Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, a breathtaking journalistic journey into the world of India’s indigenous Naxalite guerrillas, does not open with a primer on Maoist ideology or the corruption of the Indian State. Veering clear of that kind of dry, inhuman introduction, the ever-effervescent Roy- a Booker Prize-winning novelist who has spoken about the inability of non-fiction to convey truth in the way fictive storytelling can- instead opens up her expose with a vignette. Whether it’s true, no one can say: though I would argue that in this case it actually doesn’t matter. In four pages of brisk, lucid prose, she relates to us a scene whose haunting imprint resonates like a persistent note throughout the entirety of the volume, and whose very essence contains the seed of all the injustice she attacks.
It is high noon, somewhere in Delhi. Two “criminals”- to use the language of the Indian elites- are loitering around a busy multi-lane traffic light. These “criminals” are barely twelve, perhaps only eleven or ten; they reek of garbage and seem as if they haven’t washed in days. They are the displaced dalits, slumdogs who have been continuously evicted from their ramshackle dwellings as city authorities- who also refer to them as “criminals”- raze the vast, sprawling, de facto slum cities that house millions of people to make way for glitzy urban construction projects. New laws have recently been passed to make the “poor vanish” from the eyes of potential foreign visitors: no street dwellers are allowed, and all beggars are rounded up and dumped by the police nonchalantly outside the city limits. For those whose lives had already hit rock bottom, life had just suddenly become worse.
This ruin is the on-the-ground view of “India Shining,” the phrase that’s become synonymous with the government’s post-1991 economic program, which was supposed to have heralded in a new wave of middle-class prosperity and be the final death knell to the country’s endemic poverty. It is India’s wholesale embrace of a U.S. inspired system of neoliberalism- entailing the privatization of its industries, the militarization of the state, and the handing over of power to massive corporations via the modicum of the “free market.” The human cost of this massive societal remake, which has not gone without a certain level of “economic growth” (though Roy later dissects how insidiously nebulous this word is and how pliably elites deploy it in their favor) is embodied most perfectly in the sight of two “criminals” standing at the traffic light.
They are young girls, walking from car to car as they beg for money. As they walk along, their pathetically underfed reflections follow them in the sleek, polished flanks in the line of Western imported cars. Finally, a middle-aged woman drops them a few coins, and unthinkingly advises them to go find their parents.
The light turns green. As the river of cars rushes suddenly past them, there they are, going at it, fighting to the death for few scraps of coins. They do not care that a few steps into either of the lanes running past them them will lead to almost certain death. In fact, they’ve probably been living so close to death for so long that such a possibility hardly registers in their minds. Pitted against one another at the bottom rung of this Darwinian world, they fight with undeviating fury for a couple days’ worth of money.
Such is the nature of the poverty and ruin created by the Indian state, a state that the Naxalites, fighting from the depths of the subcontinents forests, have been seeking to overthrow for the past thirty years.
Who are the Naxalites?
They are a Maoist guerrilla group fighting from the jungles of central India, the armed wing of the Communist Party of India. Their stated aim is to overthrow the Indian State, but their de facto role has actually become the defense of landless indigenous peoples, the Adivasis, against the rapacious whims of massive mining corporations such as Vedanta, who seek to evict them so they can then flatten the forested mountains they inhabit and penetrate the vast reserves of bauxite beneath. In the words of Roy, they are “the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements fighting an assault on (indigenous) homelands by a cartel of mining and infrastructure companies.”
Hardly large enough to challenge India’s military- which has been deployed in vast numbers in places such as the contested Kashmiri Valley- they have taken on a dual role that’s transcended their ideologically inspired desires in importance. By being the only on-the-ground group that is actively waging war to protect indigenous adivasis against the corporations and their government auxiliaries, they have become quite visible agents for social justice in an asymmetric war, one that Roy describes as a “battle for the soul of India.”
Roy walked with these comrades- as they refer to one another- for several weeks in the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh, where in 2010, at the time of this book’s writing, tensions were rising once more as the government sought to find ways to sweep the peasants from their ancient homelands to pave the way for the entry of the corporate partners they’d contracted out.
The uncanny similarities between the United States’ corporate media apparatus and that of India’s, which in the context of a corporate state functions essentially as a state media mouthpiece, are impossible to deny. In the United States, the mainstream media in its various iterations howls over the impending onslaught of different manifestations of the “Other”: Islamic terrorism, illegal immigrants from Latin America. In India, on a level felt even more acutely than here, the corporate media thunders in indignation over the “Red Threat,” the rising wave communists, the army which the government under then Minister of the Interior P. Chidambaram labeled as the country’s “greatest internal security challenge.”
That they are accorded such an air of immensity and danger is strange, Roy notes. They are an extremely small group, and when she first is led into one of their jungle camps, following a long motorcycle drive out into the country and an even longer hike stretched out over several days, she cannot help but notice this. They are scantily armed, equipped with mostly old rifles, pistols and machetes, or perhaps the occasional FN FAL assault rifle. They are underfed, gaunt beneath their green uniforms. And they have virtually none of the technical prowess and expertise possessed by their opponents, whose military arsenal includes drones, laser guided missiles, helicopter gunships, tactical training in political assassination by Israeli advisors and an overwhelming superiority in numbers. So it is strange that they are treated as if they are an overwhelming force of well-trained soldiers, ready at all moments to topple the government.
The Naxalites derive their name from a remote village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, where the movement originated as a part of a failed uprising waged by the Indian Communist Party in 1971. The movement has simmered into a low-scale, asymmetric state of constant warfare with the Indian State ever since then, though the years have seen it go through several permutations as the political climate has inevitably shifted.
Before they took their present hold in what is referred to as the “Red Corridor” by Indian elites- the strip of remote jungle that runs diagonally across the subcontinent- the shift towards a neoliberal economy following 1991 created a political ferment in which the rural adivasis and Maoists were inevitably drawn into their current symbiosis.
To top that off, within the new atmosphere of free market “reforms” then beginning to flourish in the 1990’s, the massive land grabs in the countryside being waged by corporations seeking to erect dams and build mines left the adivasis bereft of any means to defend themselves.
All of these “reforms,” which are callously described by people who live in the cities, and don’t have to experience their consequences, as the “costs of modernity” (“get over it,” they say, with much of the same arrogance as Americans who overlook the similar destruction of natural lands in their own country), revolve around the expulsion and disenfranchisement of adivasi farmers.
Within this political ferment, the Naxalites have swept in and become the only group to protect the adivasis: despite the fact that they are a pathetically long shot from their stated goal overthrowing the Indian State, which easily is the most powerful government in the region.
Roy counters her seeming praise of the Naxalites with an incipient fear and concern over the tactics they espouse: she is not so blind as to believe that blatant political violence, which has been deployed readily on both sides of this conflict, is absolved of guilt by, or somehow retains, the high-minded idealism that led to it. The Naxalites have engaged in bloody acts of retribution and senseless killing: that alone is clear enough. And the very ideology they espouse, Maoism- the form of communism championed by Chairman Mao which is rooted in the political mobilization of rural peasantry – has a track record whose body count, in China alone, runs over twenty million. In an interesting passage, she writes about how a person such as herself would be the first one persecuted were the Maoists to theoretically triumph in the end.
But Roy also recognizes that insisting the Naxalites take up Gandhian pacifism is an equally delusional proposition.
As with the many episodes of insurgency and counterinsurgency that have flared up in the Third World over the past half-century, the Naxalites, and the adivasis they’re made up of, use violent means simply because they were forced to, because that was their only way to route the possibility of annihilation:
How are they supposed to sue to protect their lands from dam projects when the courts are already rigged by the corporations carrying out such operations?
To whom are they supposed to report the massacring of villagers when the police are already in close collusion with the violent, right wing, Hindu nationalist paramilitaries- the Salwa Judum– who carry out such atrocities in the first place?
Gandhian politics in itself, Roy says, is a form of self-stylized “celebrity politics”:
“(It is a) political theatre… In order for it to be effective, it needs a sympathetic audience, which villagers deep in the forest do not have. When a posse of 800 policemen lay a cordon around a forest village at night and begin to burn houses and shoot people, will a hunger strike help?”
It’s stylish to attack the Naxalites usage of violence when you live in the relative safety of the city: but for those who face the very real perils of living as an adivasi in the police-patrolled countryside, simply sitting down for a silent protest is a delusionally high-minded, if not downright dangerous, form of resistance.
It is almost as if the parliamentary Left which mouths such arguments, a class that proclaims to be ameliorating injustices via the modicum of the State bureaucracy, is taken aback by the Naxalites not because of their violence, nor because of their radicalism, but because within their example lies a glimpse of the revolutionary potential they long ago turned their backs on:
“Buried deep inside the fury that is directed against the CPI (Maoist) by the orthodox Left, and the liberal intelligentsia, is their unease with themselves, and a puzzling, almost mystical protectiveness towards the Indian State. It’s as though, when they are faced with a situation that has genuine revolutionary potential, they blink. They find reasons to look away. Political parties and individuals who have not in the last twenty-five years ever lent their support to, say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or marched in solidarity with any one of the many peaceful people’s movements in the country, have suddenly begun to extol the virtues of non-violence and Gandhian Satyagraha. On the other hand, those who have been actively involved in these struggles may strongly disagree with the Maoists- they may be wary, even exasperated by them- but they do see them as a part of the same resistance.”
Roy notes that, while their proclaimed desire to overthrow the State and redistribute land amongst the adivasis has yielded only monolithic failures, the Naxalites have performed their other role- that of actors in the Indian imagination, playing out their Davidic role against a hulking Goliath- with astonishing vigor and brio. They have captured the national imagination in the way Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa or Che Guevara- men who have gained currency not merely as individuals but as historical legends, mythical embodiments of higher and more transcendent causes- did in Latin America. They are the only group that is not merely resisting, but actually fighting, the State so hated by the poor people of India. Despite their protracted litany of tactical failures and the warped nature of their unrealized ideology, their valiant on-the-ground fight has nonetheless lent a deep awareness about “the deeply embedded structural injustices of Indian society.”
“The Naxalite movement,” she writes, “… sparked an anger about being exploited, and a desire for self-respect in some of India’s most oppressed communities… though the Maoists have virtually no political presence outside of forested areas, they do have a presence in the popular imagination, an increasingly sympathetic one, as a party that stands up for the poor against the intimidation of the State. If Operation Green Hunt becomes an outright war instead of a ‘sub-conventional’ one, if ordinary adivasis start dying in huge numbers, that sympathy could ignite in unexpected ways.”
Roy is prescient when she writes, reminiscing after her multi-day trek with the guerrillas, that the corporations who oppress us will not be stopped, and the health of the planet they attack will not be salvaged, by attending workshops and meetings in the sanitized conference rooms of Global Climate Summits. The world will not be saved in Rio, Kyoto, Durban, or Copenhagen; the world will not be saved by the UN.
If there is to be any hope in creating space for articulating a new and more humane vision for the future world- one in which humans are not merely cannon fodder for cold corporate calculations and the natural world is not a blank slate of resources upon which we can draw endless dams, mines, and cities – it will come on-the-ground movements such as this one, where individuals form into groups- refusing the neoliberal admonitions that we can only exist as apolitical, individualized consumers- to fight broader injustices of neoliberal capitalism both on the ground and in the trenches, within delineable geographic spaces, where the rapacious whims of the exploitative system can be broken at the system’s weakest links.
Our hope lays in the fate of groups and movements such as the Naxalites, as precariously outdated or hopelessly outnumbered as they may seem. And they continue marching, ceaselessly, through the forests of Chhattisgarh and Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, through the even vaster forests of the Indian subconscious, and through the unwavering gaze of history’s watchful eye.
“Marching,” she writes, “not just for (themselves), but to keep hope alive for us all.”