Shubhranshu Choudhary tells Pheroze L. Vincent about “Let’s Call him Vasu”, and life after
Journalistically speaking, life’s been good for Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of CGNet Swara mobile news and author of Let’s Call him Vasu. In the past month, he’s been derided as a Maoist and an Intelligence Bureau (IB) agent by people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Shubhranshu confesses that his book, published simultaneously in Hindi as Uska Naam Vasu Nahi, is “a Maoist point of view, with the camera placed on their shoulders.”
The book is about the Maoist movement in Chhattisgarh, and starts off with his search for an old Maoist friend, described only by his nom de guerre “Vasu.” The book breaks new ground as a first draft of the history of the Maoists in Chhattisgarh since their entry from Andhra in the early 1980s. It contains several interviews with top guerrilla leaders like Mupalla Lakshman Rao alias Ganapathy, Kosa, Sonu alias Bhupathy, Sabyasachi Panda and Rajanna and also young Adivasi leaders like Venkitesh.
The book itself reads like fiction. With a pink back cover and brushstroke fonts, it doesn’t look like a serious treatise on the insurgency. Series of interviews have been condensed into single conversations for lucidity. Shubranshu says this is intentional, as the book is targeted at common readers rather than academics, though the text has gone through the rigours of fact checking.
“It is not normal journalism,” says Shubhranshu, who spent seven years researching for the book. “Ganapathy (general secretary of the Maoist Party) is considered the Bin Laden of India. I was the first to interview him in a decade, but I finish it in two paragraphs,” he says.
He further explains that the last batches of Naxalites from Andhra Pradesh crossed over to Chhattisgarh in the early 1990s. “Now we are seeing the rise of an Adivasi intellectual (within the Maoist party). People like Venkitesh are more important for me than Ganapathy, as the solution would come from them,” he says.
On his interview with Venkitesh, the party’s South Bastar secretary and its highest ranking tribal leader in the state, Shubranshu writes: “It seems bizarre even to think that sometime in the future, the Indian government may have to negotiate with a leader who has never boarded a train, and never travelled to the Capital of his state, leave alone the Capital of his country.”
He says, “Adivasis are very timid. I was astonished to see them coming out on to the streets to protests the rape of girls in Kanker, a few days ago. While the Maoists never claimed that they came to Dandakaranya for tribal uplift — the reasons were purely strategic — people like Ganapathy have turned Adivasis into fighters. But whether this will lead to tribal self-rule and whether they will be able to hold on to the land they have gained, remains to be seen.”
Shubhranshu has come under flak from civil rights activists for quoting Maoists saying that health activist Binayak Sen was a courier for the party. In his defence he says that he cross-checked this information with Panda and Kosa, both senior leaders who are not in contact with each other. The book also has a quote from Hyderabad-based activist K. Balagopal, who says: “I tried to start a peace process in Chhattisgarh like in Andhra, but Binayak Sen opposed it. Our entire initiative was scuttled by his opposition.”
Shubhranshu says that he wrote so knowing fully well the cost he would have to bear. “I have lost friends. No one wanted to write about my book. I respect Sen hugely but if I don’t write what I have learnt, it is a disservice to my profession.”
After working for the British Broadcasting Corporation for more than 10 years, Shubhranshu returned to his home state Chhattisgarh in 2004 to start CGNet, an Internet platform to exchange news. Soon he realised that as Internet penetration was negligible, they would have to move to more widely used medium like the mobile phone.
Thus CGNet Swara came into being. People from all over the Gondwana region that in addition to Chhattisgarh includes parts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh call in to give or listen to news. “We get 200 to 300 listeners every day and 10 to 15 recordings per day. After being translated from Gondi by journalists we have trained, they are vetted, and three to five news reports are released on our phone service every day.”
While the census lists about 27 lakh speakers of Gondi (unofficial estimates put it higher at 40 lakh) there are no news broadcasts on Akashvani in Gondi. Although, there are news bulletins in Sanskrit, which has 14,000 speakers according to the census.
One of the ironies of modern India is that while we have a free press, many communities are invisible as there are hardly any journalists from their community. “The first trained Adivasi journalist from the state, Lingaram Kodopi, who worked with us, is now in jail. Most journalists only know Hindi. How will they report on Adivasis if they don’t know the language?” he asks. “Adivasis are now talking to Adivasis. Also, the chief secretary listens to it every day, so do many Collectors. We have made enemies but problems are getting solved. There now exists a platform for dialogue.”