The following is an interview with Arundhati Roy, conducted by Shoma
Chaudhury of Tehelka.
`It's Outright War and Both Sides are Choosing Their Weapons'
by Arundhati Roy
Sunday, March 25, 2007
There is an atmosphere of growing violence across the country. How do
you read the signs? In what context should it be read?
You don't have to be a genius to read the signs. We have a growing
middle class, reared on a diet of radical consumerism and aggressive
greed. Unlike industrializing Western countries, which had colonies
from which to plunder resources and generate slave labor to feed this
process, we have to colonize ourselves, our own nether parts. We've
begun to eat our own limbs. The greed that is being generated (and
marketed as a value interchangeable with nationalism) can only be
sated by grabbing land, water and resources from the vulnerable. What
we're witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever
waged in independent India — the secession of the middle and upper
classes from the rest of the country. It's a vertical secession, not a
lateral one. They're fighting for the right to merge with the world's
elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere. They've managed to
commandeer the resources, the coal, the minerals, the bauxite, the
water and electricity. Now they want the land to make more cars, more
bombs, more mines — supertoys for the new supercitizens of the new
superpower. So it's outright war, and people on both sides are
choosing their weapons. The government and the corporations reach for
structural adjustment, the World Bank, the ADB, FDI, friendly court
orders, friendly policy makers, help from the `friendly' corporate
media and a police force that will ram all this down people's throats.
Those who want to resist this process have, until now, reached for
dharnas, hunger strikes, satyagraha, the courts and what they thought
was friendly media. But now more and more are reaching for guns. Will
the violence grow? If the `growth rate' and the Sensex are going to be
the only barometers the government uses to measure progress and the
well-being of people, then of course it will. How do I read the signs?
It isn't hard to read sky-writing. What it says up there, in big
letters, is this: the shit has hit the fan, folks.
You once remarked that though you may not resort to violence yourself,
you think it has become immoral to condemn it, given the circumstances
in the country. Can you elaborate on this view?
I'd be a liability as a guerrilla! I doubt I used the word `immoral' —
morality is an elusive business, as changeable as the weather. What I
feel is this: non-violent movements have knocked at the door of every
democratic institution in this country for decades, and have been
spurned and humiliated. Look at the Bhopal gas victims, the Narmada
Bachao Andolan. The nba had a lot going for it — high-profile
leadership, media coverage, more resources than any other mass
movement. What went wrong? People are bound to want to rethink
strategy. When Sonia Gandhi begins to promote satyagraha at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, it's time for us to sit up and think. For
example, is mass civil disobedience possible within the structure of a
democratic nation state? Is it possible in the age of disinformation
and corporate-controlled mass media? Are hunger strikes umbilically
linked to celebrity politics? Would anybody care if the people of
Nangla Machhi or Bhatti mines went on a hunger strike? Irom Sharmila
has been on a hunger strike for six years. That should be a lesson to
many of us. I've always felt that it's ironic that hunger strikes are
used as a political weapon in a land where most people go hungry
anyway. We are in a different time and place now. Up against a
different, more complex adversary. We've entered the era of NGOs — or
should I say the era of paltu shers — in which mass action can be a
treacherous business. We have demonstrations which are funded, we have
sponsored dharnas and social forums which make militant postures but
never follow up on what they preach. We have all kinds of `virtual'
resistance. Meetings against SEZs sponsored by the biggest promoters
of SEZs. Awards and grants for environmental activism and community
action given by corporations responsible for devastating whole
ecosystems. Vedanta, a company mining bauxite in the forests of
Orissa, wants to start a university. The Tatas have two charitable
trusts that directly and indirectly fund activists and mass movements
across the country. Could that be why Singur has drawn so much less
flak than Nandigram? Of course the Tatas and Birlas funded Gandhi too
— maybe he was our first NGO. But now we have NGOs who make a lot of
noise, write a lot of reports, but whom the sarkar is more than
comfortable with. How do we make sense of all this? The place is
crawling with professional diffusers of real political action.
`Virtual' resistance has become something of a liability.
There was a time when mass movements looked to the courts for justice.
The courts have rained down a series of judgments that are so unjust,
so insulting to the poor in the language they use, they take your
breath away. A recent Supreme Court judgment, allowing the Vasant Kunj
Mall to resume construction though it didn't have the requisite
clearances, said in so many words that the questions of corporations
indulging in malpractice does not arise! In the ERA of corporate
globalization, corporate land-grab, in the ERA of Enron and Monsanto,
Halliburton and Bechtel, that's a loaded thing to say. It exposes the
ideological heart of the most powerful institution in this country.
The judiciary, along with the corporate press, is now seen as the
lynchpin of the neo-liberal project.
In a climate like this, when people feel that they are being worn
down, exhausted by these interminable `democratic' processes, only to
be eventually humiliated, what are they supposed to do? Of course it
isn't as though the only options are binary — violence versus
non-violence. There are political parties that believe in armed
struggle but only as one part of their overall political strategy.
Political workers in these struggles have been dealt with brutally,
killed, beaten, imprisoned under false charges. People are fully aware
that to take to arms is to call down upon yourself the myriad forms of
the violence of the Indian State. The minute armed struggle becomes a
strategy, your whole world shrinks and the colors fade to black and
white. But when people decide to take that step because every other
option has ended in despair, should we condemn them? Does anyone
believe that if the people of Nandigram had held a dharna and sung
songs, the West Bengal government would have backed down? We are
living in times when to be ineffective is to support the status quo
(which no doubt suits some of us). And being effective comes at a
terrible price. I find it hard to condemn people who are prepared to
pay that price.
You have been traveling a lot on the ground — can you give us a sense
of the trouble spots you have been to? Can you outline a few of the
combat lines in these places?
Huge question — what can I say? The military occupation of Kashmir,
neo-fascism in Gujarat, civil war in Chhattisgarh, MNCs raping Orissa,
the submergence of hundreds of villages in the Narmada Valley, people
living on the edge of absolute starvation, the devastation of forest
land, the Bhopal victims living to see the West Bengal government
re-wooing Union Carbide — now calling itself Dow Chemicals — in
Nandigram. I haven't been recently to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka,
Maharashtra, but we know about the almost hundred thousand farmers who
have killed themselves. We know about the fake encounters and the
terrible repression in Andhra Pradesh. Each of these places has its
own particular history, economy, ecology. None is amenable to easy
analysis. And yet there is connecting tissue, there are huge
international cultural and economic pressures being brought to bear on
them. How can I not mention the Hindutva project, spreading its poison
sub-cutaneously, waiting to erupt once again? I'd say the biggest
indictment of all is that we are still a country, a culture, a society
which continues to nurture and practice the notion of untouchability.
While our economists number-crunch and boast about the growth rate, a
million people — human scavengers — earn their living carrying several
kilos of other people's shit on their heads every day. And if they
didn't carry shit on their heads they would starve to death. Some
fucking superpower this.
How does one view the recent State and police violence in Bengal?
No different from police and State violence anywhere else — including
the issue of hypocrisy and doublespeak so perfected by all political
parties including the mainstream Left. Are Communist bullets different
from capitalist ones? Odd things are happening. It snowed in Saudi
Arabia. Owls are out in broad daylight. The Chinese government tabled
a bill sanctioning the right to private property. I don't know if all
of this has to do with climate change. The Chinese Communists are
turning out to be the biggest capitalists of the 21st century. Why
should we expect our own parliamentary Left to be any different?
Nandigram and Singur are clear signals. It makes you wonder — is the
last stop of every revolution advanced capitalism? Think about it —
the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution,
the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid struggle, the supposedly Gandhian
freedom struggle in India… what's the last station they all pull in
at? Is this the end of imagination?
The Maoist attack in Bijapur — the death of 55 policemen. Are the
rebels only the flip side of the State?
How can the rebels be the flip side of the State? Would anybody say
that those who fought against apartheid — however brutal their methods
— were the flip side of the State? What about those who fought the
French in Algeria? Or those who fought the Nazis? Or those who fought
colonial regimes? Or those who are fighting the US occupation of Iraq?
Are they the flip side of the State? This facile new report-driven
`human rights' discourse, this meaningless condemnation game that we
are all forced to play, makes politicians of us all and leaches the
real politics out of everything. However pristine we would like to be,
however hard we polish our halos, the tragedy is that we have run out
of pristine choices. There is a civil war in Chhattisgarh sponsored,
created by the Chhattisgarh government, which is publicly pursing the
Bush doctrine: if you're not with us, you are with the terrorists. The
lynchpin of this war, apart from the formal security forces, is the
Salva Judum — a government-backed militia of ordinary people forced to
take up arms, forced to become SPOs (special police officers). The
Indian State has tried this in Kashmir, in Manipur, in Nagaland. Tens
of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands tortured,
thousands have disappeared. Any banana republic would be proud of this
record. Now the government wants to import these failed strategies
into the heartland. Thousands of adivasis have been forcibly moved off
their mineral-rich lands into police camps. Hundreds of villages have
been forcibly evacuated. Those lands, rich in iron-ore, are being eyed
by corporations like the Tatas and Essar. Mous have been signed, but
no one knows what they say. Land acquisition has begun. This kind of
thing happened in countries like Colombia — one of the most devastated
countries in the world. While everybody's eyes are fixed on the
spiraling violence between government-backed militias and guerrilla
squads, multinational corporations quietly make off with the mineral
wealth. That's the little piece of theater being scripted for us in
Of course it's horrible that 55 policemen were killed. But they're as
much the victims of government policy as anybody else. For the
government and the corporations they're just cannon fodder — there's
plenty more where they came from. Crocodile tears will be shed, prim
TV anchors will hector us for a while and then more supplies of fodder
will be arranged. For the Maoist guerrillas, the police and SPOs they
killed were the armed personnel of the Indian State, the main,
hands-on perpetrators of repression, torture, custodial killings,
false encounters. They're not innocent civilians — if such a thing
exists — by any stretch of imagination.
I have no doubt that the Maoists can be agents of terror and coercion
too. I have no doubt they have committed unspeakable atrocities. I
have no doubt they cannot lay claim to undisputed support from local
people — but who can? Still, no guerrilla army can survive without
local support. That's a logistical impossibility. And the support for
Maoists is growing, not diminishing. That says something. People have
no choice but to align themselves on the side of whoever they think is
But to equate a resistance movement fighting against enormous
injustice with the government which enforces that injustice is absurd.
The government has slammed the door in the face of every attempt at
non-violent resistance. When people take to arms, there is going to be
all kinds of violence — revolutionary, lumpen and outright criminal.
The government is responsible for the monstrous situations it creates.
`Naxals', `Maoists', `outsiders': these are terms being very loosely
used these days.
`Outsiders' is a generic accusation used in the early stages of
repression by governments who have begun to believe their own
publicity and can't imagine that their own people have risen up
against them. That's the stage the CPM is at now in Bengal, though
some would say repression in Bengal is not new, it has only moved into
higher gear. In any case, what's an outsider? Who decides the borders?
Are they village boundaries? Tehsil? Block? District? State? Is narrow
regional and ethnic politics the new Communist mantra? About Naxals
and Maoists — well… India is about to become a police state in which
everybody who disagrees with what's going on risks being called a
terrorist. Islamic terrorists have to be Islamic — so that's not good
enough to cover most of us. They need a bigger catchment area. So
leaving the definition loose, undefined, is effective strategy,
because the time is not far off when we'll all be called Maoists or
Naxalites, terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, and shut down by
people who don't really know or care who Maoists or Naxalites are. In
villages, of course, that has begun — thousands of people are being
held in jails across the country, loosely charged with being
terrorists trying to overthrow the state. Who are the real Naxalites
and Maoists? I'm not an authority on the subject, but here's a very
rudimentary potted history.
The Communist Party of India, the CPI, was formed in 1925. The CPI
(M), or what we now call the CPM — the Communist Party Marxist — split
from the CPI in 1964 and formed a separate party. Both, of course,
were parliamentary political parties. In 1967, the CPM, along with a
splinter group of the Congress, came to power in West Bengal. At the
time there was massive unrest among the peasantry starving in the
countryside. Local CPM leaders — Kanu Sanyal and Charu Mazumdar — led
a peasant uprising in the district of Naxalbari which is where the
term Naxalites comes from. In 1969, the government fell and the
Congress came back to power under Siddhartha Shankar Ray. The Naxalite
uprising was mercilessly crushed — Mahasweta Devi has written
powerfully about this time. In 1969, the CPI (ML) — Marxist Leninist —
split from the CPM. A few years later, around 1971, the CPI (ML)
devolved into several parties: the CPM-ML (Liberation), largely
centered in Bihar; the CPM-ML (New Democracy), functioning for the
most part out of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar; the CPM-ML (Class Struggle)
mainly in Bengal. These parties have been generically baptised
`Naxalites'. They see themselves as Marxist Leninist, not strictly
speaking Maoist. They believe in elections, mass action and — when
absolutely pushed to the wall or attacked — armed struggle. The MCC —
the Maoist Communist Centre, at the time mostly operating in Bihar —
was formed in 1968. The PW, People's War, operational for the most
part in Andhra Pradesh, was formed in 1980. Recently, in 2004, the MCC
and the pw merged to form the CPI (Maoist) They believe in outright
armed struggle and the overthrowing of the State. They don't
participate in elections. This is the party that is fighting the
guerrilla war in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
The Indian State and media largely view the Maoists as an "internal
security" threat. Is this the way to look at them?
I'm sure the Maoists would be flattered to be viewed in this way.
The Maoists want to bring down the State. Given the autocratic
ideology they take their inspiration from, what alternative would they
set up? Wouldn't their regime be an exploitative, autocratic, violent
one as well? Isn't their action already exploitative of ordinary
people? Do they really have the support of ordinary people?
I think it's important for us to acknowledge that both Mao and Stalin
are dubious heroes with murderous pasts. Tens of millions of people
were killed under their regimes. Apart from what happened in China and
the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, with the support of the Chinese Communist
Party (while the West looked discreetly away), wiped out two million
people in Cambodia and brought millions of people to the brink of
extinction from disease and starvation. Can we pretend that China's
cultural revolution didn't happen? Or that millions of people in the
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were not victims of labor camps,
torture chambers, the network of spies and informers, the secret
police. The history of these regimes is just as dark as the history of
Western imperialism, except for the fact that they had a shorter
life-span. We cannot condemn the occupation of Iraq, Palestine and
Kashmir while we remain silent about Tibet and Chechnya. I would
imagine that for the Maoists, the Naxalites, as well as the mainstream
Left, being honest about the past is important to strengthen people's
faith in the future. One hopes the past will not be repeated, but
denying that it ever happened doesn't help inspire confidence…
Nevertheless, the Maoists in Nepal have waged a brave and successful
struggle against the monarchy. Right now, in India, the Maoists and
the various Marxist-Leninist groups are leading the fight against
immense injustice here. They are fighting not just the State, but
feudal landlords and their armed militias. They are the only people
who are making a dent. And I admire that. It may well be that when
they come to power, they will, as you say, be brutal, unjust and
autocratic, or even worse than the present government. Maybe, but I'm
not prepared to assume that in advance. If they are, we'll have to
fight them too. And most likely someone like myself will be the first
person they'll string up from the nearest tree — but right now, it is
important to acknowledge that they are bearing the brunt of being at
the forefront of resistance. Many of us are in a position where we are
beginning to align ourselves on the side of those who we know have no
place for us in their religious or ideological imagination. It's true
that everybody changes radically when they come to power — look at
Mandela's ANC. Corrupt, capitalist, bowing to the IMF driving the poor
out of their homes — honoring Suharto, the killer of hundreds of
thousands of Indonesian Communists, with South Africa's highest
civilian award. Who would have thought it could happen? But does this
mean South Africans should have backed away from the struggle against
apartheid? Or that they should regret it now? Does it mean Algeria
should have remained a French colony, that Kashmiris, Iraqis and
Palestinians should accept military occupation? That people whose
dignity is being assaulted should give up the fight because they can't
find saints to lead them into battle?
Is there a communication breakdown in our society?
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