Home Of the People of Bastar and Gandhism

Of the People of Bastar and Gandhism

This is not an attempted book review. Hridayesh Joshi’s recently released Hindi novel, Laal Lakeer, is a fiction based on facts from the battle zone Bastar. The narration centres around various stake holders from state to non state actors and above all the tribals that find themselves sandwiched between the two poles– through the prism of love, conflict, life and democracy. The grey zone for the tribals has been shrinking wherein they are confined to the binary of being either with the Maoists or with the state. It is an animated description of how the masses that inhabit the war zone are sandwiched between the State and the Maoists

The author, an NDTV journalist has reported from the war zones that are characteristic of the Naxal and anti-Naxal operations. Naxalism evokes very different reactions from people, depending on their ideology. For the state, it is the greatest menace to the country. For social activists and NGOs of a particular leaning, it is a genuine struggle against exploitation. For a few dogmatic intellectuals of ultra-left leaning, it is a war against the parliamentary democracy that only protects the interest of the bourgeois.

While the government and its agencies claim that Naxalism blocks “development” and deprives the masses of their basic needs and rights, a number of social thinkers feel that the Naxal insurgency prevents the loot of rich jungles and hills by multinational players. However, the vitality of the debate lies in the fact that the region as a whole is suffering primarily due to the ulterior motives of left wing extremists pretending to fight for tribal aspirations. Tribal aspirations are being used for a strategy whose goal is both too abstract and remote for them to identify with, or whose link with the professed goal is not self evident.  

For Joshi, all such simplistic formulations end when the story of Naxalism reaches Bastar. What is a political position or an intellectual debate in Delhi turns into a very complex and fierce battle between a mighty and corrupt state versus a half-baked Maoist army hiding in forests and living among villagers. It would not do justice to Laal Lakeer to say that it tries to identify the multiple issues that emerge from the circumstances in Bastar. It would be more true to the novel to say that it grows organically from the struggle in those forest villages, and to point out that in so doing, a number of ironies surface that reveal how a war being fought in the name of justice, equality and the welfare of the people is in fact dehumanising everybody involved.

Certainly, Joshi is a “pro-people” writer and journalist. But this “pro-people” stance is for him not merely a “politically correct” position. This is clear from the very opening of his novel, which presents two starkly oppositional scenes. The first is an encounter of Naxals by the police, in which two people are killed. The second is that of a “Janatana Adalat,” a so-called people’s court, in which zealots of the Maoist party leadership hang an honest and innocent man. The author has gone about mocking both the actors with political and authorial sensibility. The novel opens in this thought-provoking manner.

The opening of Laal Lakeer is full of narrative possibilities.And Joshi the novelist takes a most surprising path. His female protagonist Bheeme is the daughter of Hedia, the innocent man sentenced to death by the ‘Janatana Adalat’ of Maoists. Inspite of having lost her father at the hands of Maoists and their diktat, Bheeme strives along the righteous democratic path to empower the women and children of the strife torn region, with a belief that violence cannot provide with an answer to the challenges at hand.

In the hands of a less sensitive writer, this fact could have been used as an excuse for Bheeme to become anti-Naxal in the story. But Joshi avoids this expected route and instead takes Bheeme’s transformation to a deeper, more complex level. Bheeme’s loss, her acute understanding of her own society and a very deep sense of duty turns her into a leader who attempts to forge a democratic – almost a Gandhian – way in the midst of this blood-soaked terrain where everybody is trying to find solutions through violence, be it the Maoists, the State or the Vigilantes.Bheeme continued to suffer at the hands of the Maoists and the State for being fearsome and genuine. And in the end, when sheemerges as a mass leader, she is killed.

Joshi does not portray this idealistic choice by Bheeme, as an easy one. She (Bheeme) faces the worst of the state’s repression, is attacked by the Maoists and parts with her lover over an ideological battle that he cannot win and she refuses to lose. Out of these conflicts emerge several parallel stories and sub-themes, spanning over human relations concerning the tribal folks in a conflict zone.

The account shows what happens when the romanticism of Naxal movement is refracted in ground reality. Lal Lakeer is a journey into a war zone where the collateral damage is beyond imagination, taking into its fold every sensible and rightful entity i.e. poor tribals, journalists, representatives from the State officialdom etc.  

The power of Joshi’s novel lies in its evocation of the most contested term – “authenticity”; with all stake holders perceiving themselves to be on the correct path. It is easy to recognise the characters and events, so much so that the novel almost “feels” like a granular, detailed report of ground zero.

Ultimately, we realise that our great country – our Bharat Mata, our “jai Hind,” our “saarejahan se achcha….” – is a vast and varied land where the “Idea of India” works differently or does not work at all, where the right to equality guaranteed by our constitution faces serious impediments.

As the way forward in such a situation, the author is clearly of the opinion that only a democratic struggle can change things. Violence of one party seems to justify that of the other, in both nature and power. The only realistic way is the Gandhian way. But Gandhi poses a problem here. Is the Gandhian approach only a strategy, a means of putting pressure through satyagraha and hartal; or is it a way of lifecentered on the utopia of individual swaraj?

Empowerment of the local community, a self sustaining governance model, room for compromise while resolving conflicts etc were the facets that Gandhi desired for; but are we even inclined for these. Hasn’t Gandhi been reduced to being a symbolic icon which has sadly come to stand more like a fiction than fact? Albert Einstein was not too off the mark when he noted (on Gandhi), “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

Talking of facts, recent developments in Bastar that are being reported in media are disturbing, in case they are correct. In an extremely encouraging move, the Chhattisgarh Government has ordered an enquiry to look into the matter. As per the Government’s statement, “the enquiry is intended to act as a bridge between the Government and the media”. More important here is that while conducting the investigations, the enquiry committee ought to reach out to the local population that invariably finds its voice scuttled and aspirations trampled, in the context of such differences.

It is not the case that militancy is always very reasonable in the grievances it espouses and the rationale it offers for itself. Yet, the search should be for a deeper democracy that can handle real dissatisfaction within its terms, and reduce willfully intractable dissent to a numerically small and negligible scale. Also, there is no available readymade form of ideal democracy that will answer this need; but that is what we need to continuously search for. We can only raise the question – and hope that instead of presenting readymade or dogmatic answers, the characters brought to life in Laal Lakeer, the warriors in the war zone – Bheeme, Ramdev, Bishan – will discover the real solutions, and come closer to showing us the meaning of love and war, life and democracy. The novel, beyond its literary end shall continue to unfold and expand.


The Author is Senior Fellow at CLAWS.Views expressed are personal.

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Shashank Ranjan
Senior Fellow
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