Whether we agree with her or not, we read Arundhati Roy because she surprises us. There is always some statistic, some quotation, some ironic remark that makes one say, “Hey, I hadn’t thought of that before.” This time, though, I found myself being disappointed. It’s almost a cliche of such reportage (of a writer’s encounter with an underground group) to begin with the rendezvous and end on a note of wistful longing. Roy does both. Come on Arundhati, I wanted to say, surprise us.
One is glad that voices like hers exist, and that she commands enough star value for Outlook to bill the issue a 'collector’s item’. Roy writes with feeling, she is superb at catching irony, be it describing Dantewada as a border town smack in the centre of India or the Indian rulers’ adoption of China’s path as their own. Her writing is poetic, it seduces. Even when you are not persuaded by the argument, you want to side with her.
In this essay, she introduces us to a veritable cast of characters: Comrade Maase, who “seems to have to swim through a layer of pain to enter the conversation”; the senior Comrade Venu (Sushil, Sonu, Murali) who “looks for all the world like a frail village schoolteacher”; Comrade Sukhdev, “a crazy workaholic”; Comrade Kamla, who prefers watching ‘ambush videos’ to Hindi movies.
Eh...ambush videos? Roy describes one, which starts with “shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls.... Then suddenly...a cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes”. Roy was outraged and shocked, as all of us were, when Hindutva goons reportedly videographed violence against Muslims in Gujarat. Comrade Kamla, who only likes watching videos of “mutilated bodies and burning bikes”, is marching, Roy persuades us, “to keep hope alive for us all”. Some ironies escape the best writers.
Consider the joke she recounts at the end of the essay. Sukhdev asks her if she knows what to do if they come under fire. “Yes,” she says, “immediately declare an indefinite hunger strike.” Sukhdev laughs so hard he has to sit.
What is Sukhdev laughing at? At Roy’s writerly wit? Or at her scorn for “indefinite hunger strikes”? In an earlier day and age, Roy helped focus our attention on a massive, peaceful, neo-Gandhian movement against destruction in the name of development. One may or may not have agreed with every aspect of Roy’s critique. But the moral force of her argument was unquestioned. By recounting her joke without irony, however, Roy mocks her own past, her commitment to a movement she was (and is?) so passionate about.
Reading Roy, one’s struck by her refusal to debate. She sees nothing wrong in Maoists becoming a handmaiden of the Trinamool Congress to exterminate CPI(M) cadres, mostly tribals, Muslims and other rural poor. Well, ok. But what about the critics of the CPI(M) who’re also critics of the Maoists? Recently, several articles in the Economic & Political Weekly posed probing questions about whether we’ve reached the limits of bourgeois democracy in India, about the Maoists’ belief in violence as the only instrument of change, its sheer brutality, their penchant of taking over peaceful resistance, their intolerance of dissent and debate, their programmatic understanding of the Indian revolution. These are criticisms from the Left. All that is water off Roy’s back. In rubbishing powerful critiques by cocking a rhetorical snook at them, she demeans herself.
On every criticism of Maoist tactics and methods, she responds with rhetoric, not reason. Charu Mazumdar fetishises violence and gore—but, says Roy, look at the beautiful dancing tribals. The Maoists believe in protracted war—naturally, counters Roy, because the Indian state is waging the really protracted war. The Maoists don’t take part in non-violent protest and mass politics—what did non-violence win the Narmada Bachao Andolan? The Maoists dish out summary justice in jan adalats—but they don’t kill everybody, Roy tells us, and anyhow we all know how skewed our judicial system is.
Roy’s essay is a piece of embedded journalism. Trekking with rebels on starlit nights is doubtless a reporter’s fantasy. We need such accounts, which give a sense of the dreams and desperations that drive young women and men to the gun. What Roy does not do is question the Maoists’ conceptual framework. In her world, the only alternative to the violence of the state is the violence of the Maoists. The Maoists and the tribals, according to her, are one entity. That the Maoists should claim so is hardly surprising. But this is an argument that suits the Indian state perfectly as well.
It is in the nature of embedded journalism to get close enough to the ‘action’ to give us an authentic sense of the smells and sights. Roy does that. It’s also in the nature of embedded journalism that it remains prisoner to the embedder’s conceptual framework. A truly critical intelligence would cut through it. Roy, however, chooses to be smitten.
(Sudhanva Deshpande is editor at LeftWord Books.)
I agree with Sudhanva Deshpande’s criticism of the contradictions in Arundhati’s essay and her excessive reliance on rhetoric (She Was There, Apr 12). But what about the issues she raises: the lack of extension of democracy and its fruits to the tribals who are essentially a different civilisation within the mainstream one. With little or no education, they have no tools to survive ‘modernity’. As long as they are not represented, as long as their causes are not taken up by civil society, as long as they are not coopted as equal partners in society, these clashes will continue. Ms Roy is secondary to the more important issue of the marginalisation of certain sections of society. I wish that’s what’s focused on, not the pointing out of the violently inconsistent dimensions of the Maoists.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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