As India grows into its new economic might, it also oppresses and improverishes its people in ways different from those of old. One might say that where once the sins of the Indian state were mainly those of omission — of being too supine and resource-starved to lift several hundred millions citizens out of a cesspool of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and caste and gender discrimination — increasingly they are mainly those of commission, of conspiracy and corruption under cover of the motions and catchphrases of democracy. Even so, there remains a basic faith, even pride, among Indians in the warming narrative of “the world’s largest democracy” and its institutions.
For over a decade now, the writer Arundhati Roy has served as India’s most powerful and articulate dissident, tearing that broad consensus to shreds. Through a slew of acerbic and impassioned essays, speeches and books, Roy has attacked both the country’s religious right wing and the barons of big business, and excoriated the Indian state’s political, economic and military policy. At times, Roy’s uncompromising hostility, penchant for tendentious theses and juxtapositions, and appropriation of multiple causes have earned her as much notoriety as respect.
“Walking with the Comrades,” Roy’s new book, is a riveting account of the face-off in the forests of central India between the Indian state and the Maoists or Naxalites, a shadowy, revolutionary guerrilla force with tens of thousands of cadres. It is a battle over power, land, ideology, mineral riches, rights, ecology — a battle, as Roy sees it,“for the soul of India.”
The thickly wooded states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in central India are home to millions of indigenous tribal peoples. Long neglected by the Indian state because of their inaccessibility and marginality, these areas gradually became the sylvan redoubt of a band of left-wing revolutionaries. These disenchanted and dreaming men and women are contemptuous of “bourgeois democracy” and committed to armed revolution, but have also dedicated themselves to working for and with the tribals to improve their lives. For decades, the Maoists have virtually run a parallel government in these regions.
But in recent years this uneasy equilibrium has been shattered, in part, by India’s booming economy. The tribals live atop lucrative resources: massive deposits of iron ore, bauxite and other minerals meaningless to them but coveted by mining companies. “Commonsense tells us,” Roy quotes India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram as saying in a speech in 2007 at Harvard University, “[that] we should mine these resources quickly and efficiently.” As government and big business draw ever closer in India, the state has become invested in the displacement of tribal peoples — and the flushing out of the Maoists — so that mining companies can blast and burrow in these regions.
Worse, the current government has armed and paid groups of tribals to inform on and smoke out Maoists, setting into motion a gory cycle of killings and reprisals that has claimed hundreds of lives. In this new McCarthyite climate, even to be a Maoist sympathizer in India has become an act of treason.
Roy’s charge is that Operation Green Hunt — the name of the concerted military campaign against the Maoists — is actually a front for the economic pillage of the forests and the destruction of the livelihood and habitat of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. Deep in the jungle, the old Gandhian methods — or what Roy calls the “pious humbug” — of nonviolence and noncooperation seem absurd. Roy contends that at the Maoist resistance, even if often sinister and inscrutable, has at least halted the disastrous march of big dams and mines where numerous democratic and nonviolent resistance movements have failed.
The book is strongest when Roy describes her days in the forest among the strategists and footsoldiers of the insurrection — a privilege accorded to precious few Indians outside the movement. She walks, eats and sleeps alongside a ragtag bunch of armed youth (“almost everyone’s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how and by whom”) and weighs their testimonies and arguments. Even so, the book is less reportage than polemic. What is seen and heard, even though vividly narrated, is immediately stitched up with material from newspaper reports and books, or set in counterpoint to claims by politicians, journalists and idealogues, or layered into complex global theses. The book’s primary landscape is not the forest, but the writer’s own mind.
Roy manages over the length of a book — and this is the point of books in any complex debate — to open out a distinctive position that belies easy summary. Although she has been painted as one, she is no simple apologist for the Maoists, whom she sees as possessing “a single-minded, grim, military imagination.” Yet she sees them as “the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements” being waged by Indian people for causes across the country. An alternative to the impasse, she suggests, requires “an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as Communism.” The first step to that is to “leave the bauxite in the mountain.” Fruitfully skeptical and contrarian, “Walking with the Comrades” is a necessary book by one of India’s most distinctive voices.
Chandrahas Choudhury , a Delhi-based novelist, is the author of “Arzee the Dwarf” and the editor of the anthology “India: a Traveler’s Literary Companion.”