While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don't mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.
So, is there life after democracy?
Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: 'Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia...is that what you would prefer?'
Indelible mark: Campaigns like this one appealed to the middle class’s sense of ‘cool’
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahminical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, 'apply-through-proper-channels' nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world's favourite new Superpower. Repression 'through proper channels' sometimes engenders resistance 'through proper channels'. As resistance goes this isn't enough, I know. But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.
'Listening to Grasshoppers', the essay from which this collection draws its title, was a lecture I gave in Istanbul in January 2008 on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was shot down on the street outside his office for daring to raise a subject that is forbidden in Turkey—the 1915 genocide of Armenians in which more than one million people were killed. My lecture was about the history of genocide and genocide denial, and the old, almost organic relationship between 'progress' and genocide.
Big game: Over ten billion dollars are believed to have been spent in the recent elections
The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely. Millions of people who lived in remote villages and deep in the heart of untouched forests, some of whom had never heard of Berlin or the Soviet Union, could not have imagined how events that occurred in those faraway places would affect their lives. The process of their dispossession and displacement had already begun in the early 1950s, when India opted for the Soviet-style development model in which huge steel plants (Bhilai, Bokaro) and large dams (thousands of them) would occupy the 'commanding heights' of the economy. The era of privatisation and structural adjustment accelerated that process at a mind-numbing speed.
Already forests, mountains and water systems are being ravaged by marauding multinational corporations, backed by a State that has lost its moorings and is committing what can only be called 'ecocide'. In eastern India, bauxite and iron ore mining is destroying whole ecosystems, turning fertile land into desert. In the Himalayas, hundreds of high dams are being planned, the consequences of which can only be catastrophic. In the plains, embankments built along rivers, ostensibly to control floods, have led to rising river beds, causing even more flooding, more waterlogging, more salinisation of agricultural land and the destruction of livelihoods of millions of people. Most of India's holy rivers, including the Ganga, have been turned into unholy drains that carry more sewage and industrial effluent than water. Hardly a single river runs its course and meets the ocean.
Unsustainable: Big dam projects, like this one in Tehri, find widespread support
Based on the absurd notion that a river flowing into the sea is a waste of water, the Supreme Court, in an act of unbelievable hubris, has arbitrarily ordered that India's rivers be interlinked, like a mechanical water supply system. Implementing this would mean tunnelling through mountains and forests, altering natural contours and drainage systems of river basins and destroying deltas and estuaries. In other words, wrecking the ecology of the entire subcontinent. (B.N. Kirpal, the judge who passed this order, joined the environmental board of Coca-Cola after he retired. Nice touch!)
Looming spectre: The widow of a Vidarbha farmer who committed suicide
It's as though an ancient society, decaying under the weight of feudalism and caste, was churned in a great machine. The churning has ripped through the mesh of old inequalities, recalibrating some of them but reinforcing most. Now the old society has curdled and separated into a thin layer of thick cream—and a lot of water. The cream is India's 'market' of many million consumers (of cars, cell phones, computers, Valentine's Day greeting cards), the envy of international business. The water is of little consequence. It can be sloshed around, stored in holding ponds, and eventually drained away.
Or so they think, the men in suits. They didn't bargain for the violent civil war that has broken out in India's heartland: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal.
Coming back to 1989. As if to illustrate the connection between 'Union' and 'Progress', at exactly the same time that the Congress government was opening up India's markets to international finance, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in the opposition, began its virulent campaign of Hindu nationalism (popularly known as 'Hindutva'). In 1990, its leader, L.K. Advani, travelled across the country, whipping up hatred against Muslims and demanding that the Babri Masjid, an old 16th-century mosque that stood on a disputed site in Ayodhya, be demolished and a Ram temple built in its place. In 1992, a mob, egged on by Advani, demolished the mosque. Feeding off the communal frenzy it had generated, the BJP, which had only two seats in Parliament in 1984, defeated the Congress in 1998 and came to power at the Centre.
(In representative democracies, once they're elected, the people's representatives are free to break their promises and change their minds.)
In February 2002, following the burning of a train coach in which 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned alive, the BJP government in Gujarat, led by chief minister Narendra Modi, presided over a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state. The Islamophobia generated all over the world by the September 11, 2001, attacks put the wind in their sails. The machinery of the state of Gujarat stood by and watched while more than 2,000 people were massacred. Gujarat has always been a communally tense state. There had been riots before. But this was not a riot. It was a genocidal massacre, and though the number of victims was insignificant compared to the horror of say Rwanda, Sudan or the Congo, the Gujarat carnage was designed as a public spectacle whose aims were unmistakable. It was a public warning to Muslim citizens from the government of the world's favourite democracy.
As this book goes to press, the nearly two-billion-dollar 2009 general election has just been concluded. That's a lot more than the budget of the US elections. According to some media reports, the actual amount spent is closer to ten billion dollars. Where, might one ask, does that kind of money come from?
The Congress and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have won a comfortable majority. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent of the independent candidates who stood for elections lost. Clearly, without sponsorship it's hard to win an election. And independent candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes, those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced to.
Victory?: A Congress worker celebrates the recent UPA victory as a CPI(M) worker looks on
When you take a closer look at the calculus that underlies election results, words like 'comfortable' and 'majority' turn out to be deceptive, if not outright inaccurate. For instance, the actual share of votes polled by the UPA in these elections works out to only 10.3 per cent of the country's population! It's interesting how the cleverly layered mathematics of electoral democracy can turn a tiny minority into a thumping mandate. Anyway, be that as it may, the point is that it will not be L.K. Advani, hate-monger incarnate, but secular Dr Manmohan Singh, gentle architect of the market reforms, a man who has never won an election in his life, who will be prime minister of the world's largest democracy for a second term.
Tribal war: Chhattisgarh has pitted tribespeople against their own through the Salwa Judum
In the run-up to the polls, there was absolute consensus across party lines about the economic 'reforms'. Govindacharya, formerly the chief ideologue of the BJP, progenitor of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, sarcastically suggested that the Congress and BJP form a coalition. In some states they already have. In Chhattisgarh, for example, the BJP runs the government and Congress politicians run the Salwa Judum, a vicious government-backed 'people's militia'. The Judum and the government have formed a joint front against the Maoists in the forests who are engaged in a deadly and often brutal armed struggle against displacement and against land acquisition by corporations waiting to set up steel factories and to begin mining iron ore, tin and all the other wealth stashed below the forest floor. So, in Chhattisgarh, we have the remarkable spectacle of the two biggest political parties of India in an alliance against the Adivasis of Dantewada, India's poorest, most vulnerable people. Already 644 villages have been emptied. Fifty thousand people have moved into Salwa Judum camps. Three hundred thousand are hiding in the forests and are being called Maoist terrorists or sympathisers. The battle is raging, and the corporations are waiting.
It is significant that India is one of the countries that blocked a European move in the UN asking for an international probe into war crimes that may have been committed by the government of Sri Lanka in its recent offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Governments in this part of the world have taken note of Israel's Gaza blueprint as a good way of dealing with 'terrorism': keep the media out and close in for the kill. That way they don't have to worry too much about who's a 'terrorist' and who isn't. There may be a little flurry of international outrage, but it goes away pretty quickly.
Things do not augur well for the forest-dwelling people of Chhattisgarh.
Sparing none: ‘Development’ and ‘Progress’ have left our rivers stinking and polluted
In its time in office, in order to mitigate the devastation caused by its economic policies, the former Congress regime passed three progressive (critics call them populist and controversial) parliamentary acts. The Forest Rights Act (which gave forest-dwellers legal right to land and the traditional use of forest produce), the Right to Information Act and, most important of all, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The NREGA guarantees every rural family a hundred days of work (hard, manual labour) a year at minimum wages. It amounts to an average of Rs 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough for a good meal in a restaurant, including wine and dessert. Imagine how hellish times must be for even that tiny amount of money to come as a relief to millions of people who are reeling under the impact of the precipitous loss of their lands and their livelihoods. (Talk about crumbs from the high table. But then, which one of us has the heart, or the right, to argue that no crumbs are better than crumbs? Or, indeed, that no elections are better than meaningless elections?) Implementing the NREGA, seeing that the crumbs actually reach the people they're meant for, has occupied all the time and energy of some of India's finest and most committed social activists for the last several years. They have had to battle cartels of corrupt government officers, power-brokers and middlemen. They have faced threats and a fair amount of violence. One rural activist in Jharkhand immolated himself in anger and frustration at the injustice of it all.
Caught in a cleft: Despite democracy, Kashmir finds it impossible to speak what it thinks
For the sake of argument, let's for a moment contemplate the absurd and accept that India Inc and the Captains of Industry are right and that India's millions did in fact vote for the speeding up of market 'reforms'. Is that good news or bad news? Should we be celebrating the fact that millions of people who have something to teach the world, who have another imagination, another worldview and a more sustainable way of life, have decided to embrace a discredited ideology, one that has pushed this planet into a crisis from which it may never recover?
What good will forest rights be when there are no forests? What good will the Right to Information do if there is no redress for our grievances? What good are rivers without water? What good are plains without mountains to water and sustain them? It's as though we're hurtling down a cliff in a bus without brakes and fighting over what songs to sing.
'Jai Ho!' perhaps?
For better or for worse, the 2009 elections seem to have ensured that the 'Progress' project is up and running. However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the 'Union' project has fallen by the wayside.
Varun is a modern politician, working the democratic system, doing everything he can to create a majority and consolidate his votebank. A politician needs a votebank, like a corporation needs a mass market. Both need help from the mass media. Corporations buy that help. Politicians must earn it. Some earn it by dint of hard work, others with dangerous circus stunts. Varun's hate speech bought him national headlines. His brief stint in prison (for violating the Election Commission's code of conduct), cut short by a court order, made him an instant martyr. He was gently chastised for his impetuousness by his party elders (on TV, for public consumption). But then, in order to export his coarse appeal, he, like Narendra Modi, was flown around in a chopper as a star campaigner for the BJP in other constituencies.
Varun Gandhi won his election with a colossal margin. It makes you wonder—are 'the people' always right? It is worrying to think what lessons the BJP will draw from its few decisive victories and its many decisive losses in this election. In several of the constituencies where it has won, hate speech (and deed) served it well. It still remains by far the second largest political party, with a powerful national presence, the only real challenge to the Congress. It will certainly live to fight another day. The question is, will it turn the burners up or down?
Sting of acid: Despite (or due to) his hatespeak, Varun Gandhi won the elections from Pilibhit
This said, it would be a travesty to lay all the blame for divisive politics at the door of the BJP. Whether it's nuclear tests, the unsealing of the locks of the Babri Masjid, the culture of creating fissures and pitting castes and communities against each other, or passing retrograde laws, the Congress got there first and has never been shy of keeping the ball in play. In the past, both parties have used massacres to gain political mileage. Sometimes they feast off them obliquely, sometimes they accuse each other of committing mass murder. In this election, both the Congress and the BJP brazenly fielded candidates believed to be involved in public lynching and mass murder. At no point has either seen to it that the guilty are punished or that justice is delivered. Despite their vicious public exchange of accusations, so far they have colluded to protect one another from real consequences.
Eventually the massacres get absorbed into the labyrinth of India's judicial system where they are left to bubble and ferment before being trundled out as campaign material for the next election. You could say it's all a part of the fabric of Indian democracy. Hard to see from a train window. Whether the new infusion of young blood into the Congress will change the old party's methods of doing business remains to be seen.
As will be obvious from the essays in this book, the hoary institutions of Indian democracy—the judiciary, the police, the 'free' press and, of course, elections—far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite.
They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.
Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hardcore. It cuts across every section of the establishment—including the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia and even Bollywood.
Perhaps the story of the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the cold—from frostbite and sunburn. The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war, thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice-axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly. While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They're good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. .. it's a long list.) The glacial melt will cause severe floods in the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight. We'll need more weapons. Who knows, that sort of consumer confidence may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession. Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life—and the glaciers will melt even faster.
While I read 'Listening to Grasshoppers' to a tense audience packed into a university auditorium in Istanbul (tense because words like unity, progress, genocide and Armenian tend to anger the Turkish authorities when they are uttered close together), I could see Rakel Dink, Hrant Dink's widow, sitting in the front row, crying the whole way through. When I finished, she hugged me and said, "We keep hoping. Why do we keep hoping?"
We, she said. Not you.
The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung so hauntingly by Abida Parveen, came to me:
Nahin nigah main manzil to justaju hi sahi,
Nahin wisaal mayassar to arzu hi sahi
I tried to translate them for her (sort of):
If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place,
If reunion is impossible, then longing must take its place.
You see what I meant about poetry?
[Adapted from Roy's Introduction to her new book of collected essays, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, published this month by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)]
In her latest essay (Democracy’s Failing Light, Jul 13), despite her convoluted writing style that borders on the cynical, Arundhati Roy has made an honest assessment of the state of the Union, of present-day India and its socio-politico-economic manifestations. Ever since Lord Macaulay introduced an education system designed to produce able but subservient babus, our collective consciousness was condemned to remain thus. Like Lord Macaulay, our ruling class is equally clear about sustaining the “demon-crazy” that allows them to plunder our resources. V. Muthuswami, Chennai
I began to read Arundhati’s article with hope, but it soon turned to dismay, for the lyrical voice of yesteryear has become a shrill vehicle for old cliches. Who does not know that democracy has its failures the world over and that the Indian version has its own shortcomings? But what are Ms Roy’s solutions? None, it seems. She seems to have learned little over the years since she won the Booker. Dr Vijaya Rajiva, Cote St Luke, Quebec
Thank god for Arundhati Roy’s outrage, and thanks to Outlook for giving her space. Devika Narayan, Mumbai
Pity Arundhati was imprisoned just for two days. P.R. Pear, Mumbai
I wish to congratulate Ms Roy, and you, for achieving yet new heights in the use of shrill rhetoric and obscurantism. Ms Roy reminds me of the ass from the Panchatantra who dressed up in a lion’s skin, only to be found out when he brayed lustily at the full moon. I should warn Ms Roy of the “feral howl” she so viscerally wants to let out. The article is a good example of muddle-headed prolixity. Take away the wreaths of gilded prose and what is one left with? All that she tells us is that a system is as good as the people running it. Now, who doesn’t know that? Anang Sen, on e-mail
Roy has emerged from hibernation without losing any fat! Dip, on e-mail
Bravo! There should be a national debate on this essay. Debasis Mandal, Calcutta
Another year, another lengthy, regular-like-clockwork, 14-page rant filled with no solutions. A mere retelling of world affairs mixed with subjective jeremiad. Clearly, nothing’s changed with Arundhati. Ninad Huilgol, Sunnyvale
Nice to know that our Maharani of Intellectual Angst, Ms Arundhati Roy, is back in action. Her latest tirade against democracy has all the usual suspects—Narendra Modi and rabid Hindutva, P. Chidambaram and the unfeeling police state, the predatory animal called the Free Market, Kashmir, the looming threat of fascism, and now, the civil war in the heartlands. Every six months or so, she needs a new hobby horse to showcase her talent for polemic. Like Fukuyama and Chomsky, she begins with a sweeping question—“What have we done to democracy?” But a thought leader like Fukuyama and Chomsky she is not, so after a few paragraphs, as in most of her political writings, she veers into a rambling diatribe against the Indian state and the free market. But whether one agrees with her or not, one has to admit that the lady does write well and has an enviable talent for turning a phrase and for self-promotion. Sivaram Srikandath, Kochi
Another rant by the one-trick pony. High on verbiage, low on content. Pankaj Vaishnavi, London
Like her previous articles, I loved this one too by Arundhati Roy. Shiv Kumar, on e-mail
I may not agree with all of Arundhati’s views, but think we need people like her to put across views from the other end of the spectrum. My only issue is that in her efforts to be different, she has ended up becoming biased. Ajay, Troy, US
Arundhati Roy has appointed herself the chief wailer about all things Indian, not unlike the professional wailers who accompany rich men’s funerals in Egypt, beating their breasts in simulated grief. Nothing in India passes muster with her. That she has a soft corner for anarchists, whether it be terrorists in Kashmir or Naxalites in the rest of India, perhaps shows her own covert aspirations. But can beautiful prose camouflage the sick odour of self-flagellation? Shyamal Mukherji, Mumbai
Ms Roy gives a wrong impression of India’s recent past. She says mncs, backed by the state, are committing ecocide. But this is not true, for she talks as if the tribals are completely happy with the lifestyle they lead. In fact, many of them suffer from diseases modern medicine can easily cure. Verrier Elwin gives the example of a tribal who says his brother is lucky because he has been convicted for murder and will have rice daily in jail. In many places abroad, mining has been accompanied by simultaneous greening efforts, which is what should be done in India, rather than doing away with mining altogether. And she describes the middle class as punch-drunk on sudden wealth. This is excessive criticism: most young professionals send money home, educate others, and so forth. How did she get the impression they are evil? I do agree, however, with her on what happened in Gujarat. K.T. Thampi, Mumbai
The problem with democracy is the absence of God. I agree that more violence has been done in the name of religion than any other reason, but that’s because the question of the truth about God is never tabled or answered. When man makes himself God, it proceeds on the thin moral that “might is right”. I believe the question of who is our God must be answered before true governance takes place. Edgar Nevis, on e-mail
Roy writes about democracy, but she’s silent about the uniform civil code and the fate of Taslima Nasreen who was hounded out of India to placate the fundamentalists. Is she afraid of a fatwa? Satya, on e-mail
Even the cause of the environment or the downtrodden seem selfish when espoused in the fashion Arundhati does in her essay. Instead of deconstructing Indian democracy, she should have applied her superlative language and analytical skills to deconstruct success and how variously it is achieved. She should realise (and admit) that through her hubristic arguments, her sensational protestations against dams and deforestation and her vituperative criticism of politicians and corporates, she has carved out a successful career. A morally superior position has led her to compromise on objectivity and led her on to making reductionist arguments. Shankar N, Delhi
I fail to understand why you should devote 11 pages to such tendentious, verbose prose. Is there anything in the world that Ms Roy trusts or believes in? She sees conspiracies everywhere, whether it is a country or people, thought processes or systems. It does not require exceptional maturity or perception to understand there are contradictions in every sphere of life. Contradictory trends, processes and beliefs in themselves act as checks and balances against extremes. The ability to pen critically acclaimed fiction is not a licence to comment on everything under the sun. It is best left to those who are more perceptive and have a better understanding of such issues. Raghunand Krishnan, on e-mail
Isn’t it utopian to believe that democracy can be relied upon to dispense justice and stability in an equitable manner? Democracy is imperfect, it can only stumble through a “failing light”. Alternative forms, we must remember, can lead us to total darkness. C.S.H. Rao, Bangalore
Ms Roy is an anti-national misanthrope whose heart bleeds for anyone who has declared war against the state, whether they be Pakistan-based terrorists or homegrown Maoists. Give us imperfect, liberal democracies, with all their shortcomings, any day. Gopi Nambiar, Bangalore
Glad to see Ms Roy back in your columns after a long lay-off. She started off well with the ‘Democracy’ as a concept line, but then it soon disintegrated into her usual list of rants. The reader could easily skip the last many pages. Which brings me to the point: I thought space would be at a premium for a premier weekly. I guess it’s not. Kaye Sharma, Gurgaon
I just saw this headline and thought it would go better with Arundhati’s piece—‘The Astonishing Embrace of Nonsense’. Chandra, Portland, US
It gives people like Roy some vacuous pleasure in chasing a dream where they themselves are not an affected party. They know fully well that the ‘everyone equal’ phenomenon is unachievable, and in a sense, unnatural. It only gives rise to monsters like Stalin and Mao. Anil, Toronto
What’s with Outlook and Arundhati? As usual, she starts with a grandiose, even if convoluted, vision about democracy and ends with a now-familiar anti-India rant. Anil Kotwal, Adelaide
It was nauseating reading Roy’s drivel. She wants to be India’s Chomsky, but has little understanding of the things she writes about. As far as Kashmir is concerned, the truth is the ordinary Kashmiri is fed up with the “freedom struggle”. The fight here is between the liberal Sufi Islam of Kashmir and the imported Deobandi Wahabism. Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
Attempts to answer the ‘Is there life after democracy?’ debate always end up in a somewhat prickly, combative defence of it. In a sense, democracy is similar to capitalism. Both rely on fundamental rights and the rule of law. And, both are based on ‘freedom’ and the best for the highest number. R.V. Iyengar, Hyderabad
Roy’s quixotic piece is pure fiction with no trace of logic or reasoning. She argues that all things bad started happening after 1990 with the advent of liberalisation. Was India heaven before 1990, and did it become hell after? Reading her, one would think Idi Amin would be better than Manmohan Singh. Bharat Trivedi, on e-mail
If there was a Nobel for Complainers, Roy would get it. The worst part is she has no solutions. Ever. Srikrishna Bhagwan, New York
I agree with Arundhati Roy’s views on ecocide (Democracy’s Failing Light, Jul 13). In my locality, rice mill owners dispose their waste into canals meant for irrigation. The local politicians (read cpi-m) are hand in glove with class enemy mill owners to “develop” the area and speed up “progress”. Niamul Hossain Mallick, Burdwan, West Bengal
Reading Arundhati I know for sure that knowledge and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand. T.K. Sandilya, Chennai
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