Literary Criticism

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others begins and ends with acts of extreme violence. The first is a murder-suicide committed in the mid-1960s by a West Bengal sharecropper who, ruined by drought and usury, sees in death a welcome escape from what he calls a “world of misery, of endless, endless misery” (2). The second is a terrorist attack perpetrated more than forty years later by a group of armed insurrectionists who intentionally target some 1,500 commuters as they travel by rail between Ajmer and Kolkata. These militants—members of a Maoist guerrilla army fighting against the multinational mining operations and development projects that have coordinated with the Indian state to forcibly expel Dalit and Adivasi communities (i.e., so-called ‘untouchables’ and the heterogeneous tribal groups that make up India’s indigenous population) from their traditional, resource-rich homelands—see in spectacular violence an alternative to suicide’s self-inflicted oblivion. Taken together, these acts frame a critique of how India’s neoliberal economic turn in the decades following the Cold War has exacerbated the rift between the subcontinent’s rural poor and the social, legal, and economic power that has historically consolidated around the issue of land rights. By bracketing his novel with scenes depicting violent acts of resistance against such exploitative socioeconomic practices, Mukherjee draws a straight line between the Naxalbari uprising of the late 1960s, which aimed to restore some semblance of economic and political equality between landowners and their debtor tenants, and the much more widespread Maoist insurgency that continues to spread throughout India’s vast hinterlands. The Lives of Others thus encourages its readers to think through the pervasive ideology of developmentalism to its core political problems, namely its corrosive effect on local sites of power and self-determination, and it’s systematic production of economic and political inequality.

Mukherjee figures India’s neoliberal turn as the expansion of a process, born of colonialism and accelerated under the aegis of ‘representative democracy,’ or what political scientist Raymond Aron more accurately defines as the “pluralist constitutional regime,” that actively redistributes collective wealth into the hands of a ruling elite (236). This ongoing redistribution functions both economically and politically, for whether under the heel of a colonial power or the influence of the market’s so-called ‘invisible hand,’ the expropriation of India’s natural resources has alienated millions of the rural poor (especially members of scheduled castes and tribes1) from both their land, which is their basic means of subsistence, and from what Jacques Rancière argues is democracy’s dual mission of bringing into existence “forms of organization of the material life of society that escape the logic of profit; and the existence of places for discussing collective interests that escape the monopoly of the expert government” (83). Such systematic dispossession, which is also a form of domination, generates acts of resistance that range from the largely invisible suicides committed by impoverished farmers to the spectacular terrorism planned and carried out by revolutionary factions seeking to upend India’s existing sociopolitical order. By laying bare the mechanisms by which these acts of domination and resistance meet, Mukherjee shifts our attention from the triumphalist narrative of India’s ascent as emerging superpower—or what the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls “India Shining”—to the contradiction between neoliberal economic development and democratic self-determination, a contradiction that threatens to unhinge demos from kratos, and thus undo the enlightened framework of the world’s most populous democracy. This rift all but negates what, properly understood, may be called democratic politics, for without access to land and the power to manage and distribute it as they see fit, whole classes of people are forced to the margins of a society administered by technocrats and for the benefit of corporate shareholders.

The inaugural act of violence in The Lives of Others occurs in its prologue, which, set in May 1966, follows Nitai Das as he walks the half mile between his landlord’s opulent, fortress-like home and his own destitute hovel. The walk is excruciating because, first, he is starving—having survived on a single meal a week for the past three years—as are his wife and three children; but it is also excruciating because he carries the shame of returning home empty-handed after another long morning of begging; and, finally, because he has just received a vicious beating from his landlord’s guards. While the landlord hopes the beating will deter Nitai’s persistent begging, his main purpose in ordering his guards to attack his tenant is to forecast “what lies in store for his children if he does not pay off the interest on his first loan” (2). But such threats lose their edge for those who believe themselves predestined to suffer dispossession and unrelenting poverty. “Who,” Nitai wonders, “can escape what’s written on his forehead from birth?” (2). The reference to one’s fate being written on the forehead is, as Eliza Kent explains in her essay “What’s Written on the Forehead Will Never Fail,” a persistent theme in Indian folklore and literature: “At the moment of birth, or on the night of the sixth day after birth, a god or goddess comes to write the destiny of the newborn child on its forehead. The destiny so inscribed often takes the form of a set of verses indicating the most important features of a person’s life: the kind of birth (that is, what caste and family they are born into), length of life, work occupation, level of poverty or affluence, and so forth” (2). And so, overcome by a sense of inevitability and shame at his family’s condition, Nitai returns to his home, seizes his sickle (a complex symbol of his dispossession2) and uses it to slaughter his wife and children before committing a final act of surrender—which is also an ironic act of defiance in the face of his landlord’s demands—by drinking deeply from a container of Folifol, a toxic pesticide, “until he too is returned from the nothing in his life to nothing” (3). Thus Nitai, metaphysically marked by his station in India’s post-Independence social order, symbolically joins the tens of thousands of Indian farmers who commit suicide each year.

That Mukherjee explicitly connects the superstitious belief in predetermination with the exploitative lending practices that worked to impoverish Nitai and his family is, by my reading of the novel, a shrewd commentary on the discourse of inevitability that so effectively advances neoliberal ideology. Market domination of the political and social spheres is presented as a given, and resistance to the rapid advance of global capitalism—no matter how insidious the results for the natural environment, historically vulnerable communities, and even the global middle class—is argued to be futile and, depending on what form the resistance takes (including, in many cases, peaceful protests), even criminal. This authoritarian concept of inevitability is what F.S. Michaels calls “monoculture”: the grand narrative of our time that positions economic efficiency as the central means of understanding human meaning and worth. Michaels explains: “The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story—one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it” (1-2). Today’s monoculture is economic, and economic concerns structure nearly every aspect of social and political life, including the viability—and even the desirability—of democracy. So long as democracy is perceived as conducive to efficient economic development, it is promoted and defended as an inherent virtue, but when it gets on the wrong side of neoliberal capitalism, democracy—especially in its most radical forms—is rejected as corrosive, backward-looking, and chaotic.

The perceived inevitability of neoliberalism and developmentalism dovetail in starkly anti-democratic ways. As C. Douglas Lummis notes in his remarkable book Radical Democracy: “In the ideology of development, the power of the metaphor is that it gives the impression that the projects being carried out under that ideology are natural, inevitable, and bring about the proper and predestined future of the entity being developed. Development is portrayed as something that will happen by itself as soon as the ‘obstacles to development’ are removed. In fact, virtually all of the changes that take place under the ideology of development are of an entirely different sort. Villagers are driven out and dams are built; forests are cut down and replaced by plantations; whole cultures are smashed and people are recruited into quite different cultures; local means of subsistence are taken away and people are placed under the power of the world market. […] Calling such activities ‘development’ conceals the fact that they are human choices, that is, activities that human beings are free not to do” (63). Yet to talk of being free to do or not to do is to speak the language of democracy, and democratic processes and institutions are some of the prime “obstacles to development” in the world today. This cynical view of democracy is something that Arundhati Roy makes explicit in her book about the Maoist insurgency in India, Walking with the Comrades, when she quotes India’s former Finance and Home Minister P. Chidambaram as saying, “One would have thought that the challenge of development—in a democracy—will become less formidable as the economy cruises on a high growth path. The reality is the opposite. Democracy—rather, the institutions of democracy—and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development” (168). Chidambaram’s sentiment couldn’t be clearer: Remove democracy, discredit socialism, and unleash the market.

Mukherjee’s novel focuses significant attention on anti-democratic economic practices in its central narrative, which tells the story of the union-busting Ghosh family and their failing paper mill business, but also in a parallel plot, which takes the form of Supratik Ghosh’s journals recounting his involvement in the Naxalite uprising. Supratik’s story is especially important, for it’s through his journal entries that Mukherjee contrasts the interests of India’s aspiring middle class with the struggles of the subcontinent’s chronically poor. It is also through Supratik’s journals that we see how the Dalit and Adivasi communities join with the more educated, affluent Maoists to fight against those individuals and institutions whose political power derives from anti-democratic economic practices. Indeed, Supratik is responsible for passing along the technical know-how that allows the twenty-first century Naxalites to bomb the Kolkata-Ajmer Express railroad in the concluding section of the novel. It’s with this spectacular act of terrorism that Mukherjee makes the connection between the uprisings of the 1960s and the now decades-long struggle against neoliberal development that continues to expropriate the natural resources and wealth of rural India. The novel’s initial act of violence, rendered private and all but invisible by the victim’s poverty, echoes through the narrative until it finds its answer in a carefully orchestrated act of violence that, by virtue of the sheer scale of its destructiveness, is designed to send shockwaves through Indian society, including its investment climate, in a way that Nitai’s suicide could never hope to accomplish. And there should be no mistake that, from the Indian government’s perspective, investment and development are precisely what are at stake in this violence. Here again, Roy quotes a prominent Indian official to make the point, this time former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said in a 2009 address to the Indian Parliament: “If Left Wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment” (174). The climate for investment is, as is so often the case in liberal democracies, of paramount concern, never mind the climate for self-determination.

Set in September 2012, the closing pages of The Lives of Others follow a group of Maoist militants as they assemble an explosive device along the railway connecting Kolkata, in India’s far east, to the north-western city of Ajmer. The expedition is led by Sabita Kumari, a young college-educated woman who abandoned her dream of becoming a school teacher after her sisters were raped and murdered because her “family had tried to resist the moneylenders’ attempts to take over their land” (501). Realizing that Indian democracy offers neither equality nor justice, she joined the Maoists: “When the little of her life had been reduced to nothing, the Party had held and rocked her in its iron cradle, told her that the nothing of her life could become a path, a straight, narrow, but tough one, at the end of which was a destination worth reaching” (501). These lines echo those that come at the moment of Nitai’s suicide—“he too is returned from the nothing of his life to nothing”—yet here we see Sabita’s destitution being channeled into revolutionary action rather than self-inflicted oblivion. Mukherjee further distinguishes Sabita from Nitai by connecting the tragic exploitation that destroyed her family to the mass dispossession of India’s tribal peoples, a dispossession carried out under overtly neoliberal imperatives. Mukherjee narrates how the Adivasis were “told that the land where their ancestors had lived from as far back in the past as the human mind could see is no longer theirs, but the state’s to do with as it wanted. They did not have a patta to prove ownership; the state did. Soon afterwards, policemen, contractors, officials spread out over it; their land was going to be mined; the earth there contained metals” (502). When the dispossessed join together and refuse to leave their ancestral homelands, the Indian state—beacon of democracy in South Asia—deploys the military police against them in a vicious counterinsurgency campaign: “The police were protecting the lawful property of the mining companies, the property that had been the tribal peoples’ last year or the year before; they had the right to use force against the tribals, for they were trespassers and outlaws now” (502). Thus the Maoists, and thus the bombs.

Mukherjee’s attitude toward the Naxalites is commensurate with Roy’s sympathetic treatment of the Maoist insurgency in Walking with the Comrades. Since the publication of her celebrated novel The God of Small Things, Roy has focused most of her writing on activism and politics—a shift that has recast her as both cause célèbre and political pariah—and Walking with the Comrades is perhaps her most controversial book. Published two years before Mukherjee’s novel, Walking with the Comrades recounts Roy’s experience traveling with Naxalite insurrectionaries through India’s Maoist-controlled forests, an area of the country that, in the parlance of “Operation Green Hunt,” the counter insurgency operation aimed at destroying the Naxalites, has been provocatively nick-named “Pakistan.” The book is controversial, in part at least, because Roy humanizes communities that are routinely disparaged and demonized in the Indian media. Individuals like Comrade Kamla and Comrade Venu, members of scheduled tribes who have joined forces with Maoist revolutionaries, split their time between organizing within their communities and actively engaging in armed conflict with representatives of India’s New Economic Policy—the police, the military, and private security forces and militias. Yet in Roy’s narrative they are sweet, good-humored people driven to extremism by systematic violence and injustice. It’s this latter fact that most disturbs some of Roy’s readers, for though she ostensibly rejects violence in all its forms, she also suggests that the Naxalites have been so deeply dispossessed—materially and politically—that violence has become the sole means of survival. She explains: “I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A real hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy—who find it easy to say ‘There Is No Alternative’—should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution in this country should they approach?” (88). Roy’s position is difficult, yes, and controversial, but it is also a devastating critique of Indian democracy’s failure to empower its most vulnerable citizens. According to her view, the Dalits and Adivasi are funneled into Maoism by a purportedly democratic society in which corporations, political parties, and the media—indeed the entire social climate—are complicit in a massive attack on what little autonomy these people have historically enjoyed.

This view carries over directly into the concluding pages of The Lives of Others, pages in which Mukherjee challenges his readers to imagine the desperate position in which so many Naxalites have found themselves as a result of India’s ongoing modernization: “The same story—forest-tribes banished after their land was sold by the state to mining companies; those meant to protect you turned into your attackers. Imagine coming home one day to find that your parents were waiting with knives to slaughter you. That is what the Maoists said when the tribes escaped into the forests to protect themselves from the military police. They had a choice: to be snuffed out overnight by the world or take on the world and wrest something from it; not very much, just a little, just to survive and live like a human, not an animal” (502). This is not to argue that Maoism is the appropriate model for democracy, but rather that both Roy and Mukherjee, two of India’s finest Anglophone writers, are making powerful connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the neoliberal belief in ever-increasing privatization as a means to widespread economic growth. The double enclosure of market privatization, which subjects the material life of society to the rule of multinational investors, and government monopoly, which relegates decisions regarding collective interests to a technocratic bureaucracy, produces growing economic inequality and political disenfranchisement. It is precisely in violating this enclosure that the beginnings of radical democracy occur. Following Rancière’s thinking: “The democratic movement, then, is in fact a double movement of transgressing limits: a movement for extending the equality of public man to other domains of life in common, and particularly to all those that govern the limitlessness of capitalist wealth; another movement for reaffirming the belonging of anyone and everyone to that incessantly privatized public sphere” of governmental/legal decision making (57-58). Roy and Mukherjee are clearly eager for such transgression to occur, and by presenting their readers with narratives of domination and resistance, they beg the difficult question: If Maoism is to be rejected, than what is the alternative to restoring the power of self-determination to the Dalits and Adivasi in the face of such overwhelming odds? Democracy itself would seem to be the answer, yet the world’s most powerful democracies continue to serve as the central purveyors of neoliberal developmentalism. This, then, is the challenge and the value of their works, for they force a re-evaluation of what democracy means in this increasingly monocultural world.

Note: I presented a version of this essay at the Hellenic Association for the Study of English’s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture,” in Thessaloniki, Greece on May 17, 2015.

  1. Approximately 250 million members of India’s rural population live in chronic poverty, 80% of whom belong to scheduled castes and tribes. Their poverty is exacerbated by both direct and indirect consequences of India’s neoliberal economic development, including environmental degradation, water and fish-stock shortages, increased vulnerability to natural disasters, and—especially for the nation’s forest-dwelling tribal people—loss of entitlement to natural resources. For more on these figures, as well as root causes of India’s endemic poverty, see Census of India 2011: Rural Urban Distribution of Population and the section on India in the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s Rural Poverty Portal.
  2. Without land, Nitai’s sickle is divested of value as a means of production and is thus reduced to, first, a reminder of his subservience to his landlord and, second, an instrument of death rather than a life-affirming harvesting tool. The sickle does, of course, summon images of the Grim Reaper, as it does the iconic Soviet-style hammer and sickle, which has a closer relationship to the novel’s events, but the true power of the symbol in this context is its transformation from Nitai’s source of livelihood to the instrument of his destruction.