All states have the capacity to be brutal. Each state sets limits of discourse through a constitution, and if you go beyond the boundary, then the state often reacts with force. Wage a war on the state, and the state responds in kind, even in a democracy. Abraham Lincoln fought a war to preserve the American union; in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Barack Obama reminded the Norwegians that he wasn’t a card-carrying pacifist.
The state justifies force by saying it must protect innocent people from the harm the rebels pose; the rebels claim they only target the state—or those who collaborate with it—and never the civilians. India has dealt with many rebel movements with various degrees of force, ranging from the bullet-for-bullet strategy in Punjab to the permanent state of war in the North-East under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Maoists, however, are supposed to be special. The Communist insurgency began in Naxalbari in the 1960s, and as the Maoist insurgency is clothed in a similar ideology, many see a continuous struggle, as though one specific leadership has kept the red flag flying.
Maoists have killed many and manipulated many more. Their latest victim is Arundhati Roy, who uses her gift of writing vivid prose to clothe their trite claims with poetic adornment. She equates their cynical quest for power with the genuine demands, rights and concerns of the people who live in the forests. She gives new meaning to the binary logic of “us or them”, something she ridiculed when George W. Bush used it. Without having been the Maoists’ hostage, Roy has caught the bug called the Stockholm Syndrome. She goes into their territory on their terms: In another time, as Sudhanva Deshpande has perceptively observed, she would have decried such methods as “embedded” journalism.
Roy is experiencing the vicarious thrill all reporters yearn for—walking the jungle with rebels. The critical difference between real journalists and Roy is that she accepts what she is told, does not question much and romanticizes the revolutionaries, whereas someone like Alma Guillermoprieto in The New York Review of Books describes what she sees in Latin America, reminding us—and herself—how complex the world is, because there are at least two sides to every story. In Roy’s adventure in the Dandakaranya forest (a name resonating with Ramayana metaphors) there is “good” and “evil”; in the Marquezian landscape of Guillermoprieto, there are no angels, only devils of different hues.
To be sure, democracies are flawed, and to Roy’s credit, she forces the cheerleaders of “shining India” to reflect on what makes a large part of India writhe in agony. She rightly excoriates the Indian state for betraying the Constitution, justifiably refuses to condone the state’s duplicity, and questions the media for its complicity. But she is stunningly credulous in accepting Maoist claims about what they say they do to the policemen they kidnap, and how they spare civilians, even cows. Even they care for the Hindu vote.
She describes the abysmal conditions in which people live in the forests and then leaps to the conclusion that they have no choice but to turn violent. She reveals morbid fascination of weaponry, a point Anirban Gupta Nigam has highlighted in his spirited response to Roy on the website Kafila.org. Roy drools over the comrades’ shells, mortars and AK-47s; she goes off the edge when she reveals the indoctrination of the young through “ambush videos”, in which an improvised explosive device destroys a jeep with policemen. Many of the comrades are very likely child soldiers, but everything is fair in a revolution. Manipulative older comrades have routinely exploited children with heroic tales of struggle: Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Mao’s China, kids denounced their parents; in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, they brutalized their elders. Is that the Cultural Revolution Roy wants? Did she tell the teenagers what the Great Leap Forward was really about?
Fascination with Maoism is beyond moral sensibility. It is a parallel universe, where recalling Gandhian hunger strikes evokes hysterical laughter; where poor treatment of women in the forests is equated with their poor treatment in the cities. This takes moral equivalency to a new low. This is amoral nihilism.
It is also Roy’s Hanoi Jane moment. She is a voyeur, with the sky as her bed sheet, stars as her guiding light and birdsongs as her alarm clock. She connects those stars to form an intricate pattern. To us, it is Ursa Major; to her, an AK-47. In this surreal landscape, children don’t go to school, but learn to kill from ambush videos; tribals and rebels are one; and majoritarian justice by a show of hands is considered fair because everything else has failed. This is where cultural relativism leads us: In this Maostan, they probably speak Na’vi, and Roy is their Avatar.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org