A revolutionary speaks

by f

For better or for worse, Arundati Roy never ceases to amaze me.

The following is from her piece in Outlook India on the upsurge of Maoist activity in India, and what it means for capitalism in that country.

It was early spring, the sun was sharp, but still civilised. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but it’s true: you could smell the protest from a fair distance. It was the accumulated odour of a thousand human bodies that had been dehumanised, denied the basic necessities for human (or even animal) health and hygiene for years, if not a whole lifetime. Bodies that had been marinated in the refuse of our big cities, bodies that had no shelter from the harsh weather, no access to clean water, clean air, sanitation or medical care. No part of this great country, none of the supposedly progressive schemes, no single urban institution has been designed to accommodate them. Not the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, not any other slum development, employment guarantee or welfare scheme. Not even the sewage system—they shit on top of it. They are shadow people, who live in the cracks that run between schemes and institutions. They sleep on the streets, eat on the streets, make love on the streets, give birth on the streets, are raped on the streets, cut their vegetables, wash their clothes, raise their children, live and die on the streets.
If the motion picture were an art form that involved the olfactory senses—in other words, if cinema smelled—then films like Slumdog Millionaire would not win Oscars. The stench of that kind of poverty wouldn’t blend with the aroma of warm popcorn.

The people at the protest in Jantar Mantar that day were not even slum dogs, they were pavement-dwellers. Who were they? Where had they come from? They were the refugees of India’s shining, the people who are being sloshed around like toxic effluent in a manufacturing process that has gone berserk. The representatives of the more than sixty million people who have been displaced, by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminium smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3,300 big dams built since Independence and now by Special Economic Zones. They’re part of the 830 million people of India who live on less than twenty rupees a day, the ones who starve while millions of tonnes of foodgrain is either eaten by rats in government warehouses or burnt in bulk (because it is cheaper to burn food than to distribute it to poor people). They are the parents of the tens of millions of malnourished children in our country, of the two million who die every year before they reach the age of five. They are the millions who make up the chain-gangs that are transported from city to city to build the New India. Is this what is known as enjoying the “fruits of modern development”?

What must they think, these people, about a government that sees fit to spend nine billion dollars of public money (2,000 per cent more than the initial estimate) for a two-week sports extravaganza which, for fear of terrorism, malaria, dengue and New Delhi’s new superbug, many international athletes have refused to attend? Which the Queen of England, titular head of the Commonwealth, would not consider presiding over, not even in her most irresponsible dreams. What must they think of the fact that most of those billions have been stolen and salted away by politicians and Games officials? Not much, I guess. Because for people who live on less than twenty rupees a day, money on that scale must seem like science fiction. It probably doesn’t occur to them that it’s their money. That’s why corrupt politicians in India never have a problem sweeping back into power, using the money they stole to buy elections. (Then, they feign outrage and ask, “Why don’t the Maoists stand for elections?”)

Standing there, in that dim crowd on that bright day, I thought of all the struggles that are being waged by people in this country—against big dams in the Narmada Valley, Polavaram, Arunachal Pradesh; against mines in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand; against the police by the adivasis of Lalgarh; against the grabbing of their lands for industries and special economic zones all over the country. How many years (and in how many ways) people have fought to avoid just such a fate. I thought of Maase, Narmada, Roopi, Nity, Mangtu, Madhav, Saroja, Raju, Gudsa Usendi and Comrade Kamala (my young bodyguard during the time I spent with the Maoists in the jungle) with their guns slung over their shoulders. I thought of the great dignity of the forest I had so recently walked in and the rhythm of the adivasi drums at the Bhumkal celebration in Bastar, like the soundtrack of the quickening pulse of a furious nation.

I thought of Padma with whom I travelled to Warangal. She is only in her 30s but when she walks up stairs, she has to hold the banister and drag her body behind her. She was arrested just a week after she had had an appendix operation. She was beaten until she had an internal haemorrhage and had to have several organs removed. When they cracked her knees, the police explained helpfully that it was to make sure “she would never walk in the jungle again”. She was released after serving an eight-year sentence. Now she runs the ‘Amarula Bhadhu Mitrula Committee’, the Committee of Relatives and Friends of Martyrs. It retrieves the bodies of people killed in fake encounters. Padma spends her time criss-crossing northern Andhra Pradesh, in whatever transport she can find, usually a tractor, transporting the corpses of people whose parents or spouses are too poor to make the journey to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.

The tenacity, the wisdom and the courage of those who have been fighting for years, for decades, to bring change, or even the whisper of justice to their lives, is something extraordinary. Whether people are fighting to overthrow the Indian State, or fighting against Big Dams, or only fighting a particular steel plant or mine or SEZ, the bottomline is that they are fighting for their dignity, for the right to live and smell like human beings. They are fighting because, as far as they are concerned, “the fruits of modern development” stink like dead cattle on the highway.

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