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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Tribal and Agrarian Revolution in Colonial and Postcolonial India In Mahasweta Devi’s Novels

Aju Mukhopadhyay, Poet Author and Critic, 8 Cheir Lodi Sreet, Pondicherry



The essay consists of discussions on two novels by Mahasweta Devi; Right to Forest and Bashai Tudu,both dealing with the persecution of original children of the soil, the tribal people of India, mainly by depriving them of their rights to the soil they were born on and their struggle against the oppressors. They were the landless Santal tribes of two different regions having immense similarities among them. Mundas and Tudus, belonging to the Proto Australoid groups of people. Their struggle cover the whole episode of the novels. The writer has painted very realistic pictures of their struggle as they were recorded in the pages of history.




The original inhabitants of India, called adivasi or aboriginals by others, have been persecuted and evicted from their land since the spread of civilisation by the interested people, both Indians and foreigners, mostly because they lagged behind in their civilised make up, weaker in strength and organisation and not prepared to fight the civilised usurpers who conquering by force gradually evicted them;. The most obvious reason was that they never could dream of such a situation hence were not prepared, not adventurous enough to wrongfully rob others’ wealth and other rights. It is in general the history of the civilised world. When persecution reached to a very high level many of them in different countries revolted and fought to establish their rights though mostly failed to get back what they had lost. The ‘First Citizens’ of America represent the group. It happened in Australia and in some other lands.

Mahasweta Devi had her first love for such persecuted adivasi. While her Aranyer Adhikar or Right to Forest relates to a period towards the end of the nineteenth century under the colonial rule of the British, her Bashai Tudu covers mainly the Naxalite movement in its original phase in the north of West Bengal from about 1967 to 1977 during the postcolonial period. Thus the two people’s movements, the base of her two novels under discussion relate to both colonial and post colonial phase in the modern history of India.

Fight for Regaining the Right

The subject or theme of both the novels is fight by the original inhabitants of the land for their right to land and other basic rights, whether in the forest or in the countryside. While in Right to Forest the fight was between the aboriginals and the government and other vested interests, in Basai Tudu, the second novel, it has come to the next stage of fight between the landless labourers against the government and the vested interests. The Right to forest is the right of the pristine forest dwellers. As a result of their struggle the Government had to accede to their demands to some extent, depriving them of their full right. The result of the Naxalite movement was that some changes in land holding rules were made but the condition of the landless farmers remained still precarious in spite of some alleviating efforts by successive governments to keep their popular image as it is considerred essential in a democratic system.

The fight between the landless labourer-agriculturists and the Government in the second phase of the movement was fought by the same adivasi people in their advanced stage of cultivating the lands. It was out of forest. In the forest they were the hunter-gatherers and partially cultivators, in country lands they were the farmers. As in forest in agricultural lands too they had no right either to lands or to the crops. They were compelled to live on bare subsistence. India being an agricultural country the basic ground for fight has been for agricultural land rather than for wages of the industrial labourer in factories. Agriculture is still now the main base of Indian life; 80 per cent or near about people of India depend on agriculture, directly or indirectly. The historical condition of the Indian farmers even now has been continuing to be precarious.  “Close to 200000 farmer suicide have been recorded since 1997 but precious little has been done to address this unparalleled tragedy. Farmers still take their own lives, and the graph of indebtedness has not changed either. Nearly half the farm households in the country are burdened by debt.” (1)

Bashai Tudu represents the landless tribal peasants. Long after the struggle for Right to Forest was over Bashai Tudu came to replace Birsa Munda of Right to Forest as the hero of Mahasweta Devi’s novel, Bashai Tudu. He belonged to a class unlike the time of Birsa when no such thought of dividing the people in different conflicting classes and fighting for the non-existent classless society was there so prominently. Though the nature of their struggle was somewhat different, being separated by time and space, both the fights were based on the basic need to protect their life and possession of their land to live on. They were born there but the right of the lands belonged to the others. The landless Santal tribes of two different regions have immense similarities; the Mundas and Tudus belong to the same Santal tribe, one of the oldest tribes of India, belonging to the Proto Australoid groups of people.

It is true that the primitive people lived in their own way without much ado. But the civilised people were more organised with tools of civilisation; knowledge of technology and dependence on weaponry with adventurous force and dominating tendency. They came to oust them from their dwelling places, their basic possessions by birth. This was a worldwide phenomenon. Europeans spread throughout the globe. History tells how the real Americans were suppressed and extinguished, gradually living like alien fishes in their own water. It happened in Australia and elsewhere the originals were modified to live in changed conditions. In India this suppression and the reaction of the victims gradually became violent. Such movements were sporadic, not organised throughout the country for causes local and temporal at the beginning. One of the oldest extant aboriginals of the earth, the Zarawas of Andaman group of islands in India still suffer from various problems challenging their existence in spite of different protections and concessions granted. The educated people of India in the course of time took the charged condition as the base to forge ahead to liberate the whole country with the weapons of the occupiers. That took the shape of Indian Freedom Fight.

Historical Background of the Novels  

The history of India down the ages is strewn with different types of revolt. Thus V. S. Naipaul titled his book on India: India A Million Mutinies Now. Though the dependence on agriculture in India has been reduced to some extent in the face of the developing industrial scenario, it still remains the main occupation of Indians. Some sort of peasant uprising or discontent continues. Even on 22.4.2015 a protesting farmer from Rajasthan committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree in public glare in the capital of the country.

The early years of British rule in India were marked by widespread peasant rebellions. -- hungry peasants of Bengal and Bihar, victims of a terrible famine (1770) rose in revolt against the East India Company. Large numbers of sannyasis and fakirs who were being fleeced by the British rulers played an important role in organizing the peasants and hence the name Sannyasi Bidroho Rebellion. Along with the peasants, sannyasis and fakirs, there were village artisans and thousands of unemployed soldiers from the disbanded Mughal army who joined the force. Indigo planters were compelled by the foreign rulers to cultivate indigo which was being sent to England for business against minimum payment.

Based on this historic famine of 1770, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the first Indian English novelist, wrote Anandamath where the Sannayasis were the revolutionaries, inspiring the struggle for Indian independence. Another important rebellion of this period was the Wahabi uprising in Bengal under the leadership of the famous Titu Meer in 1831 The revolt by Ho, belonging to the Santal tribe of Chota Nagpur in 1820 and 1827 and the other Santal uprising of 1855-57 under the leadership of Sidu and Kanu Murmu were the precursor to Birsa Munda’s fight as we find in the Right to Forest. The first Ho uprising of 1820 was suppressed soon by the British. But the Hos rose again in 1821. The zamindars and the Rajah of Porahat appealed to the British for help, and the Ho uprising was ruthlessly crushed. “In fact, the Chhotanagpur area remained a centre of turbulent uprisings throughout the 19th century. The Oraons -- another tribal community rebelled in 1820, 1832, 1890. The Kol tribes organized an insurrection in 1831-32  “Under the leadership of Birsa, the Mundas of Ranchi area fought the Hindu landlords in 1895.” (2)

But this is one view. Actually they fought all who tried to evict them from their land, helped by the colonizers. “The chieftans' uprising of peasant rebels spreading all over South India in 1800-1801 succeeded in forming a Peninsula Confederacy all over South India . . . . The decisive factor that rendered the rebel fortunes unsustainable was the hostile attitude of the princes." (3)

Aranyer Adhikar or Right to Forest (1977)

Birsa Munda was already a well known figure in contemporary history. Taking him as the hero Mahasweta Devi has advanced a step forward. For historical facts she mostly depended on a book she considered most authentic: The Dust-storm and the Hanging Mist: A Study of Birsa Munda and His Movement in Chotanagpur, 1874-1901.

We learn from history that Mundas had been living in the Chota Nagpur plateau for more than 2000 years. Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was a tribal leader and a folk hero. British Raj made him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement even in his earlier years, dying as young as before the 25th year of his birth, though their struggle was confined to their Munda-interest. 

“Though Birsa was dead but his purpose was not defeated. Just after the movement, the Government passed the Commutation Act of 1897 and then it was decided to start survey and settlement in 1901. The Mundari Khuntkatti right was recognized and finally the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (Act-VI of 1908) came into being. Birsa Munda – the great Dharati Aba shines as the first tribal martyr who fought for the independence of the country. True, he operated in a small area but its impact was felt in the years to come. He was ahead of his time.”(4)

There have since been many institutions in the name of Birsa Munda, like National Institute of Tribal Research, Institute of Technology, Agricultural University and even Airport at Ranchi in his name. There have been many of his statues erected. So we find that the story weaved by Mahasweta Devi was authentic and historical..

The Story  

The story begins with the death of the hero and then begins the story; a flashback technique. It is the story of the Munda tribe of the Singhbhum, Ranchi and Chaibasas region of the present Jharkhand State, occupying the bigger part of Chota Nagpur Plateau. Birsa Munda’s revolution is called “Oolgulan” or total revolution to establish Munda Raj over the forests and hills, driving out all the usurpers; the British, Zamindars, Jotedars, Bargadars, missionaries et al. All others except the British are named by them as Diku who evicted them from their land and made them labourers without wages, servants without payments, leading them to a servile existence; helped and supported by the British.

Birsa asked his followers to strike the enemies with their age old weapons; bows and poisoned arrows, baloas (sharp metal instrument), stones, spears of different kinds and other sharp instruments. They did strike. Birsa was arrested and was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for two years on 19 November 1895. His companions were fined.

Scanty rains in 1897 brought total drought; starving was their fate. Money lenders mortgaged their land against loan with exorbitant interest. Ever debtors, they finally became their bonded labours losing all right to lands. Birsa agreed to the government proposal to never again incite others to revolt. The result of his agreement was that he was released after two years of imprisonment in November that year. 

But he took the field again taking up the challenge, moving round with frenzied eyes to get freedom for all Mundas. Alone he went ahead, vowing for a total revolution, Oolgulan, asking all to stake all without fear. He said that whoever would unconditionally worship him as God would be called Birsait (like the followers of Mao Zedong are called the Maoists).  

While the final struggle was continuing from 24 December 1899 to seventh of January 1900, Birsaits thronged in thousands with wives and children armed with weapons in the impenetrable jungle and hills of Sailarakab without anybody’s notice, in full guerrilla fashion. Birsa asked them to shun fear.   

Police-military combined force wanted their surrender.  Mundas replied that it was their Raj, not of the British; they would not drop their weapons, nor surrender. When bullets began to pierce the women through the tied children at their backs, when blood began to flow down the hill slopes and hundreds got killed, there was no resistance. No fight. Those who survived fled to safety in the darkness. 

The media reported that at least 400 Mundas were killed. Large numbers of detainees died without trial in prison. The novel refers to the continuous reporting in the press by the Calcutta based newspapers, “The Bengalee”, “The Statesman” and others. Lectures and other activities of the editor of “The Bengalee”, the Congress leader Surendranath Banerjee and the legal battle fought on their behalf by English barrister Jakob who fought sympathetically without any remuneration, resulted in bringing the Munda Riot cases to an end in November 1900.

Birsa Munda, caught based on leaking news of his presence, a betrayal by someone, was confined in chains from February to a solitary, very small cell without proper air and light in extreme hilly heat without any sustaining food. Legs tied to iron chains he walked and walked in his cell dragging it, assuring the fellow prisoners that their God was living. In the morning of 9 June1900, at about 9 am his pulse stopped beating.

The struggle between the Mundas and the colonizers were very unequal. But the boasting and brandishing weapons by the Mundas show their innocent courage and patriotism without any reasonable action. Munda soldiers fell like peas against the window panes. Their audacious adventure was met with the appropriate result but it left an after effect in the minds of not only Munda people but of the entire people of the country. Their fight was one of the earlier histories before the whole country was roused. The legitimate fight by the primitive people was not ignored by history; it was recorded in the right places to be reused by the novelist at the opportune moment. 

Dr. Amulya Abraham, the deputy superintendent of the jail, once a local Bengali orphan, was educated in missionary school and college. He was his classmate and very sympathetic to Birsa and Mundas in general. He helped spread their woeful stories through Calcutta newspapers. In answer to Abraham, Anderson the superintendent, denied that Birsa died of Cholera yet for the sake of strategy he said, “Yes, I say that Birsa died of cholera. I say that it is not known how he got infected. I say that there is no need to clean the room with carbolic acid. . . .” (Forest/11)

Long after such turmoil was over, a notebook written by Dr. Amulya Abraham was discovered. It said, inter alia, “I was afraid to know, Birsa, that when you moved in the room dragging the chain . . . it was decided that your death of Asiatic cholera would save the government from all harassments . . . . I am afraid to tell you that when you lived on the morning of 9 June, somewhere it was decided how your death report would be written.” (Forest /218)

Bashai Tudu (1978)

The Background

In order to understand the clash by the landless labourers against the jotedars and zamindars, the so called class struggle which is the basic tenet of Bashai Tudu, it is quite germane to refer to the history and structure of land holding in Bengal in brief where the Naxalbari movement began and continued before spreading to other regions.

Lord Cornwallis’s greatest achievement in India was the reorganization of the land taxation, known as the “Permanent Settlement” of 1793. Agricultural land in Bengal was cultivated by large numbers of small farmers who paid rent to a group of zamindars (landowners in possession of lands). Under the Mughals the government had collected taxes from the zamindars. . . . Cornwallis granted legal ownership of their land to the zamindars. In return, they had to pay the  government 90 per cent of the rent which they collected from the farmers. These arrangements were to last forever, hence the title “Permanent Settlement.”

The effect of the devastating famine of 1769-70 made this system suffer some setback. “It was not until the beginning of the 1800’s, when the population began to increase once again and land which had gone out of cultivation was brought back under the plough, that the great Bengal zamindars again became prosperous.” (5)

As an impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s the system finally collapsed and the jotedars or middlemen between the farmers and the government, the zamindars and their agents, consolidated power in their hands in the countryside. While corroborating the facts the novelist finds more reasons for it. “Permanent Settlement of 1793 were breaking up due to mismanagement and litigation and splitting up through sub-division, subinfeudation and sale.” (Tudu /Introduction)

We get further information towards the breaking up of the system: “The permanent Settlement had envisaged that of the total rental 90 would go to the treasury, the zamindar keeping 10 per cent. An estimate of 1918-19, however, indicates that proprietors and intermediate tenure holders intercepted as much as 76.7 per cent of the gross rental of Rs.12.85 crorers, only 2.99 crorers being collected as land revenue.
“The gap between rent and revenue served as the basis of assets into which flowed the savings of the Bengali ‘middle class’ . . . . Left with few other profitable areas of investment, these people bought proprietary or intermediary rights in land which guaranteed a small but nevertheless secure rent income”. (6)

This created the lazy land owners, selfish and unmindful of the others, while those who didn’t have those rights suffered enormously. This created an economic schism what might be termed as division of the society in economic classes.

“The educated urban middle class formed the core of the jotedars, a term which later came to identify a wide spectrum of intermediary, non-cultivating tenure holders . . . . While the jotedars had been using the sharecroppers to cultivate their land . . . collecting half, and even more, of the produce . . . . It was at that time that the sharecroppers demanded a two-thirds share of the crop . . .” (Tudu /Introduction) This demand for two/thirds share was called Tebhaga movement in 1946-47.

“Jotedar was marked as the target of militant peasant action during the Tebhanga movement, he came to be identified more clearly as the most visible landowner in the highly complex exploitative system that controlled agriculture in rural eastern India. He doubled as the village moneylender, and could extort forced labour against unrecovered debts and thus hold the peasant in his grip.” (Tudu /Introduction)

In 1954 Estate Acquisition Act was passed in the State limiting individual landholding to 25 acres. Revised Act was passed in 1971 to limit the above land holding per family, but both Acts became ineffective. The ruling parties in the government were of mixed variety at the beginning of this period which changed to rightist government for a term and then the combined left parties came in power. The Naxalite landless labourers were not only disliked but ruthlessly suppressed by all such rulers. The novel Bashai Tudu is a record of their intense struggle for existence at least with the minimum wages prescribed for them by the Government to keep them free from the clutches of the intermediary usurers. They grew restive living always in hunger and tension, without even the minimum wages.

The story is based on this background; the reason the jotedars became the targets of peasant attacks. It is about the fierce agrarian revolution mainly by the landless laborers in the Naxalbari region of North Bengal covering a period between 1967 and 1977. The writer weaved her fierce dramatic story and its spell over the enemies of the deprived people; an act of exposing their true role in people’s movement, their true character. The fight “Inspired the exploited peasantry in the neighbouring states like Odisha, Andhra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Kerala”, notes the writer in her preface to the book. (Tudu /Preface)

The Story

Bashai Tudu, the hero of the novel, fights for the comrades without a party membership. He always stays mysteriously at the centre of each struggle, coming back even after his death. The hunger for forest and land are similar as is the right to live and use the land for livelihood. Birsa Munda and Bashai Tudu were the same people of two regions at two times fighting for almost the same cause.  It has been opined that the hunger for land felt for ages by the sons of the soil and their long struggle to retain their rights over the land found a violent expression in the Naxalbari movement. 

“The babus are a caste by themselves, like the Bagdis, and the Kaoras, yes a caste. And that’s why such a good man like you have to take your stand with the babus only because you are a babu yourself. And then in the Party study circle you would give us lectures on the class struggle. No Kali-babu, you’ll never convince me”, (Tudu /24) said Bashai Tudu, making his knowledge about the real class struggle free from all deceptions. Babus are the gentle men who enjoyed ownership of land and many more rights as middlemen between the have-nots and the government and other agencies. This Kali-babu is the ideologue of the party and exponent of class struggle. He belongs to the group of Bhadralok making the dichotomy of his class apparent.

The material world is full of contradictions, as we find at every step in this work. The story is full of incidents at different fields where the peasants attack the land owners; oppress the oppressors in the similar fashion as they had shown and the reaction of the owners, their agents and the government.

Operation Banari took place in May 1970. Pratap Goldar, the big jotedar, owned 1666 acres of land in disagreement with the laws while a mile and a half long trek of naked and hungry people go into the sandy track of river Charsha to dig into it with bare nails for water. Pratap has six wells and a big tank for use in the fields and for personal pleasure. All the relief funds of the government come to his hand for distribution among the destitute people during drought. The illiterate peasants do not even know what is their right, what is the minimum wage prescribed for them. They join hands with and depend on Bashai Tudu for real help. This reminds me of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Aranyak: Bhanumati does not know where is Bharatvarsha or India. Ignorance of the present world has gone into their bones. Here the knowledge of the knowledgeable gentlemen is weapon of cheating the ignorant humanity.

Bashai and other peasants surrounded Pratap Goldar and his left handed farmhand assistant. They kicked the assistant and snatched the gun from Pratap. He sank to the ground. Bashai roared, “What about their wages, Pratap-ba-a-bu?”….“I’ll pay them . . . I’ll pay . . .” (Tudu /76) “The sowing will be over today,” Bashai said, “When do they get their wages?” (Tudu /77)

They gathered the information that Pratap had contacted outside workers to work after the sowing of seeds. He was marched to his house by all shouting “ho-ho-ho”. Pratap had managed to get everyone’s thumb impressions agreeing to even get imprisoned if they demanded wages as they were indebted for more than their dues, upto the neck.

His cash box was snatched at gun point and guns on the walls were taken hold of. From his house they marched him and his assistant to the river bank and Bashai shouted addressing the peasants, “Now you know him . . . .” after he explained their precarious position there was a shouting demand, “Kill the Bastard!” Then “The spear in Bashai’s hand leapt forward, struck its target, receded and struck again. Pratap and the farmhand lay still on the ground.” (Tudu /78)

There were more such deadly clashes during 1970-71 but the next major incident reported in the book was recorded as operation Jagula in 1972, enacted in Kankdasole, where Rameshwar Bhuinya was a scion of a great Bhuinya dynasty. Once his father, Shiveshwar, slaughtered a rebellious tenant on the chopping block where 108 goats would be sacrificed four times a year as they worshipped Goddess Kalika. The rebellious tenants took the revenge by beheading him one day on a very opportune moment. Here the author remarks, “Born of the seed of such a father, Rameshwar naturally hated the lower castes.” (Tudu/85)

After the 1970-71 bloodbaths, the writer opines, “There were more labourers available per acre of land than the quantity of grains it would grow . . . . For every jotedar who lost his head, the administration set hundred heads rolling in retaliation . . . . A peasantry reduced by poverty and exploitation to a state of imbecility . . . .” (Tudu /86)

When reading such lines one is apt to think that it is not exactly a work of fiction but a social study. But it is to be remembered that a novel has not an exact model and frame, no demarcation about the contents and styles. In this world persons like Biru Pathak, an honest party functionary who opposed the corrupt means of achieving the self interest of the party bosses, gets killed by arrangement like the honest bureaucrat in the government was silenced. Behold a scene as in Operation Jagula: “There were hundreds of Santals standing grimly around with their primitive weapons . . . . The golden paddy, the black men, the blue sky, and the green parakeets descending on the paddy.” (Tudu /92) Here is a charming contrast of colours bringing out the poet even in the ominou field of blood-bath. Rameshwar refused to pay minimum wages; “‘I have never paid the M.W.” (Tudu /96)

After more altercations Bashai becomes desperate. His war cry ‘Maaaa . . . hooo . . .’ generated a powerful charge that made Rameshwar jump in panic as Bashai’s spear pierced his larynx. There was a burst of gunfire directed at the Santals diving into the paddy fields. Arrows came in swarms from the paddy fields. Tales of brutal injuries suffered by both the peasants and police abounds.     Severely injured, Bashai was in his death-throe when Kali Santra was brought from a distance place to see and identify him for the second time. They looked at each other. A tremor ran through Bashai’s hands. The hands rose for a minute. They wrung the neck of the air. Then one hand fell back while the other scratched at the air to scribble something on it. For the identification of dead Bashai Tudu many were called.

A mysterious Santal woman, Draupadi or Dopdi Mejhen, with a body as if sculpted from rocks, alighted from a bus with her husband, the young Dulna Mejhi, who she married while Bashai wished to marry her. She nodded her head up and down, as if recognizing the dead, but without a sign of recognition in her eyes. The young man with her did the same. “What was most striking about the young man’s features was his pair of eyebrows joining just above the bridge of the nose.” (Tudu /98)

Each time that Bashai dies, he wrings the neck of the air before his death. Each time that such scenes occur one finds himself startled at the dramatic effect of movement; death and even betrayal. It is a dishonest world. 

After one such operation Military was called. They were more ruthless, killing of 41 men and women with children. In the morning dead bodies behaved mysteriously pulling and sometimes killing the military. One of the corpses sat up, wringing the neck of the air with both hands, declaring that he was Bashai Tudu, challenging any of the bastards to fight on him. He was caught and bound to a Pakud tree and shot by Arjan Singh himself to death, tearing innumerable holes into him. This was called ‘Operation Bakuli’

In each case referred the crude cruelty reined the life of the people, more of the revolting peasants than the police and military, as if to contrast the scene between the two world of Birsa Munda and Basai Tudu. What a Birsa dreamt a Bashai fulfills. The dead bodies collected were 39. Two were short. There was no trace of Draupadi and Dolna.

It was 1976 after their wages was raised in 1974. Jagattaran Lohari was MLA of Kadamkhuinya, he inherited it as he was Zamindar-jotedar and money lender, from his grandfather’s time. Buses with supporters came with police jeeps shouting slogans, “Work more talk less” and “The Nation is on the move”. It may be guessed who first uttered them like who was the ‘Sun of Liberation’, mentioned earlier. They were Rajiv Gandhi and his mother Indira Gandhi; both were Prime Ministers of India in their times.

It was talked that Kali Santra and Bashai, when caught could be confined under MISA or Kali made to vanish. Kali was not informed about this meeting. Kali was made ineffective as the honest man lulled grudge against his own party which came to power in 1977.

During an altercation between Kali Santra and Samanta, the MLA, Kali was charged for being anti-party man with other titles. Kali retorted, “‘Call me anti-party, reactionary, deviationist, Naxalite, or whatever you like. But every word I’ve said is true, and you don’t have an answer to it.’ “‘There can be no answer, Kali. But I’ll never forget it.’” (Tudu /144)

Such jargons were used to identify the renegades to be denounced during communist uprising in Mao’s time and the system was followed in other countries. Stalin was the first to lead the way. Kali had no other go than coming closer to Bashai as he definitely knew that he had been identified. He proceeded to meet Bashai but met Draupadi who informed that Bashai had left for operation ‘Kadamkhuinya’ to dispose of Haridhan Sardar in Piyasole.  

“Draupadi raised a finger to her throat, drew it across swiftly and said, ‘The pulooce are in the east. Go west.’ And with that she disappeared in an instant . . . . He felt awfully tired . . . .      “In his fifth death Bashai was dead and buried. In the night. The same night that he fled from his den. The sixth time . . . the seventh . . . the eighth . . . There’s nothing called death, comrade. All the trouble is with living. Bashai had wanted to marry Draupadi. Draupadi married Dulna. Operation Kadamkhuinya.” (Tudu /147)

By all hints the author has indicated that Bashai Tudu was Dulna Majhi, in conjugal relationship with Dopdi or Draupadi, who was guarding the cave gate from where Bashai or Dulna in reality, escaped. Each time a dummy of Bashai, who daringly wrung the neck of the air at the last stage challenging the enemy to dare to fight with him, was killed by the police or the military beyond recognition. “Kali slept. From the east, with their backs to the sun, a small police battalion entered the forest and moved with inhuman, uncanny skill towards where Kali slept. Their feet tramping on the wet earth moved silently.” (Tudu /148)0

It is shown in Bashai Tudu that Bashai is the main leader of Naxalite peasant movement but historic reality of the time, as published and known was that Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal were the middle class elites who were the real leaders of the movement. It is not known if Kali Babu, the ideologue, who died in the field in the hands of police with the help of spies, is shown as one of them. Charu Majumdar died later but not in the field. And Kanu Sanyal lived longer as leader of the extremist communist group, But the novel is a work of fiction so it is the writer’s choice to arrange events and place characters in the novel as per her plan.

This end is quite intriguing, hinting at a betrayal somewhere on Kali’s path, as was and is the way of such fights in the dark, slippery and narrow holes of human faith and betrayal; an usual way of the communists. The story relates to West Bengal during the time when it was ruled by a coalition government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Though the world ruled by them was a province in democratic India, they were in collaboration with the Central Government in executing their plans against the revolting peasants; it was in contrast with the other communist countries referred where communists were the absolute rulers. But the inner rules prevalent among the communist countries as a result of their world view had resemblances as it was in Russia, Rumania, China as well as in West Bengal in India.

A Critique

In her Right  to Forest The writer weaved the story of the Munda tribe in their own legendary thread, expressing in spoken Bangla and sometimes in their own tribal tongue, specially the songs. The author tells the story from their view point with her own arguments, supporting their right to live and enjoy life like other Indians; supporting their right to the land they were born in as the original children of the soil. Certainly it is bold action on the part of a writer who weaves every word of her fiction with the express idea of catching the history of a certain period with a definite aim to help the victims in their struggle in days to come. Through such bold narration the writer brought the tale of tribal suffering home as the sufferings of the slaves were made known by the honest Harriet Beecher Stowe in her eye-opener, ever famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Though the tribal people in India were not slaves literally their living conditions were similar in many respects. The honest battles of the Mundas as of the other tribes from time to time, the local revolts and mutiny in some corners of India including the Sepoy Mutiny, were annals of the time before the Indian Freedom Movement taking the entire country within its purview was launched gradually. Each such battle had some causes, some targets, concerning the conflicts between the parties involved but none of them had an aim of freeing the whole of India which was a later development. All such fights in different corners of India helped gather momentum through centuries heading towards the establishment of a Free Indian Republic.

In the last battle of Sailarakab the brute might of the unjust tormentors won against the weak righteous people but while falling, in spite of their vows, Mundas did not use a single weapon nor fought hand to hand. Whether it was the cowardice of Mundas, their failure at the last point or a mistake of the writer, is not known but it may be taken to be their strategy at the last point to check further casualties and to prepare for the future actions. The writer used history but weaved her fiction with colours to achieve her end.

“Though Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006, 200 million people, mostly tribal, depending on forest in India have remained impoverished. The issue of real forest dwellers has not been solved.” 7  The denudation of forest, eviction of tribal people and loss of animal habitats continue in modern India without a respite.

The painting of the story in Bashai Tudu seems to be live as was the reality of the time. Betrayal, intrigue, deception and adventure along with the roar of the desperate who have lost all to respect nothing, echoed through the novel. The story is mostly violent as against the earlier one mixed with violence and non-violence; separated by time as they are. It is a unique creation with a purpose of the one who is a communist at heart and by association but hates deception; exposing everyone who exploited the unfortunate adivasi landless labourers though they belong to the same party. It requires a minute, intricate experience of the happenings and a thorough knowledge of the situation. It requires real mental strength and courage to expose the powerful guilty. She said in the preface of her book, “An anger, luminous and burning like the sun, directed against a system that cannot free my people, from these inhuman constraints is the only source of inspiration for all my writing.”

In Mahasweta Devi’s works the fallacy of communism becomes evident. Instead of a clash between the two heterogeneous classes here the clash is between groups motivated by greed and lust for power and wealth. Those who fight for more land and wealth are never satisfied with what they get. Their leaders become power loving dictators; killing and depriving their comrades, the real proletariats, the have-nots. Their killers, also posing as communists fight for getting more wealth and power so they are in collusion with those already in possession of such things. Among the communists there was deep fissure. Those who managed to get wealth robbing the society were already bourgeois. In Bashai Tudu they are the bosses dominating and depriving real proletariats. Selfishness is at the root of their struggle. Those in the party who got something fought with the deprived ones to snatch more by arrangement with the capitalists. Communist parties got divided in shreds. The Naxalites or Maoists had nothing so they fought to get their share of the bread but the older communists got the taste of wealth and power so they wished to finish the neo-strugglers. In cahoots with the haves they fought with the have-nots.    

Here is the highly taunting and ironic tone of the writer, “In a democracy the government would never violate the fundamental right of a small peasant to be victimized by his jotedar or by his moneylender. The Indian constitution respected every citizen’s fundamental right to become whatever he could by dint of his guts. The poor therefore had the right to become poorer still. A peasant today had the right to be a landless labourer tomorrow.” (Tudu /87)

The slant and satire in the following paragraph is noticeable in detailing the ‘Operation Bakuli’: “Surja had never imagined that there could be violence in1973. In 1973, under the new regime, India was incandescent with the glow of the Sun of Liberation of Asia, sending out billions of fahrenheit, an incandescence that protected all the jotedars in a regime that was devoutly non-violent. All the violent acts that still took place were in the prison cells.” (Tudu 108) It referred to the regime of the Congress Party under the leadership of Indira Gandhi.

Such paragraphs enrich the structure of her work, linked with time and politics of the day.  She does not fail to notice such highly contrasting colours in the battle field “There were hundreds of Santals standing grimly around with their primitive weapons . . . . The golden paddy, the black men, the blue sky, and the green parakeets descending on the paddy.” (Tudu /92)

They certainly illuminate the space of the work. Her acumen in plotting full of intrigue and suspense adds interest towards her novel.

The humanist writer has heart other than brain and intellect like her predecessor novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, who said that he got the inspiration to write from those who were deprived, did not get anything from the society but gave only, mostly the ever neglected women. Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories (1998) gives voice to the struggling women.  She painted the same Naxalite movement in Kolkata city in her another famous novel, “Mother of 1084” where again the vulnerability of a progressive woman in the hands of the tyrant family members has been shown with dramatic effect.

But some of the statements of the materialist writer like, “Born of the seed of such a father, Rameshwar naturally hated the lower castes” (Tudu /85) seems contradictory to materialist belief that all men are born equal and are made different by environment, training and education, etc. Following her statement it may be said logically that all such low castes would be born low from the same seeds and would hate the upper caste. It is known that hate begets hate. The hated hates the hater. That is how the whole communist operation was based on hate, engineered and taught by Mao Tse Tung and others of his community. In this book also we find that the operators on both sides commit murder with hate, calling for revenge. Can such fights ever bring peace? From among the proletariats grew up the dictators who subdued his men and others, not the capitalists only. A classless society is a fallacy from its conception. The materialist writer does not believe in gods, it seems, but for that she cannot use her satire against the believers for she does not know their part in the game of life involving the existence beyond the materialist’s ken. Instead of falling into the traps of superstitious religions or communist duplicity and illusion of classless society man needs to follow a higher spiritual path to know others as equal.


The struggle in the first novel continued in the second novel in different shape. Though the life and right of the aboriginals or tribal people, the adivasi in India, have much improved due to constant struggle by the sympathetic people and by themselves, they are still neglected and exploited by all governments. Their struggle continues.

The problem exists in many countries. The original inhabitants of Australia are almost unrecognized. In America they seem to be non-existent, so much mixed up in other societies they live. Calling them first citizen seems to be a joke.

At one time all of us were primitive people. Some are still hidden in some other parts of the globe. All humans could not or would not come under the ambit of the same civilisations. But this division and suppression of man by man will continue differing in degrees in different ages so long as man is guided by his inherent vices. It too should be remembered that humans are not equal in their inherent qualities by birth defying all gnashing of teeth by the realist and materialist. No training, education or circumstantial, environmental changes may make humans equal. And manmade inequality has been continuing from the beginning of beginnings. There is no sign of its abating. But then, in a learned, civilised society man should be given equal right and honour, equal chance to rise in life as none is responsible for his or her birth. It must be remembered that continuous neglect defying others’ rights, continuous exploitation of the weak, must result in revolt. This is the basic truth presented by the humanist writer in her works. She was amply honoured; more after her death than when living. She stood by the side of the fallen men and helped them by others means also than writing. Her works weren’t only work of art but social and humanitarian work.



Notes and References

1. Down-To-Earth. Published by Society for Environmental Communication, New Delhi, India. Issue, Oct-1-15, 2011

2. Banerjee Sumanta. Excerpts from In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India. Calcutta: Subarnarekha. 1980. Paperback. Excerpts: (

3. Rajayam. K. South Indian Rebillion. The First War of Independence 1880-1881. Mysore: Rao and Raghavan.

4. Birsa Munda: Website:

5. The Permanent Settlement: Website:

6.  Chatterjee Partha. Bengal,1920-1947:The Land Question. Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi &Co. 1984. Print

7.  Down To Earth. Dated- January-16-31, 2015


Work Cited

Devi Mahasweta. Aranyer Adhikar. Calcutta; Karuna Prakashani. First published-1977. Papeback

Devi Mahasweta. Bashai Tudu. Translated by Samik Bandopadhyay. Calcutta; THEMA. 1990. Paperback

Stowe Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Kolkata: Book Club. 2006. Paperback