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BOOK REVIEW: Broken Republic - Author / Arundhati Roy

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, August 06, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

A local writer once recounted a story where he happened to be on a mailing list that was bombarded by dozens of kindly e-mails from an Indian peer. They were all roughly the same, each disparaging his — the writer’s — (imperfect) nation, its military missteps, defective political/social setup, extremist hideouts; anything and everything was fair game. The one-sided exchange continued till, one day, the writer from the imperfect nation diverted the conversation to a little known resistance movement called the Maoist insurgency.

The emails stopped.

Someone else, having taken a random combination of words such as challenging the writ of the state, unrest in the tribal areas, military operations, insurrection, IEDs, peace talks, collateral damage and fundamentalists, typically designed to decode the blueprints of neighbouring insurgencies, has unexpectedly used it to open the portal to India’s raging Maoist/Naxalite rebellion.

Arundhati Roy’s new book, Broken Republic, is a collection of three essays (2009-2010) dealing with this live-wire issue causing occasional sparks within India. Her new counter-narrative serves to eviscerate the official storyline and promises a rag tag bunch of rebels their five minutes of fame. Roy, who goes off the beaten path, calmly facing down charges of sedition, obscenity and treason, returns with evidence of corporate greed and political misdemeanours. She then proceeds to serve up stories featuring Naxalite oppression, determined to kindle the flame of moral outrage among conservationists and human rights activists across the globe. Since she is an internationally acclaimed voice of India — an oft repressed, Booker Prize winning, wonderfully eloquent, highly controversial one at that, with a history of taking on unpopular causes — the message tends to get amplified.

Here she is scouring the jungles for ‘ammo’ to launch a devastating strike against the world’s biggest democracy. The plight of a rag tag militia, if done right, makes for an effective weapon. Big bad mining corporations, indigenous people armed with bows and arrows fighting for survival complete with a lone crusader marching to a funereal score. This is the compelling stuff summer blockbusters like Avatar are composed of. India’s conundrum has been reduced to a simple formula. “To get bauxite out of flat topped hills, to get iron ore out from under the forest floor, to get 85 percent of India’s people off their lands and into the cities, India has to become a police state; the government has to militarise and to justify that militarisation it needs an enemy.” And the discomfiting notion is that the Maoists are that enemy.

The reason these raging insurgencies are allowed to fly below the western radar is because, according to one analyst, they do not threaten the global world order. Perhaps this is why Pakistan lands at number 12 on the list of most failed countries while India remains comfortably perched at 76.

In the second essay, as Roy recounts her time spent running with the resistance, her caustic political commentary cuts through the picturesque democratic facade giving a sobering assessment of the Indian state’s anti-Maoist campaign design and implications of continuing its toxic struggle. The recurring motif is not that of the nation’s triumphant entry into the superpower club but its costly misadventures on the domestic front. The forest dwellers however get a fair hearing. Their grievances, according to this version, are legitimate and their cause is just. They are made to look quite benign up close. And when the state tries to argue otherwise, it finds the constitution blocking its path.

There is enough gallows humour to take the edge off. She wryly observes that when the government begins to talk of tribal welfare it is time to worry, adding that the need to displace a large population for dams, irrigation projects or mines inevitably precedes talk of giving them the “fruits of modern development”.

The plot keeps taking surprising twists and turns. Welfare projects assume sinister shapes when shown in the backdrop of impending operations. And, while India’s marginalised community members are getting a trendy new makeover, “corporate fundamentalists” (yes fundamentalists), show up without spin doctors standing in the shadows of what has been described as “a massive paramilitary force armed with money, firepower, media and the hubris of emerging superpower”. She depicts a nation that has let slip the dogs of war in places that are “homeland to India’s tribal people and dreamland to the corporate world” and “is willing to shoot, starve, lay siege to and deploy its armed forces in self-defence against the poorest citizens”. But the Maoists, despite the fancy trimmings, are not completely off the hook. Though she is on a first name basis with a few comrades, she does not deny their history of violence or lack of direction.

Generally, an Indian-held mirror manages to capture a reflection of cross-border terrorism or an unfortunate neighbour allegedly caught in the act of exporting terror. Roy’s illustrated guide to India replaces the beautiful illusion of security with a replica made of fear, misery and doubt crafted in its own backyard.

Ushba Publishing International;

Pp 220; Rs 1,000

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