For a while, it seemed like the internet would make books of investigative journalism a thing of the past. Now that nearly every news story is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, it's impossible to "break" anything through a publishing house. The era of reporters like Ida B. Wells (who took on racism and lynching in the South), Ida Tarbell (who took on Standard Oil), and Jacob Riis (who took on poverty) was, supposedly, seeing its sunset.
As it turned out, the 24/7 news cycle favored shallow scoops instead of deep truths, and it inspired some writers to return to the old-school ethos: Don't break it first, break it best. The most important stories aren't a game of tag. They are archaeological expeditions.
Which brings us to Walking with the Comrades by Arundhati Roy, a collection of three essays about how mining companies, the Indian government, and some significant sectors of the Indian media are conspiring to displace tens of millions of adivasi people (forest- and hill-dwellers who may or may not be the aboriginal, pre-Aryan inhabitants of the land) for the minerals beneath their feet. It is also about Maoist guerillas who've set up shop across the contested territory and are, depending on who's talking, either (a) arming and training the adivasi to fight for their lives, or (b) exploiting the adivasi in a long quest for violent overthrow of the state of India.
But the truth of a polarized story usually lies somewhere in the middle, and that's where Roy hovers. Since her 1996 novel The God of Small Things made her famous, she has become an essayist and polemicist of intense controversy, alternately loathed and lionized for her scathing essays about India, Israel, the United States, Afghanistan, Kashmiri independence, the Tamil Tigers, and lots of other stuff. But let's strip all of that away and look at Walking with the Comrades on its own terms.
The first essay sets up the historical context: how international mining companies saw trillions of dollars of minerals in adivasi land and how that set a long-simmering fight between Maoists and the Indian government on a boil, dragging tens of millions of poor country folks into the battle—a few sided with the government, joining police and paramilitary forces. More, according to Roy, joined the Maoists. There have been assassinations and counterassassinations, massacres and counterstrikes, rape and terror in the forests. The government says they're just trying to fight an "internal security threat." The Maoists say the adivasi are simply protecting themselves against an unconstitutional landgrab. This is the nut of Roy's story:
To get the bauxite out of the flat-topped hills, to get iron ore out from under the forest floor... India has to become a police state. The government has to militarize. To justify that militarization, it needs an enemy. The Maoists are the enemy. They are to corporate fundamentalists what the Muslims are to Hindu fundamentalists... Here's a math question: If it takes 600,000 soldiers to hold down the tiny valley of Kashmir, how many will it take to contain the mounting rage of hundreds of millions of people?
The action begins in the second essay when someone slips a note under Roy's door, telling her to come to a certain village "at any four times on two given days" to meet someone with a "cap, Hindi Outlook magazine, and bananas." So she begins her days-long walk through the jungle with "India's biggest internal security challenge" and gets to know the men and women of the guerilla army (it's surprisingly integrated), hears their stories, and watches how the simplest rural acts, like harvesting crops, require military backup to protect them from paramilitaries and government troops.
The final essay looks to the future and how the current conflict over mining has degraded not only the military and government but the press. She cites one investigative story (the book is full of footnotes and citations) about how the police plant articles in otherwise reputable press outlets, and one case of an "identically-worded story" about how the Maoists run an "empire" of ill-gotten gains, "filed under the byline of different reporters in several different newspapers."
The combined force of Roy's research in long-form essays, from digging through documents to her sojourn in the forest, lands its punch so much harder than any compilation of short articles on the subject. Walking with the Comrades has lessons for the Occupy debate as well, regarding tactics, ideology, and how a diversity of insurrection is sometimes more valuable than uniformity. Its strength of contextual understanding, specificity in reporting, and allowance for ambiguity—there are no "good guys" in this story, only better or worse guys—puts it on a level with the great investigative books of the pre-internet past.