Book Review: ‘Walking with The Comrades’
‘Walking With The Comrades’ published by Penguin Books is an account of a thrilling experience by India’s brilliant daughter, Arundhati Roy in the forests of Dandakaranya (Dandakaranya includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh states). In this book Arundhati Roy analyzes the nature and functioning of Naxal/Maoist movement after her personal experiences with the Naxals/Maoists in the Dandakaranya. Roy traces the roots of present naxalite movement to the British period in India’s history when the tribals (Santhal, Mundas, Gonds, etc) and marginalised revolted against the British regime and its symbols, landlords and moneylenders, in response to the new forest laws which curtailed the centuries old traditional rights of tribals over forests and its produce. The new laws turned the tribals landless and imposed on them the repressive regime of forest department , landlords and rapacious moneylenders.
The dawn of India’s independence in 1947 nurtured the hopes of emancipation among the tribals . However, the ratification of the British era colonial policy by the Indian Constitution made the Indian state custodian of tribal homelands. The Tribals were again left at the mercy of the Forest officials in addition to the landlords and moneylenders. It is ironic that the tribal movements against the British rule are presented as an extension of the national mainstreaming of people by the Indian National Congress and their causes genuine in the historical literature in the backdrop of their having been made landless, hopeless and turned squatters on their own land. It is the unrelenting repression that has made tribals embrace Naxals/Maoists and what they stand for. Needless to mention, The naxalite movement or the Maoism has evolved into ‘India’s biggest internal security threat’. It started with a violent rebellion in 1967 at the Naxalbari (hence the name Naxalite movement) police station in West Bengal and has since then spread into many states of India especially West Bengal, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Arundhati Roy brings out the graphic details of the different strategies the government is working at to eradicate the Naxals. The state repression takes the different forms from outright application of terror to the signing of MoU’s with big corporate houses which ultimately entail the eviction of Tribals. In an artistic manner, Arundhati Roy paraphrases her conversation with a Naxal/Maoist, Comrade Venu. The later explains her the formation of People’s War Group (PWG) under Kondapali Seetharamaiah. The decision to have a standing army was taken after facing the wrath of state apparatus during the “Land to Tiller Campaign ” in Andhra Pradesh. The mobilisation techniques employed among the tribals included to take up and fight for the enhancement of wages . The reason behind the mass tribal support to PWG and later People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) emanates from the fact that the party successfully agitated on issues which affected tribals. One of the greatest contribution was the redistribution of about 300000 acres of forest land among the landless peasants. This was true freedom people felt and tasted.
‘Walking With The Comrades’ exposes the dichotomy in the state narrative aimed at mainstreaming the rebellious Tribals. The apparent people friendly ‘Jan Jagran Abhiyan’ (Public Awakening Campaign) and ‘Salwa Judum’ (Purification Hunt) were in reality employed to hound the tribals out their villages. The campaign often resulted in outrageous Killings, fake encounters, (for awards, medals and promotions), burning of entire villages, theft and forced eviction. Roy feels there is a collusion between big corporations, media ,major political parties and the security establishment.
The book furnishes an interesting account about the “Janatana Sarkars” (Peoples’ Governments) that exist with the Maoist stronghold in the Dandakaranya. There is an elaborate structure of government functioning and each “Janatana Sarkar” has nine departments. The Maoists are sensitive to gender issues as well and give due representation to female folk as well, though Roy feels the disparity still exists. The female folk also constitutes a sizeable percentage of fighting cadre. Moreover, the ‘Chetna Natya Munch’ (CNC) is the cultural wing of party.
The central argument of the book is the discrimination , which often manifests itself in the state encroaching upon the traditional rights, livelihoods ,lands and cultures, meted out to India’s poorest of the poor which had driven them towards waging a protracted war against the Indian state (declared by Manmohan Singh as India’s biggest internal security threat). Even though the Naxals/ Maoists have indulged in egregious excesses but they fell well short of the state excesses against them or in other parts like kashmir. The state employs all the avenues to denigrate the Naxals but has no clear intention to resolve the genuine issues confronting the Tribals, Naxals or poor. The state takes up the cause of big corporate houses and tries to hoodwink the people with false imagery. Arundhati Roy seems confused at offering an alternative course of action for the Naxals even though she disapproves the lumpen acts of criminalised violence and the crude justice mechanism evolved by the Naxals in the face of the Indian state having donned the mantle and thereby exploiting the tricks of old Imperial/colonial powers. An example of which is utilising the services of Nagas and Mizos to suppress the Naxals/Tribals, Tamils to contain the Assamese and so on and so forth. The beauty of the book lies in the alternative the Naxals dream, work and fight for. An alternative government which caters to the poorest of the poor. An Alternative model that keeps alive the cultural legacy of centuries old triblas. A Dream of a classless society . A dream of a true Revolution.
The author is an Assistant Professor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Oracle Opinions.