On November 9th, 2011 the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center held partial readings of “Walking with the Comrades” by Arundhati Roy. The quotes listed in this article are based on those limited readings.
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“Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called for their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation”. – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Arundhati Roy’s essays on “Walking with the Comrades” reiterates similar insightful truth presented by Freire, that is conceived only when one physically submerge themselves at the epicenter of struggles, establishing relationships at the grounds. In 2009, Roy spent weeks with the Maoist rebels in their “liberated area” of the Chhattisgarh State in Central India, where she lived and interviewed many insurgents, in an effort to put humanity to the poster-perfect nameless dark faces notably clad in olive-green uniforms and low strung heavy weapons. They have been dubbed as “the most serious internal threat to India’s national security” by PM Manmohan Singh.
The Naxalites, who are the far-left militant Maoists in India, root their origins to Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal. They now operate in different parts of the country and have organized the Adhivasis (tribal people) of Chhattisgarh since 1970s. While the Indian government strategically labeled the Adhivasi insurgents in Chhattisgarh and publicly proclaimed them as the “most serious internal threat”, they have also niftily taken custody of the Adhivasi homelands, making them illegal squatters in their own lands, ever since the adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1950.
Roy’s intervention to this internal war as a writer and as an activist comes as valiant and unapologetic in times when the corporate media had the country swayed to believe that the rebels are perilous gun-holders impeding country’s development and killers of innocent state personnel. Through her writings, she complicates the soothing narratives of much-prided popular Indian morality: non-violence, under the mask of Gandhism. She notes in the beginning, “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… It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries”. For Roy, the Maoist insurgencies and Adhivasi uprisings are inter-exchangeable apparatus that aims at overthrowing of the state to reclaim their lost livelihoods and their right to live with dignity. She does that cautiously, however, as she asks some pressing questions, “Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out? Do their interests converge?”
How could their interests not converge? The Adhivasis have been historically displaced multiple times at the interests of the ruling capitalist class. While every national and state policy favored the corporations, the state government also organized illegal militia Salwa Judum, who would rape women, kill men and burn entire villages. This wouldn’t stop there. The central government orchestrated Operation Green Hunt to kill every rebel to render the Maoists headless, which has backfired and resulted into palpable yet dismal violence. The crime of the Chhattisgarh Adhivasis: living above some of the country’s richest minerals, which was and is their home. Their resistance, in such, has been key to radical Maoist organizing, which is impossible to find in the cosmopolitan urban centers of India. At the same time, most of the Adhivasi rebels may not have read Mao’s ‘little red book’ or discussed Marx’s Manifesto, they are attracted to the possibilities of what a just and egalitarian society could bring- comfort, harmony, life of dignity- ones they have never experienced in their lifetime.
“Walking with the Comrades” is not the first time Arundhati Roy has delivered to the public the vicarious plight of the most oppressed peoples of India. As an anti-imperialist and anti-globalization activist, she has spoken out and written against the US invasion of Afghanistan, India’s nuclear policies, the Israeli state, the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, amongst others. On a home scale, she has actively participated in Narmada Bachao Andolan, a movement resisting a dam project that would displace countless people. She has openly stated her support for the people of Kashmir demanding separation from India for which, she was also charged with sedition. But it was her more recent remarks about the Mumbai bombings and unequivocal criticisms of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, which has led to the squealing of the liberals and death threats from the right wing.
Much of Roy’s readers from her first international bestseller “The God of Small Things” (1997) disjoint the work from her more current political writings and ceaselessly question her about her next work of fiction. However, the work, although fictional is also a literary intervention to post-colonial India still tainted with internalized caste system, class hierarchies, and hollow political forces. If her enthusiasts had caught those social and political underpinnings in her writing then, her writings that followed after this seminal work come as no surprise.