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Walking with the Comrades: inside India's Maoist insurgency

Arundhati Roy's book tackles the notoriously violent jungle campaign for social justice fuelled by extreme poverty, state persecution, political disenfranchisement and ruthless land grabs.

Arundhati Roy, author of Walking with the Comrades. Axel Schmidt / AFP
Arundhati Roy, author of Walking with the Comrades. Axel Schmidt / AFP

In the Indian state of Orissa, tribal people once lived off land covered with primeval forest. Today that same land is opencast, iron ore-mining country. And now those same indigenous people, called adivasis, live in desperate poverty wrapped inside an environmental nightmare.

"The land is like a raw, red wound," writes Arundhati Roy, in her passionate new political exposé, Walking with the Comrades. "Red dust fills your nostrils and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red, their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands of trucks taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities that spring up overnight. Into a 'growth rate' that leaves economists breathless."

Walking with the Comradesis full of such emotional, sometimes strident, criticism of what is happening in central India right now.

Millions of adivasis, living in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Lalgarh and elsewhere are seeing their tribal lands seized by their state governments and leased to huge companies such as Vedanta and Tata Steel. The purpose of that land grab is for the mining of iron ore, bauxite, uranium, limestone, copper, coal and 22 other precious mineral resources. And the stakes are high: in 2004 the potential bauxite deposits in Orissa alone were worth US$2.27 trillion (Dh8.35tn), writes Roy.

The government, she argues, needs an excuse to push the people off their lands. That's why, Roy says, officials operate under the pretence of fighting "Maoist" terror. Certainly there are Maoists in the forests to fight, acknowledges the author, whose novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker Prize in 1997.

Certainly, too, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) believes that the structural inequality of Indian society "can only be redressed by the violent overthrow of the Indian state". And Roy makes clear she is no fan of that credo.

But overkill is the problem, she argues. In January 2009, Prime Minister Manoman Singh called the Maoists "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country", even as he acknowledged that their forest army was one of "modest proportions".

Significantly, Singh also told Parliament that "if left-wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment."

The operative word here, of course, was "investment."

So who are these fearsome guerrilla fighters who so frighten India's government that it has declared an "Operation Green Hunt" against them? On one hand, writes Roy, Maoists are seen as a "party with an unforgiving, totalitarian vision, which countenances no dissent". On the other, they are comprised "almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine" akin to that of sub-Saharan Africa. These are people, she says, consistently cheated by business people and money lenders, whose women are raped as a matter of right by police and forest department personnel.

These are people whose villages time and again have been forcibly evicted - with elephants brought in to trample their fields and babool seeds scattered to destroy the soil. In 2005 a Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt) burnt and looted hundreds of villages in south Dantewada; 60,000 people were moved into camps; hundreds of thousands more simply fell off the government radar.

Not all of India is on board with these misdeeds; a 2008 government report dismissed the official "Maoist terrorism" line, arguing that despite the movement's violent philosophy, it should be looked on as "basically a fight for social justice".

Roy decided to take a look for herself and in 2010 joined the Comrades for several weeks in the Dandakaranya forest, which cuts across multiple states and where "the villages are empty but the forest is full of people". Living with the Maoists was hardly luxurious, involving as it did constant movement; hours of walking single file through thick forest where people easily could get lost; beds made on the hard ground on plastic sheeting; a diet consisting largely of glucose biscuits. Yet Roy also found warmth and life in the forest: the Comrades keep in touch with a sophisticated mail system of tiny, folded paper messages called "biscuits". They make time for celebrations: Roy attended a centenary of the 1910 Bhumkal ("earthquake") rebellion against the British where there was all-night drumming and dancing. They write songs and sing them around campfires.

Among them Roy met individuals who still had hope despite impossibly difficult lives: Padma was one - a woman in her thirties who had had to drag her body up stairs since the police arrested her within days of an appendix operation and beat her to the point of internal haemorrhage. For good measure, they cracked her knees to ensure "she would never walk in the jungle again".

Sure enough, when Roy spoke with Padma, she no longer walked in the forest; instead she rode trucks and tractors, transporting the corpses of Comrades back to family members too poor to retrieve them themselves.

Comrades Niti and Vinod, meanwhile, led Roy miles through the forest to see water-harvesting structures and irrigation ponds built by the movement's local governing body, a Janatana Sarkar (People's Governments). They also showed her a huge but dry irrigation pond - dug, seemingly purposely, in the wrong place, by the Looti Sarkar (the Government that Loots).

Comrade Rinki and others introduced Roy to Kams (Krantikiari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan), a 90,000-strong organisation of Maoist women that campaigns against the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and the exile of menstruating women to forest huts. Many women join Kams, Roy noted, to escape the suffocation of village society.

Such alliances are positive forces against the hardships the Comrades face, including the rampant illnesses of malaria, tapeworm, TB, infections, anemia and, among the children, protein-energy malnutrition - more commonly associated with Africa and its medical term, Kwashiorkor.

Despite these obstacles, the Naxalites/Maoists hold steadfastly to their cause, Roy found. As a Comrade named Venu told her: "[Government troops] want to crush us not only because of the minerals but because we are offering the world an alternative model."

Roy wasn't so sure. She admired the "blueprint" India's forest people had conceived but not its violent components, like the IEDs the Comrades bury to ambush the police, the murders they commit against villagers who help the opposition, the beheadings they carry out on captured policemen. These factors, Roy writes, have led even India's liberal intelligentsia to turn away.

Still, in her essays in Walking with the Comrades, Roy defends the insurgents, expressing righteous indignation against their government oppressors in emotional and at times poetic journalism. She also, a tad annoyingly, presents herself as a hero for questioning in the national press why police are patrolling tribal villages armed with AK-47s, machine guns and mortars. She has been labelled a traitor for such pronouncements.

Still, Roy persists. "Operation Green Hunt isn't a war against Maoists. It's a war against the poor," she writes, because when land loss and murder occur, who or what can these people turn to for justice? A court? A rally? A hunger strike? Not even "Gandhi's pious humbug" of non-violence can help, she argues.

In the end the Maoists want to overthrow the Indian state because they don't believe the present system can deliver justice. And "the thing is that an increasing number of people are beginning to agree with them," Roy claims; more and more mainstream Indians recognise the vast commercial interests that underlie Operation Green Hunt. They see that the government needs this war, writes Roy. "The eyes of the international business community are boring holes into its back."

At the same time, other resistance movements across India are fighting the assault on adivasi homelands by the mining and infrastructure cartel. The Maoists are merely the most radical, the most violent.

So she hopes for change. Yet change will come, she writes, only on that day when capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies and - ultimately - to recognise that the supply of raw materials cannot go on forever.

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.