maze of names, aliases, monikers and nom de guerre, exposes the fascinating topography of the rebel hierarchy, which comes with understanding the network for years. Mr Choudhary says he spent seven.
It begins by establishing the central character, Vasu: an almost ephemeral man who was Mr Choudhary’s first Naxal contact during his days as a scribe in Raipur, now Chhattisgarh’s capital. From there, part narrative, part travelogue, it tips effortlessly into the movement’s past, where – through conversations juxtaposed with revealing research – the contemporary history of Dandakaranya’s political and social machinations stands exposed.
The Salwa Judum – and all that came before and after – and the Naxal response to it are detailed, as is the expansive cast of characters, including the controversial activist-doctor Binayak Sen and the myriad leaders of the Naxal ranks, known to most as just names in the media.
It is difficult to not have grudging respect for the movement’s rank and file, who spend much of their lives on the run, fighting the state for a cause that many know won’t be realised within their lifetime — and Mr Choudhary admits as much. He doesn’t seem an apologist for the Naxals either; the tough questions are asked, though not always answered.
“I was not to know that, over the next couple of days, I would spent the most frustrating hours of my entire journey with him,” he writes of his meeting with Ganapathy, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoists). “He spoke at length, but handled everything so diplomatically that there was not much information one could take away from the interactions.”
At the same time, Mr Choudhary’s criticism of the state is scathing, but not unfair. “My calculations indicate that the ranks of the Naxals grew at least threefold, if not more, since the start of the Salwa Judum,” he says in a chapter titled “Peace March”.
Yet, the problem with even such painstakingly gathered information is its veracity, though it is difficult to doubt Mr Choudhary’s intent to tell the story. That is why in the description of the protracted game of smoke and mirrors in south Chhattisgarh’s forested tracts, Let’s Call Him Vasu is unusual.
And while it enriches the discourse immensely, it ends with the usual questions. “I wonder if Vasu will ever head the Maoist party. Will he ever live a normal life with his children? Or will he travel to a new area when he leaves this forest, just like earlier revolutionaries, who moved from one theatre of rebellion to another?”
LET’S CALL HIM VASU
With the Maoists in Chhattisgarh
Penguin Books India; Rs 350
THE MAOIST MOVEMENT IN INDIA
Perspective and counterperspectives
Editor: Santosh Paul
Routledge; Rs 595