The Politics of Arundhati’s ‘Genocide Affirmation’

Depicting Mao as the Author of the Biggest Political Genocide?

Gilbert Sebastian

Arundhati Roy’s article, “Listening to Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial and Celebration” (Outlook 4 February 2008) might have, by now, lost its news-value but we hope, the concerns raised should have abiding interest.

Her analysis in a powerful style on the project of ‘union and progress’, the majoritarian quest for an expanded lebensraum (living space), we believe, is much closer to reality than the standard media reporting and academic analyses that seek to skirt a stark depiction of ‘the unthinkable’, trying to present “a more ‘balanced’ happier world” (58). The article was timely in the context of the emergence of Narendra Modi himself as the projected future fuehrer of the Hindutva movement in India.

It has not been really helpful analytically to say, “It’s an old human habit, genocide is.” (52). The increasing incidences of genocides in the era of imperialism (capitalism in its oligopolist stage) needs to be taken note of. The processes of identity formation – cultural construction and demonisation of ‘the Other’ as an object of hatred, perhaps has been an old habit, across different stages of development of human society.

In the case of the Hindutva movement in India, its relationship to neo-liberal globalisation needs to be recognised. Why have the greatest mass murders in India of recent times – the riots following the December 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid and the Gujarat carnage in early 2002 coincided with the neo-liberal reforms initiated since 1991? How the majoritarian Hindutva nationalism complements the project of accumulation of the Indian and global, swadeshi and videshi dominant classes is a question that needs closer scrutiny. A substantial segment of the dominant classes have recognised Hindutva as a viable integrationist principle for articulating the pan-Indian big nation chauvinism. They would take recourse to a Hindutva hardline when their crisis is at its deepest.

Apart from these little reflections based on Arundhati’s article, the most important point we would like to raise here is that having read the article by Arundhati, one is struck by a deep sense of remorse, not because of any inherent impulse at genocide denial but by her very foreclosure of political alternatives or the absence of mention of any collective human agency that could take us beyond the cynical state of the present to a hopeful future of possibilities.

Can we pin our hopes on the ‘left’? Not, of course, on the left that is the left-over of the Nandigram carnage – if we go by the implications of Arundhati’s analysis; and of course, not on a movement with “the ghost of Chairman Mao himself” as its “helmsman”. Obviously because according to her, he has been the author of the biggest of the political genocides in history that she has mentioned. They are: “Suharto in Indonesia (1 million), Pol Pot in Cambodia (1.5 million), Stalin in the Soviet Union (60 million), Mao in China (70 million)” (52). In a cavalier manner, she provides no further explanation of where she got these figures from, as though these were self-evident truths.

It was easier to find many skulls and skeletons in the Soviet Union after the great anti-fascist war. Moreover, the Stalinist line of crushing internal dissent is well-acknowledged. This has, however, not been the case in Maoist China and no one until recently said it so. Arundhati surpasses the figure of 30 million who according to Amartya Sen had perished in China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, the agricultural collectivisation drive that happened to coincide with a drought. This itself is a keenly debated claim. (Joan Hinton who was young and active in China during these years had told me in 1996 that she had come across cases of malnutrition and not deaths there during this period.) Whether particular social/political processes can be blamed on an individual leaderships also remains a question besides. Notably, when ‘the Chinese people stood up’, it was not their great achievements in poverty alleviation and agricultural growth within a brief span of time that attracted the attention of Amartya or Arundhati but a famine/genocide. Arundhati cannot be accused of ‘genocide denial’ but its very opposite – ‘genocide affirmation’. Can genocide affirmation have its politics as well? Placating liberal opinion? It may also be recalled that even as the excesses and deviations by the Communist Party of Kampuchea are infamous, the skulls displayed on visual media as having been the victims of Pol Pot’s atrocities had, on scientific examination, turned out to be not even Kampuchean skulls and did not correspond to the period of the alleged genocide.

Condescendingly does Arundhati grant some autonomy of agency to the Indian “footsoldiers” following Mao: “The ray of hope is that many of the footsoldiers don’t know who he is. Or what he did.” (60). Mao Zedong taught us the greatest of the truths of Marxism, ‘It is right to rebel’. But can and should rebellion be equated to genocide? Millions of people look up to Mao as their guiding light for revolutions in countries under the yoke of both imperialism and pre-capitalist social relations. It, therefore, becomes a pressing need for all opponents of revolution to slur the image of Mao and if possible, demonise him. And they rest assure that the corporate Communist regime in China today is not going to bring out authentic historical facts to defend Mao.

In her well-known article on displacement through big dams, “The Greater Common Good”, Arundhati had likewise criticised Mao for initiating big dams. Although it is well accepted today that big dams are environmentally hazardous – and we do need to reject Mao in this respect – mainstream environmental consciousness on this count, as far as we know, was non-existent in Maoist China. It may be recalled that mainstream environmental consciousness even in the West had its origins only in early 1960s, probably, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) which recounted the horrors of the use of pesticides. In any case, China’s record of rehabilitating the displaced people presents a happy contrast to the dubious distinction India has earned in this respect.

It is sad that Arundhati, with her pro-people orientation, should figure among the antagonists of Mao. A reading of Mao’s writing, ‘On Contradiction’ (to cite only one), itself can be an evidence of what he stood for. We would like to cite this one because this is against the very grain of identity-based antagonisms among sections of the masses promoted by those in positions of power and privilege that have even culminated in genocides. Mao Zedong’s golden words during the Cultural Revolution, ‘Never forget class struggle’ will continue to ring in our ears’.

Gilbert Sebastian can be reached at:


  1. It is important to understand that Arundhati Roy in her ‘Listening to grasshoppers’ was strictly talking w.r.t. the politics in India, and how it has taken shape post the neoliberal economic reforms of 1991, which opened the economy of the country to the world. What has followed is loss of jobs in disorganized sectors, public sectors; suicide by farmers, a resounding 17000+ annually since the last four or five years. The middle-class has grown and accumulated wealth. The gap has grown further b/w them and the poor. Before 1991, we had state-sponsored capitalism coz of which the wealth of the rich increased a several hundred folds since independence in 1947. Post it, capitalism is driven by the corporations of the west.

    Yes, she does sadden you in that she does not give you an alternative. But I think that is the work of a deeply philosophical, political thinker, like say, Chomsky. I think one of the problems in my country is that we don’t have a Chomsky to seriously criticize the state and its policies. Arundhati Roy, I reckon is the face of political activism in India in the west, and she has done good work — she has informed some of the oblivious middle-class of the country — “busy watching cricket matches and Bollywood movies” — of the plight of those many Indians whom the mainstream media — both print and electronic — and the Govt. marginalize.

  2. Manoranjan Mohanty says:

    Arundhati Roy’s ref to Mao is factually wrong and politically unfortunate. Mao may have committed many mistakes, but he led one of world’s most successful revolutions and presented a philosophical outlook on social transformation that is continuously self-correcting. On Contradiction and On Practice are two invaluable contributions. We apply this Marxist method today to persist in class struggle while linking it to struggles against caste, race, gender and environmental exploitation.

    Factually speaking the famine death figures are uncertain and even Amartya Sen’s 3 million to 30 million mentioned in different places has no basis. The Chinese official documents only talk about ‘large-scale’ or ’several tens of thousands’ deaths.

    To claim that the Maoist cadres do not know about Mao is ridiculous. They all are familiar with the basic ideas of Mao Zedong Thought.

    At a time when a Maoist Party has achieved victory in Nepal as one of the the most important forces of democracy and peace in South Asia Arundhati Roy’s opinion needs to be frontally challenged. This in no way should affect our seeking her continuing solidarity with us in the people’s democratic causes.

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