In the years since Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things, she has become the anti-globalisation mascot in India and abroad with her strident opposition of the Indian state, free market economics, the war on terror, and much else. Her prose is vivid and sometimes poetic: witty wordplay interspersed with biting satire that riles India’s middle class, the wealthy, and the elite.
But as her appeal rises abroad, she has become increasingly irrelevant at home. Sincere anti-poverty activists find her shrillness exasperating, with some arguing privately that her writing about a cause is a distraction, shifting the focus to herself, and delaying, if not damaging, the prospect of a solution. Roy doesn’t like compromised half-measures, but others have different views of what constitutes the best solution. Her fans abroad, who have little personally at stake in India, applaud her rapturously, so making her more marginalised among nationalistically-minded Indians.
The exasperation comes from the fact that what Roy describes is often an accurate description of a slice of the reality, but her prose has little room for layered nuances and granularity. It makes her critique almost comic-book like, with sharply edged “good” and “evil” forces. In her latest collection of essays, Broken Republic, Roy rightly points out the abysmal treatment of India’s indigenous people who live in the tribal belt, which is rich with minerals and abounds with Maoists. But she is wrong in seeing those amoral nihilists – the Maoists – as harbingers of a better future. That’s a dehumanised worldview.
True, the millions of tribals (as indigenous people are called in India) have been neglected and exploited. And India now wants mining companies to invest there. If the past is any indication, it will cause a massive upheaval, disrupting traditional lifestyles, displacing communities, with the abuse of many human rights.
Roy is a brilliantly articulate cheerleader for the Maoists, who claim to be fighting for the tribals. In perhaps a quarter of India’s districts, the state doesn’t have much control. Paramilitary forces have been deployed, and Maoists have launched spectacular strikes, killing many in the security forces.. In retaliation, politicians and landlords have created a vigilante militia to take on the Maoists.
That’s a grim scenario, and can end in tragedy, but Roy absolves the Maoists. She sees their violence entirely as a reaction when all other means have failed, even portraying them as green egalitarian warriors fighting to preserve a pristine life. In that Manichean world, the tribals and Maoists are one; and anyone against Maoists is against the tribals, therefore for the state, and hence complicit in the abuses.
In her first essay, the Indian home minister P Chidambaram must be colluding with mining companies, since before he became a minister, when he was a corporate lawyer some of the companies were his clients. When mining shares rise after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the Maoist threat India’s gravest security challenge, she sees causality in that coincidence. In her second essay, she travels through Maoist territory, and makes the Maoists almost as likeable as characters in the film Avatar. She notes, but doesn’t condemn, their use of child soldiers, nor their summary show trials against “informants”, some of whom are put to death.
But there is hope. In her third essay we see an introspective Roy, slightly disillusioned by Maoist rhetoric. She no longer ridicules Gandhi; now she cites him approvingly. Perhaps her education has begun. Roy sees India’s upwardly-mobile aspirants as morally compromised.