Arundhati Roy on the Naxalites, Gandhi, and Non-Violence

Firstpost re-published an interview with Arundati Roy in which the renowned Indian human rights activist discusses the Naxalites, Gandhi, and non-violence. The interview was conducted in April 2010, by CNN-IBN, but, in light of the recent attack in Sukma on the Maharashtra, Andra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh border, it was republished.

Roy speaks eloquently about the efficacy of nonviolent direct action vis-à-vis violent direct action:

[I have] been writing about non-violence and non-violence movements for 10 years now. But what I saw when I went into the forests was this – that non-violent resistance has actually not worked; not in the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ and not even in many other non-violent movements and not even in the militant movements. It has worked in some parts of the movement. But inside the forests it’s a different story because non-violence, and particularly, Gandhian non-violence in some ways needs an audience. It’s a theater that needs an audience. But inside the forests there is no audience. When a thousand police come and surround the forest village in the middle of the night, what are they to do? How are the hungry to go on a hunger strike? How are the people with no money to boycott taxes or foreign goods or do consumer boycotts?

They have nothing. I do see the violence inside the forest as a ‘counter-violence’. As a ‘violence of resistance’. I do feel terrible about the fact that there is this increasing cycle of violence – that the more weapons the government arms the police with, those weapons end up with the Maoist PLA. It’s a terrible thing to do to any society. I don’t think that there is any romance in it. However, I’m not against romance. I do feel it’s incredible that these poor people are standing up against this mighty state that is sending thousands and thousands of para-military. I mean, what they are doing in those forests against those people with AK-47s and grenades?

When asked “If you don’t raise your voice against their violence and simply say it morally acceptable, as a morally legitimate counter to the state, then are you not actually failing as member of a civil society?” Roy responded,

No, I’m not. Because I think it suits the status quo to have everybody saying… this is terrible and all. So just let’s just keep on without taking it into account the terrible structural violence that actually is creating a ‘genocidal situation’ in those tribal areas. If you look at the levels of malnutrition, if you look at the levels of absolute desperation there; any responsible person has to say that the violence will stop when you stop pushing those people. When you have a whole community of tribals; which by the way, is a population larger than the population of most countries, is actually on the brink of survival, fighting against its own annihilation. I can’t equate their reactions, their resistance to the violence of the state. I think it’s immoral to equate the two.

Roy then discusses how “Naxalite,” like “terrorist” in the US today or “communist” during the Red Scare, has become a buzz word the state can use to quash and imprison its enemies.

There is this manic barricade-like accusation to any one who has a different view that they are Maoists. Hundreds of people who are not known have been picked up and jailed.

She proceeds to argue the state is afraid because of the success of these popular movements, successes the world has rarely seen.

There is a whole bandwidth of people’s movements from the non-violent ones outside the forests to the armed struggle inside the forests which have actually held off this corporate assault, which I have to say has not happened anywhere else in the world.

Explaining the unfortunate ugliness, but necessity, of violent self-defense, Roy continues:

Sagarika Ghose: Let me just ask you what a viewer wrote to me, “when I see a 16-year-old with a gun, I would feel scared and mourn that. Why would Arundhati Roy, when she looks at a 16-year-old with a gun, celebrate and say she is so beautiful, she has a lovely smile”?

Arundhati Roy: Because if I saw a 16-year-old being raped by a CRPF man and watching her village being burnt and watching her parents being killed and submit to it, I would mourn that. When I see one standing up and say I‘m going to fight this, I would feel terrible. I think it’s a terrible thing to come to that. But it’s better than having her accept her annihilation.

Roy also talks about Gandhi a bit more.

This is a quote of his notion of trusteeship, “the rich man will be left in possession of his wealth of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of the society.” I think that is one statement which can be mocked. I have no problem mocking it.

(One should note how incredibly similar this notion is to the foundational logic of right-wing libertarianism.)

I discussed this article with a very historically and politically knowledgeable Desi scholar, who wrote

Victory of Gandhian movement was an historical accident and statistical outlier. The only thing Gandhi did was grabbed the political power from white man and gave it to the ruling rich high caste Indians. Maoism is an outcome of the failure of stupid Gandhism. Shame still Indian rulers carry his name to own India.

This is exactly why the West loves Gandhi so much. He organized millions, but never violently threatened the capitalist power that was brutally ravaging the people. In fact, on the contrary, he encouraged popular power to leave capitalist power alone, to have faith in them as “trustees.”

The book Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity further discusses what the Desi scholar called Gandhi’s “caste fundamentalism,” along with his misogyny and racism.

Roy discusses a few more important issues.

Echoing remarks that are very pertinent to the United States, Roy explains how capitalist India (like the capitalist US) is anything but a democracy.

Sagarika Ghose: In a lecture in US in March at the Left forum you said ‘India is a fake democracy’ that ties in with your justification or your quasi-justification of violence to some extent. Do you feel that because Indian democracy is ‘fake’ there is no hope that Indian democracy can hold out to the Maoists?

Arundhati Roy: No, certainly I feel that India is an oligarchy where it does work as a democracy for the middle classes and the upper classes.

Sagarika Ghose: But it’s a fake democracy?

Arundhati Roy: Yeah, because (when) it doesn’t work for the mass of the people it’s a fake democracy. So you have an institution which has been hollowed out, you have institutions to which the poor have no access. When you look at the institution of democracy, look at the elections, at the courts, at the media and you look at the judiciary. You have a very dangerous system building. If you are increasingly excluding a vast section of the poorer people in this country, that’s why I say it fake. It works for some and it doesn’t work for others depending on where you want to place your feet; your politics is defined. If you stand in Greater Kailash; sure it’s a great and vibrant democracy, but if you stand in Dantewada – it is no democracy at all. You have a Chief Minister who basically said that those who don’t come out of the forests and live in Salwa Judum camps are terrorists. So looking after your chickens and tending to your fields is a terrorist act? Is that democracy?

Turning to the future, Roy’s view is rather bleak.

I think we are going to see drone attacks on the poorest people of this country. Moreover they want to cordon off the theatre of war and try to warn people who might have a different view from that of the government not to go in the air.