Rohit Handa, who some years back gave us A Twisted Cue, a fine novel set in the India of 1965, has now given us his second novel, actually his first one, for Comrade Sahib was first published in 1977. Its republication after all these years is a tribute as much to its many merits as to its continuing, nay, increased significance. For in essence Comrade Sahib is a statement on the most threatening and troubling security problem that independent India has ever faced, the Naxalite or Maoist movement. As the side-by-side photographs of a young and an old Kobad Ghandy recently captured by us have reminded us with a shock, the movement is over 40 years old now. What is more, instead of shrivelling up like movements tend to in our climate, it has spread from one remote district in West Bengal in 1968 to over 200 districts in at least seven states today, including states that have never featured in anybody’s list of Bimaru states.
Its activities, some spectacular, some gruesome, some purely propagandist, daily grab newspaper headlines, provide Breaking News to TV channels and send our officials scurrying to TV cameras to assure us that all is well, or soon will be. We want to believe them, but we know that all is not well, and will not be so any time soon. That is the threatening part. As for its troubling part, while a lot of people are probably in the movement for the fun of looting and killing, we know that the movement also represents people more sinned against than sinning, people who have been long exploited or at least sidelined by us in our search for our individual and corporate El Dorados. The movement holds up a mirror to us, even if a cracked one, and demands that we ask ourselves questions that we would rather not consider now, not while we are concentrating on increasing our Gross National Product: Are there really people in India who go to bed hungry every night . . . ? Hundreds of millions of them . . . ? Whatever has happened to the social contract, to garibi hatao . . . ? How large should the cake become before we start cutting it more equitably . . . ? Are we an ungovernable lot or just horribly governed . . . ? Are there really two Indias . . . ? If so, which one is for the people, by the people, of the people? We ask ourselves the questions because enmeshed in the Maoist movement are intellectuals, people like us, men and women born and brought up in well-heeled families like ours, and educated in schools and colleges like the ones we went to. Good life was theirs for the asking. They chose the little red book of Chairman Mao instead of the gun, and the pen with which to tug at our conscience, at whatever is left of it.