Many thanks to Julie for this transcription.
“You cannot equate violence of the resistance with the structural violence of the Indian state which is resulting in 250.000 farmers killing themselves, 80% of the population living in poverty. You really can’t equate the two. And that’s what many people do. “
Arundhati Roy on the Maoist movement in India – Free Speech Radio News – 17 November 2011
FSRN: In India’s rural forests, mining corporations and state militias have launched a violent assault on the Maoist guerillas and landless tribal communities. Activist and author Arundhati Roy spent weeks with the Maoist fighters in the conflict zone, and her time there is the subject of a new book called ‘Walking with the Comrades’. It’s a first-hand account of the hidden side of the global economy and an analysis of a long-running and often misunderstood armed movement. She joins us from New-York. Arundhati Roy, welcome to FSRN.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you so much.
FSRN: Let’s begin with the region where you spent time, Dantekaranya, in India. Describe the place and the people who live there.
AR: It’s a kind of large strait of uninterrupted forest inhabited mostly by various indigenous tribes. In the area that I visited, there was mostly one tribe, called the Gonds. And there, for the last 30 years, there has been a sort of incipient Maoist movement which has right now surfaced in a really serious way because of the fact that the Indian government has signed over much of this forest land, the rivers, the mountains, everything to various multinational corporations for building dams, steel plants and aluminium refineries. There are, all together in India, about 100 million indigenous people, seriously under threat, living very very fragile lives.
FSRN: You talk about the agreements, the formal agreements, that have been made between these multinational corporations and the Indian goverment. One of those companies that is operating in the region is called Vedanta. Can you tell us about that company and how it operates in the area?
AR: Vedanta wasn’t exactly in the area that I visited. They’re just coming there. But it has signed huge agreements for the mining of bauxite in the state of Orissa. Vedanta is one of the largest corporations in the world. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s leader lives in the former house of the Shah of Iran. It is mining in areas where these indigenous tribes, the Dongria, the Gonds, live. And it’s one of the most ruthless mining company in the world, I would say. Actually, the process of mining bauxite and turning it into aluminium is one of the most toxic processes in the world. Aluminium is sort of central to the weapons industry. So, because it’s such a toxic process, it has been sort of exported out of Europe and America to countries like India. But that process requires such a lot of water and such a lot of electricity, and it creates such a lot of toxic wastes that it devastates the entire environment where an aluminium refinery might be set up. Vedanta is one of the companies, but there are many others as well.
FSRN: And the effects of a move like that, with the mining of bauxite, not only comes in and takes parts of the land to displace people, but as you outline, it creates these toxic pools. There a photographs in your book that shows the effects of this kind of mining and what it does to the land. And one of those areas is, as you describe in your book, a sacred place for the indigenous people there.
AR: Yes, it’s a sacred place and one of them is a mountain called the Niyamgiri, which means ‘the mountain of justice’. It is as sacred to them as a church or a mosque is to a christian or a muslim. But since they are the poorest people, whatever sacred it is to them, it doesn’t seem to matter very much.
FSRN: Another aspect of this, in addition to the influence of multinational corporations and mining, is the military campaign. The Indian government launched a campaign called ‘Operation Green Hunt’ against Maoist forces. It came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called them the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by the country. How does ‘Operation Green Hunt’ play out on the ground there?
AR: ‘Operation Green Hunt’ was announced in 2009. And the shares of mining companies went up. And then, something like 200.000 paramilitaries, heavily armed paramilitary forces began to move into the forest. So now, as we speak, preparations are on for the army to move in. And so we are going to witness India, which calls itself the larger democracy in the world, which has already deployed its army several times in states of the north-east, in Kashmir, in Telengana, in Goa, in Punjab, deploying it against its poorest people. India has one of the biggest defense budgets in the world. All this power is going to be directed against the poorest people in the country because those Memorandum of Understanding have been signed and the corporations are running out of patience.
FSRN: While you talk about the operation under way now, you point out that in 2010, the chief negociator for the Communist Party of India was shot and killed by the Andhra Pradesh state police, and that was at the beginning of a round of peace talks. Is there a peace process now? Where does that stands today?
AR: No, there isn’t a peace process at all now. India’s willing to talk to Pakistan, to talk to anybody else, but not to the poor. Right now, as I said, I think that … when one side kills the peace emissary of the other side, it is pretty clear that they don’t want to have peace talks. But it’s going to take them a while to move large numbers of soldiers into the area. And the army is sort of refusing to be deployed unless it has the impunity of this law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which allows solders to kill on suspicion. They have that law covering them in Kashmire, in the north-east, which is why we’re now dicovering mass graves there. But the army won’t want to move in unless it has the cover of this law. Otherwise, it’ll just be courts and all kinds of litigations and so on. There’s a lot of reaction against this law in India, so I think they’re going to pretend to repeal it and then put provisions into some other laws and make it apply across the country. Because, in fact, there’s a lot of unrest all over the country. It’s gradually becoming very militarize. You can’t push through this free market policies without taking over people’s land, without privatizing, without building dams and so on. In order to control a restive population, you need to militarize. And to militarize, the security forces need the impunity. So I think all that is being negociated now, so there’s a sort of quiet ominous silence, I would say.
FSRN: Arundhati Roy, one of the aspect of your new book ‘Walking with the Comrades’ is its questioning, its investigation, its exploration of the comrades themselves: ‘Who are the comrades?’ And although the government often paints the Maoist movement in one bright brush, you write of how the Communist movement has evolved. That, in the beginning, under the founder of the Naxalite movement, it was stuck to a strict ideology and followed China even as atrocities were taking place in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or killings in Bangladesh. But at least, in the area where you were, it has changed somewhat. Naxalites are made up of largely displaced tribal people. Primarily, it’s local concerns rather than a global ideology that motivates them. How has the movement changed over time?
AR: As I said, there were a whole lot of ideological and moral questions that I had about their alignments in the past. Their epicenter was China, not really the concerns of the country they lived in. So they did keep quiet over the genocide in Bangladesh, what was going on in Cambodia. That was unfortunate. Now, the real question is: how Maoist are the Maoists? Since they really are made up of… 99,9% of the guerilla army are indigenous, what we call adivasi people, 45% of them are women. The party in the past has not had a very good reputation in the ways it deals with women within its own quarters. I thought that had changed when I was there, I was quite impressed by the women that I met there and by how freely they spoke about their problems and what they were trying to do about it. But I think the main question that I have right now, is, what is this battle about? Is it a battle for a redefinition of the meaning of progress, of the meaning of civilization, of what constitutes human’s happiness? And Communist Parties have not shown any great difference in the way they approach the environment or anything in their past, in Russia or in China. And so I ask the comrades: you’re resisting this corporate take over now, but theoretically, if you were to come to power, would you leave the bauxite in the mountain? Do you have a different view of development? And I think that’s a kind of pressure that we all need to keep up because it is a question that the whole world has to consider. Today, the planet is in crisis and there has to be a radical questionning of what is going on. Just like America, in America, you have 400 people who own as much wealth as half of the American population. In India, we have 100 people who own assests equal to one fourth of the GDP. And we have 80% of the population living on less than 50 cents a day. So something has to change radically. The idea of capitalism, of progress, the measure of these things linked to consumption, all of this has to change. While I support the resistance in the forest, I do think it’s time to begin to ask what exactly they are fighting for.
FSRN: Well, it’s not just those broad questions, philosophical questions, but also some of the practices. The practices of summary executions, mistaken killings where civilians have been victims. It’s not a movement without criticism in India. And you bring up those issues too.
AR: I do. The fact is that one of the problem is that the way the Indian government and the Indian security forces are trying to break the movement is by infiltrating it with informers and spies and so on. And also the fact that the Indian legal system, the courts, are completely outside the reach of ordinary people. So when that is happening, or if, let say, a thousand paramilitaries go and burn a village with information from somebody, you wonder who can the villagers turn to. Because they can’t go and file a police case, they can’t go to court, the whole machinery of democracy is ranged against them. The democracy in India is only for the middle class. So then, this kind of system of rough justice surfaces and of course, sometimes it works, but sometimes it’s completely wrong. And what are we to do about it? Thses are not of course new questions. There are questions that armed resistance and armed struggles have faced all along. It becomes the responsibility of those of us who don’t condemn them outright to actually keep the pressure on and to question these things.
FSRN: Some of the most memorable people that you speak with and meet while you’re in the forest, and that we come to meet as readers, are women. As you report, 45% of the members are women and that traditionnal discrimination and violence in some of the tribal communities have motivated some of the women to join the movement. And also, once the women are inside the Communist Party, they faced discrimination over the years. Can you tell us about one of the woman you met?
AR: Inside the forest, I met women who had watched their partners, who had had their partners being captured, tortured and killed. I met women who had seen their families being slaughtered or who had watched their sisters or mothers being raped, and then had taken the gun. When I was outside, I met an extraordinary woman called Padma, who used to be with the Maoists. And then she had been arrested and she had been beaten so much that her organs were all hammered. She had to have most of them removed. Her knees were smashed because the police said: ‘we don’t want you to be walking in that forest again’. When I met her, she was only in her thirties but she had to drag herself up the steps and down the steps. But now, she’s working with an organisation of the parents, the relatives of murdered people. And she would just criss-cross the state in whatever vehicule she could get and collect the dead bodies to take them back to the homes of the people who were just too poor to even make that journey (travel from this end of their state to the other to pick up their loved-ones who have been killed).
FSRN: While you were there, there are numbers of vivid scenes that we come across and one of them is a moment where you’re looking through a laptop, I believe it is, and through media reports that have come out. And you find a video interview with yourself, with you detailing your own work. I was interested to hear how people you spent time with in the forest viewed you, and how they saw your visit there and what they hoped that you would bring to the outside world.
AR: The thing is that … just in order to be invited to go into the forest required a certain amount of trust from their part. Because, as I said, having spies and informers infiltrating them was one of the major tactics used by the security and the intelligence services. I think what happened with me is they viewed me as somebody who was not going to just go in there and please them, and say ‘I’m a Maoist’ and ‘I’m on your side’ and ‘I believe in everything that you do’. But as somebody who is prepared to be open-minded and prepared to criticize them, but from a position of integrity. Not from a vested interest or from a position where I was really working for somebody else, or somebody else’s agenda. And also not to be superficial because what happens is that, in this kind of atrocity based analysis, where terrible things are done by both sides, you tend to forget what is actually going on. You cannot equate violence of the resistance with the structural violence of the Indian state which is resulting in 250.000 farmers killing themselves, 80% of the population living in poverty. You really can’t equate the two. And that’s what many people do. The liberal Indian intellectuals just say: ‘this is bad, that is bad, poor people are stuck in the middle, so let’s just leave it’. Even the idea of non-violence, at some point, becomes immoral. When you are watching a violent onslaught on a people who then respond, and you just say ‘no, at any cost, you have to be non-violent’… if you were in the middle of that conflict and you said it, that would be one thing. But from a very safe distance, to sit there and say it, I think it’s unacceptable. I think that was it. They saw me as somebody who wasn’t someone who was playing for popularity or longing to please the establishment, who would think it through for myself. Even if that resulted in criticizing them.
FSRN: Questions fill your writing in this book. Questions about preconceptions, about the role of the military or corporations, about the idea even of armed struggle, of justice, of poverty. It’s a continual and focused inquiry that animates this book. What questions do you still have at this point?
AR: The question now is no an analytical question so much as a question of ‘what do we do to this mantle, what we know is an absolutely destructive way of thinking, way of living?’ What is it that connects the Wall Street Occupation to the people in the forest? And I think what connects it is absolute exclusion of the majority of the people in the world for the obscene benefit of a very few. So after having gone through almost ten or twelve years of travelling, thinking, writing about these things, I come to some pretty simple conclusion. One of which is that there has to be a lid on the amassing of wealth for any individual or any corporation. I believe that this cross-ownership of businesses has to stop, like a mining corporation can’t own a newspaper and a university and a NGO and a hospital and a law school and a few television companies. It’s just suicidal. I think we really have to enter a period where we begin to put a lid on all of this and a cap on all of this just for the survival of, not just human being, but the planet itself.
FSRN: Arundhati Roy’s new book is called ‘Walking with the Comrades’. It documents the weeks she spent with Maoist guerillas in the forest of India, and it brings a critical look at the violent government response to the movement.