The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2011
By Krishna Pokharel
Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Man Booker prize for “The God of Small Things,” is undoubtedly India’s iconoclast no.1. During the launch of her two latest books—“Broken Republic” and “Walking With the Comrades” —on Friday evening, she came to the defence of the military tactics of India’s Maoists in her polemical best:
“When you have 800 CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary force deployed to fight country’s internal insurgencies] marching three days into the forest; surrounding a forest village and burning it and raping women, what are the poor supposed to do? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Can people who have no money boycott goods? What sort of civil disobedience we are asking them to adhere to?”
She backpedaled a little saying: “But at the same time what goes on in the forest in terms of resistance cannot go on outside the forest.”
In “Walking With the Comrades,” Ms. Roy recounts time she spent last year in the forest with the banned Maoist insurgents, who are active in large swathes of central and eastern India. In “Broken Republic,” she writes about the character of Indian democracy. Both books are published by Penguin India.
In conversation with economist Amit Bhaduri at the amphitheater of New Delhi’s India Habitat Center, Ms. Roy dwelt at length on those themes. “Today, it’s true that usurping of land, the colonization of the land of the poor is at the heart of the unfolding civil war in our country,” she said. “If you look at the map of India today; the forests, the adivasis [tribal people], the natural resources, the Maoists and the civil war, they are all stacked one on top of another. You have to be blind not to be able to notice the vertical connection between them all.”
Anti-capitalism was the reining tone of the evening’s discussion, and Ms. Roy offered an analysis of capitalism’s linguistic tactics.
“When you call something like bauxite [a raw mineral from which aluminum is extracted], which is in the mountain, a resource you are automatically falling into the language of extractive capitalism. Because for the adivasis, the bauxite outside the mountain is worthless; the bauxite inside the mountain is the source of life, is the source of faith, is the source of everything. You take the bauxite out of the mountain, then to some corporations it’s worth four trillion dollars, but to a culture that doesn’t look at it as a resource it’s worth nothing,” Mr. Roy said.
She added: “Even language itself somehow has sort of conspired to make us think in certain ways.”
Ms. Roy said that state governments have signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding with the mining companies for the mining of the tribal land. She said many of those have not been actualized because of “the stubbornness and the resilience of the battle that the poorest people are waging against the richest corporations.”
“But these mining corporations historically are used to winning their battles. So they are just waiting like lazy predators…. If it’s not the Salwa Judum [a state-supported vigilante group fighting Maoists in the central state of Chhattisgarh], it will be the army,” Ms. Roy said. “We are at the moment facing the prospect of a militarized democracy, if that isn’t an oxymoron.”
“Isn’t it a generic problem of capitalism?” Mr. Bhaduri.
“It is a generic problem,” Ms. Roy concurred.
In her over 50-minute-long conversation with Mr. Bhaduri, Ms. Roy also criticized the country’s middle and upper classes of society. “We are living in a country where simultaneously we are trying to make the discourse of democracy sophisticated while we are colonizing ourselves,” Ms. Roy said. She said the most successful “secessionist struggle” in India is “the secession of the middle and upper classes into outer space from where they look down and say ‘what’s our bauxite doing in their mountains, what’s our water doing in their rivers, what’s our timber doing in their forests.”
Ms. Roy said that India continues to be a “charade of democracy where you have all the rituals, you have all the institutions of democracy that appear to be functioning.”
“You have these institutions—the courts, the media, the parliament—all of these being hollowed out and then shells being put in place,” she said. Ms. Roy explained why she sees Indian democracy as being reduced to a ritual.” I say what if any poor man or woman, any adivasi living in the forest—What if they were to turn around and say to us tell me one democratic institution in this country where I can appeal and where I can get a hearing?”
“I can guarantee you there is no answer to that question today in India,” Ms. Roy said. “There is absolutely no answer to that question. They cannot go to the courts. If they vote, it’s like voting for this washing soap or that washing soap both owned by the same holding company.”
Ms. Roy said she stands on the other side of the line with the “bandwidth of resistance movements.”
“From there I turn around and ask our comrades the question, which is: ‘Will we leave the bauxite in the mountain?’”
“And that I think is the real question facing all of us,” Ms. Roy said.