Walking with the Comrades

Roy with PLGA volunteers in 2010

Roy’s essays on the most recent iteration of the Naxalite rebellions develop a sympathetic analysis of the conditions which generated support among the tribal Adivasi for the Maoist resistance (characterized by the BJP as India’s “biggest internal security challenge”) against the colonial Indian state in Jharkand, Chattisgrah and along the so-called Red Corridor. At the same time, she develops a strong condemnation of the media discourse surrounding Operation Green Hunt (the militarization of Indian security services in the mode of anti-communist counterinsurgency, which commenced in earnest in 2009 and continues into the present), the brutality of the Salwa Judum militias, and the ecological devastation of the region that has been expedited in the interests of colonial exploitation.  The collection is remarkable in that it links “indigenous” struggles in India to a (tempered) argument for armed resistance against the colonial state. Tempered within this analysis is a pointed critique of the hypocrisy of conventional Ghandian pieties, which lend themselves too handily, in Roy’s analysis, to self-serving deference to India’s democratic and social institutions.

To get the bauxite out of the flat-topped hills, to get the iron ore out from under the forest floor, to get 85 percent of India’s people off their land and into the cities, India has to become a police state. The government has to militarize. To justify that militarization, it needs an enemy. The Maoists are that enemy.

The analysis of the conditions that produced the insurgency is fairly straight forward. The discovery of bauxite reserves in the mountains in the effected regions produced a kind of mineral rush in the early aughts. As mining concerns developed, aluminum which had not yet been mined was traded on futures markets, producing a demand for development which could not be quelled. After a major mining company (Vedanta) won a supreme court case on spurious grounds in 2005, an MoU was produced conferring on Vedanta (among others) exclusive mineral rights. Public land was effectively annexed by mining companies under the Land Acquisition Act, all underwritten by a new economic development policy to ensure that “the writ of the state is done”. The Indian state only receives a paltry royalty from the profits, much of which goes overseas or to India’s own burgeoning billionaire class. The fruits of economic development never materialized (no schools, no hospitals, no trickle down, only police stations, evidently). The development of dams and mines severely impacts the health and well being of those who live in the vicinity (the demographics of which are disproportionately made up of the impoverished Adivasi, a de facto “untouchable” caste of tribal peoples living in and around the jungles). The spontaneous emergence of paramilitary forces like the Salwa Judum – with their habit of “strategic hamleting”, modeled on British concentration policing developed during the Malay crisis – after the MoU intensified resistance to the general situation of resource exploitation and violent repression among the Adivasi and other effected groups, coalescing as a resurgence of armed support for Naxalism and Maoist insurrection.

I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy – who find it 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 institutions in this country should they approach? Which door did the Narmada Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years it fought against Big Dams on the Narmada?

Roy’s support for the insurgency is, as I have suggested, tempered (she – nor the Naxalites – expect the successful overthrow of the Indian state, and Roy voices some reservations about the ethics of IED ambushes and bombings and the occasional lapse into “lumpen” acts of criminal violence). However, that support is rooted in an extended “embed” with a volunteer platoon in the spring and summer of 2010. The platoon is a mixed force of men and women of various backgrounds and levels of education, principally drawn from remote villages in the jungles of Jharkhand. Roy develops friendships and correspondence with various fighters as she is mentored in the techniques of guerilla warfare. Accordingly, her tempered argument in defense of the Naxalites is grounded in an earnest admiration for both the volunteers and the solidarity of their organization.

[The Maoist resistance] has laid the foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs doctors, teachers, farmers. It does not need war. But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.

Accordingly, Roy’s narrative is marked by a sense of profound disconnect between the “emotional texture” of the struggle and the unbending rhetoric of the politburo intellectuals who disseminate the stern language of the Maoist cause to the outside world, in both India and beyond.  The central essay does much of the heavy lifting in terms of translating the nuances of the volunteer’s rationale for fighting into a discourse which sidesteps the bellicosity of conventional Maoist rhetoric, while remaining sympathetic to the emotional material and charitable to the history of the struggle, if not the letter of their official ideology.

There have been violent excesses and it’s impossible to defend much of what they’ve done. But can anything they have done compare with the sordid achievments of the Congress and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat…And yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Mazumdar, in much of what he wrote and said, was a man with a political vision for India that cannot be dismissed lightly. 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: ‘the rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of society’

For Roy, the struggle was effectively forced upon the Maoists, most of whom have taken up arms out of mutual self-interest, rather than ideological certainty.  At the same time, Roy is skeptical of the “sandwich” thesis that places the combatants between the rock of Maoism and the hard place of the colonial state.

People who live in situations like this do not have easy choices. They certainly do not simply take instructions from a handful of ideologues who appear out of nowhere waving guns. Their decisions on what strategies to employ take into account a whole host of considerations: the history of the struggle, the nature of repression, the urgency of the situation and, quite crucially, the landscape in which their struggle is taking place. The decision whether to be a Gandhian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful, or a bit of both is not always a moral or ideological one. Quite often it’s a tactical one. Gandhian satyagraha, for example, is a kind of 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? (Can starving people go on a hunger strike? And do hunger strikes work when they’re not on TV?) Equally, guerilla warfare is a strategy that villages in the plains, with no cover for tactical retreat, cannot afford. Sometimes, tactics get confused with ideology and lead to unnecessary internecine battles. Fortunately ordinary people are capable of breaking through ideological categories, and of being Gandhian in Jantar Mantar, militant in the plains and guerilla fighters in the forest without necessarily suffering from a crisis of identity. The strength of the insurrection in India is its diversity, not uniformity.

The collection of essays closes with an appeal to the forbearance of those who would enter into dialogue with groups caught up in these kinds of ecological and social struggles. I won’t diminish it with further commentary:

The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination outside of capitalism as well as Communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the water in the rivers, the trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain? If they say they cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.

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