Writing About The Grey Areas


Melbourne-based commentator Andrew Bolt has made a habit of ridiculing this country’s only international award for peace, the Sydney Peace Prize. Unfortunately this time it’s a habit that has led him to stray into an area he doesn’t seem to understand very well.

It’s especially unfortunate because his latest jibe concerns a story that more people should know about. It’s one which concerns Arundhati Roy, the Indian novelist, human rights campaigner and winner of the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize. Roy has recently been threatened with arrest in India over an investigative article she wrote about her meetings with Maoist/Naxalite rebels in the forests of central India. She was criticised by government politicians for having written sympathetically — even romantically — about the rebels, and she was threatened with arrest under a Security Act with no bail provisions.

Perhaps predictably, Bolt took this event as ammunition he could use to ridicule those who had awarded Arundhati the Sydney Peace Prize. "They must be so proud," he wrote.

Clearly, Roy and Bolt have different attitudes to justice and to the role of dissent in democracies. The Indian is committed to dialogue with the Maoists. The Australian believes in the George Bush for-or-against doctrine: side with government forces or be branded an irresponsible left-winger — or worse.

As one of those people involved in awarding Roy her peace prize, I’d like to point out a few details in this story that Bolt has apparently skipped.

Arundhati Roy’s article on the rebels reveals the dangers of an either/or view of the world. Her analysis explains people’s oppression and their reasons for resistance. She exposes the consequences of politicians’ belief that increased military, police and intelligence powers can solve all problems.

A few days ago, in order to understand the human rights issues in the conflict in central India, I interviewed Arundhati Roy in Delhi. What exactly did she do and why do we need to know about these rebels?

Since November 2009, in an operation called "Green Hunt", the Indian Government has deployed tens of thousands of military forces to wipe out the Maoists. Those forces are aided by vigilante groups — the salwa judum — who are sponsored by the Government and live in Government-protected compounds.

In March 2010, Roy spent weeks trekking the forests of central India, living with the rebels and their families. Subsequently, in the Indian magazine Outlook, she published a 20,000-word essay, "Walking With The Comrades".  Admittedly an awful massacre of police took place weeks later. But this had nothing to do with her analysis in which she described the close alliance between governments and corporations to foster economic development in the area, which she labelled "a typical GDP measure of progress which depends on acquiring tribal lands to build dams, factories, mines and irrigation projects". To make way for such development, at least 26 million people have been displaced and only one million compensated. As Roy says, "These people are desperate. They are hunted. What are they supposed to do?"

She has responded to this question by telling the tribal people’s story, challenging the official version of events. Her picture is precise. Of the town of Dantewada at the forefront of military assaults against the Maoists, she writes, "this is an upside down world. The police wear plain clothes, the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar."

The trouble with Arundhati Roy is that she does not take for granted the meaning of words like terrorism, democracy, Maoism, and development, and she questions whether there’s any distinction between Government policies and corporate interests

Roy also reveals the extent of the Indian Government’s investment in military might. Weapons bought from Israel to be used against the poor include laser range finders, thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones like those so beloved by the US army. India gets much of its military hardware and training from Israel (notably in counter-insurgency techniques).

Roy wrote that as she was preparing to meet the rebels she noticed a report that Mossad was teaching Israeli targeted assassination practices to senior Indian police. Every six weeks, 800 commando-trained police graduate from a Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College while the salwa judum continue to rape, kill, burn down villages and drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

In official Indian circles the Maoists are regarded as extremists, as fundamentalist worshippers of Chairman Mao’s prescriptions for a violent revolution. Meanwhile the sorts of people criticising Roy, such as fundamentalist Hindus, are not problematised in the same way that the Maoists are. Arundhati explains, "The fundamentalist Hindus say, imprison me, hang me, get rid of me by any means.  … These zealots are little different from the Tea Party extremists in the United States, the Christian Right in that country, the dogmatists in Hamas, the racist Israeli settlers or the jangaweed in Darfur."

I asked her, "Did you observe equally dangerous people when you met with the comrades in the forest? This question is also posed by those who see the rebels as intransigent, unwilling to compromise and therefore impossible to negotiate with — not to acknowledge this intransigence could make you appear to be just a one side sympathiser."

Roy replied, "On all sides there is intransigence which has to be overcome. Maoist leaders accept all the tenets of the Chinese revolution. Their opponents can’t accept that there were any good features to the Chinese revolution. So you have a stalemate."

Stalemates like this are broken by dialogue, by investigating poor people’s perceptions of injustice and their reasons for rebellion.

And so back to the Bolt style of commentary. In print and on radio, Australian commentators who think that derision is a form of journalism should read Roy’s work and learn from her. Belittling those who ask "why?" and who tell unpalatable truths just fosters intolerance and avoids the real issues.

It is sad that for many people, the appearance of this issue in Bolt’s column will be all they know about the situation in central India. It is also disappointing that this single exposure to that situation is only about carrying on a dead battle of his, rather than shedding any kind of light on why these people feel they have no alternative but to take up arms and oppose forces which are killing them, dispossessing them and otherwise making their lives impossible.

I support Arundhati Roy’s brave advocacy of human rights. And I can say that Bolt did get one thing right: we are indeed proud that she once received the Sydney Peace Prize.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.