Peeping Shankar | `If you are unhappy with the government, then you are a Neo-Naxal’

Filmmaker Manu Menon can be dismissed as a wannabe Vivek Agnihotri. But his research into dissent and public resentment offers a new tongue-in-cheek perspective of urban, suburban and subaltern angst

For a super sleuth, nothing should come as a surprise. Not even cola spewing from an offshore oil well. But then sometimes it helps to pretend that you are amazed when the boss quotes unnamed “sources” like a rookie reporter to disclose information that you already know. Last week, a tip-off that an out-of-work filmmaker from Chennai had concluded a study on urban, suburban, rural and subaltern Naxals got our chief, Barry Saxena, into a tizzy. “This is explosive stuff that I have finally got my hands on!” he said, perhaps as excited as Alexander Fleming was when he discovered penicillin in 1928.

Since I am the last one to be a spoilsport, I refrained from bursting the boss man’s enthusiasm and played along. But, truth be told, I had already heard about the Chennai project some six months ago and had dismissed it as a copycat effort by a wannabe Vivek Agnihotri of the south. Now, who doesn’t know Vivek? Yes, he’s the Bollywood director very much in the news for popularising the usage “Urban Naxals” among ruling party politicians, police officers, lawyers, right-wing trolls as well as sections of the media and armchair pundits.

Yet, despite knowing enough about Agnihotri and his Malayali imitator, Manu Menon, prudence dictated that I deliberately affect intense curiosity as the boss went about educating me. “You may not have heard about this chap Manu Menon,” said Saxena, scribbling smileys on his scratch pad, “he’s a director of sorts although his self-financed debut, Traffic Jams: For Bread, Butter or Verse is yet to find a distributor. But more than his unreleased film, it is the research he has carried out on various categories of Naxals for a forthcoming documentary that we are interested in. His work is supposed to be very comprehensive and covers every section of society. It will be a very valuable resource to lay our hands on.”

“This is indeed a terrific input you have given us, Mr Saxena. I didn’t have a clue about the study,” I said, deliberately feigning ignorance. However, I quickly added: “Of course, I did read something about Manu Menon’s unreleased film which is supposedly influenced by Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha in a Traffic Jam. Incidentally, Vivek also wrote about the making of this film in a book titled Urban Naxals, which is tipped to get the Naismishya Samman (the RSS version of the Nobel prize) as and when it is instituted. We have a file on Vivek should you be interested.”

“No, no.” The boss sounded agitated. “Let’s not bring Agnihotri into this assignment. In any case, the world knows enough about him after his recent interview to Abhinandan Sekhri of Newslaundry. I believe this Agnihotri chap got into quite a jam after all the things he said…”

I nodded in agreement and then quickly steered the conversation back to business. “What is it that you want me to find out about Manu Menon and how do I go about this operation? As things stand, I understand there’s no point in rushing to Chennai and breaking into his apartment on Harrington Road since I believe there is no report, papers or data to steal, copy or transfer.”

“That’s the problem,” the boss muttered as he scribbled more smileys, “Since you seem to know enough about this Menon feller, I guess you must also be aware that he has stored the entire research somewhere inside his medial and temporal lobes. Can you believe it? He has committed everything to memory!”

He then took a deep breath and looked intently at me. “What do you suggest Shankar? I don’t think we can resort to third degree although it is often recommended in such cases,” he said thinking aloud.

“Well, we will have to try some softer options and get him to cooperate. Will he talk if we promise him a faculty position in the yet-to-be established Jio Institute?” I wondered, adding: “Perhaps some kind of bribe might do the trick — like a national award for his next film or a book he is proposing to write or some cash in a Jan Dhan account…”

“Well, I leave it to your discretion. Think up something on the flight to Chennai,” said Saxena, showing me to the door. “You will have to first touch base with Menon and then take it from there,” he added as a parting shot.

A delayed flight gave me time to strategise. As I saw it, the only way to crack Menon was to get him to talk. And to do that I had to employ some trick, not a psychoactive drug like Sodium Pentothal or some other truth serum. I toyed with several ideas but as the plane began its slow descent to Chennai, a plan suddenly fructified — I would pretend to be a TV reporter and get him to talk on camera about the study he had conducted. An interview often does the trick.

Once I reached our Chennai office, I called Menon. Introducing myself as a senior journalist from Delhi of the yet-to-be launched Republican TV, I sought an appointment. He enquired at length about the editorial stance of the channel and I promptly said it was independent and neutral. “Neutral, but I hope not neutered like some others,” he said, breaking into a guffaw as he fixed the appointment for 2.30 the following afternoon.

The interview stretched for over two hours. I got more than I had bargained for. Indeed, what Menon told me on camera about his study was revealing but rather shocking. Here are excerpts that neither the Home Ministry nor the PMO will find amusing:

What does the extensive study you conducted for your next film broadly reveal? You must tell us all exclusively on Republican TV and that too in national interest.

How much is the national interest - is it simple or compound and will it be subject to rate cuts? But jokes apart, for a start, I must explain the context of my study. If you go by Vivek Agnihotriji’s definition of Urban Naxals, then they would include, in his own words, “intellectuals, influencers and activists” and all those who claim they are concerned about social issues — you know the kind who typically sign up with multinational or local NGOs and say they are fighting for human rights and other related livelihood issues. They are also the kind who oppose the clearing of forests to make way for buildings and highways because they are killjoys who would rather let animals and not party animals like us have a good time.

Coming back to my study, I have basically broad based Agnihotriji’s definition to include people who think Naxal, not only in urban areas but also in suburban, small-town and rural India. They may not be educated like their city-bred counterparts but share the same ethos and protest whenever government policies begin to hurt. In fact, I have coined a new term for such persons — Neo-Naxals.

What are they angry about?

Much of the angst of such persons stems from a poor or deliberate misunderstanding of economics. For example, they fail to see how you can save more if you buy more at discount sales. They only look at the the actual money spent without factoring in the benefits. The concept that savings substantially increase when they splurge Rs 5,000 than when Rs 1,000 is frugally expended escapes them. Such people cannot be expected to see the positives of demonetisation. They are too selfish and therefore miss the macro picture and complain because they lost their jobs and were made to suffer.

Which is exactly the reason why many of them failed to connect with Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, when he presented the argument of how per km rate for airline travel today (Rs 4/km) is cheaper than auto fare (Rs 5/km if two persons share a ride). Instead, irrelevant questions were raised about whether air travel is possible between villages.

What were your crucial findings in a nutshell?

What I found was that if you factor the number of people who are disenchanted, then there are a lot more Naxals trying to bring down the government than we imagine. They constitute the larger “anti-fascist forces” that the Pune Police referred to while pleading in the Supreme Court for a transit remand of the five intellectuals arrested in connection with the Bhima-Koregoan violence on January 1. To cut a long story short, what my study reveals is that going by the new definition of Naxals, we may be looking at a significant chunk of the population who may be anti-national. And they are not restricted to urban pockets alone.

In percentage terms, how much of the population would you estimate is thus Naxalised?

About 60 per cent — though this figure could be a lot higher. But these disgruntled elements, since they are divided along political lines, do not represent a unified chunk and thus their votes may be split between several parties at election time.

Also Read : Peeping Shankar | Who’s next on the troll army’s hit list?

Could you define for our viewers a non-urban, uneducated and non-intellectual Naxal?

Well, anyone who is upset with the government or the RSS can be classified as such under the new definition of Naxals articulated by Agnihotriji and endorsed by many in the BJP. Basically, if you are anti-government you are anti-national and hence a Naxal. It does not matter if you are in New Delhi or in a village in Tuticorin district. You could be a farmer, a labourer, a mason, a carpenter, an industrial worker or a trucker.

As a matter of fact, what my study reveals is that neo-Naxalism is a universal concept that has bridged the urban-rural divide. So, you could be a rickshaw puller, a student, a journalist, a doctor, engineer, musician, filmmaker, environment activists or even a businessman or a politician to qualify as a Naxal. The minute you are critical of the BJP or the government, you become anti-state and run the risk of being labelled as such. Of course, if you are a Muslim, then you are pro-Pakistani and therefore anti-India. Similarly, other minorities and marginalised communities harbouring negative sentiments could be labelled as prone to the Naxal tendency of protesting poor governance.

Could you tell us what happens if a new government comes to power after the 2019 elections?

Well, in that event, many of those who are hunting down Naxals today may themselves qualify as Naxals tomorrow unless they become supportive of the new dispensation. Remember, the thumb rule is this: as soon as you question the establishment of the day, you will qualify as a Neo-Naxal. Of course, it remains to be seen if the new government — if there is indeed a change — will have the good wisdom to pursue the anti-dissent policies of Narendra Modi.

Finally, what about the Naxals as we traditionally knew them?

Oh, you mean the movement which originated in Naxalbari village in West Bengal? Well, it has become considerably emasculated since its heydays in the late 60s and 70s. But why talk about the far-left radicalised Maoists? Neo-Naxalism is a far more dynamic and universal concept that can be used by successive governments to suppress dissent and subvert democracy.

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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