ARKESH AJAY | September 4, 2011, New Delhi
(This book review appeared in the print edition issue dated September 4, 2011, of The Sunday Indian magazine)
Penguin (Imprint: Hamish Hamilton)
Penguin (Imprint: Hamish Hamilton)
Sixty-four years after it has ended, India needs to understand the definition of imperialism the most now. It may be in the irony of things, but often every battle faces the danger of leading its people into the very oppression it fights against. Maybe, and maybe I don’t need to temper my statement with a “may”, India already has landed there- the very imperialism it fought to be free from.
Let’s, for once, think of the tribal region lying at the trijunction of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand & Orissa. They are rebelling, and are being quieted by military might. Isn’t imperialism exactly this- a policy of extending an entity's power and influence over another through diplomacy or military force?
But you may say, India is a singular entity, and hence the argument doesn’t hold true. I would then ask- what makes a nation? Is the will of the governed not significant? Isn’t India a republic? And if it deviates from this line, doesn’t it lead itself to become a “broken republic”, as is also the name of the new book by Arundhati Roy, a collection of the three sharp essays, about the war “in the very heart of the country”- between the so-called Naxals, and the ‘state of India’. Between a government, and its own people. And not just any people, it’s very poorest ones. And as one visits this chapter of present India, and reads through Roy’s evocative writings, there is one question which often raises its head- ‘What makes these tribals pick up guns against an obviously much stronger government’?
What emerges from her investigation is the story of how corporate greed, justified in the sweep of the celebrated brush of 9% GDP growth, is about to turn India into an organism trying to “eat its own limbs”, as “those limbs refuse to be eaten”. In order to achieve this growth, the fruits of which never will reach the people who will be sacrificed for it, the government needs the tribals to move off their mineral-rich lands. Since they won’t, for they know not where else to go, there is a need to use military might. And however blind our democracy may become, it still will hear the sounds of these bullets. So emerges the need to create an ‘enemy’. The “Maoist menace” is that enemy, magnified to monstrous proportions in order to justify use of brute force in these jungles, against the nation’s poorest citizens.
Roy makes compelling arguments, especially when she quotes from the current home minister’s speech at Harvard, about how the government, in its hurry to allow “market forces” to mine resources “quickly and efficiently” has vandalized the constitution. The minister almost sounds disappointment at how “democracy” adds to the “challenge of development”, where he is “obliged” to provide “right compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement”.
Roy goes on to wonder as to why are these villagers sympathetic to the Maoists? The answer, though, is simple. For so many years the Indian state has exploited resources traditionally belonging to these tribes, and turned a blind eye to their welfare. No relationship based on only one party taking from it can last long. And so when PWG walks into these forests with a sympathetic ear, compared to the forest department’s pitiless officials, they immediately win a place in the hearts of the natives, become a part of them. “Guerillas being the fish and the people being the water they swim in”, as Mao put it.
Roy also examines the Maoist ideology, and its failings too. She wonders about the possibility of the revolution turning into an uncontrolled act of violence, far from the ideology it began with, especially in the unlikely outcome of its meeting success in its present endeavor. While exploring this, she offers hints into what could be the basis of a solution: “If we lived in a society with a genuinely democratic impulse, one in which ordinary people felt they could at least hope for justice, then the Maoists would only be a small, marginalized group of militants with very little popular appeal.”
And this is where the book’s greatest strength lies- in the balance of the debate Roy undertakes. Between a government which is dangerously in sway of “corporate fundamentalists”, and Naxals with a history of often-directionless violence, are millions of India’s poorest villagers, almost constantly staring down the barrel of someone’s gun. It is then only natural that they feel like aliens in their own country, and want the state to just leave them alone.
Bhagat Singh had once said, “...the state of war…shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be...purely Indian”. If we agree with the celebrated revolutionary here, we’ve to also agree that India, then, has a full scale war going on its very heart, and it’s easy to spot the villain.