[Reader-list] Two thoughtful responses to Arundhati Roy's 'Walking with the Comrades'

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Wed Mar 31 09:08:40 IST 2010

Moonwalking with the Comrades:

The last book François Furet wrote before his death in 1997 was called The
Passing of an Illusion. At the very beginning of the first chapter of that
book, Furet spelt out the central question driving his study:

What is surprising is not that certain intellectuals should share the spirit
of the times, but that they should fall prey to it, without making any
effort to mark it with their own stamp. [Š] twentieth century French writers
aligned themselves with parties, especially radical ones hostile to
democracy. They always played the same (provisional) role as
supernumeraries, were manipulated as one man, and were sacrificed when
necessary, to the will of the party. So we are bound to wonder what it was
that made those ideologies so alluring, that gave them an attraction so
general yet so mysterious.
Furet¹s book emerged from an autopsy of his own past as a as a Communist
³between 1949 and 1956.² He wrote, further, that his years as a Communist
bequeathed to him an enduring desire to unlock the mystique of revolutionary
ideology. Given this, it¹s not difficult to see why he pioneered some of the
most brilliant historiographical work on the French Revolution. The question
we are concerned with here is the one I have quoted at length above; for it
seems that in our own day, this strange romance between (formerly) fiercely
independent intellectuals, scholars, activists and the ­ a ­ party,

The latest document of this affair is a long essay by Arundhati Roy (once
famous for her declaration of herself as an²independent mobile republic²),
titled ŒWalking with the Comrades,¹ published in the latest issue of
Outlook. It makes for exciting reading, as a lot of well-written travel
literature does; but it is significant for another reason: in the current
debate over ŒOperation Green Hunt,¹ with many versions of Œground realities¹
fighting amongst themselves, this document is Roy¹s attempt at producing an
(her) authentic truth, so immersed in the charming details of revolutionary
existence that everything else becomes secondary. If we were ever to perform
an autopsy of our twentieth century¹s ŒCommunist¹ pasts, ŒWalking with the
Comrades¹ would probably be as good a place to start as any.

In the article Roy speaks of her travels across Dandakaranya as personal
guest of the CPI (Maoist.) Armed with her idealism she traverses forests and
villages in search of truth. Before she leaves Delhi, her mother calls to
announce (³with a mother¹s weird instinct²) that what India needs is a
revolution. She sets out to find it.

Two tropes underpin Roy¹s rhetoric throughout: the constant equation of
weaponry with beauty and joy, and the repeated emphasis ­ if without much
insight ­ on the militarisation of daily life. Both seem to suggest to her,
the epitome of revolutionary spirit ­ the one we have learnt India needs
right now. But this affinity of death with beauty harks back to another ­
perhaps more accurate ­ tradition that Susan Sontag spoke of in her 1975
essay ŒFascinating Fascism.¹ National Socialism, she wrote, stood for values
which at the time she was writing, were deeply cherished by Œopen
societies.¹ Among these were ³the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage,
the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.² Roy¹s
representation of the Maoists is nothing short of similar fetishisation.
Chandu, a twenty-year old cadre, meets her with a ³lovely smile.² They trek
and she wonders about his ³bemused village boy air.² Eventually she
discovers ³he could handle every kind of weapon, Œexcept for an LMG¹, he
informed me cheerfully.² At a Maoist camp she meets hundreds of comrades
lined up in two rows, each with ³a weapon and a smile.² Roy is at her
elegiac best when she speaks of comrade Niti who is ³considered to be so
dangerous and is being hunted with such desperation not because she has led
many ambushes (which she has), but because she is an adivasi woman who is
loved by people in the village and is a real inspiration to young people.
She speaks with her AK on her shoulder. (It¹s a gun with a story. Almost
everyone¹s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how, and by whom).²

Is this a commentator on politics, or the PR department of the American
National Rifle Association? (³Almost everyone¹s gun has a story² ­ someone
should sell this!)

Roy¹s wanderings are not the first or only documentation we have of the
complete militarisation of everyday life in these regions. But there¹s
something else at work here, which we might wish to pay attention to:
³Comrade Raju is briefing the group. It¹s all in Gondi, I don¹t understand a
thing, but I keep hearing the word RV. Later Raju tells me it stands for
Rendezvous! It¹s a Gondi word now.² Other words with tribals here understand
are: Cordon and Search, Firing, Advance, Retreat, Down, Action. She speaks
of a celebratory ritual where armed cadre surround locals and then join in,
proving to her that ³what Chairman Mao said about the guerrillas being the
fish and people being the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally
true.² (Emphasis added.) Then there is this gem:

BBC says there¹s been an attack on a camp of Eastern Frontier Rifles in
Lalgarh, West Bengal. Sixty Maoists on motorcycles. Fourteen policemen
killed. Ten missing. Weapons snatched. There¹s a murmur of pleasure in the
ranks. Maoist leader Kishenji is being interviewed. When will you stop this
violence and come for talks? When Operation Green Hunt is called off. Any
time. Tell Chidambaram we will talk. Next question: it¹s dark now, you have
laid landmines, reinforcements have been called in, will you attack them
too? Kishenji: Yes, of course, otherwise people will beat me. There¹s
laughter in the ranks. Sukhdev the clarifier says, ³They always say
landmines. We don¹t use landmines. We use IEDs. ² (Emphasis added.)
But perhaps the most revealing instance of this absolute internalisation of
violence comes when Roy finds the comrades watching Mother India one night,
and asks Kamla if she likes to watch films. Kamla replies: ³Nahin didi. Sirf
ambush video (No didi. Only ambush videos).² We wonder along with Roy, what
these Œambush videos¹ are. It turns out that one of them

³starts with shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the close-up of a
bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling. Then suddenly a comrade is
wiring up an IED, concealing it with dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles
is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are
being snatched. Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.²
We are, by now, far away from the usual argument of
Œviolence-counter-violence¹ that frames discussions around the Maoists. The
impulse to record, archive and then consume acts of violence, paradoxically,
is the quintessential part of the culture of capitalist modernity that the
Maoists claim to despise. Of course, none of this makes a difference to Roy.
These narratives do not indicate to her anything about the nature of the
Communist Party of India (Maoist.) They do not suggest to her, for instance,
that a tendency towards destructive (dare we say creative) violence is
embedded in the culture of the party. Watching mutilated bodies of people is
not a response to state violence. It is a precursor to the cultural
fetishisation of death in much the same way that Nazi paraphernalia was
eroticised in the aftermath of the war. ŒRevolutionary justice¹ is just
another name for murder. Scant surprise then, that our travel advisor has a
bordering-on-kind word for the ³rude justice² of peoples¹ courts.

By the time we stumble onto these facts, we have already learnt the Maoist
version of Indian tribal history ­ one which our author endorses ­ one where
unproblematic lines are drawn from the colonial era to Naxalbari and now,
ŒOperation Green Hunt.¹ By this time we also know what our tour-guide is
looking for: not just her mother¹s intuitive revolution, but something more
modest: a dream. And she finds this in the teachings of Charu Mazumdar.
Although the Naxal movement was full of contradictions, although it
committed some excesses, we cannot deny she writes, that ³Charu Mazumdar was
a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its
many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in
India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone, we cannot judge
him too harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi¹s
pious humbug about the superiority of ³the non-violent way² and his notion
of trusteeship.² (Emphasis added.)

(As if the only counterpoint to the Maoist ideology today in India is
Gandhian humbug. But then, that¹s the easiest effigy to demolish.)

Further: ³When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing
the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a People¹s
Party, its army genuinely a People¹s Army. But after the Revolution how
easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage. How easily the
People¹s Army can turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party
wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its
mind? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us
in the present?²

A fancy way of phrasing a simple question. We know by now that the
population being produced as Œtribal¹ by our author is actually either
Maoist cadre, or live in the presence of people who laugh while wielding
their guns and watching their victims on tape. If this is not reason enough
to worry about such an organisation, perhaps the history of twentieth
century revolutionary projects could throw a light on the matter. But of
course, the actual history of these movements doesn¹t count. Only the dreams
they were born with. If ³big dams are a crime against humanity,² if the
Nehruvian dream of modernity is over, perhaps it is time for our author to
reflect on the fact that with the twentieth century, that other modernist
dream ­ revolution ­ has also passed.


And Shuddha¹s response:

Many thanks for your guest post on Kafila. I found it very fruitful to read
and think with. As also, the debate that has persisted on the list since it
has been posted. Which, when it does not stoop to defend or attack Arundhati
Roy¹s person, does leave us with things to think about.

I have many mixed feelings about Arundhati Roy¹s essay on Outlook, as in
some ways I have about the Maoists themselves (though not about Maoism). And
what I write here is not necessarily thought our systematically or cogently,
but more thought out aloud. As a set of first responses. As a clearing of
the throat if you like. I hope you will forgive the rambling nature of my

On the one hand, I think some of Roy¹s account is riveting, and I have no
doubt that her essay makes it clear that there is a degree of unprecedented
and genuine mass support that the Maoists do command (and for good reason,
regardless of whether or not we choose to endorse it) in the forest belt of
Central India. I think she also reveals the bitter extent of the state¹s
assault on the indigenous peoples in India in order to unleash a
particularly vile form of crony-capitalism. All that is well taken.

I say this even as I admit that I am disturbed by Roy¹s stomach-churning
peans to beauty as a substitute for political sense, which in agreement with
you, Anirban, I think, can only lead us down a slippery slope to an
Œaestheticization¹ of politics that opens a door to something quite dark.

I have personally seen some ­ Œbeautiful¹ ­ cadre in the RSS, in the
travesty that is the CPI(M), and have been moved by their dedication and
their transparent sincerity, by the shine in their eyes and the power of
their dreams (which remain my nightmares). A state fashioned on Maoist lines
in India would be as much of a nightmare as a society that danced to the
tune of the hard-right. Both would be authoritarian, militarized, intolerant
of dissent. I would want neither. Nor can I tolerate the state that we have
at present. But I refuse to be boxed into a situation where the rejection of
one option is the automatic endorsement of another. An intellectual¹s final
responsibility lies in choosing the discomfort of refusing to see solutions
when there is none available. Reticence can also be revolutionary at times.
I wish sometimes, that Arundhati Roy chose reticence over the hurry to be
seen with the camp that made an effective noise. A good writer¹s silence can
be occasionally more powerful than a good writer¹s slips of tongue.

Many amongst those who join the far right do so because they are fed up of
the predatory nature of the society they live in at the moment. Their
motivations can be as worthy of respect as that of any naxal. It is the ends
that both seek that I have reservations about. I do not disrespect Naxals or
hold them in contempt. I would, like Roy, defend the genuineness that they
might embody anyday. But I have no illusion about the fact that by doing so,
I am making any worthwhile political point.

However, I also cannot help thinking that the Maoists do perform the
function of sending a token shiver of fear down the spine of our ruling
classes (and I am not unhappy to get an occasional glimpse of that shiver in
the smooth steel frames of our Minister of Home Affairs and his erstwhile
clients in the Mining business ).

On the other hand, I am deeply disturbed by some of the things that Roy
writes in this essay. Here i have to say that her up-front honesty in the
episode of a Maoist combatant admitting to liking Œambush videos¹ is not
amongst them. It need not necessarily be taken as the writer¹s automatic
endorsement of the aesthetic pleasure to be had from watching mutilation, it
could just be (though I am not necessarily saying it is) an attempt to come
to terms with a fractured moral universe, even amongst those one supports,
and, consider this, ­ a lesser writer might simply have airbrushed away such
a discomfiting detail.

I have to admit that I have a profound revulsion against Maoism, as I would
have against any form of third-worldist nationalism (what else is Maoism?)
that aims to seize the state to make it a Œbetter¹ state, especially through
the force of arms.

To the extent that Roy chooses to evade the authoritarian legacies of Maoism
(her caveats about Mao and Charu Mazumdar, and her not-insincere gesture in
the direction of the horrors of the Gulag, the Khmer Rouge and the
genocidial policies of Mao Ze Dong in China, not withstanding)I think she
writes a-politically. She has a sharply political critique of capitalism,
and its operations in India, (we could quibble over details, but not over
the thrust of her argument against the state and capital) but at the same
time, she exhibits a profoundly a-political understanding of Maoism. This is
the opposition that is never going to be the opposition, because it is
wedded to as harsh a vision of state power as that which it claims to
combat. Roy either does not know this, or chooses to ignore it, or chooses
to underestimate its similarity to the contours of the state we are familiar
with, and by doing so, betrays an a-political sense of what this so-called
opposition is.

I can understand the rage and the anger that drives people, especially the
dispossessed, to Maoism in India. But I mourn the fact that the only thing
that it drives them to today is Maoism. And so, I try and make a distinction
(albeit not always successfully) between Maoists, and Maoism. While I can
appreciate the fact that many, perhaps a majority of those, especially
tribals, especially women, who join Maoist, or Maoist affiliated militias
and the PLGA do so because they feel a measure of respect and dignity in
being part of a resistance against a regime that is truly disgusting and
rapacious, I also feel that this alone cannot redeem an authoritarian and
statist ideology that acts exactly like a state (with its organs of formal
armed power) whenever and wherever it takes power.

My general response to the essay is one of mourning. I mourn the fact that
we are in a situation where Maoism, especially of the variety that inhabits
the forests of Central India, can appear as a genuinely revolutionary
current to some of the best and brightest amongst us, and also, the fact
that the strategy of Œprotracted peoples war¹ is one of the options that
seems valid to some of the most oppressed and marginalized people in our
social environment. To me, these two realities (the attraction that Maoism
holds out to a very wide spectrum of people) represent the failure, and I
underscore, our failure, the failure of all those who locate themselves on
the left outside Maoism today to propose, or to be seen as proposing, a
cogent revolutionary alternative to global capitalism.

For me, this is the most important point. The fact that we have not yet been
able to forge a living politics on the left that while rejecting
parliamentrary cretinism, makes the fetishization of guns, the cult of an
authoritarian party structure (that cannot but be an inevitable consequence
of the militarization of resistance) and the pointlessness of standing
armies (the pointlessness being an old Marxist idea) and a protracted war
un-necessary. The Maoists are not fighting a revolutionary battle, but they
are successful in producing an image, or mirage, of revolutionary practice.

At best, they are fighting to save a dying world (a struggle that I have
sympathy for, because to not have sympathy for the resistance of the most
oppressed against a predatory captialism would be unthinkable) but they are
not fighting to usher in any fundamental transformation of class relations.
The Janatana Sarkar¹s, no matter how much water harvesting they do, no
matter how much organic agricultural production they undertake, are not
fundamental organs of revolutionary power. At best, they are defences
against a currently predatory state. At worst, they anticipate the
production of another predatory structure.

They do not usher in a new language of politics, they just speak an old
language of politics, on Œbehalf of the people¹. Take them out of the
forests, take them into the industrial rust belt, take them into factories
and cities, and they will wither like anthills under a bulldozer. They are a
holding operation. Maneouvres that keep at bay, for the moment, in some
places, in the forests the guns of the state and the power of the
corporations. At the same time, they are invitations to the guns of the
state to enter, and they are dependent on the same corporations (through a
people¹s Œlevy¹) that they claim to combat. They do not represent an
alternative. They never have.

The issue for me, is not violence and non-violence. It is the form that
resistance takes. It is about asking whether resistance is condemned to
repeat the tragedies of the decadence of the left in the twentieth century,
or whether it is possible to another language of politics.

Arundhati Roy asks us to consider whether or not rebels have the time to
think about the form that the state can take. Whether the urgencies of the
struggle have a greater claim to attention than the messy and boring and
unglamourous questions of thinking about what the history of the world
working class movement has to offer.

The leadership of the Maoist party claims that all the answers to the
world¹s problems lie in what they call ŒM-L-M¹ or Marxism-Leninism-Mao Ze
Dong thought. This is the stock answer to the impatience of rebellion. Rebel
now, do not think, the answers are available.

That is enough to make me climb up the wall.

Anyone, who, when sober, can say that Mao, who coolly contemplated, and even
welcomed the possibility of a nuclear holocaust (because he had a confidence
in numbers, the numbers of the Chinese people) has the answers, cannot be
trusted to even repair a small neighbourhood¹s sanitation infrastructure,
let alone be entrusted with the responsibility of thinking about the world¹s
problems, or the possible alternatives to Capitalism.

To endorse Mao Ze Dong thought or the genocidial record of Stalin, or the
venality of regimes like Cuba or North Korea is to endorse the worst and
most pathetic form of state capitalism, one that dresses up in fancy rebel
clothes while it builds furnaces on the backs of starving millions. Even if,
and especially if, one has a sense of solidarity for the rank and file that
joins the Maoist movement, out of rage or desparation, or for the sake of a
dream of a better world, then, one cannot but realize the utter delusion or
cynicism of a leadership that steers that rank and file as if it continues
to take Mao Ze Dong thought seriously. If they really do not take Mao¹s wild
bourgeouis nationalist fantasies of ¹state building¹ and Œpeople moulding¹
seriously, then one fails to see why they dissimulate, and if they do take
them seriously, they are delusional. If they persist with Mao, and Stalin,
and their pronouncements, not as actual guides to action and policy, but as
fetishes, then I fail to see how they are any different from any
authoritarian millenerian religious cullt. Either way, the rank and file are
nothing but tools in the hands of the Maoist leadership. The politically
astute thing to do would be to engage with the rank and file, and engage
with them critically, constantly exposing the hollowness of their
leadership¹s understanding of the world, and the disastrous consequences of
that understanding. Constantly doing what any Marxist should do to any
soldier in any war. Ask the soldiers to disobey their commanders.
Revolutionary defeatism, even in a so called revolutionary war. By being in
the war, the PLGA gives more power to the Indian state¹s military machines.
The only way, in the long run, to disarm the state is to totally reject the
logic of war. Any war.

That Arundhati Roy should even take the people who take Mao seriously,
seriously, is cause for alarm. It means that sometimes, even the sharpest of
the minds amongst us, is carried away by rage into the arms of a
counter-revolution that masquerades (perhaps unbeknownst to most of its
cadres) in revolutionary fancy dress.

In this instance, I am with Marx, who wanted revolutionaries to wait so that
he had more time to think. And I say this, not facetiously, as a Zizek, on
occasion, might, but with a great urgency, because a militancy of thought,
the attempt to make ideas walk the good walk, the hard walk, is sometimes
more important than the trek with guns in the jungle. Ideas that can
withstand the rigour of history, that can make people disobey orders, rather
than listen to commands, are sharper weapons than IEDs and AKs. I wish that
the women who held the guns that Roy rhapsodizes were part of a movement
that sharpened and polished its ideas, its politics, and its arguments more
than its ordnance.

I am afraid, Arundhati Roy, despite her intellectual integrity and her
courage, and the unquestioning, unwavering commitment that she has to forge
a critique of capital and the state, is in this instance, misled, and
appears at least, to be willing to be misled. I say this in solidarity and
friendship with her, and others like her, because I know that each one of
us, regardless of whether or not we have her courage, and the intensity of
her anger, walks that wire that hangs over an abyss of illusions and
misplaced enthusiasms. Any one of us could fall, any time.

We must be prepared to at least spread a net below that wire. A net made,
not of our schaudenfraude at each other¹s (or Roy¹s descent) but of a long
overdue attempt to forge a general practice of revolutionary politics that
is open, transparent and not hidden in the forests, not backed by armies,
not empowered by summary capital punishment, not dreaming of prison camps
even as it sings rousing revolutionary songs. This must mean that we have to
reject the Œpeoples war-parliamentary democracy¹ binary or even the
Œviolence-non-violence¹ binary, and think more creatively, more urgently. To
forsake the sham of bourgeoise democracy cannot mean that we have to adopt
the bourgeoisie¹s greatest invention ­ the standing army and the firing

We want a revolution that can shake our cities, that can disarm the army
(all armies) and the apparatus of repression, that can make capital
capitulate by the power of the working people¹s general refusal of labour
and that can make the prison house of the nation state crumble. That kind of
politics requires just as much, if not much more, militancy and audacity,
than the Œdadas¹ in the forests have put in. It requires the longest of
marches, experiments with all forms of political organization, and a
willingness to countenance at all times, the demise of the state the
criterion of organizing human life

Let us ensure that the one good thing that the Maoists and those who have
spoken for them might do ­ is to force us out of our slumber and our
dejection, to re-imagine what a revolutionary left that is out, open,
industrial, international, urban and rural and sharp and pleasurable, can

I hope Kafila can be a place where some of that can happen. Then, perhaps,
Arundhati Roy, (or those who take her stance as passionately, as
courageously and as genuinely as she does) will not have to hide away in
forests to walk with the comrades. We would welcome her (and anyone like
her) beside us, in the streets of our cities.

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