In Western countries such as the United States, Arundhati Roy is best known as the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, a semi-autobiographical novel which won Roy critical and commercial success. In India, though, Roy is known for something else entirely: her political career. No, Roy isn’t a politician, but she has become the spokesperson of various social causes around India. While she has declined the opportunity to write any more fiction, she has authored two essay collections and, most recently, Walking With the Comrades, a non-fiction exposé of the Indian government’s secret war against its Communist citizens.
Walking with the Comrades is styled as an introductory piece on the Communist, or Naxalite movement in north-eastern India. It’s not written for those familiar with the situation; instead, its function is to draw attention to a situation that Indian officials are trying to sweep under the rug. The book is designed to attract international outcries, and in that, it succeeds. With her beautiful, poetic prose, Roy writes of rape and murder, of human rights violations and attempted genocide. Anyone acting against the established Indian government is generally labeled a Maoist and considered a threat against the state; it draws haunting parallels to the profiling that occurs in the United States after 9/11.
To obtain her story, Roy marched alongside Maoists, risking her own life to shine the light on the sad ones they live. These are people without access to basic medical care, education, or even clean water. “Can starving people go on a hunger strike?” Roy asks. And all for what? To defend India’s tribal people against the corporations who seek to strip mine the breadth of the land. According to Roy, these companies will stop at nothing —including genocide—in order to obtain the resources India’s mountains and forests offer.
Not only does the government refuse to stop them, but it’s helping them in their quest. Because the government has turned against its people, it’s left to the Maoists to defend these helpless denizens against those who would displace, or even worse, murder them.
That’s not to say the Maoists are absolutely guiltless—the only method they really have to fight back is violence, which they use to the best of their ability. Of course, they are outmatched and outgunned; the corporations have no qualms about killing them, and often exert enough control over the local police to make them do their bidding. But it’s here that Roy’s account suffers. From the beginning, it’s clear where her sympathies lie. While this is presented as an objective account of the Maoist movement, to put it quite simply, it’s not. It’s well-written, engaging, and very well-presented, but the author is clearly biased against the current Indian government and supports the Maoist movement. That’s not to say she’s wrong in her conclusions, just that the book would have functioned more effectively if it had been presented as an independent account.
In the end, the book delivers details of a broader fight that has been happening in India for decades, as has also happened around the world. For a capitalistic, world economy, industrialization is good. But the human cost must be taken into account. When is the price too high? Roy argues that full-on industrialization isn’t necessarily the best way forward for India.
Whether you agree with her or not, she makes very clear that India’s progress is damaging to her people, her environment and her culture. After reading this book, it’s difficult to see it any other way. Her account is eye-opening, at times jaw-dropping, and disturbing, but it’s well worth reading. If you’re interested in the issues facing modern-day India, Walking With the Comrades is not to be missed.
Swapna Krishna Lovin has worked as a freelance writer, editor, and blogger since 2008.