The tribal peoples’ battle against the mining corporations goes right to the heart of the crisis in Indian society. Arundhati Roy asks, what better thing is there for a brutalised population to do than to fight back?

Arundhati Roy, Broken Republic (Hamish Hamilton 2011), xii, 220pp.

India has a problem. It is famous for being the world’s largest democracy, with over sixty years of independence from British rule; it is an ancient civilisation, an economic powerhouse, host of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And yet it cannot provide even the most basic services for all its citizens. Millions upon millions of Indians have no access to education, healthcare, legal redress or the kind of fundamental rights one ought to enjoy in the world’s largest democracy. Tribal people in the remote forests of central India are so desperately poor they suffer from chronic hunger verging on famine.

Yet the Indian government has another problem: the Indian Constitution prohibits the ‘compulsory acquisition’ of tribal land on any grounds and confers tribal societies the right to self-governance.[1] Even if the stake is a minimum of 2.27 trillion dollars worth of bauxite in the state of Orissa alone. Instead, the government has actively chosen to back the interests of the mining companies against its own Constitution. Who will uphold the Constitution if the government will not?

The Communist Party of India (Maoist), which in its various forms has been fighting to overthrow the Indian state since the 1969 Naxalite uprising, has exposed this sham of formal democracy. It has set up parallel structures and challenged the state in service provision in areas out of government control. It has also confronted the Indian state militarily, in response to brutal attacks on the lives and livelihoods of tribal people in defence of mining companies. It is no wonder then why thousands of tribals have joined the Maoists’ guerrilla army. The Maoists have been fighting alongside the tribals in order to protect the last thing they have: their land.

The three essays that comprise Broken Republic were written when the war against the Maoists was revitalised by Operation Green Hunt, which began in November 2009 in the six states that make up the so-called Red corridor: West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The Indian government initially found itself in a difficult position over how to respond to the Maoist threat. At first it had downplayed the strength and size of the Maoist army in order to distract attention from its inability to crush the movement. However, with the pressure of implementing the hundreds of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) signed between the government and the mining corporations, some of which have been on hold for the past five years, the government must also justify extreme repression, and the tens of thousands of troops and the millions of rupees being poured into the war against them. It finally reversed its position and settled on characterising the Maoists as ‘the single biggest internal security challenge’ (p.3) the government has ever faced.

The government’s problems are compounded by the fact that more and more people from across the political spectrum in India concede two things. Firstly, that it is accumulated injustice over decades that constitutes the grievances of the tribals. Secondly, that the Maoists, whose ranks are filled with tribals, are a political movement, and must be recognised as such. Roy notes that even a 2008 report Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas issued by the government’s Planning Commission acknowledges the Maoists’ strong base among the landless, poor peasantry and tribal population, the result of the gap between state policy and performance. The report asserts that the Maoist movement ‘is to be looked upon as basically a fight for social justice, equality, protection, security and local development’ (p.9). In other words, there is growing recognition, Roy argues, that the model of development imposed by India’s New Economic Policy — a shining example of neoliberalism — is not working.

Responses to the Maoist challenge, however, vary. There are those that focus on Maoist violence and believe the government wants to develop the region, and who thereby rationalise the all-out war it has unleashed. Sympathy for the tribals and hostility towards the Maoists are not incompatible from the perspective of the establishment. Roy describes it accurately:

‘The atrocity-based analyses shouted out at us from our TV screens are designed to smoke up the mirrors, and hustle us into thinking, “Yes, the tribals have been neglected and are having a very bad time. Yes, they need development. Yes, it’s the government’s fault, and it’s a great pity. But right now there is a crisis. We need to get rid of the Maoists, secure the land and then we can help the tribals”’ (p.183).

Despite this, increasing numbers of people believe the tribals have a right to defend themselves against the corporate land grab backed by the Indian state. In describing a series of meetings in Delhi organised by civil liberties groups from across the country in response to the launch of Operation Green Hunt, Roy notes that most civil liberties groups do not describe themselves as Maoist supporters, but they do believe in the right to defend oneself against state violence. Roy is clever here for attempting to move the debate beyond the thorny issue of violence. Although, she concedes, many in the civil liberties community are uncomfortable with Maoist violence, with their people’s courts and perceived authoritarianism, she stresses that they also know that ‘people’s courts only exist because India’s courts are out of the reach of ordinary people’ (p.18). She continues with her assessment of one of the meetings:

‘The speakers were aware of the dangers of trying to extract a simple morality out of individual incidents of heinous violence, in a situation that had already begun to look very much like war. Everybody had graduated long ago from equating the structural violence of the state with the violence of the armed resistance’ (p.18).

The real question is not whether violence is good or bad, as the state media would have us believe, but whether people have the right to defend themselves when they are under attack, and how. In a constant effort to appear reasonable, the government periodically offers peace talks. Yet there will be no resolution to the war when what the Maoists are after is justice; something they believe the present system cannot deliver.

The government knows this. So part of its strategy is to undermine the talks in order to justify its ongoing war. ‘The elimination of Azad was an important victory because it silenced a voice that had begun to sound dangerously reasonable’ (p.187). Azad was a member of the CPI (Maoist) politburo and nominated by the party as its chief negotiator for the proposed peace talks with the government. He symbolised a revolutionary will, impervious to co-option, which the government quite rightly began to fear. The government killed Azad because it needs this war; and it needs this war because the mining corporations need this war. ‘It’s an old technique. They [the mining companies] hope the impact of the violence will drive out the people who have so far managed to resist the attempts that have been made to evict them’ (p.31). Whether these people leave or join the Maoists is another question.

Whatever the case, the Maoists have been useful to the government: it uses the Maoist threat to sweep up all other opposition — the scores of other campaigns fighting against injustice, from big dams to Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) — branding them Maoist sympathisers. ‘Almost overnight, our embedded media has substituted its steady supply of planted, unsubstantiated, hysterical stories about “Islamist Terrorism” with planted, unsubstantiated, hysterical stories about “Red Terrorism”’ (p.12). The government has also accused the civil liberties community of activists, academics, writers, lawyers and India’s intelligentsia in general, of creating an ‘intellectual climate’ conducive to terrorism (p.17).

In the secluded jungles, away from urban exposure, it has responded to resistance movements with paramilitary troops, terrorism laws, unbridled repression and dispossession. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Specific Public Security Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which allows officers to kill on suspicion, are just a few of the laws that facilitate the war against the tribals and their sympathisers. For their urban intellectual counterparts, there is the media. Again, the government is careful to present itself as reasonable, at times working in ‘self-defence’ against the Maoists and on behalf of poor tribals: ‘the very right that the government denies its poorest citizens’ (p.11). At other times it presents itself as a neutral arbiter between equally justified and competing claims. All the while escalating the war.

The debate on the Indian left over whether the Maoists offer any revolutionary potential surfaced again last year in response to Roy’s brilliant, and tender, Walking with the Comrades, originally published in Outlook India and which takes up the bulk of Broken Republic. Contrary to the expectations of sections of the left, whose responses were often more tendentious than constructive, the essay was clearly never meant to be a theoretical exercise. It was meant to provide a taste of what the Maoists are up against, and what they are doing. She describes the Bhumkal celebrations deep in the Dandakaranya forest, commemorating the centenary of the Bhumkal rebellion against the British in 1910:

‘The sound of drums becomes deafening. Gradually, the crowd begins to sway. And then it begins to dance. They dance in little lines of six or seven, men and women separate, with their arms around each other’s waists. Thousands of people. This is what they’ve come for. For this. Happiness is taken very seriously here, in the Dandakaranya forest. People will walk for miles, for days together to feast and sing, to put feathers in their turbans and flowers in their hair, to put their arms around each other and drink mahua and dance through the night. No one sings or dances alone. This, more than anything else, signals their defiance towards a civilisation that seeks to annihilate them’ (pp.116-17).

Why must the Maoists be supported? Roy argues that although the Maoists are responsible for excesses, their record of ‘collateral damage’ is meagre compared to the atrocities committed by the government. Last year, the Maoists blew up a bus in Dantewada carrying civilians; 18 of the 44 dead were members of the hated Salwa Judum. The Salwa Judum (meaning ‘purification hunt’) is a government-sponsored killing force launched in 2005, days after an MoU was signed with the Tata Group, India’s largest private company. It is disguised as a people’s militia but a section of its members have been designated and trained as special police officers (SPOs) by the government to help purge Maoists from the forests.[2] In 2008 the Maoists shot dead a prominent Hindu fascist proselytiser working amongst the tribals, setting off an anti-Christian rampage in which 200 churches were burnt and tens of thousands displaced. However, the tribals that make up the Maoist army do not have easy choices. Roy explains:

‘Their decisions on what strategies to employ take into account a whole host of considerations: the history of the struggle, the nature of the repression, the urgency of the situation and, quite crucially, the landscape in which their struggle is taking place. The decision whether to be a Ghandian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful… is not always a moral or ideological one. Quite often it’s a tactical one’ (p.207).

Still, liberal opponents of the Maoists ask why they have not done more to alleviate suffering. Roy is quick to point out that the Maoists have done more for people in the areas they control than the government, even with the constraints of being ‘a banned organisation whose members — even if they are doctors or teachers — are liable to be shot on sight’ (p.200). The Maoists have fought to implement government schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), struggled for the enforcement of minimum wages and encouraged social audits. ‘It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun. There is too much hunger, too much sickness here. But it certainly has created the possibilities for an alternative’ (p.132).

When it comes to concrete action and solidarity, is it better to take the position that the government’s war against the tribals must be stopped, as the progressive liberals do, or the position that the class war should be taken forward, as some radical intellectuals close to the Maoists argue? It must be both, and this is the implication of what Roy is arguing. The broad campaigns against Operation Green Hunt and the corruption of the mining companies must be widened, but campaigns alone will not address fundamental injustices. The Maoists’ struggle, as part of the fight for a revolutionary alternative, must also continue. She is rightly scathing of a third position on the orthodox left, adopted mainly by the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, and most of the liberal intelligentsia, who blink when ‘faced with a situation that has genuine revolutionary potential’ (p.193) and find reasons to look away.

This third position of the other communist parties and the rest of the parliamentary left accuse the Maoists of ultra-leftism, of ‘substituting mass politics with militarism and of not having worked at building a genuinely revolutionary proletariat’ (p.196). And while Roy accepts that ‘the Maoists are irrelevant to urban working-class movements’ (p.196), it is also true that the other left parties have compromised their politics to the point where they can scarcely be distinguished from the bourgeois parties, posing no threat to anyone. At least, she insists, the Maoists are fighting back.

In the process, the Maoists have forced open a debate about injustice and structural inequality in Indian society. They have frustrated the efforts of mining companies in their relentless pursuit of profits, have destabilised the smooth-running of capitalist expansion and exploitation, and have, since the uprising in Naxalbari, ‘sparked an anger about being exploited’ (p.198). On top of that, according to a censored government report:

‘The party has also done an immense amount of rural development work, such as mobilising community labour for farm ponds, rainwater harvesting and land conservation works in the Dandakaranya region, which villagers testified, had improved their crops and improved their food security situation’ (p.201).

But Roy is more nuanced in her assessment of the Maoists than her critics give her credit for. Apart from her critique of the occasional acts of unnecessary violence, she takes the Maoists to task for not proposing a development model that is radically different from that of the capitalist thugs they wish to destroy. This point needs to be taken seriously when we consider that Ganapathy, the current chief of the Maoists, believes the revolution will not happen for another fifty years (p.196). Perhaps Roy does not develop this point far enough. What about the millions of workers in the Indian factories, offices and other urban workplaces? What are the Maoists doing to draw them into the movement? And surely the Maoists’ cause, whatever their theoretical limitations, cannot be reduced to a plea to ‘leave the bauxite in the mountain?’ (p.214). These are questions that Roy does not pursue.

At her sharpest, she does, however, attempt to chart a way forward that avoids both a localised version of capitalism and the dead-end of Stalinised communism, and this is important. What is at stake is a deep crisis of bourgeois democracy, which Roy does graphically illustrate: ‘There’s nothing small about what’s going on. We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten’ (p.192).

If the Maoists are to bring about a different society, their struggle must be linked to wider aspirations for justice and equality that exist amongst the hundreds of millions of other ordinary Indians. This is a strategic question that cannot be answered either by an uncritical celebration of the Maoists, or through their dismissal by what passes for the left in India. What is necessary is a concrete strategy that can link the Maoist-led struggles of the tribals with the growing anger of the rest of the working population in India. Roy is not just taking a brave and principled stand; she is searching for answers to the question of what kind of revolution we need. For now, Broken Republic does a massive service not just to the Maoist cause but also to struggles for social justice everywhere.


[1] The particular law referred to here is the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), passed in 1996. The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution is also relevant, intended to protect the land belonging to tribal people from being appropriated.

[2] The Salwa Judum was praised in 2009 by P. Chidambaram, India’s Home Affairs Minister. On 5th July 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the disbanding of the Salwa Judum in the state of Chhattisgarh, arguing that state support of the militia violates the Constitution.

All three essays have been published online in various magazines and journals, including International Socialist Review, New Statesman, and Counterfire.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU