“[Columbus] was looking for you and he ended up with us. I think we should talk about that!” That’s what my favorite professor had to say on the subject of the infamous India/Indian confusion while also lamenting the lack of a real conversation between post-colonial and Native studies. The two disciplines focus predominately on very different historical contexts, British imperialism and American settler colonialism, but the stories they tell share a lot of the same suffering and critical analysis. In her newest book, Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy calls for new ways to talk about the current fight for land and life in India, and in doing so, she makes space for the conversations my professor noticed weren’t happening.
The similarities struck me almost immediately. Though the specific geography of the situation Roy describes was new to me, the history reflected something I was all too aware of– the continuing American conquest of Indian Country. In fact, I think indigenous peoples around the world, struggling to survive under oppressive regimes, will recognize what is happening right now in the Dandakaranya forest as part of the same fight to keep the “progress” of capitalism away from their homelands.
As in the case of American settlement, the Indian government is destroying the livelihoods of people it claims to want to help, while simultaneously launching a military campaign against them. It has been an ongoing assault ever since the establishment of the Indian Constitution, which makes the Indian government legal custodians of tribal homelands. Suddenly in 1950, people who had been using the forests for generations were denied access. Though the government had essentially robbed them of their sustenance and livelihood, it did grant them the right to vote. Not to be repetitive, but…as in the case of American settlement, the government’s desire to make indigenous people part of the citizenry was really a desire to take land.
The Maoists reject this assimilation and refuse to participate in elections. A photo in the book shows a banner that we here in America, indigenous peoples and settlers alike, should heed. It reads:
Stop India from becoming the grazing ground of Imperialism. The Central Government has no right to ask for our votes. Do not vote for those millionaires who are getting rich by selling off our wealth. Fight for self-reliant, revolutionary development. Boycott the Lok Sabha elections.
The boycotting of elections is one of the Maoist’s biggest issues and one the Indian government consistently points to as a sign of the party’s illegitimacy. But as many in India already know, it is the elections themselves that are illegitimate. More than eighty billion rupees were spent on the last general election in India, much of that money going to buying off the media for pre-eclection “coverage packages.”
So, Roy asks, where does the money come from? When huge mining companies are set to rake in trillions of dollars off of bauxite deposits alone, it isn’t hard to find where the wealth resides in India. Like the capitalist democracy India is now competing with, there is little difference between the world of business and the world of government. The same people who sit on the boards of the mining companies launch political campaigns for positions of power. The current Home Minister P. Chidambaram once worked with huge mining company Vebdanta, which is one of the largest stakeholders in the bauxite deposits on tribal mountain lands.
Because she is one of the few exposing this corruption to a global audience, Roy has stirred up some bad blood with the government and been labeled a Maoist supporter. But this not such a rare thing. Ordinary, non-best-selling author, people are labeled an enemy of the state every day. Any hint of being sympathetic to the Maoists is liable to lead to prison. This had made life in some towns a lot more difficult as grocery stores and pharmacies can only sell products in small amounts to prevent people from aiding the guerillas in the forest who are caught off from supplies.
The message from the government is clear: whether you are a Maoist or not, all tribal people will suffer until the mining companies get what they need. In order to help achieve that end, Israel recently sold thermal imaging equipment and drones to the Indian government and trained their military in how to kill guerrilla fighters. Roy is right to ask, how will these unmanned drones know the difference between a teenager running through the forest and a Maoist insurgent? Will the government even try to differentiate?
As far as I know Roy did not provide material support to the Maoist army and although she is sympathetic to their cause and looks upon her young travel companions with an adoring gaze, she is by no means uncritical. She also, like many of her left fellows, disproves of killing in the name of the party, likening the murder of women who wouldn’t boycott elections to the Stalinist Purges and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. She understands, however, that their violence may be necessary. How can people who the government is already starving off lead a successful hunger strike?
Though the armed resistance may be justified, Roy wonders if the protracted war can ever end. Will the Maoists, once they succeed in ridding the mountains of mining companies, become just another powerful oppressor, killing anyone who dares to disagree? How can the interests and self-determination of the tribal peoples be kept front and center without dissolving into the interests of the party? As Roy walks with the Maoists, many of them starving, young people from local tribes, she witnesses an alternative model of society. Though held down by her doubts and the dire reality of warfare, she is lifted by the imagination to think outside of capitalism and outside the nation-state. This ability for a radical imagination is at the heart of all resistance. Though we may not be Maoists and even if we believe in non-violence, indigenous people worldwide (and anyone whose mere existence is already a form of resistance) have comrades in the Dandakaranya forest of India.
Roy has only recently come to be known as a political writer. Most know her as the award winning author of the novel every critic loved, The God of Small Things. Despite her recently adorned press badge, Roy still has the pen of a verbose lyricist. Hence there is tension, almost a confusion, in this work between form and argument, between authorial voice and the informants’ voices, between the beautiful statement and the informative sentence. The book doesn’t even contain an index, framing the text more as a travelogue than a source of information. Instead of practical explications, the book relies on feelings and big ideas.
While this makes for engaging reading, it can also leave the in-depth analysis too much in the background. On a few occasions, Roy points to a deeper analysis of the military industrial complex or feminism in the Maoist party, but then moves on leaving the larger connections frayed. And though perhaps a petty qualm, I also found the photo captions to be especially egregious. Instead of brief informed descriptions of what/who was in the pictures, there were excerpts from the surrounding chapters, sometimes completely unrelated to the content of the photo. This created the sense that the real subject of the book was the intrepid writer scrawling for justice, rather than the militant revolutionaries she traveled with.
Fortunately, even when Roy is exercising her literary rather than journalistic muscles, the results are illuminating. Her poetry can be provoking and precise, such as when she say, “We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.” It may not tell you the facts of the situation, but it certainly stirs the imagination.
It raises the question of what exactly the literature that will change the world is going to look like.
Book I Talked About:
Walking with the Comrades, by Arundhati Roy. Penguin Books, 2011.