Red train to Gurgaon

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Rahul Pandita’s eyewitness chronicle of the Maoist movement and its affected lives is both sensitive and careful, finds Saroj Giri

Firsthand Rahul Pandita (centre) with Maoist guerrillas in Chhattisgarh
Firsthand Rahul Pandita (centre) with Maoist guerrillas in Chhattisgarh

HOW DOES one cut through the State and media’s dominant depictions of ‘marginal’ events and present a convincing story to a sceptical audience? One way seems to be to provide something incontrovertible — like an eyewitness account, something the writer has directly experienced, heard or felt. Take the recent writings on the Maoist movement wanting to tell the ‘real’ story, the ‘untold’ story. They bring us direct accounts of walks and journeys, travels and conversations in the Red zone — a jangalnama.

Rahul Pandita’s choice of title for his new book adds a familiarity to this directness: Hello, Bastar. The book presents his travels in the Maoist heartland and brings out both the movement’s history and the actors involved. Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy recommends the book for its authenticity and reliability. The presentation is not lyrical but not dryly factual either — it carefully lays out the oral history that circulates and nourishes the movement.

Pandita achieves a sensitive and humane account of the real lives of the people in the Maoist movement by cutting through not just State and media propaganda but also through Maoist ideology. There is a palpable unease about the political ideology these people supposedly believe in. Apparently, Maoist practice in its immediacy and local context is adorable. But ‘communism’ is, we are told, an irreparable problem — made clear in Arundhati Roy’s writings.

Pandita also sketches a touching account of Anuradha Ghandy, Maoist leader and Kobad’s wife. Coming from a well-off family, “Anuradha wouldn’t shy away from hardships; she did everything that other guerrillas would do.” In Nagpur, she lived and worked in Dalit bastis. Bicycling for political work around the city, she was known for her sensitivity and concern.

Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story Of India’s Maoist Movement
Rahul PanditaTranquebar Press 202 pp; Rs 250

ARE ANURADHA’sMaoism and her justice-loving self irreconcilable? Isn’t trying to discover the ‘real’ person — unmediated by ‘ideology’ — part of a depoliticisation? Is ideology that pernicious?

Pandita narrates: “They might learn big words like comprador, bourgeoisie or imperialism, but the motto for an ordinary cadre is: datt kar khao, datt kar chalo (eat as much as you can, walk as much as you can).” Cleansed of these “big words”, the struggle gets construed as local and contingent — not what is usually understood as Revolution. Maoists are shown as fighting local violence and oppression by landlords and forest officers backed by the State. Their honesty and commitment melted Adivasi hearts. Little Tarakka and her family faced years of oppression by forest officers. Today, that is a thing of the past. She is now known not just as a Maoist rebel but also for her beauty.

Unease with political ideology and ease with the local and the directly experienced gives way in the last chapter, however, to hints of a broader generalisation — enacting a Giridih or a Bastar in Gurgaon. The imagination, dream and perhaps ‘ideology’ inspiring Ghandy’s humane acts and ‘big words’ start to silently underpin Pandita’s text. Let’s dream the urban agenda — Hello, striking workers!

Giri teaches political science at Delhi University
[email protected]


Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel, Thin man lookin’ at his last meal, For Dignity

Polly Hazarika examines what Subhas Chandra Bose can teach our age of television fasts, farmer suicides and armed resistance

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

THE BRITISH government arrests a young man in his early 30s under the Defence of India Act. He petitions for his release through all means, sensing that they want to put him away for a while. Finally he resorts to a hunger strike. Due to his failing health they send him home under heavy guard, determined to rearrest him the moment he’s well enough to stand again. The simple plan is to move him back and forth from home to prison, rendering his fast ludicrous. Sensing this strategy, he plans and executes a daring escape from home with the help of his young nephew. He travels across Bengal by car, to the NWFP by train and then walks across the Afghan border. Then, by way of Russia he goes on to Europe, deeply embarrassing the British who immediately declares him a wanted terrorist and issues orders for his assassination.

He takes advantage of WWII in Europe to align with the Axis powers, who make his journey back East possible within two years. On arriving in the Far East, a few thousand miles from his homeland, he raises funds, goodwill and an army to liberate his country. He declares war on the British Empire with the slogan Dilli Chalo. He coins the patriotic greeting Jai Hind! He suffers agonising defeats in war and is forced to retreat.

He walks with his soldiers during the retreat, refusing the relative comfort of vehicles reserved for officers. Away from the battlefield, his first task is to commission a memorial in Singapore to the fallen soldiers, on which he has the words ‘Faith’, ‘Unity’ and ‘Sacrifice’ emblazoned. The memorial is built at record speed, defiant and ready to welcome the conquering British army at its first port of landing. The first act of the British general is to blow up the war memorial with dynamite.

An officer in his army, among those put on trial for crimes against the British Empire, is asked why he continued to fight and support his leader in the face of sure defeat. “What did you get out of it?” asked the bewildered inquisitor. “Netaji embraced me,” the officer replies.

THE STORY of Subhas Chandra Bose is dramatic and emotional. The latest biography, His Majesty’s Opponent, written by his grand nephew Sugata Bose, does justice to these elements. It also provides elaborate notes, corroborating material and the political and cultural background to colonial India and WWII Europe, making the book a competent work of history. It restores a balanced view of the martyr and addresses some of the prejudices that his memory has been caught up in.

Another take on the story is from Romain Hayes in Bose in Nazi Germany. Here, the story is written within the political history framework we have inherited from the West. Hitler’s role in Europe impacts the image of a man whose instinctive feeling for country overrode political categories. Hayes criticises Bose for being “anxious”, “nervous”, “hesitant”, “ambitious” and finally “naïve” enough to follow the unsophisticated political policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Hayes poses several rhetorical questions: “How did one of the most prominent, popular and progressive Indian politicians of the 1930s end up allying himself with the Nazis?” and “Can a man who collaborated with the Nazis be celebrated as a progressive and heroic figure?” These questions attempt to generate controversy around Bose where none should arise, since they entirely ignore the circumstances of his political actions. The alliances with foreign powers during the war years were the acts of a man who had the vision to perform the impossible task of raising an army and challenging to battle the mightiest army in the world. It was also the first time since 1857 that Indians were given the opportunity to raise arms to defend their dignity.

Both books bring timely attention to a figure we don’t usually associate with public reverence. They correct a situation where we only know Bose as that guy who had a difficult relationship with Gandhi, hitched a submarine ride off the Axis powers and who some lunatics think is still alive.

Within British India, Gandhi’s pacifism as a method won over many. But those with the desire for more direct action were forced to take to ‘terrorism’, which no matter the justification, remained illegitimate. For the first time since 1857, Bose’s Indian National Army gave Indians a legitimate means to raise arms to defend their dignity.

Never mind the promise of raising India to European standards — if it takes away your dignity, refuse

The question of colonial occupation anywhere is really a question of human dignity, which the British establishment denied millions of its Indian subjects. It belittled native structures of family and community and installed a ‘reform’ project with ‘enlightened’ goals of progress and development, that’d ‘uplift’ the native from his ‘backwardness’. After independence, a political and bureaucratic system run by Indians has carefully replicated this efficiently installed edifice. Its methods continue to strip the many of basic dignity while securing development for a few. We continue to suffer policies that tell some of us to give up land, livelihood and, in the end, dignity — so that others enjoy these privileges. The rest of the world now respects India and her astounding growth rate. We have played politics with the best in the Western world and we have won.

The stories of men who saw this happen and rejected it vehemently still have something useful to tell us. Indians looked to these figures for creative ways of resistance. Both Gandhi and Bose enjoyed a mass appeal, though their methods — non-violence and armed struggle — were famously in conflict. But both were united by their overwhelming empathy. Gandhi’s fasts brought the administration to its knees. Bose had to deal with the administration’s attempts to sabotage his fasts.

His Majesty’s Opponent Sugata Bose Allen Lane 448; Rs 699 Bose In Nazi Germany Romain Hayes Random House 284; Rs 399

Gandhi’s non-violent noncooperation had superb mass appeal because it showed people what they could do to claim back their dignity. Never mind the promise of raising India to European standards of development — if it takes away your human dignity, refuse to participate. Bose’s attempt to storm the British Empire from whichever front he could was similarly a rejection of the niceties of European political speak. If his alliances laid him open to the charge of Fascism, he showed supreme indifference to the tag. What does it mean, really, to tell a man facing race discrimination at its height to please have politically correct views before reclaiming his dignity?

POLITICS IS not always a question of national ideology — it may also be about individual dignity. How is the individual to act when overwhelming forces strip him of his basic human dignity? This is the most urgent question facing those on the wrong side of colonial structures. Lately, there have been two responses from these people — one section is quietly committing suicide in large numbers while another has raised arms.

In garbled imitation, smaller men now attempt fasts and raise armies and, in moments of hubris, lose sight of the empathy that these acts were essentially about. All we have are drummed up television images, hysterical name-calling and high-pitched rhetoric. This is a sure sign that we have run out of ideas on what to do.

At such a time, Bose’s life reflects that great quality for which we love our heroes from history. When facing the deepest conflicts of his age, a leader shows us how to act so that we can make ourselves whole again.

Hazarika teaches English at SNDTWomen’s University, Mumbai


The word

Shyam Benegal 
Filmmaker

Do you have a favourite book on direction or films?
The Technique of Film Editing written by British filmmaker and editor Karel Reisz. I used to carry it around like the Bible before I became a filmmaker almost half a century ago. While it tells you how to construct a narrative, it also tells you how to build a film brick by brick. It is a definitive book for any beginner.

A book by an Indian author you would love to adapt into a film?
I wanted to make a film of The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh but it didn’t happen. He is writing these huge epics so you have to quarry them for a narrative. Sea of Poppies has multiple narratives, making it difficult to deal with the whole book for a film. Ghosh creates a sense of historical reality that is quite extraordinary.

Which is your favourite genre?
I don’t particularly care for genre fiction. I prefer regular fiction. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amitav Ghosh, VS Naipaul and Milan Kundera. I feel I am missing something if I don’t read them.

An underrated book?
All the recent works of Orhan Pamuk are underrated, including his latest on the art of the novel called The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist.

Do you judge people by the books they read?
The kind of books you read could be a reflection of who you are, but I wouldn’t bank on that.

Sahithya Jagannathan