Arundhati Roy has a long essay in The Guardian on the killings in Bombay two weeks ago. She writes:

There is a fierce, unforgiving fault-line that runs through the contemporary discourse on terrorism. On one side (let's call it Side A) are those who see terrorism, especially "Islamist" terrorism, as a hateful, insane scourge that spins on its own axis, in its own orbit and has nothing to do with the world around it, nothing to do with history, geography or economics. Therefore, Side A says, to try and place it in a political context, or even try to understand it, amounts to justifying it and is a crime in itself.

Side B believes that though nothing can ever excuse or justify terrorism, it exists in a particular time, place and political context, and to refuse to see that will only aggravate the problem and put more and more people in harm's way. Which is a crime in itself.

This tilting of the scales makes it all the more interesting when, a few paragraphs later, Roy identifies terrorism as an ideology.

Terrorism is a heartless ideology, and like most ideologies that have their eye on the Big Picture, individuals don't figure in their calculations except as collateral damage. It has always been a part of and often even the aim of terrorist strategy to exacerbate a bad situation in order to expose hidden faultlines. The blood of "martyrs" irrigates terrorism. Hindu terrorists need dead Hindus, Communist terrorists need dead proletarians, Islamist terrorists need dead Muslims. The dead become the demonstration, the proof of victimhood, which is central to the project. A single act of terrorism is not in itself meant to achieve military victory; at best it is meant to be a catalyst that triggers something else, something much larger than itself, a tectonic shift, a realignment. The act itself is theatre...

The first and third paragraphs excerpted above do not quite contradict one another, but nor are they easy to synthesize. There is certainly something horribly similar about the opposing forces of Hindu extremism and Muslim radicalism. Neither side can stomach the idea of a multicultural, democratic India, and both groups are willing to use violence indiscriminately. But this is not precisely Roy's point, because a little later she adds:

We had Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City and co-writer of the Bollywood film Mission Kashmir, give us his version of George Bush's famous "Why they hate us" speech. His analysis of why religious bigots, both Hindu and Muslim hate Mumbai: "Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness. His prescription: "The best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever." Didn't George Bush ask Americans to go out and shop after 9/11? Ah yes. 9/11, the day we can't seem to get away from.

Roy then shifts to a condemnation of the Indian government's actions in Kashmir, and its use of torture, among other sins. Unless we fix these problems, she seems to argue, this madness will go on and on. If these are the "root causes" of Islamist terrorism, however, what are the root causes of Hindu chauvinism? Roy has set up a parallel between the two, but only seems willing to play cause-and-effect with one of them.The problem is that the Hindu chauvinists hate a multiethnic India. If Roy has other explanations for the destruction of the Babri Masjid or the riots in Gujarat, she keeps them to herself. 

This is a disturbing thought, because it is proof that Hindu extremists cannot be reasonably appeased. Neither, for that matter, can the jihadists' desire to make Kashmir part of Pakistan. It is never going to happen--nor should it. And if Kashmir ever becomes an independent state, the backlash against Muslims in India will likely be fierce. (The other problem with making Kashmir independent is that it submits the subcontinent to another religious partition, which, as Roy recognizes, was exactly the problem in the first place). Maybe this is what makes her piece so unsettling, even if the essay counts as further evidence that she should stick to fiction.


--Isaac Chotiner