Interview w/Arundhati Roy re/ armed struggle


Richard Moore

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'It¹s outright war and both sides are choosing their weapons'

Chhattisgarh. Jharkhand. Bihar. Andhra Pradesh. Signposts of fractures gone too 
far with too little remedy. Arundhati Roy in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury 
on the violence rending our heartland

There is an atmosphere of growing violence across the country. How do you read 
the signs? In what context should it be read?

You don¹t 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 
industrialising Western countries, which had colonies from which to plunder 
resources and generate slave labour to feed this process, we have to colonise 
ourselves, our own nether parts. We¹ve 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 we¹re 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. It¹s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. 
They¹re fighting for the right to merge with the world¹s elite somewhere up 
there in the stratosphere. They¹ve 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 it¹s 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 Œfriendly¹ corporate media and a police 
force that will ram all this down people¹s 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 Œgrowth rate¹ 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 
isn¹t 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?

I¹d be a liability as a guerrilla! I doubt I used the word Œimmoral¹ ‹ 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, 
it¹s 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. I¹ve always felt that it¹s 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. 
We¹ve 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 Œvirtual¹
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. ŒVirtual¹ 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 judgements that are so unjust, so insulting 
to the poor in the language they use, they take your breath away. A recent 
Supreme Court judgement, allowing the Vasant Kunj Mall to resume construction 
though it didn¹t 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 globalisation, corporate land-grab, in the ERA of Enron and Monsanto, 
Halliburton and Bechtel, that¹s 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 Œdemocratic¹ processes, only to be eventually 
humiliated, what are they supposed to do? Of course it isn¹t 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 colours 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 travelling 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 haven¹t 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? I¹d 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 people¹s 
shit on their heads every day. And if they didn¹t carry shit on their heads they
would starve to death. Some f***ing 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 don¹t 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 IndiaŠ what¹s 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 Œhuman rights¹ 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 you¹re 
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 everybody¹s eyes are fixed on the spiralling 
violence between government-backed militias and guerrilla squads, multinational 
corporations quietly make off with the mineral wealth. That¹s the little piece 
of theatre being scripted for us in Chhattisgarh.

Of course it¹s horrible that 55 policemen were killed. But they¹re as much the 
victims of government policy as anybody else. For the government and the 
corporations they¹re just cannon fodder ‹ there¹s 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. They¹re 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. That¹s a logistical 
impossibility. And the support for Maoists is growing, not diminshing. That says
something. People have no choice but to align themselves on the side of whoever 
they think is less worse.

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.

ŒNaxals¹, ŒMaoists¹, Œoutsiders¹: these are terms being very loosely used these 

ŒOutsiders¹ is a generic accusation used in the early stages of repression by 
governments who have begun to believe their own publicity and can¹t imagine that
their own people have risen up against them. That¹s 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, what¹s 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 
‹ wellŠ India is about to become a police state in which everybody who disagrees
with what¹s going on risks being called a terrorist. Islamic terrorists have to 
be Islamic ‹ so that¹s 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 we¹ll all be called Maoists or 
Naxalites, terrorists or terrorist sympathisers, and shut down by people who 
don¹t 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? I¹m not an authority on the subject, but here¹s 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 centred 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 ŒNaxalites¹. 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, People¹s 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 don¹t 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 ³internal security² 
threat. Is this the way to look at them?

I¹m 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? Wouldn¹t their 
regime be an exploitative, autocratic, violent one as well? Isn¹t their action 
already exploitative of ordinary people? Do they really have the support of 
ordinary people?

I think it¹s 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 China¹s cultural revolution didn¹t happen? Or that millions of people in 
the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were not victims of labour 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 people¹s faith in 
the future. One hopes the past will not be repeated, but denying that it ever 
happened doesn¹t help inspire confidenceŠ 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 I¹m not prepared to assume that in advance. If they are, 
we¹ll have to fight them too. And most likely someone like myself will be the 
first person they¹ll 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. It¹s true that everybody changes radically
when they come to power ‹ look at Mandela¹s anc. Corrupt, capitalist, bowing to 
the imf, driving the poor out of their homes ‹ honouring Suharto, the killer of 
hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists, with South Africa¹s 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 can¹t find saints to lead them into battle?

Is there a communication breakdown in our society?
Mar 31 , 2007

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