A Note on Arundhati Roy’s Essay

It needs to be clarified right at the very outset that the present piece is neither an outright remonstrance against Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘Mr. Chidambaram’s War’* nor a panegyric of Mr. Chidambaram’s policies regarding the ‘Maoists’.

Rather, what the author fails to comprehend is the manner in which Roy embarks on a ‘
reprimanding spree’. That obviously does not exonerate the Home Ministry of its rhetoric, policies and actions which keep on fluctuating in an asymmetric fashion.

It is an undeniable fact that the mainstream media, government and even the think-tanks are to a large extent alienated from the movement that has been launched in tribal India by the followers of Mao Zedong; morally and sometimes financially and physically abetted by the urban intelligentsia. ‘
Alienation’ does not mean in terms of information, dossiers or papers, but in terms of understanding the ‘root cause’ of the armed insurrection. In that direction, Roy has hit the bull’s eye.

But Roy also flounders at the very beginning when she says :

Perhaps the Kondh are supposed to be grateful that their Niyamgiri hill, home to Niyam Raja, their ‘god of universal law’, has been sold to a company with a name like Vedanta (the branch of Hindu philosophy that teaches the Ultimate Nature of Knowledge)”.

Has been sold’ is a phrase which is completely ‘out of phase’ with reality. In fact, throughout her article she has used such phrases which bolster paranoia. Is she trying to mock at the age-old Hindu Philosophies pertaining to the Vedas or just castigating Chidambaram? Not clear at all.

 Roy vociferously proclaims : “Of course, the Maoists are by no means the only ones rebelling. There is a whole spectrum of struggles all over the country that people are engaged in — the landless, the Dalits, the homeless, workers, peasants, weavers.”

Hereby, she is exaggerating the internal security threat to the country and undermining our success as a democracy.

Moreover, is she eulogizing these movements? In the first place, she needs to appreciate the vastness of India, not only in the sense of territoriality but also in terms ethnicity, religion and caste. By no means are struggle of the landless, Dalits, peasants and workers novel. They had been documented since the days of the Raj and continue to spark the headlines even today. It is the sheer efficacy of democracy that such incidents get reported more often today and hence debated and thus sometimes acted upon.

That in independent India, we get the opportunity to discuss, debate and criticize; in itself is a pointer towards free democracy. Every system has its bottlenecks and India is no exception. And this is the fact which Arundhati Roy probably fails to understand or may be deliberately evades.

To quote her; “They’re pitted against a juggernaut of injustices, including policies that allow a wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources”.

This is sheer hyperbole. There is no gainsaying the fact that at times, the policy-makers and the executive have treated the tribal populace with disdain. There is also no denial that post-1991, Indian economy has proceeded towards the LPG (Liberalisation Privatization and Globalisation) policy and on occasions almost without paying any heed to the repercussions on the rural demography. Nevertheless, the scenario is surely not as bleak as Roy portrays it to be.

Statements like “wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources” and “the women raped as a matter of right by police and forest department personnel” are horrendous.

The usurpation of farm and forest lands on which the livelihood of millions depends has indeed fomented movements, both of the non-violent and violent genres. Starting from Naxalbari in 1967 to the recent events at Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal can be cited as viable case studies. There has been corruption and thoughtless imposition of industrialization from above. But then people have spoken and acted against these ‘State malfunctions’.

Furthermore Roy laments : “Right now in central India, the Maoists’ guerrilla army is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine of the kind we only associate with sub-Saharan Africa”.

This is another exaggeration to its limit. Roy should present proper data in order to corroborate her assertions. True, there is poverty, hunger and malnutrition in India, even after six decades of independence. Officially speaking, about one-third of the total population of the nation is ‘under the poverty line’ whereas probably another major chunk is fighting to survive. But that does not necessarily make India comparable to sub-Saharan Africa ! If that had indeed been the case, then India would not have sent the Chandrayaan to space or exported its software knowledge to that continent.

And Roy continues, “They are people who, even after 60 years of India’s so-called independence, have not had access to education, healthcare or legal redress.”

First, let us harp on the concept of the ‘so-called independence’ of India. This phrase has reverberated through decades, starting from the ranting by the Communist Party of India right after 1947. But the sheer ambivalence of the Party regarding the definition of the term has manifested with time. To rebuke the government for its failures in order to usher in change and better governance is a welcome step, but not at the cost of jeopardizing ‘National Sentiments’. Roy should realize that casting aspersions in a blatant manner on the Indian government in international media generally boomerangs on oneself. Populism at national cost is unacceptable.

On the other hand, it needs to be remembered that the Indian authorities have vacillated to an uncanny degree in combating the Maoists and faltered in their analysis in distilling the tribal elements from the ‘ruffians’. Hence further alienation with the ‘grass-roots’ has occurred with time.

One fails to gauge why Roy is not joining the ranks of the Maoists when we come across the line; “Their journey back to a semblance of dignity is due in large part to the Maoist cadre who have lived and worked and fought by their side for decades.”

Arundhati Roy fails to mention, inter alia, about the Right to Information Act (2005) or the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) which have made independent India proud. On most occasions, she looks at the other side of the coin. She goes for excessive ‘demonisation’ of the government and puts forward wrong data through the argument; “To get the bauxite out of the flat-topped hills, to get iron ore out from under the forest floor, to get 85 per cent of India’s people off their land and into the cities”. It is well known that about 67 per cent of Indians live in the countryside, and not 85 per cent as Roy comments.

One thing is crystal clear though. She is definitely against Operation Green Hunt. She advocates talks with the Maoists. But she does not bring out the negative fallouts of an armed rebellion. What are the solutions offered by Roy? Apart from talks with the Maoists, she does not offer any further clue. I guess Roy is vehemently trying to dissuade the government not to subscribe to Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism or fall into the trap of Neo-Liberalism.

A few words of caution are probably the fallout of this autopsy. The administration needs to reorient its thoughts and be more pro-people. To do so, it shall require overhauling of the machinery at some level and repairing at other levels. Nonetheless, intelligentsia too needs to put a restraint on their verbosity. It would not only be mutually beneficial, but also a catalyst for democracy and for the development of the ‘tribals’ on the whole.



More by :  Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee

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