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Deconstructing Arundhati Roy’s ‘Walking With the Comrades’

13-02-2011published_dt 2011-02-13T00:00:00.000Z13-02-2011 05:30:00 IST
Updated On 06-11-2018 15:01:53 ISTmodified_dt 2018-11-06T09:31:53.117ZUpdated On 06-11-20182011-02-13T00:00:00.000Z13-02-2011 2011-02-13T00:00:00.000Z - 2018-11-06T09:31:53.117Z - 06-11-2018

It is quite unusual for a newsmagazine to carry a 32 page article.  Outlook in its 29 March 2010 issue carried a lengthy essay ‘Walking with the Comrades’ by Arundhati Roy.  The publishers even chose to call it a ‘Collector’s Issue’.  In the contents page the essay, however, is titled ‘An Introduction to Arms’.  The editorial blurb teasingly tells us “…the celebrated writer-activist brings alive the world of Maoist camps and hideouts with all her narrative power, and abandons political correctness to passionately argue that their war against the state is truly a people’s war.”

The essay understandably evoked strong reactions.  Some of them – both denunciations as well as accolades– were published by Outlook itself in its subsequent issues as readers’ letters.  However, these responses have not been able to deconstruct Arundhati Roy’s dissertation.  Shankar Sharan and Abhinav Kumar do this much needed deconstruction.  In their articles brought together in this volume they interrogate her assumptions, conclusions, deductions, and each part of her argument.  They show that Roy parrotted what she was told by the comrades and uncritically relayed it to the readers. The fallacies in her constructions, the syllogistic traps that she laid (or did she fall herself into them?) and speciousness of her arguments are very competently brought out by the writers.

Sharan and Kumar rescue the readers from the mesmerizing power of Roy’s  narrative.  For the 32 page article derives its strength from its lucidity and readability.  Roy’s prose and her style, however, conceal the essay’s disdain for acceptable norms of logic.  It needs to be deconstructed primarily for this reason.  It seduces an unsuspecting reader.  It induces one to lowers one’s critical guard.  As a result one is apt to be carried away by Roy’s air of righteous indignation.  It makes one to suspend disbelief and become numb to her game of name-calling. Roy’s piece is replete with this.  We will sample a few.

To Roy the happenings in the Dandakaranya are not a fight between a democratic State and a band of organized armed insurgents.  For her, “Here in the forests of Dantewada, a battle rages for the soul of India.” (p.42)  The Maoist project of overthrowing the Indian State is not a first of its kind in her understanding.  And perhaps not a sin, therefore.  “The Maoists are not the only ones who seek to depose the Indian State.  It’s already been deposed several times by Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism.” (p.44)  Her craft as a writer is used to the hilt to make the Maoist look like a liberator, the only alternative, for the people.

She wants the readers to believe that the state is arming itself to kill the people.  Roy suddenly lobs an inference on to an unsuspecting reader that for the Indian State, “…the enemy is the People.” (p.28)  She reports that the State acquired laser-range finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones. But she suddenly but craftily says, “Perfect weapons to use against the poor.” (p.27)  Hardly three pages later, however,  there is an inescapable give away: She says, describing the Maoist insurgents arriving to meet her, “…from the way they run, I can tell they are the heavy hitters.  The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA)…. They carry serious rifles, INSAS, SLR, two have AK-47s.”  “For whom the thermal imaging and laser-guided rifles.  For whom the jungle warfare training school.” (p.32)    Here she slips up and reveals for whom and against whom are the hardware in fact acquired by the State.  The truth is that all these are not against the people but for use against the armed insurgents.  And then she gets to know that the leader of the squad is Comrade Madhav from Andhra Pradesh.  She has no disbelief when she learns that Comrade Madhav “has been with the Party since he was nine.”  Nine?!

We also need to sample Roy’s insinuations and the way she makes them look like uncontestable facts.  She talks about Comrade Kamala: “She wears a homemade pistol on her hip.  And boy, what a smile.”  And then she slips in an insinuation, unwarranted and at any rate unsupported.  “But if the police come across her, they’ll kill her.” Some might think that this is probable.  But here is the clincher, the poisonous dart: “They might rape her first.” (p.34)  Her description of Salwa Judum is in the same vein.  It is nothing but the paraphrasing of the Maoist propaganda: “…the dreaded, government-sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings, for burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.” (p.28)

One cannot be an internationally reputed writer-activist while looking like a bare-knuckled partisan.  One needs to look objective, even-handed.  One needs to look like giving a fair crack of the whip to both the sides.  A very small trick would do the job.  Make brutal and unpardonable crimes of one side look like minor, insignificant and casual acts.  And make some deviations, routine administrative failings and corruption of the other side look like its brutal defining characteristic.  I will illustrate.

Roy should not seem to ignore Maoists’ major policy flip-flops and violent crimes that emanated from them.  Here is how she cracks her whip on the Maoists: “When Charu Mazumdar famously said, ‘China’s Chairman is our Chairman and China’s Path is our Path’ he was prepared to extend it to the point where the Naxalites remained silent while General Yahya Khan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), because at that time, China was a close ally of Pakistan.  There was silence too, over the Khmer Rouge and its killing fields in Cambodia.  There was silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and Russian revolutions.  Silence over Tibet.  Within the Naxalite movement too, there have been violent excesses and it’s impossible to defend much of what they’ve done.”  Having thus done her duty of pointing out the policy misdemeanours of the Maoists, here is how she tries to show them as not worthy of serious disapproval.  “But can anything they have done compare with the sordid achievements of the Congress and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat….  And yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Majumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said.”  We should not be harsh to the Maoists and their founder.  In fact, they deserve to be absolved of their crimes.   For, “The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.  Imagine a society without that dream.  For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly.” (p.52)  But the trick is that this magnanimity is reserved for only one side.

She should not appear to be overlooking the apprehensions that communist movements  all over the world jettisoned the causes they seemingly espoused during their days of insurgency.  She says, “When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, its army genuinely a People’s Army.  But after the Revolution how easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage.  How easily the People’s Army can turn upon the people.  Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain.  Tomorrow, will it change its mind?”  Very genuine doubts and apprehensions any intelligent person will raise.  Roy does indeed condescend to acknowledge them and even gives expression to them.  She pretends to be on the same page with you.  But here is how she throws those concerns out of the window.  She asks rhetorically, “But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilize us in the present?” (p.52)  Obviously, she wants the reader not be immobilized now by these apprehensions about the future, and lend support to the Maoist project now.

While she reserves her prose at its vitriolic best for decrying the “essentially upper-caste Hindu State” (p.53) she turns lyrical when it comes to the gun-toting Maoist.  To Roy this is what the Indian State has appeared to be doing : “Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation, it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war.  It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems – Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Nagaland, Manipur, Telangana, Assam, Punjab the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and now across the tribal areas of Central India.  Tens of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands tortured.” (p.53)   Contrast this with how the news of Maoists killing tribal people in Jamui in Bihar is treated by her.  “Of course, we know that the media report may or may not be true.”  How would she look at it if it were true? “But, if it is, this one’s unforgivable.”  That’s all.  Just a mild rap on the wrist.  And how does the Maoist insurgency appear to her?   “As far as consumption goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.” (p.44)

At the outset of her long essay, Roy lists the questions she wanted to probe.  “When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares war within its borders, what does that war look like?  Does the resistance stand a chance?  Should it?  Who are the Maoists?  Are they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection?  What lessons have they learned from their past experience?  Is the Sandwich Theory – of ‘ordinary’ tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists – an accurate one?  Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out?  Do their interests converge?  Have they learned anything from each other?  Have they changed each other?” (p.27)

But these questions are posed only to ensnare the reader into reading the essay by dangling a hope that he might find Roy labouring to find an answer to them.  But it is clear that she has no intention to use them to guide her line of inquiry.  For even before these questions are raised, her conclusion is set out: “Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MOUs with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants, aluminum refineries, dams and mines.  In order for the MOUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.  Therefore, this war.” (pp.26-27)

The ideological muddle she is in is quite evident.  A newly independent India attempting to consolidate its territory is seen by Roy as turning colonial.  Indian State would have earned her approval if it did not undertake police action in Hyderabad and Goa, if it did not repel of the tribal raiders in the Kashmir valley, if it did not put down the extremism and secessionism in Pubjab and the Northeast.

But what made Arundhati Roy write what she wrote?

We need to quickly catch up with some of her inadvertent confessions in the essay to understand this.

After one of the Maoists, Masse, introduced herself to Roy, told about herself and in turn asked about Roy, she tells the reader: “I try and give her an honest account of my chaos.” (p.52) Well that’s some clue.  How did she overcome this muddle and chaos and arrive at the kind of ideological direction and understanding?  Here is another clue.  “I am a directional dyslexic, capable of getting lost between my bedroom and my bathroom.  What will I do in 60,000 square kilometers of forest?  Come hell or high water, I’m going to be holding on to Comrade Raju’s pallu.” (p.44)  The directional dyslexia is not merely physical.  That is not difficult to understand.  In fact, it is a reflection of her ideological dyslexia.  That she bit the Maoist version hook, line and sinker is evident.  That’s because Roy had no framework of her own.  She had no ability to independently look around, recognize the data and organize them into a coherent picture of reality.  She indeed needed somebody’s pallu to hold on to.  Even the scaffolding that she has hung her argument to was provided by the Maoists, especially Comrade Venu who gave her a tutorial on the history of the movement.  Roy feels lost when Comrade Venu leaves the camp and moves on.  She felt “a little bereft.”  But the redeeming feature is that she by then had “…hours of recordings to listen to.  And as days turn into weeks, I will meet many people who paint colour and detail into the grid he drew for me.” (p.44)  That explains Roy’s argument, her assumptions, her paradigm and her inferences and conclusions.  In other words, Roy was no more than an amanuensis of Comrades Raju, Rupi, Leng, Masse, Kamala, Venu, Sukhdev, Usendi, Madhav and several other ‘Dada log’ she walked with in the forest.

This is how she justifies women joining the guerrilla army.  “If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat.  Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt.  Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men.  Women are not allowed to eat eggs.”  And then she adds, “Good reason to join a guerrilla army?” (p.49)  Can she be serious?

Roy wants us to believe that she also, like all of us, disapproves violence but has veered towards the Maoist path after agonizing over the alternatives.  And after she found none.  “I feel I ought to say something….  About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions.  But what should I suggest they do?  Go to court?  Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi?  A rally?  A relay hunger strike?  It sounds ridiculous.  The promoters of New Economic Policy – who find it so easy to say ‘There Is No Alternative’ – should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy.  A specific one to these specific people, in this specific forest.  Here.  Now.  Which party should they vote for?  Which democratic institution in this country should they approach?” (p.44)

Arundhati Roy essentially carps at the State of India.  At a Democratic India.  At a Liberal India.  At a Constitutional India.  At a Plural India.  And at the very Idea of India.