April 13, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Embedded Essay

By Sudhanva Deshpande

(Sudhanva Deshpande comments on the "embedded journalism" of Arundhati Roy in Maoist territory. A shorter version of the article is appearing in the Outlook Magazine.)

‘Embedded journalism refers to news reporters being attached to military units involved in armed conflicts. . . . Gina Cavallaro, a reporter for the Army Times, said, “They’re [the journalists] relying more on the military to get them where they want to go, and as a result, the military is getting smarter about getting its own story told.”’— Wikipedia on ‘Embedded Journalism’

It was early morning, about 5, and I was waiting at the station for the train to arrive. As the book stall opened, I dove into the Hindi pulp fiction section. Surendra Mohan Pathak’s first two Vimal thrillers, in a single volume, beckoned me. As I paid for the book, Arundhati Roy’s name leapt out at me from the cover of Outlook. It was her long essay on the Maoists.

Whether we agree with Roy or not we read her because she surprises us. There is always some statistic, some quotation, some ironic observation, that makes one say, ‘Hey, I hadn’t thought of that before’. This time though, I found myself being disappointed by her. It is almost a cliché of such reportage (of a writer’s encounter with an underground group) to begin with the rendezvous and end on a note of wistful longing. Roy does both. Come on Arundhati, I wanted to say, surprise us – for clichés I can read Surendra Mohan Pathak.

One is of course glad that voices like hers exist, and that she commands enough star value for Outlook to bill their issue a ‘collector’s item’. Roy writes with feeling, and she is superb at catching irony – e.g., the description of Dantewada as a border town smack in the centre of India, or the Indian rulers’ adoption of China’s path as their own path. Her writing is poetic, it seduces. Even when you are not persuaded by the argument, you want to side with her.

In this essay, she introduces us to a veritable cast of characters: Comrade Maase, who ‘seems to have to swim through a layer of pain to enter the conversation’; the senior Comrade Venu (Sushil, Sonu, Murali) who ‘looks for all the world like a frail village schoolteacher’; Comrade Sukhdev, ‘a crazy workaholic’; Comrade Kamla, who prefers watching ‘ambush videos’ to Hindi movies.

Er . . . ambush videos? Roy describes one, which starts with ‘shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the close-up of a bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling. Then suddenly a comrade is wiring up an IED, concealing it with dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are being snatched. Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.’ Roy was outraged and shocked, as all of us were, when Hindutva goons reportedly videographed violence against Muslims in Gujarat and these videos then did the rounds of lending libraries. Comrade Kamla, who only likes watching ‘ambush videos’ of ‘mutilated bodies and burning bikes’, is marching, Roy wants to persuade us, ‘to keep hope alive for us all’. Some ironies escape the best writers, it seems.

Consider the joke she recounts at the end of the essay. Sukhdev asks her if she knows what to do if they come under fire. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘immediately declare an indefinite hunger strike.’ Sukhdev laughs so hard he has to sit.

So what is Sukhdev laughing at? At Roy’s writerly wit? Or at her scorn for ‘indefinite hunger strikes’? In an earlier day and age, Roy helped focus the world’s attention on a massive, peaceful, neo-Gandhian protest against destruction in the name of development. On countless occasions, hundreds of thousands of people took part in ‘indefinite hunger strikes’ and other forms of non-violent and moral resistance. One may or may not have agreed with every aspect of their, and Roy’s, critique. But the moral force of their argument was unquestioned. By recounting her joke without irony, however, Roy mocks her own past, her commitment to a movement she was (and is?) so passionate about.

Reading Roy, one is struck by her refusal to debate. She sees nothing wrong in the Maoists becoming a handmaiden of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to exterminate cadres of the CPI (M), mostly tribals, Muslims, and other rural poor. Well, ok. But what about the critics of the CPI (M) who are also the critics of the Maoists? Recently, several articles in the Economic and Political Weekly posed probing questions about whether we have reached the limits of bourgeois democracy in India, about the Maoists’ belief in violence as the only instrument of change, the sheer brutality of their violence, their penchant of taking over peaceful resistance, their intolerance of dissent and debate, their programmatic understanding of the Indian revolution, etc. Aditya Nigam wrote a thoughtful essay, and Sumanta Banerjee had a fascinating exchange with a spokesperson of the CPI (Maoist). These are criticisms from the left – not by Gandhian pacifists. All that is water off Roy’s back. In rubbishing powerful critiques by cocking a rhetorical snook at them Roy demeans herself.

On every criticism of Maoist tactics and methods, she responds with rhetoric, not reason. Charu Mazumdar fetishises violence and gore – but, says Roy, look at the beautiful dancing tribals. The Maoists believe in protracted war – naturally, counters Roy, because the really protracted war is being waged by the Indian state. The Maoists do not take part in non-violent protest and mass politics – why should they, asks Roy, what did non-violence win the Narmada Bachao Andolan? The Maoists dish out summary justice in kangaroo courts – but they don’t kill everybody, Roy tells us earnestly, and in any case we all know how skewed our judicial system is. And so on.

In the end, though, the problem with Roy’s essay is that it is a piece of embedded journalism. Trekking day and night with gun-wielding rebels is doubtless a reporter’s fantasy. We need to get more such accounts, which give us a sense of the dreams and desperations that drive young women and men to the gun. What she does not do is question the Maoists’ conceptual framework.

Reading her essay, one is struck by the binary oppositions that frame it – brutal state repression versus ruthless armed rebellion; mining corporations versus innocent tribals; rampaging industrialism versus primitive communism. There is no middle ground, there are no other players. There is no conception of militant mass protest and resistance that does not take the shape of armed insurrection. I am not coy about the necessity to resort to violence, especially when you are under attack. The Maoists, however, are a different kettle of fish – they resort to bloodshed at the first instance, not the last, and the nature of their violence is also particularly gruesome.

The Maoists and the tribals, according to Roy, are one entity. If you have any sympathy for tribals and other poor, you must, ipso facto, support the Maoists. This is the terrain where the interests of the Indian ruling classes and the Maoists converge perfectly. In this framework, the only alternative to the violence of the state is the violence of the Maoists. Either you are with the one or you are with the other.

It is in the nature of embedded journalism to get close enough to the ‘action’ to give us an authentic sense of the smells and the sights. Roy does that. It is also in the nature of embedded journalism that it remains prisoner to the conceptual framework of the embedder. A truly critical intelligence would cut through it and assert itself. Roy, however, chooses to be smitten.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi. He works as editor at LeftWord Books.

Sat, 2010-03-27 14:07

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