Under my byline

This is no democracy

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 4 November 2009

In her latest fervid essays Arundhati Roy unmasks the evil in Union and Progress

Tolerance is bred deep among Indians: we are told this ancient verity by both “secularists” and “communalists”. After all (the story goes), most Indians daily rub shoulders with a variety of other Indians from apparently different social or cultural categories. For the most part, we muddle along well enough together — well enough to share a country and a civilisational outlook.

This may be true, but the fact is probably overstated. Reality shows up the weak spots in the national fabric, and one of the weakest (I can’t figure out whether it is a cause or an effect, or both) is unimaginativeness. Lack of imagination keeps one Indian from appreciating the conditions of another’s life, even allowing for asymmetric information flows. Among the better-off classes, the dullness is made worse by self-satisfaction.

You’ve heard this sort of left-wing whingeing before, when it may even have been fashionable, but don’t sigh in irritation now — read Arundhati Roy’s latest book. It is a collection of past essays, “many of them written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something”. Inspired by such national tests as Kashmir, the Gujarat pogroms of 2002, the Parliament attack of 2001, the Mumbai attacks of last year, knee-jerk nationalism, POTA, police brutality, corruption in the judiciary, the broad right-wing (she calls it fascist) fringe, the willingly suborned news media, and so on, Roy makes the point that the one thing we Indians are developing a tolerance to is the lies told to us by those who would rule us.

In her eyes that ruling clique is not just the organs and arms of the state, though it is above all them, but includes urban upper-class India. We accept the lies — such as that all anti-state elements are nihilistic terrorists, such as that there is only one serious path of “development” — because they are convenient and excuse us from any responsibility for having brought these forces to life.

The lies, she says, also allow us to still (and then drain away) the thin waters — as opposed to the rich cream — of the lower classes. Meaning that we of the privileged classes, on whose behalf the state really works, can cast opponents of the dominant model of development as anti-national as well as anti-progress. The formula applies to tribals trying to keep mining companies out of their ancestral forests as much as it does to Kashmiris fighting the occupation of their land by half a million Indian troops. Any acquiescence, Roy says, is either born of hopelessness or it is manufactured.

And this duplicity is bad, ultimately, for the rulers — not just because it papers over dissent in an attempt to delay it, so the wounds fester and deepen, but because it rots our souls.

Roy can be a most annoying presenter, when she is not focused. Her passion results in a prose that is sometimes so overheated that it fuses. The very first lines of the book are pain-inducing: “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?” Eh? And then there is that clumsy metaphor about cream and water.

But in this case the worst goes first — things get better once she seizes her topic. Right at the start she states her core argument: that many crimes are committed in India and other democratic countries in the name of Union and Progress, a.k.a. Nationalism and Development, which are the “unimpeachable twin towers” of modern Free Market Democracy (her capitalisation). Then her essays reveal how she sees the dirty process working in each of the various intertwined crises listed above.

This is the fact-rich meat of the book. You may have come across these pieces before, but seeing them assembled together is a revelation because, for one, it proves how much can be learned from sources in the public domain, if you take the trouble to find them. The facts render official narratives at least suspect, sometimes preposterous, and occasionally sinister. Yet reporters and anchors parrot these very narratives. The clear conclusion is that the news media are lazy, cowardly, venal and stupid. Most ordinary consumers of news, and many journalists, will agree.

To Roy, it’s not any one aspect of the state that is rotten and dangerous — it is the whole edifice. This is no democracy, she says. Joining the dots between current events and systemic troubles, she extends the lines to the horizon — where she sees fascism and genocide. The truth is that horizon is nearer than we might think, though perhaps not so near as Roy thinks.

Pointing out the bad things, as Roy does, has value because it shows what remains that is good. In her idealistic vision, the good is that India still offers other, traditional, non-Western, non-capitalist ways of living. That’s a weak sort of salvation, to be sure, but I for one am immeasurably grateful to my forebears that the choice is there at all.

Arundhati Roy, Listening to GrasshoppersListening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Arundhati Roy
Penguin
pp xxxviii + 252

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