I don't see Arundhati Roy's essay as a fantastic piece of journalism. I see it as the work of a writer/activist who has already made her position very clear through her earlier writings and actions. She stands for the poor, the dispossessed, and the ones whose voices are not heard no matter how hard they shout. I do however, for the first time, have some serious difficulties accepting what Arundhati Roy tells us here and how she does it.
The romantic picture of comrades in the jungles does not speak for all of what is going on in and around Dandakaranya forest. At the end of 2008, I was in Gadchiroli to do some research. For two weeks, I travelled and stayed in different villages Throughout my stay, the term Naxalite or 'mama' (maternal uncle) was used broadly to define the gun toting men and women of the Dandakaranya and they had cadres in every village. The stories I heard were quite different from those in this essay.
I heard about the murder of a local leader trying to organize his community. More than one person told me that a politician, afraid of the man's rising popularity paid the Naxalites to kill him. A man, who was in the jeep the leader had been hauled out of when it stopped because a felled tree blocked the forest road, pointed out the spot to me where he had been told to return the same evening. The body of his boss was hung on a tree once they had shot him. I heard that Ballarpur Paper Mills pays the Naxlas to cut the bamboo from the forest and that the Naxals in exchange allow the mill owner to develop the road leading to those forests just enough to let him carry the bamboo out. Once that is over, the rains wash away the badly constructed road. The village residential schools at the top of the bamboo rich hills that receive government subsidy to feed tribal children, have to tank up on food supplies before the road dis appears for the whole of the monsoon season.
I heard that there are two job opportunities for people in these villages - the state or the Naxalites. That people from the same families are either in the police force or Naxal force - killing each other with guns. All poor. All desperate. All with little other choice. Unless of course they can manage to feed their families with one rice crop a year. That is, if it rains. I heard the Naxalites will not allow 'development', yet traders from Bengal have been allowed to set up businesses - for a price.
I heard that nurses and doctors sent to posts in these areas don't just see is as 'a' punishment posting but a punishment posting to the power of a hundred. They vent their hatred on the tribals they are supposed to treat. Same goes for the teachers. I heard that a non-violent Gandhian doctor providing desperately needed medical help was threatened so badly by the Naxalites that he had to escape at night from the area never to retur n.
I heard that gun toting Naxals had walked into the compound of the devoted doctors Prakash and Mandakini Amte, who have been the only hope to injured and diseased people, including the Naxals themselves, for 40 years. They had shot somebody who was recuperating on the premises of the hospital. These premises are also where I stayed for a few days with my husband and two seven year old boys. Very close to the gate with the unarmed chowkidaar.
Unlike Arundhati Roy, I didn't fall into deep sleep at night in the Dandakaranya forest. There was little chance to enjoy the forest, stars and the beauty of the villages with their 'simplicity' for me. Because one 'necessity' was missing. I didn't have a friend or a comrade with a gun. I lived in terror and I didn't sleep much. Could this be true of others like me, without guns and/or comrades with AK 47s to protect or surround themselves with?
Unlike Arundhati Roy, I wouldn't dare to post the images of the people I made photos of with quotes of what they told me. They don't have guns slinging from their shoulders so I can't possibly give them a 'name' and a 'face' on my blog or any other magazine that would want to hear their story.
But I do remember the face of one such man very clearly. He told me he was caught between the guns of the state machinery and the guns of the Naxalites. Then he went on to work on the renovation of his hut. The tools he was using could have belonged to the Stone Age.
I am no fan of the machinery deployed by various official, corporate and media forces that work overtime to push the poor and dispossessed who are increasingly 'falling into the hole' as Arundhati so eloquently puts it. However, I have heard with my own ears in Gadchiroli the voices of ordinary villagers - the poor, dispossessed and unarmed say, in no uncertain terms, that the Naxalites are the one stop shop for the violent settling of scores. Any scores.
Unfortunately no one told me of water harvesting schemes and the like that Roy got to witness in the part of Dandakaranya that she was in. And unfortunately after the first few days of hearing the stories I heard, I didn't ask because I never made the connection between murders and water harvesting. My fault.
In the TV interview in the program The Devil's Advocate, Karan Thapar asks Arundhati Roy if she would be willing to talk to the Maoists if the state would stop Operation Greenhunt. She smiles and replies that she is 'just an individual' who can do little to influence them. I think Roy doesn't project herself as 'just an individual'. She writes and expresses herself in any forum she is in like she knows she has clout and she can and will use it. And in 'Walking with the Comrades', she claims she bonds in friendship with the highest in the Maoist echelons.
So I feel I also have to ask her if she would be willing, for the sake of the di spossessed for whom she stands, to walk and talk with the comrades, if Operation Greenhunt is indeed lifted.