Book Review of Let’s Call Him Vasu

October 1, 2013

By Sumati Panikkar

Let’s Call Him Vasu, written by journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, is another addition to the increasing list of journalistic writings on the Maoist movement in India. As the war in central India intensifies, the publishing business too has found several ways of cashing in on the marketability of war zones. Let’s Call Him Vasu is a curious mix of good and bad journalism. Overall it lacks any substantial understanding or critical analysis of the movement and situation in Central India.

What needs to be pointed out first is the author’s disturbing preoccupation with ‘unearthing’ information that is totally unnecessary and pointless to the reader’s concerns. There is a very strange hunt for ‘secrets’, such as links of urban activists with the Maoists, details about who is an underground activist and so on, which is disturbing, and raises several suspicions. The subjects of Choudhary’s relentless and misplaced curiosity are Binayak Sen, Piyush Guha and Jeet and Mukti Guha Niyogi. At random moments in the book, the writer brings up these people, displaying his inexplicable urge to confirm what he already believes to be true, that all of them were or are activists with links to the Maoists. Here is a sample: “Did he (Sen) courier messages for you?”, “I wanted to know about Jeet’s association with the Party. How did it start? Did Jeet approach them or was it the other way around? Where did things stand now?” When a Maoist leader tells him about having trained and dispatched twenty five people for work in the cities, Choudhary seems wholly disappointed when he realized that “there was no point in probing for the details of the young trainees..”

What is the motive of Mr. Chowdhary is the big question. Why does he want to probe into, or do an “expose” as he put it in an article in the Tehelka about a case that is sub judice? It is an extremely dangerous practice that the author has indulged in particularly as a senior journalist. More so because such information is credited by the book to completely unverifiable and shady sources, such as a man called Anil who strangely voluntarily informs him that he is a courier for the Maoists, and also divulges several other ‘secrets’. How do we confirm the authenticity of such information? Choudhary seems glaringly disrespectful of the ethics of reporting on movements and activists, especially in a context where the repression of all kinds of voices against the state’s war on people is increasing with each passing day. One also wonders how unearthing such information is of any relevance to the concerns of the book or the reader, apart from providing sensationalist attention to the book? This is something that raises many suspicions, because clearly it is wholly in the state’s interest to name underground activists, or link prominent urban activists with the Maoists. The Maoists have since issued a statement denying the allegations that Choudhary has made about the links of Binayak Sen with their party. Several other activists have also condemned it.

The other unsettling aspect the book is that it is littered with naive observations throughout. That the Maoists he allegedly meets supposedly use branded shoes and bags, and drink coffee is pointed out as clever digs and sharp observations about the hypocrisy of revolutionaries. Instead, these end up sounding terribly self-absorbed and childish. Nearly a fourth of the book is spent in such unnecessary deviations.

The second half of the book is more useful, particularly in the light of the recent debates in the corporate media about the Salwa Judum in the wake of the killing of Mahendra Karma. A considerable section of the book is devoted to tracing the history of the Maoist movement in Dandakaranya, as narrated, we are told, by Kosa, Maoist State Secretary. It is more the history of how the CPI (ML) People’s War entered Dandakaranya with seven teams of seven members each in 1980 and built a movement over three decades. It started with the struggle over tendu leaf rates, confronting the traders and contractors; then, taking up the exploitation and violence by the forest department on the adivasis, that included daily beatings, burning down of villages, forced labour, denying access to the forest produce, and sexual exploitation of women by the members of the department. Similarly, constant displacement in name of several projects increased people’s anger against the government, driving them to the Maoists’ fold. Central Committee member Sonu tells Choudhary that it was around 1987 that the armed struggle in Dandakaranya had started to take shape as a class war, as the internal contradictions in adivasi society became more crystalized. The small powerful land owning sections among adivasis, of which Mahendra Karma and his extended circle of family and friends seem to be a prominent part, also became viciously violent in exploiting adivasi villagers directly and in siding with the state, and the business sections. Choudhary tells the case of Karma’s compatriots, one Bandi and his brother Masa,  who “terrorized thirty-odd villages”, levying fines and persecuting those who disobeyed. When the Maoists mobilized against the landlord sections of adivasis, the latter unleashed brutal violence against villagers.

A pertinent aspect of the book is that it connects the various versions of state sponsored vigilantism and anti-Maoist violence that were carried out in the garb of ‘spontaneous uprisings’ or ‘awakening’ missions since early 1980s. Choudhary mentions the state-supported anti-Maoist propaganda campaign called ‘Jan Jagran’, the precursor of Salwa Judum first initiated in 1982, under Vishwaranjan, the SP of Bastar who later supervised the Salwa Judum as well. While this one failed, another Jan Jagran Abhiyan was started in 1991. This phase coincided directly with the rise of the BJP and the spread of RSS activity through educational work throughout the 1980s. Choudhary interviews old Congress members who accept that the Abhiyan “had been drafted in Bhopal by Congress and BJP leaders in meetings..”, much like the latter Salwa Judum. In 2003, there was also a Dantewada Samanway Samiti, started by a local Hinduized tribal Chaituram with the help of Shivanand Ashram. Backed by the RSS and the BJP government, they attacked and burnt the houses of Maoist supporters.

The key role in Salwa Judum was played by precisely those families of the big landonwers who either had had their land confiscated and redistributed by the Maoists or been killed by them. The collusion of the state, the small landlord section of the tribals, the Hindu Right, the Congress and the police over several versions of the Salwa Judum had become sufficiently clear with this.

The strength of the book lies in its second half when the bloody history of Salwa Judum is brought alive. As has been repeatedly pointed out by activists and writers over the years, Choudhary too reveals through his visits to the ravaged villages, camps and in conversations with the members of the administration that the Salwa Judum was not the ‘spontaneous people’s uprising’ that the state and media had portrayed it to be. Salwa Judum was indeed “a plan prepared by the central government, drawn up when LK Advani of BJP was the Union home minister”. It started with the full and active participation of the police, including prominently the SPs of Dantewada and Bijapur, the Collector, DIG, and BJP ministers. In one of the earliest attacks of Salwa Judum, Karma with BJP MLA Mahesh Gagda and Bijapur SP DL Manhar led two direct attacks on Kotrapal village, which was a Maoist stronghold, with a hundred policemen as part of a Judum procession. The villagers fled to the forest and the remaining ones were killed as Judum mob set fire to the entire village. Months of targeted violence and destruction followed. Villagers in the camps mention being “brought here like cattle by the security forces”. He mentions a police constable who’s conscience was disturbed by the manner in which the police went to the villages with the Judum members, caught the adivasi villagers, and shot like “chickens, dogs and pigs” the ones who tried to escape. Choudhary tells us how Salwa Judum coincided with the earliest phase of Operation Green Hunt, which had started with the arrival of Naga forces belonging to the Indian Reserve Batallion in August 2005. He describes their operations in village after village where adivasis were lined up, shot and beheaded.

The Indian state’s policy of using one oppressed nationality against another was repeated and a terror ran across the region about the Naga soldiers’ brutality. Tales of horror from countless villages are recounted, where the people that remained in the villages were hacked, chopped into pieces. The number of rapes remain uncounted. Several thousands of people had already been forced to escape to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Choudhary mentions the story of Takilod village which had been attacked nine times by the CRPF and SPOs between November 2005 to February 2010, in which atleast 29 villagers were killed. 4 women were abducted, raped and killed, and later their bodies were produced with military fatigues to create a story of encountered Maoist cadre. People’s retaliation to Salwa Judum had also begun by mid 2006, when a Judum rally was driven out of Madded town. Several big ralliess against Salwa Judum took place in Dantewada and Jagdalpur, where participation ranged from 50000 to one and a half Lakh people. The administration closed down most of the ration shops meant for villages and diverted them to the camps, prevented teachers from entering the villages, and cut off the medical services. This left the villagers with no choice but to move to the camps in many cases. He also reiterates what has been repeatedly exposed by activists and movements ever since the Judum and then Operation Green Hunt began- that these operations coincided conveniently with the signing of MOUs with Tata, Essar and other companies, with the focus of the attacks was also on the area near the Bailadila Mines.

There is passing mention of what the Maoist call Jantana Sarkars; or people’s government at the village level which started in 1996, after the party started deliberating on an alternative development policy. This happened after the increase in membership of locals leading to spread and strengthening of activities. More than 3 lakh acres of land have been created and distributed in Dandakaranya by the party, we are told by Sonu.

The problem is that having put all this information together, Choudhary fails to connect the dots. He fails to understand the motives and aims of the movement, or of the nature of the class war, inspite of having elaborated on the exploitation and amount of structural violence inherent in the present class society. This reflects in the kinds of questions he asks the leadership and cadre. For example, a more informative or detailed account of the Janatana sarkar’s work, and its policies would have helped in drawing a picture of both what the Maoists are fighting against and what they are aiming to build in its place- neither of which Choudhary seems to have understood. In the post-script of the book, he writes that  a part of the solution to the ‘Maoist problem’ lies in bridging the communication gap between mainstream India and the adivasi population. CGNet and CGNet Swara which are communication initiatives by Choudhary are seen by him as part of the solutions. It is absurd that after having seen the extent of oppression and described it in the book, the solution or atleast a part of it is sought in making modes of communication more ‘accesible’ and ‘democratic’. Making communication technology a tool for resistance is one thing, but viewing it as a method to resolve the “problem” is quite another. The book suffers from what has become by now a dominant tendency among the liberal civil society members- that of seeking a middle ground in a situation of war. While Choudhary acknowledges that “it is no longer a revolt, it is a war”, and asks how one could “talk of peace to people who have suffered so much anguish”, there is that very familiar tendency to look for solutions that do not address the root of the war.

A system who’s life-blood is the exploitation of the have-nots and the adivasis along with their resources, cannot be expected to give “effective rights to Adivasis, about their lives and future”. “It is only an accident of history that the tribals have turned to the Maoists. They reached the forests first”, he writes. This view is symptomatic of the problems that plagues Indian ‘civil society’ and official left’s view about the “Maoist problem”. The poor, in this case the Adivasis, are hapless victims, gullible, trapped. The Adivasis are thus denied the scope of being political subjects, capable of going beyond their immediate identity concerns to a larger revolutionary vision that brings about the emancipation of all. Much of the writing and debate in the civil society and sections of the left after the start of Operation Green Hunt recognized the repressive nature of the state, and its collusion with big capital, like this book does. But by stressing repeatedly the externality of the Maoists to the Adivasis, these sections want to portray the struggle as illegitimate. Maoists are outsiders, Adivasis by definition cannot be Maoists, unless forced or sandwiched. Choudhary too reflects this view. This is a humanitarianism that recognizes and is moved by the stark oppression but denies its true nature, and thus denies the poor the right to be political subjects.

Overall, Choudhary’s book serves a purpose in indicating to the the reader the vast extent of state and corporate led violence and bloodshed that was unleashed on the adivasis and on a political movement that challenged it. Though much of what is written is already familiar to activists by now , there is still a large section of our society that remains aloof of this brutal reality. Let’s Call Him Vasu cannot be read with the expectations of providing clear and sharp analysis of the Maoist movement, nor can it be expected to raise those critical questions that we need to ask of a revolutionary movement. The book lacks any coherence or clear objective even. The questions raised at the beginning of the review about the intentions of the author in raising sensationalist questions eventually cast a big shadow on the political motivations the book.


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