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A search for a lost friend

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Feb 28, 2013 | From the print edition

Book>> Let’s Call Him Vasu: With The Maoists In Chhattisgarh • Shubhranshu Choudhary • Penguin Books • Rs 350

LET’S CALL HIM VASU: WITH THE MAOISTS IN CHHATTISGARHEvery time a book on Maoists and Chhattisgarh is released, I experience a curious mixture of excitement and yearning. As a journalist, I have found both Chhattisgarh and the Maoist rebels in the state intriguing. I harbour a desire to write about Chhattisgarh and the Maoists sometime. So a book on the state and its intriguing rebels stokes my curiosity and kindles my “wish-I-could-write-this-book” sentiment.

Let’s call him Vasu does so even more. The writer, Shubhranshu Choudhary, is an old hand at covering Chhattisgarh, Maoism and the state’s war against the insurgents. For the book, he spent seven years visiting Maoists and tribals in the Dandakaranya forest in none-too-hospitable conditions—he had to fight malaria twice. At the heart of the book lies Choudhary’s quest to find a long lost friend. But in seeking out Vasu who is probably poised to reach the highest rank in Maoist hierarchy, Choudhary also reaches out to several of the Maoist rank and file. The book is replete with moving stories of men and women driven to the “dadas” (as the Naxal leaders are called) by the apathy of forest and government officials.

It reminds one of what urban critics of Maoist insurgents often forget: these people have seen their homes, schools and villages go up in flames, lost land to the state’s industrialisation drive and have suffered innumerable atrocities at the hands of upper castes. Women were picked up, raped and murdered. The book shows why revenge is the key for Maoism’s relentless foot soldiers.

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Choudhary sets out to find answers to why Chhattisgarh became the “biggest internal security threat”, and in the process hits at the rot that has set in where no one has a solution except diversionary tactics like television and the cultural university in Bastar. The state is not interested in talks either with the Maoists or with the tribals. Choudhary’s is an honest enquiry that lays threadbare the way the mainstream media reports the conflict: there is over-reporting of Maoist violence and under-reporting of the positives like the rebels helping tribals get the right price for tendu.

Choudhary takes a peek at the Maoists’ arms strategy, sings and dances with the tribal youth in their ghotuls (dormitories), while expressing his helplessness at having to conduct his enquiry under the shadow of the gun. While being sharply critical of the state, the book doesn’t gloss over the wrongs of the Maoists. It shows there is indeed some truth in the allegations of Maoist extortion.

Let’s call him Vasu has come under fire for quoting a Maoist that Binayak Sen was a courier for the party. But in Choudhary’s defence, it must be said this is the Maoist’s version and not his.

The author has also not shied away from taking names, which does make his account authentic but at the cost of putting his interlocutors at risk. He claims to use his discretion to retain a few identities and cover the others. The real identity of Vasu is not revealed (after all, this is how the author had known him from the beginning) though he does meet him and agrees to carry a letter to his children (which he destroys).

The author does not subscribe to Vasu’s politics of killing people but he has reasons to admire him: “… but he has facts and figures to support his argument that mainstream politics kills more people and equally painfully, though slowly.”

There are a few important takeaways from the book. The state’s Jan Jagran Abhiyan, Salwa Judum and operation Green Hunt failed. They helped in strengthening the Maoists’ base in these regions instead of destroying it. The lack of government initiative and the Hinduisation of the region are killing their Gondi culture. The class wars apart, there is a clear conflict between right and left that the adivasis are caught in and they end up choosing the lesser of the two evils.

Savvy Soumya Misra is a freelance journalist

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