In Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy blends reportage with her signature polemic style to indict the Indian state for crimes against some of its most vulnerable citizens, the adivasis living in the forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and so on.
On Thursday, 12 November, The Hindu reported that Tirunelveli’s Manonmaniam Sundaranar University has removed Arundhati Roy’s 2011 book of essays Walking with the Comrades from its postgraduate syllabus for English. The Tamil Nadu university’s decision came after the state unit of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS) complained about the book glorifying “anti-national Maoists”. This isn’t the first time Roy has faced right-wing ire on Indian academic campuses. In 2014, the English and Foreign Language University (EFLU) in Hyderabad did not allow the author to address students on campus; in July this year, the Kerala unit of the BJP demanded that Calicut University remove a 2002 speech made by Roy from their syllabus.
The ABVP and BJP’s vendetta against dissenting voices apart, it is worth remembering just why Walking with the Comrades is especially infuriating to Roy’s right-wing critics. Its centerpiece, the essay that lent the book its name, first appeared in Outlook, an instant classic. Blending reportage (Roy spent weeks on end with Maoist cadres in the Dandakaranya forest, which spans several states like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa) with her signature polemic style, Roy indicts the Indian state for crimes against some of its most vulnerable citizens, the tens of millions of adivasis living in the forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and so on.
Why should you read Walking with the Comrades? This is not a cold, calculated takedown leaning on academic or journalistic rigour. This book wears it heart on its sleeve, nowhere more than during its several compelling mini-profiles — Comrade Rinki, who balances her usual duties with the intimidating task of campaigning against age-old taboos against menstruating women in the villages of Chhattisgarh, the tractor-driving Comrade Padma, whose knees were smashed by the police, the studious Comrade Venu who introduces Roy to the ideological basics of the movement. As Roy talks to each new person, whether foot-soldier or ideologue, we keep learning more and more about the Indian state’s hypocrisy and inadequacies.
This isn’t to say that Walking with the Comrades is without a single flaw or journalistic misstep — in my opinion, Roy devotes too much time and energy grandstanding about her own criticism of the Indian government, and the pushback she received from various quarters. She talks about herself in the pithy, martyring tonality one would use to describe a latter-day Quixote, forever tilting at windmills. This doesn’t mean I don’t respect her courage or her commitment to freedom of expression; it’s just not a great look to praise oneself so consistently.
In the book’s prologue, Roy lampoons the actions and attitudes of the Harvard-educated Union Minister P Chidambaram, on the eve of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, even as the city continues to evict and harass tens of thousands of poor people in the name of a ‘beautification drive’. Chidambaram becomes a stand-in for India’s English-educated elite and just how out of touch they are, as he claims that migrants to large cities like Delhi are “mostly criminals” who had no place in ‘civil society’. “The middle class admired him for his forthrightness, for having the courage to call a spade a spade,” Roy writes, thus closing the loop of complicity. This sets the tone for her expansive critique throughout the course of the book.
Of special interest is the way politicians and large corporations conspire to get around legal and environmental restrictions; state governments aiding and abetting MNCs like Vedanta even as they set about destroying the lives of millions of indigenous people, scorching ecosystems across the country for good measure. MoUs become the new currency of oppression. Dandakaranya, which is often termed “Maoist land” by the TV media, should really be known as “MoUist land”, Roy writes. Crucially, Roy does not ‘glorify’ the Maoists she meets, whatever the ABVP claims; they are depicted as having very little patience for internal dissent, and Roy also critiques the way female comrades are treated within the organisation.
But over and above all of these reasons, I believe that Walking with the Comrades should be read because it does the work that the mainstream media has all but turned its backs on. Roy in fact alludes to the difficulties of educating oneself about this world — she points out that the popular mythologies around places like Bastar dominate legislative assemblies, TV studios and therefore, the minds and hearts of most Indians, whatever their overall political leanings might be. The traditional tools of the liberal intelligentsia will amount to little here, as this passage below clarifies.
“Somehow I don’t think that the plans that are afoot to destroy one of the world’s most pristine forests and ecosystems, as well as the people who live in it, will be discussed at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Our 24-hour news channels that are so busy hunting for macabre stories of Maoist violence — and making them up when they run out of the real thing — seem to have no interest at all in this side of the story. I wonder why.”
When the failure of the daily news media is as complete as it is in Dandakaranya, you need polemic voices like Roy’s to hammer the point home. When the talking heads on TV refuse to ask the obvious questions, you need books like Walking with the Comrades.
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