Review of Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades (Penguin, 2011)
by Andy Lee Roth
Associate Director, Project Censored
The nation of India boasts one of the world’s highest economic growth rates. At the same time, eight states in India are home to more of the world’s poor than live in all of Africa’s twenty-six sub-Saharan nations. India’s poor include tens of millions who have been internally displaced by government policies designed to promote economic growth. As Arundhati Roy documents in previous books, including Cost of Living (1999) and Power Politics (2001), most of these displaced persons are tribal people: India’s Dalit and adivasi have lived off the land as commoners, outside the cash economy, for generations.
Across three essays originally published in 2010, Roy’s latest book, Walking with the Comrades, documents the government’s campaign to remove tribal people from their traditional homelands, so that multinational corporations can more easily extract the abundant mineral wealth, including bauxite, of India’s heartland. “We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs,” Roy writes. “We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.” Her dispatches from the frontlines of this struggle make crucial and challenging reading for anyone who champions the commons and/or advocates principled nonviolence.
Roy deftly relates how the Indian Constitution of 1950, “the moral underpinning of Indian democracy,” relegated India’s entire tribal population to squatter status, criminalizing “a whole way of life” and snatching away “their right to livelihood and dignity.” The PESA Act of 1996, an attempt to right the wrongs of the 1950 Constitution, made it illegal and unconstitutional for the government to acquire tribal land in order to turn it over to private companies. But this attempt to “radically recast the balance of power,” was subverted: The International Monetary Fund effectively installed Manmohan Singh, initially as finance minister, to implement structural adjustment and economic reform. Singh and his cabinet, Roy writes, are “evangelically committed to the corporate takeover of everything – water, electricity, minerals, agriculture, land, telecommunications, education, health – no matter what the consequences.”
As Prime Minister, in 2009 Singh told India’s Parliament that the Maoists who resist the government’s campaign of land acquisition were India’s “biggest internal security challenge,” noting that resistance “will certainly affect the climate for investment.” Roy shows how this “furtive declaration of war” anticipated the government’s multi-pronged ground-clearing operations, which include official programs such as Operation Green Hunt and unofficial components such as Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt), a state-supported people’s militia whose first financers were Tata Steel and Essar Steel. Both Operation Green Hunt and Salwa Judum employ tactics of “strategic hamleting” initially developed by General Sir Harold Briggs during Britain’s campaign against Malaya’s communists in 1950.
While the government labels all who resist its policies of land acquisition in service of corporate interests “Maoists,” Roy writes, “If you pay attention to the many struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights.” Roy literally walks with these people, and in many ways her book’s most important insights derive from this contact. She finds ordinary people fighting for their livelihood, not Maoist ideologues. She does meet actual Maoists, whom she describes respectfully, even as she is critical of their organization’s shortcomings. Maoist struggles to redistribute land “have been completely unsuccessful,” Roy concedes; however, Maoists have “shone a light on the deeply embedded structural injustice of Indian society.” She denounces Maoist violence when it is misdirected, while she acknowledges that violence may be necessary:
“People who live in situations like this do not have easy choices… The decision whether to be Gandhian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful, or a bit of both (like in Nandigram) 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… Sometimes tactics get confused with ideology and lead to unnecessary internecine battles.”
Roy and her adivasi and Dalit comrades have come to this position through hard experience. For decades Roy championed nonviolent resistance, including public demonstrations and lawsuits by grassroots organizations like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, against the damming of the Narmada River. In Walking, as Roy considers violent resistance, she pointedly asks, “Which door did the Narmada Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years and years it fought against Big Dams on the Narmada?” If the government will not respect nonviolent protest, it leaves few other options for people fighting for their lives.
Maoist or not, the people who make up the resistance movement in India’s heartland forests act in defense of commoning as a way of life. They assert their rights to subside, as they have for generations, outside the capitalist culture of private property and cash-based markets. They “go to battle everyday to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.” They offer one model of what acting in defense of the commons looks like. As Roy shows us, without flinching, that defense includes violent resistance – a reality that challenges another value held dear by many proponents of the commons, principled non-violence.
Confronting as it does the Indian government’s “war against its poor” in service of corporate interests, and the difficult dilemmas of armed resistance, Walking with the Comrades concludes with Roy asserting the significance of imagination that exists “outside of capitalism as well as Communism” and offers “an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment.” Her book challenges all who read it to put their imagination to use in the creation of such a future. It is essential reading for all who care about the commons.
A footnote to this review: In January 2012 Starbucks announced plans to open 50 outlets in India by year’s end. Starbucks will partner with Tata Global Beverages, a subsidiary of the Tata Group that also includes Tata Steel, hoping to capitalize on the rising aspirations of many Indians, though this group is unlikely to include any of Roy’s forest comrades.