March 23, 2010

Walking with the Comerades - Arundhati Roy walks with the maoists!

The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal Security Threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from them. I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”

Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.

There are many ways to describe Dantewada. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town.

The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal Security Threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from them. I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”

Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.

There are many ways to describe Dantewada. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town.

Red Shadow: Centenary celebrations of the adivasi uprising in Bastar; Sten gun at hand

In Dantewada, the police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar.

Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists, is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. Children who ought to be in school run wild. In the lovely forest villages, the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie in a heap, or they are full of policemen. The deadly war that is unfolding in the jungle is a war that the Government of India is both proud and shy of. Operation Green Hunt has been proclaimed as well as denied. P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister (and CEO of the war), says it does not exist, that it’s a media creation. And yet substantial funds have been allocated to it and tens of thousands of troops are being mobilised for it. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India, it will have serious consequences for us all.

If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something, that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the new four-lane highway crashing through the forest is the opposite of a ghost. Perhaps it is the harbinger of what is still to come.

The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.

It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State. It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered. Even after Independence, tribal people were at the heart of the first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari village in West Bengal (where the word Naxalite—now used interchangeably with ‘Maoist’—originates). Since then, Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about the Naxalites.

This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.

Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

The most recent expression of concern has come from home minister P. Chidambaram who says he doesn’t want tribal people living in “museum cultures”. The well-being of tribal people didn’t seem to be such a priority during his career as a corporate lawyer, representing the interests of several major mining companies. So it might be an idea to enquire into the basis for his new anxiety.

Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh, 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, aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.

Therefore, this war.

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 armed struggle intrinsically undemocratic? 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?

The day before I left, my mother called, sounding sleepy. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, with a mother’s weird instinct, “what this country needs is revolution.”

An article on the internet says that Israel’s Mossad is training 30 high-ranking Indian police officers in the techniques of targeted assassinations, to render the Maoist organisation “headless”. There’s talk in the press about the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: laser range-finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones, so popular with the US army. Perfect weapons to use against the poor.

The drive from Raipur to Dantewada takes about 10 hours through areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested’. These are not careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests. Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language of genocide has entered our vocabulary.

To protect the highway, security forces have ‘secured’ a narrow bandwidth of forest on either side. Further in, it’s the raj of the ‘Dada log’. The Brothers. The Comrades.

On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta (the company our home minister once worked with) Cancer Hospital. In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a university. In these creeping, innocuous ways, mining corporations enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants Who Really Care. It’s called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. It allows mining companies to be like the legendary actor and former chief minister NTR, who liked to play all the parts in Telugu mythologicals—the good guys and the bad guys, all at once, in the same movie. This CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta report for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments, judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s the occasional cancer hospital here or there?

I don’t remember seeing Vedanta’s name on the long list of MoUs signed by the Chhattisgarh government. But I’m twisted enough to suspect that if there’s a cancer hospital, there must be a flat-topped bauxite mountain somewhere.

We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College run by Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold). “Fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla”, the motto of the warfare training school, is painted on the rocks. The men are taught to run, slither, jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason), eat snakes and live off the jungle. The brigadier takes great pride in training street dogs to fight ‘terrorists’. Eight hundred policemen graduate from the warfare training school every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an army. (In Kashmir, it’s the other way around. The army is being turned into a bloated, administrative police force.) Upside down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People.

It’s late. Jagdalpur is asleep, except for the many hoardings of Rahul Gandhi asking people to join the Youth Congress. He’s been to Bastar twice in recent months but hasn’t said anything much about the war. It’s probably too messy for the People’s Prince to meddle in at this point. His media managers must have put their foot down. The fact that the Salwa Judum—the dreaded, government-sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings, for burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes—is led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress MLA, does not get much play in the carefully orchestrated publicity around Rahul Gandhi.
I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”

“And the bananas?”

“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”

He really was a security threat.

His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.

To read more of this extensive ESSAY go HERE


Pardesi said...

A counterpoint <a href="><b>(scathing, fair warning to Ms. Roy fans)</b></a>:


The last book François Furet wrote before his death in 1997 was called The Passing of an Illusion. At the very beginning of the first chapter of that book, Furet spelt out the central question driving his study:

What is surprising is not that certain intellectuals should share the spirit of the times, but that they should fall prey to it, without making any effort to mark it with their own stamp. […] twentieth century French writers aligned themselves with parties, especially radical ones hostile to democracy. They always played the same (provisional) role as supernumeraries, were manipulated as one man, and were sacrificed when necessary, to the will of the party. So we are bound to wonder what it was that made those ideologies so alluring, that gave them an attraction so general yet so mysterious.
Furet’s book emerged from an autopsy of his own past as a as a Communist “between 1949 and 1956.” He wrote, further, that his years as a Communist bequeathed to him an enduring desire to unlock the mystique of revolutionary ideology. Given this, it’s not difficult to see why he pioneered some of the most brilliant historiographical work on the French Revolution. The question we are concerned with here is the one I have quoted at length above; for it seems that in our own day, this strange romance between (formerly) fiercely independent intellectuals, scholars, activists and the – a – party, continues.

The latest document of this affair is a long essay by Arundhati Roy (once famous for her declaration of herself as an”independent mobile republic”), titled ‘Walking with the Comrades,’ published in the latest issue of Outlook. It makes for exciting reading, as a lot of well-written travel literature does; but it is significant for another reason: in the current debate over ‘Operation Green Hunt,’ with many versions of ‘ground realities’ fighting amongst themselves, this document is Roy’s attempt at producing an (her) authentic truth, so immersed in the charming details of revolutionary existence that everything else becomes secondary. If we were ever to perform an autopsy of our twentieth century’s ‘Communist’ pasts, ‘Walking with the Comrades’ would probably be as good a place to start as any.

In the article Roy speaks of her travels across Dandakaranya as personal guest of the CPI (Maoist.) Armed with her idealism she traverses forests and villages in search of truth. Before she leaves Delhi, her mother calls to announce (“with a mother’s weird instinct”) that what India needs is a revolution. She sets out to find it.

Two tropes underpin Roy’s rhetoric throughout: the constant equation of weaponry with beauty and joy, and the repeated emphasis – if without much insight – on the militarisation of daily life. Both seem to suggest to her, the epitome of revolutionary spirit – the one we have learnt India needs right now. But this affinity of death with beauty harks back to another – perhaps more accurate – tradition that Susan Sontag spoke of in her 1975 essay ‘Fascinating Fascism.’ National Socialism, she wrote, stood for values which at the time she was writing, were deeply cherished by ‘open societies.’ Among these were “the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.” Roy’s representation of the Maoists is nothing short of similar fetishisation. Chandu, a twenty-year old cadre, meets her with a “lovely smile.” They trek and she wonders about his “bemused village boy air.” Eventually she discovers “he could handle every kind of weapon, ‘except for an LMG’, he informed me cheerfully.” At a Maoist camp she meets hundreds of comrades lined up in two rows, each with “a weapon and a smile.”

Pardesi said...

Roy is at her elegiac best when she speaks of comrade Niti who is “considered to be so dangerous and is being hunted with such desperation not because she has led many ambushes (which she has), but because she is an adivasi woman who is loved by people in the village and is a real inspiration to young people. She speaks with her AK on her shoulder. (It’s a gun with a story. Almost everyone’s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how, and by whom).”

Is this a commentator on politics, or the PR department of the American National Rifle Association? (“Almost everyone’s gun has a story” – someone should sell this!)

Roy’s wanderings are not the first or only documentation we have of the complete militarisation of everyday life in these regions. But there’s something else at work here, which we might wish to pay attention to: “Comrade Raju is briefing the group. It’s all in Gondi, I don’t understand a thing, but I keep hearing the word RV. Later Raju tells me it stands for Rendezvous! It’s a Gondi word now.” Other words with tribals here understand are: Cordon and Search, Firing, Advance, Retreat, Down, Action. She speaks of a celebratory ritual where armed cadre surround locals and then join in, proving to her that “what Chairman Mao said about the guerrillas being the fish and people being the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally true.” (Emphasis added.) Then there is this gem:

BBC says there’s been an attack on a camp of Eastern Frontier Rifles in Lalgarh, West Bengal. Sixty Maoists on motorcycles. Fourteen policemen killed. Ten missing. Weapons snatched. There’s a murmur of pleasure in the ranks. Maoist leader Kishenji is being interviewed. When will you stop this violence and come for talks? When Operation Green Hunt is called off. Any time. Tell Chidambaram we will talk. Next question: it’s dark now, you have laid landmines, reinforcements have been called in, will you attack them too? Kishenji: Yes, of course, otherwise people will beat me. There’s laughter in the ranks. Sukhdev the clarifier says, “They always say landmines. We don’t use landmines. We use IEDs. ” (Emphasis added.)
But perhaps the most revealing instance of this absolute internalisation of violence comes when Roy finds the comrades watching Mother India one night, and asks Kamla if she likes to watch films. Kamla replies: “Nahin didi. Sirf ambush video (No didi. Only ambush videos).” We wonder along with Roy, what these ‘ambush videos’ are. It turns out that one of them

Pardesi said...

“starts with shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the close-up of a bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling. Then suddenly a comrade is wiring up an IED, concealing it with dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are being snatched. Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.”
We are, by now, far away from the usual argument of ‘violence-counter-violence’ that frames discussions around the Maoists. The impulse to record, archive and then consume acts of violence, paradoxically, is the quintessential part of the culture of capitalist modernity that the Maoists claim to despise. Of course, none of this makes a difference to Roy. These narratives do not indicate to her anything about the nature of the Communist Party of India (Maoist.) They do not suggest to her, for instance, that a tendency towards destructive (dare we say creative) violence is embedded in the culture of the party. Watching mutilated bodies of people is not a response to state violence. It is a precursor to the cultural fetishisation of death in much the same way that Nazi paraphernalia was eroticised in the aftermath of the war. ‘Revolutionary justice’ is just another name for murder. Scant surprise then, that our travel advisor has a bordering-on-kind word for the “rude justice” of peoples’ courts.

By the time we stumble onto these facts, we have already learnt the Maoist version of Indian tribal history – one which our author endorses – one where unproblematic lines are drawn from the colonial era to Naxalbari and now, ‘Operation Green Hunt.’ By this time we also know what our tour-guide is looking for: not just her mother’s intuitive revolution, but something more modest: a dream. And she finds this in the teachings of Charu Mazumdar. Although the Naxal movement was full of contradictions, although it committed some excesses, we cannot deny she writes, that “Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. 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. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about the superiority of “the non-violent way” and his notion of trusteeship.” (Emphasis added.)

(As if the only counterpoint to the Maoist ideology today in India is Gandhian humbug. But then, that’s the easiest effigy to demolish.)

Further: “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? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?”

MORE at link in first post.....

Pardesi said...

Kanu Sanyal, one of the founders of Naxalism committed suicide today. That makes this post even more relevant. What good can come out of an ideology that seeks to better people's lives by destroying the system?

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