Reflection on Rahul Pandita”s Hello Bastar #BookReview

Posted on November 2, 2011

By Waled Aadnan:

Waking up one sultry post-Pujo morning in Calcutta, I found a home delivery of Rahul Pandita’s Hello Bastar awaiting me. The book’s cover claimed it to be “The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement”. So finishing my morning chores, I sat down to read the narrative about a movement which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has dubbed as India’s biggest internal security threat. Admittedly, the book stumped me and left me engrossed. Some five hours later, I had turned the last page.

The book was certainly well written and had presented the facts of the Maoist movement in a perceivably dispassionate manner, which is difficult to come by given the intense passions and romance that can engulf any writer on the subject. Chapter after chapter had followed the history of the struggle from before the Naxalbari conflict flared up to contemporary times. What is more, a glowing afterword by Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy written from the ramparts of the high security cells of Tihar Jail, Delhi had dissected the idea of the Indian nation as we know it.

Coming from another conflict-zone — the Northeast, being a student of Presidency College, Calcutta, which itself was a so-called headquarters of the Naxal struggles of the 60s and 70s, and a boarder of two years at Hindu Hostel, which had housed some of the then-radicals; I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the history of the movement. Indeed, one of the most vivid memories of my early days in Calcutta was staring with awe at the openings in the ceiling of my hostel room where arms and ammunition had once been stowed away from repressive police eyes and hearing whispered tales of Asim Chatterjee alias Kaka, and other student leaders of those days. Even with that background, Hello Bastar was an eye-opener.

The assertion that the void created by the State has been filled by the Maoists has never been truer. Although the Maoist struggle started as mostly bit-piece uprisings against oppressive landowners assisted by the state machinery, every failure met by the movement, every fake encounter death, every repression and supposed annihilation has only paved the way for another fresh movement. This phoenix-like life of Maoism in India isn’t surprising: the basic tenet on which the movement has survived for the past four decades and more is the inherent oppression and discrimination in the land tenure system of the country and the failures of land reforms to arrive in most parts of the country despite sixty two years of the Constitution.

The result has indeed been a vast chasm between the rulers and the ruled. For despite all pretence at democracy in the hallowed streets of Lutyens’ Delhi, at the most localised level, India has continued, despite Independence, to be “ruled” by those in whose hands, economic power has been vested in more than proportion. I say this, because following Marx’s conjecture that the economy is the substructure or base of a society and all its non-economic relations are based on this substructure — a conjecture that fits today’s materialistic, capitalistic society to the T — the feudal structure of rural India that hadn’t undergone any major change during two centuries of British rule left the poor considering their landlords as nothing less than demi-gods. And on the other hand, the landlords considered it their right to extract from the peasants as much as they could, in short, to treat them no better than monkeys, if not worse, as the author compares on two occasions in his book. Indeed, the regicide that had followed in Europe after 1789 hadn’t yet arrived in India.

The Maoists, it can be said, took a path very similar to the first modern-day rebels in Europe. By instilling faith in the poor and a belief that their lot was not a divine punishment but indeed oppression on the part of the landowners, the Maoists tried to break the shackles of an age-old feudalism in India. The reaction of the Indian establishment to the Maoist struggle at every stage is only indicative of this basic fact. Because with all due respects, the government that we have seen in the Indian nation has been nothing more than an oligarchy of leaders put forward by a process beyond the understanding or power of the aam aadmi. Where the mango people come in is simply to put in their affirmation of the choice made by the High Command, whichever High Command may at that point be in favour. No other logic can explain the coming to power of our present PM or President or even the imminent coming to power of the next heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and the next, and the next, and so forth.

This government was so shaken by the prospect of the Indian masses (however unrepresentative a sample) coming to political, social and economic consciousness, that it immediately tried to repress. Interestingly, the demands of the Maoist movement have basically been the protection of the interests of the poorest of the poor, something that doesn’t really contravene the spirit of the Constitution. If the movement, in any form, has now sought to overthrow the current establishment, it is only with a sense of disillusionment and frustration at the common man being denied the rights promised by the establishment in the first place. On this point, I might be wrong and I might be refuted, but it is entirely my personal belief.

An interesting point to be noted from the book is the apparent lack of interest among the educated youth of the country to participate in the Maoist struggle. This stands in stark contrast to the phenomenon of the early Naxal movements. The reasons for this disenchantment among the student community are complex. Certainly, we have come to realise that the revolution, if it is coming, is a slow one. Hence, the romance and passion of the early-day rebels is not to be seen. What is left is an intellectual murmuring of dissent at government policies that leave a lot to be desired, and a more careerist student, on the average. Secondly, with the coming of social media and the intrusive presence of the media in general in our lives, an average youth from a middle-class family is brought up on a diet of prejudice against the idea of Maoism as a violent terrorist movement. How deep this prejudice runs can easily be fathomed from any comment stream on the internet on any operation carried out by Maoists. Thirdly, taking a broader perspective, the students of 2011 do not have a Vietnam raging in the world outside. As such, they do not find the international political scene as representing a conducive “time” to bring about an armed revolution.

In conclusion, I must refer Hello Bastar to any individual who wants to get an alternative picture of the Maoist movement, albeit from the other side this time. It will not only provide you with an understanding of the Maoists and why they are Maoists, but also how the country functions, the relative priority that the Indian establishment lays on different sections of society. And if nothing else, it is a reflection on India after sixty-four years of self-rule, I excuse myself the use of the word Independence.


Waled Aadnan is a senior year student at Presidency University, Kolkata, an active blogger and freelance writer.