She Was There

Great embedded journalism, but more rhetoric than reason
She Was There
Illustration by Sorit
She Was There

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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