April 04, 2020
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More Pages From Dantewada

Despite its lack of nuance and its errors of judgement, Arundhati’s essay served a purpose. We need more such writing.

More Pages From Dantewada

The appalling massacre on April 6 of 76 security personnel by Naxal rebels in Chattisgarh has quite naturally generated a lot of media heat.  Unfortunately, and in keeping with the celebrity syndrome to which so many of our political conversations fall prey, much of the noise – especially on the internet – has focused on Arundhati Roy’s recent “embedded” piece from the Dantewada frontlines. Running the gamut from Talveen Singh to Salil Tripathi to Shobhaa De, Roy’s critics have driven home the point that, Roy’s advocacy of, if not the Naxalite cause, then at least the necessity of the Naxalite cause, is at best irresponsible and deluded; and at worst, complicit in Naxalite violence.  Most notable of all were veteran liberal journalist Barkha Dutt’s April 7 tweets: not content with a dig at Roy (“what would be unbearable is anymore twisted romanticism of the CAUSE. no more 36 page essays on the good folk of dantewada pls”), Dutt even called into question the Indian Air Force’s own apparent reluctance in the face of civilian calls for using air power against the Naxalites (“Air chief may be right in questioning use of air power against ones own people but this attack will have to change the rules of the game”). 

I have previously expressed some irritation in response to Roy's piece from Dantewada not to mention more serious disagreements with her position on the question of azaadi for Kashmir; while nevertheless affirming the essential importance of Roy’s writings on Naxal/Adivasi issues. [The two are not, of course, the same, a point that needs to be stressed.  Most of the senior members of the Naxalite movement are not themselves Adivasis (although the rank and file appears to have significant Adivasi representation), and it seems likely that support for the insurgency among Chattisgarh’s forest-based Adivasis is a direct consequence of their utter marginalization by the polity; the Naxalites are often the only organized option by means of which Adivasi concerns may be raised.  Moreover, Adivasi marginalization is at least partly – as in the case of Europe’s Roma population – a consequence of cultural factors, and this coincidence – neither traditional Adivasi cultures nor Naxalite/Maoist ideology is reducible to the sort of capitalism much of the rest of Indian society has embraced – also contributes to the alliance between the two.  But it is clearly not a necessary conjunction.  Roy isn’t always careful with respect to the distinction, and she isn’t the only one, as Dutt’s own “good folk of Dantewada” tweet makes clear (such slippage with respect to, for instance, Muslims, would be unimaginable from Dutt).] 

Whatever "side" you find yourself on, you need to read Roy’s piece if you are interested in Indian politics, economic growth (more broadly, the discipline that used to be called "political economy" back in Adam Smith’s day; I'm one of those who wishes it still was), and even global economic growth, with an especial focus on the "extractive"/mining industries.  But tweets like Dutt’s are silly, and worryingly so: the severity and scale of this attack makes 36-page essays [1] -- whether or not by Roy; in fact, especially by writers others than Roy -- on understanding what the Indian state and civil society are up against, more important than ever before.   

Recoiling from horror into ignorance is no tribute to the fallen: it is the privilege of those – like virtually everyone who will read this column – whose lives are not at risk. That can't be said of either the dead jawans or "the good folk of Dantewada".  We do neither any service by reflexively jumping to the view that only an escalation in hostilities (such as the sort of aerial deployment some would have Home Minister Chidambaram assent to), can serve the purpose.  Now, more than ever, thoughtfulness is the need of the hour: thoughtfulness in formulating new policies, and a new national politics that does not insist on “us” knowing best what Adivasis want/need/desire; and yes, thoughtfulness in formulating new counter-insurgency strategies as well.  (The old one – casually use ill-trained and ill-equipped jawans as cannon fodder, with the slow drip of 2 or 5 or 7 periodically killed occasionally punctuated by news that scores have been murdered in a particularly audacious attack – is clearly not working). 

I am not naive, and do not doubt that the Naxalites cannot be beaten without the use of some military force/police action – the April 6 massacre underscores that.  But it is a very different thing to sweep aside reflection, debate, and discussion on India’s course of action, in favour of shrill insistence that the world is now Completely New, that the old rules don’t apply, that we simply don’t have time for attempts to understand and engage with the other, and that if we must engage, we must do so quickly, decisively, with not a trace of hesitation.  We have heard such calls many times before, whether outside India (most notably, in the aftermath of Al Qaida’s September 11 attacks on the United States) or within it.  Stated bluntly, based on the fallout from hasty and ham-handed interventions (e.g., by other countries in Afghanistan and Iraq), the track record of knee-jerk “act first, think later”-types isn’t very good.   

Notwithstanding Barkha Dutt’s suggestion that 36 pages might be too long, comprehensive engagement with an issue is not a luxury: such thoughtfulness ought to be the sine qua non of government policy and public discourse.  And yes, that does mean paying attention to the Roys of the world, even when the latter aren’t themselves especially nuanced.  At least until “civil society” can show alternatives.  There is much to disagree with Roy on, not least her reflexive hostility to any position that might entail her coming down on the same side as the Indian government or even public opinion; her blinkers when it comes to violence by the Maoists; or her dismissal of the Indian polity as nothing more than an upper-caste Hindu state – but who else in the mainstream media is writing from the trenches of the ongoing war in Central India? Who else insists that we talk to Adivasis and listen to what they mean by development?  Heck, where are the Adivasis in the mainstream media?   

Actually, they’re everywhere: typically between the lines of dispatches from the front lines, scrolling the almost daily x or y dead across our TV screens, beaming in names of unfamiliar places: Gadhchiroli.  Dantewada.  Lalgarh.  But that is the only role these Adivasis are permitted, their agency circumscribed by discussions on national security and “development.”  Nothing illegitimate about those discussions, just something terribly limiting about them: we already know those arguments; they are ours, and continually parroting them suggests that we need the comfort of heads nodding in agreement (Who would be against “development”? Who doesn’t believe in “tribal uplift”?), not genuine discussion and debate.  And yet it is the latter on which the Indian polity depends: for if everyone agreed with “our” received wisdom, the insurgency simply wouldn’t have had the deep roots and endurance that it plainly does.  We are not, after all, speaking of a self-sufficient band of rebels dependent on no-one but themselves; even accounting for coercion of local populations, it would be impossible for the Naxals to operate absent large-scale popular support or acquiescence in the relevant areas. 

The media sleight of hand in dealing with Arundhati is more than a little cynical. They damn her but hardly ever pay attention to adivasi economy, politics and other related issues.

I don’t mean to suggest that Roy is the only activist working to broaden the national conversation on Adivasi-issues.  But she is the only one who is able to command national attention and television airtime for her views -- and if the cause suffers because of Roy’s position as a lightning rod, she is surely not the only one to blame.  Why haven’t other, supposedly less problematic, activists gotten more attention?  The sleight of hand here is more than a little cynical: hardly any of the media critics who like to depict Roy as a publicity-hound pay more than lip service to Adivasi politics; and rather than engage with any other activists working in this field (such as the ones Roy is criticized in the abstract for not being like), find it much easier to attack her, leading to a permanent deferral of the substantive issues involved.  Roy thus serves a valuable, symbiotic, function for her critics, and for us: because we can attack her instead, we need not talk about the reality staring us in the face.  Namely, that the rebellion's back cannot be broken absent a far-reaching overhaul of the way in which the state treats its most marginal citizens (or, it can be broken, but not consistent with even minimal fidelity to the constitutional norms that serve as India’s promise to her people).  We can hold up Roy’s rhetorical excess to public criticism, all the better to avoid squarely facing the reality that Adivasis are disproportionately made to bear the costs of economic development for which they see virtually no benefits.  And, in talking about whether or not Roy misrepresents Adivasi voices, we don’t need to ask why our media does not give those voices an opportunity to be heard – and why we don’t demand otherwise.   

Heeding Barkha Dutt’s exasperation with Roy’s essays (and even perhaps with the Air Force Chief’s reservations in the face of using air power against the insurgents) will not lead to a Brave New World, simply to one where the “we” of the mainstream media covers press conferences on Operation Green Hunt, or official briefings on Salwa Judum – and where only Roy talks about what the world looks like from Dantewada.  Mainstream opinion cannot complain about the nature of her dispatches if it has ceded the terrain.  We need more, not fewer, 36-pagers: the massacre of 76 jawans – themselves mostly drawn from some of the poorest segments of Indian society – doesn't change that reality, it underscores the urgency of understanding the Naxalite point of view, of hearing Adivasi voices that we simply don't get to hear very much of in the mainstream media.  The lives of not just Adivasis in Dantewada, but of many more men like those slaughtered earlier this week, depend on it. 

Umair Ahmed Muhajir is a lawyer based in New York City. A slightly shorter, edited version of this piece appears in print


1. For the record, Arundhati Roy's piece was a 32-Page essay.

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