Friday, March 26, 2010

In Dubious Battle

or Why Arundhati Roy is a Waste of Space

The first thing that occurred to me, after I finished reading Arundhati Roy's article on the rebels in the Dantewada forest in Outlook (hat-tip: SB), was how fundamentally unconvincing the whole piece was [1]. This, it seems to me, is mostly Roy's fault. One page through the eight pages of the article it's pretty clear where Roy's sympathies lie, and those sympathies proceed to systematically undermine any credibility her article might have otherwise had.

The problem is not that Roy sympathizes with the cause of the rebels, even though that sympathy seems less about the specific problems of the people of Dantewada and more about Roy's own long-standing position against government / big business / institutions generally. The problem is that Roy seems incapable of admitting the slightest nuance into her support for the rebels. Hers in the unquestioning belief of the true zealot, and the blindness of her convictions renders her incapable of anything approaching intelligent analysis. Not only does Roy seem to enter Dantewada with an entirely uncritical perspective [2], when potential criticisms of the rebels do occur to her she provides her own justifications for their actions, without even bothering to put these criticisms to the people she is profiling. As a result, we learn what Roy thinks the rebels are thinking, rather than what they really are thinking. I can't think of a worse waste of journalistic access. The result is a piece so partisan as to be virtually propaganda.

Worse, when the rebels do tell her things, Roy seems happy to believe them without the slightest corroboration. It never seems to occur to her that there may be two sides to the stories she's being told, or that the rebels, may, in fact, be feeding her misinformation [3]. No effort is made to speak to anyone outside the rebel troops (like, say, villagers who are not part of the 'army'), nor does Roy ask any questions about how the operations of the rebels are financed, how their 'soldiers' are recruited, how decisions about attacks are made, etc. The irony here is that Roy is strident in declaring our need to be wary of official news reports about the Dantewada situation, yes she seems just as credulous when it comes to swallowing whatever she is told by the rebels.

A sense of irony, alas, is the other quality completely missing from Roy's report, a shocking omission for someone who used to write fiction. In one passage, Roy quotes a young rebel called Nilesh, describing his brother, who has become a Special Police Officer:

“He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses. He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”

The irony, of course, is that the same description could be applied to Nilesh himself. He too is very young. He too has got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people. He too is (probably) stuck and will not be forgiven.

Again and again through the piece Roy speaks of the rebels as children, describing herself, at one point, as being "surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal". Ironically, this only serves to discredit the rebels, because it raises serious questions about whether they know what they're doing. It does not, however, as Roy seems to think, make them seem less of a threat. I don't know about you, but personally I can think of few things more dangerous than sophisticated weaponry in the hands of angry children, and if that's what the rebels are (since that's what Roy seems to make them out to be) then we have even more reason to be afraid.

(I'm particularly bewildered by Roy's account of one Kamla, whose beautiful smile receives a lot of attention in the article. As though her having a beautiful smile somehow made her less violent or dangerous.)

The larger problem, I think, is that Roy's is a curiously binary world view, a world divided into good and evil, right and wrong. (Ironically, again, this is a world view shared by no one so closely as the erstwhile Bush administration that Roy claims to despise). Since government and big corporations are evil, it must follow that whoever opposes them, by whatever means, is good, and the means themselves justified. Roy's identification of the rebels with the 'people' is automatic and unswerving - it never occurs to her that there may be more than two sides to the conflict. What reason, after all, do we have to believe that the rebels represent the interests of the people of Dantewada? They claim to do so, certainly, but so does the government, and it's not clear to me that one claim is any more legitimate than the other. Terrorists everywhere are quick to claim the people's backing - are we to accept that the Taliban speaks for the Afghan people, that the Shining Path speaks for the people of Peru, that Al Qaeda speaks for Muslims everywhere? In each of these cases, the organization in question represents itself as the people's champion, yet there is considerable reason to believe that a significant majority of the people they claim to represent consider their ideas wrong-headed and their presence a source of fear. Just because the government and big corporations are evil and oppressive (and let's say, for the moment, that they are), doesn't mean the rebels aren't as well. Just because the government and big corporations don't have the people's best interests at heart, doesn't mean the rebels do.

Understand that I'm not saying that the rebels in Dantewada are like the Taliban or Al Qaeda. I'm saying that Roy's piece provides no evidence that they're not. Nothing in her report suggests that the rebels are legitimate representatives of their people's interests. On the contrary, I'm willing to bet that you could write a piece virtually identical to Roy's article about almost any terrorist organization in the world - they're all sure to have smiling, beautiful children as recruits.

I titled this post In Dubious Battle, because reading Roy's descriptions I was reminded of nothing so much as Milton's Pandemonium:

"that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd"

- Milton, Paradise Lost Book I

To recognize this is to remember that it is easy to romanticize rebellion, easy to cast the outsider as hero. If Roy's description of the Dantewada rebellion has an almost mythic quality (and it does - reading her description of the forest celebrations I found myself imagining Friar Tuck putting in an appearance, surrounded by men in Lincoln Green), it is because she sees it through red-tinted glasses (pun intended), and that is reason to be suspicious of the veracity of her account.

In her piece, Roy attempts to justify the rebel's actions on utilitarian grounds, arguing that it is the only solution available to the 'people' because all other avenues are bound to prove unsuccessful (even though it's unclear, from her account at least, whether all other avenues have, in this particular case, been tried).

Even if one were willing to accept that there were no other options, and that violence, in such a case, is justified, one is forced to ask - is violence really a solution? What, realistically, are the odds of the rebels winning? Are they significantly better than the odds of success from more peaceful means of protest? And in the meantime, are the people of Dantewada better or worse off than they would have been without the armed rebellion? Based purely on Roy's piece, it sounds to me like the rebels have only made things worse for the people of Dantewada. On the one hand, they have undermined the potential for widespread public support that a more peaceful movement that brought the plight of the Dantewada people to public attention may have enjoyed, and compromised the efforts of any and all activists trying to further the people's interests by other means [4]. On the other hand, they have made the tribal people fair game for those who are trying to oppress them / drive them out. Roy talks a lot about genocide and Salwa Judum, but could these atrocities really exist without the sceptre of the Maoists to provide them cover? It seems to me that the Salwa Judum needs the Maoists, and that by choosing the path of violence the rebels have played straight into the hands of the very interests that seek to destroy them. This is not to suggest that Salwa Judum's actions are justified, or that the rebels have brought this on themselves. It is only to say that if realpolitik be thy plea, as Roy's is here, then it is worth considering that the rebel's path leads, realistically, to a worse outcome for their alleged people than ever before.

(There is the separate question of whether, if the rebels did somehow miraculously succeed, this would actually result in empowerment of the people. Nothing in the history of communism suggests this would be true, but never mind.)

But of course, these ideas are largely Roy's own, and there is little evidence that they are shared by the rebels themselves. In fact, from Roy's account, there is little evidence of anything resembling a larger plan in the rebel's actions. For the most part, the rebels she talks to seem to be motivated by frustration catalyzed by a need for revenge. Reprisal, indeed, seems to be the dominant theme of the article, with the motif of 'they did something bad to us, so we did something bad to them' cropping up again and again (the question of what preceded the bad thing they did is, of course, never asked). These sort of childish (children again!) he-hit-me-first protestations hardly amount to a political philosophy, much less a political agenda. It seems a travesty to call these people Maoists, when from Roy's account they seem to have little idea who Mao was or what he believed in. And it seems misguided to think of this rebellion as a 'revolution' when there seems to be little evidence of a coherent end game or of strong visionary leadership.

What emerges from Roy's account, when you read beneath her naive and breathless paeans to the wonders of the forest and the beauty of the child soldiers, is a portrait of a splinter group of disenchanted people driven to embrace violence by frustration, anger and a thirst for revenge, all cloaked in trappings usurped from the Maoist playbook. What emerges is a portrait of children indoctrinated into a way of violence through the constant repetition of a litany of evils real and imagined, without any sense of the larger issues or the true history of the communist movement [5]. But most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a writer so in love with her own indignation that she's unable to ask even the basic questions that any reasonable adult would want to raise.

If you really want to learn about Maoist rebellions, watch Woody Allen's Bananas. You'll learn about as much there as you will from Roy's piece.

[1] I lie. The first thing that occurred to me was how much like the script for Avatar the whole thing sounded. But this was a close second.

[2] I have to wonder whether her being uncritical was a factor in her getting the kind of access she did.

[3] I mean seriously. If you were a rebel organization and a celebrity reporter from a major national news magazine was coming to do a cover story on you, wouldn't you manipulate every piece of information she got to make yourself look good and your enemy look bad?

[4] The other reason I titled this piece In Dubious Battle was in homage to Steinbeck's lovely novel of the same name, which deals with another group of communist workers trying to win rights for workers. Unlike the rebels, however, the means they employ do not involve using guns and explosives. Now there's a set of communist activists I'd wholeheartedly support.

[5] This is, of course, the modus operandi of terrorist organizations everywhere. It is, indeed, how Hindutva recruits its most violent followers. Take a close look at the footage of the Babri Masjid demolition and you're sure to find plenty of children with beautiful smiles.


Space Bar said...

Fair enough. (I also can't say I disagree with you). And there are many people on Kafila who have made the same argument, with more bombast and sometimes, pomposity.

There's a link I have to K. Balagopal's article from last year that's relevant. Must dig it out.

Anonymous said...

yep. Roy needs someone to take her on this way. Even in interviews, I feel that the interviewers find it impossible to extract anything sensible out of her. Personally for me, the sad part is that I began to despise her writing style that I once loved; because it is used to say such shrill, nonsensical things.

Anonymous said...


I mean, compare her stuff to P. Sainath's or something. Leftist writer can and do make sense; and we need their stories to get a good perspective. But the tiresome things that Roy says make you feel that an opportunity to get to hear a credible leftist side of the story was lost.

Falstaff said...

SB: I know. Some of those Kafila pieces I didn't quite manage to get through.

The Balagopal piece (thanks for the link) is very good, though. I have a few thoughts on points he misses, but it's a cogent, articulate essay.

Anon: "an opportunity to get to hear a credible leftist side of the story was lost". Yes, exactly. A more balanced and critical piece would have been so much more convincing.

km said...

(Milton, Mao and Woody Allen walk into a bar....)

Falstaff: there are major gaps in the story. No doubts about it.

But it's not as if AR's politics is news in 2010. IMO, the story is best read as a cross between gonzo reporting and travel writing.

The fact remains that there are large numbers of underrepresented (and misrepresented) people in India whose stories are buried under the sheer quantity of news emerging from the rest of the country.

Had this piece been written by a lesser-known writer, I doubt if it would have even caused the faintest ripple.

The Priest said...

Your post sounds like the analysis essay on the GRE--full of possible lapses in the reasoning, etc. of Roy. Since you don't assert anything to the contrary (only that she doesn't make her case definitively), your post is surely much more a waste of space than her article.

I much prefer an actual alternative perspective.

Cheshire Cat said...

The Government will win the war. The Maoists will win martyrdom.

It's a win-win situation.

Sue said...

Well written.

There was a time when I didn't agree with Roy's writings but gave her a certain degree of respect for being a powerful writer. Now I find the ideas behind her writing so flawed it's hard for me to take the writing seriously. Yet Outlook gives her piece after piece.

I'm glad you did this post.

Beq said...

I think this post shows your prejudices and your convenient belief in "development" far more than work as a critique of the article. Two thumbs down

Beq said...

And you asked for balance?

Falstaff said...

km: Agree about the gonzo journalism / travel writing; and about Roy's celebrity appeal - but surely the situation deserves better reporting, and we deserve better celebrity journalists.

priest: Figures that someone who calls himself / herself 'the priest' would prefer feeble-minded perspective to rational doubt.

cat: Only if, like Roy, you believe that everyone is either a Maoist or the Government. The problem, I suspect, is that most people are neither, and they're the ones who are going to lose.

sue: Thanks.

Beq: Huh? Not once in the entire post did I so much as mention 'development', let alone express any belief in it. Maybe if you actually read the post instead of imposing your own fantastic interpretations on it, not to mention linking to entirely irrelevant articles.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece. I made my dad read it and he thanks you.

Anonymous said...

Its the context. India's problems are so acute that we have to define the right and wrong. And you have to shout it relentlessly from the rooftops Roy's audience is not bloggers. The poor and displaced can't afford the luxurt of nuance.
I think Roy makes us urban educated desis uncomfortable. After all she's one of us. What is she doing talking like a lowly politician? Calling out the corrupt? Defending the unfortunate?
She's stepped outside the box. I salute her.

Falstaff said...

Anon: Thanks.

Neale: You think nuance is a luxury? Fine. These people are killers. Roy is romanticizing murder. And you're saluting it. How's that for right and wrong?

Anonymous said...

//Since government and big corporations are evil, it must follow that whoever opposes them, by whatever means, is good, and the means themselves justified.//

Lol. You are creating yourself a case here. But I have to say that it is far removed from the context. I don't even know why did I bother reading this senseless rant but let me just point out. Roy has never made that point. I have read all her book. As a matter of fact, she sees things in grey. However the taking of arms is not a moral war or a religious or a political war. It is the war of survival. It is as simple as that. You fight back the Indian Government and die or die regardless. I don't see how the debate of good and bad comes here to begin with.