Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers
By Arundhati Roy
(Haymarket Books, 230 pp., $20)
In 2009 The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, published a study on death by fire. In the country under review, approximately one hundred thousand women perished over the course of a single year. Victims of domestic violence and participants in dowry disputes were being murdered, and the government was doing hardly anything to intervene. Before you guess the identity of this punishing country, here is a hint: it is dominated by two political parties, one of which can charitably be described as having fascist tendencies, since it envisions a religiously homogenous nation and makes no secret of its contempt for people who do not fit its definition of purity. If this party regains power in the near future, the country’s next leader will likely be a man whose American visa was revoked for “violations of religious freedom.” During his tenure as a regional chief minister (the rough equivalent of a governor), his government carried out communal riots in which more than one thousand members of religious minority groups were massacred.
You might think that these are descriptions of an African despotism or one of the Balkan states, with their long history of ethnic conflict and human rights violations. But the country in question is India, the culturally vibrant, politically democratic, film-obsessed, English-speaking homeland of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, and Ray. The renowned Indian writer Arundhati Roy wants us to know another India. She regards it as her calling to expose the underbelly of India, the one that exists beneath, or to the side of, its democratic traditions and its inspiring tales of hot digital start-ups and IT twentysomethings in Bangalore.
Roy, who was born in northeastern India in 1961, is best known for her novel The God of Small Things, which appeared in 1997. Pleasantly written and cleverly structured, the novel relied in part upon a certain knowledge of Indian history—including the history of the sometimes forgotten Indian left—as well as an intense interest in matters of class. But then Roy left novel-writing for political writing, for angry journalism. Her reportage shows her to be an ardently concerned and active citizen, a woman who refuses to overlook India’s stunning poverty and its brutal caste system. As well she might not: its democratic order notwithstanding, India is riven by social injustices. But Roy’s anger has had a coarsening effect upon her thinking and her writing. She has chosen to trade in the wildest forms of anti-Americanism and the crudest critiques of capitalism. Her activism has led her into a kind of mental atrophy.
Roy’s early essays were written in a voice that some progressive Americans would call “prophetic,” but like many prophets she tended to overstate her case. There are no small things anymore. This stridency tended to make her writing less agreeable, too. What came next was predictable: September 11, which deranged many things, had the effect of turning her into a zealot. The American government, Roy wrote two weeks after the attacks, was responsible for “military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America).” The inclusion of that final parenthetical was, by her standards, quite generous. But Roy’s subsequent work shows all the signs of further decline. Consider this passage, from the foreword to Field Notes on Democracy: “The starting gun [of these essays] is the year 1989, when in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, capitalism won its long jihad against Soviet Communism. (Of course, the wheel’s in spin again, and it looks very much as though those same mountains are now in the process of burying capitalism.)” This mixture of silliness (does anyone believe that the remnants of the Taliban are going to vanquish the capitalist experiment?) and tastelessness (that use of “jihad”)—the appetite for righteous hyperbole—is typical of her writing now.
“Within months of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Roy writes, “the Indian government, once a proud leader of the Nonaligned Movement, performed a high-speed somersault and aligned itself completely to the United States, undisputed monarch of the new unipolar world.” Roy wishes desperately to see an India that is not allied with the United States. She believes that the United States is responsible for chaos and murder in the Middle East—and now, thanks to globalization, in India too. But this book is not a plea for a more humane capitalism (something we urgently need). Instead, it is an attack on many of the good and democratic aspects of modern Indian life. Even worse, it is an assault on democracy itself. Roy’s status as a famous woman of the far left has obscured the fact that she is an outright reactionary.
It is impossible to understand Roy’s feelings about India without understanding her feelings about the United States. The story of the American-Indian relationship is in many ways one of missed opportunities. Franklin Roosevelt and many New Dealers admirably favored independence for the subcontinent prior to partition. After the war and the attainment of Indian independence, however, closer ties became increasingly elusive. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to take a non-aligned stance near the beginning of the Cold War. This may have been understandable for a country recovering from imperialism and its brutal partition, and struggling with the difficulties involved in managing its own affairs (not to mention its border disputes with China). But while India did avoid some of the nastier Cold War disputes, its non-alignment sometimes shaded into apologetics for tyranny. Nehru’s unwillingness to criticize the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 was the most notable example of this tendency. (The tendency sometimes persists, as in India’s unwillingness to criticize harshly the neighboring Burmese junta.)
The United States, for its part, began increasingly to rely on India’s arch-enemy Pakistan. The Nixon administration shamefully supported a Pakistani dictatorship that perpetrated unspeakable atrocities when East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—opted for independence. The following decade saw American support—via Pakistan—for the Afghan mujahedin who were battling Soviet invaders. After September 11 and the American war against the jihadism that emanates from the Hindu Kush, Pakistan became even more central to American global strategy. But in this crucial hour Pakistan has been dithering and prevaricating, acting in contradictory ways, and consumed by its sordid political feuds. And so India and America have drawn closer together, united by the shared enemy of Islamic fundamentalism, and by American policymakers’ increasing frustrations with Islamabad, and by democratic and capitalist affinities. The recent setbacks to a more friendly relationship—bombastic attacks on “outsourced” jobs, for example—pale in comparison to the commonalities between the two nations. For some time, Indians have constituted a large and thriving immigrant population in America, and India itself now has a comparable number of English speakers to the United States. In 2006, the Bush administration, in one of the most momentous actions in its foreign policy, signed a controversial nuclear deal with India.
Roy does more than disparage this rapprochement; she blames it for just about everything that is wrong with India. Worse, she sees it as nothing especially new. “The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely,” she says of the end of the Cold War. “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 far away places would affect their lives.” Roy’s implication is that India became part of the Pax Americana as soon as the Berlin Wall fell. She is wildly wrong about this. The two countries eyed each other warily throughout the 1990s.
Roy ends her litany of complaints against India’s American-style capitalism of the last twenty years by remarking that “starvation and malnutrition approaching the same levels as Sub-Saharan Africa stalk the land.” She graciously footnotes this passage, pointing readers to a UNICEF analysis of child poverty in Southeast Asia. This impressive report is an early sign that Roy’s book is either dishonest or sloppy, because in fact the document states that India’s attempts to prevent under-five mortality offer “a source of hope”: “While South Asia looks on track to meet Target 1 [of the Millennium Development Goals], which aims to halve extreme income poverty by 2015, this is mostly due to India’s rapid economic growth in recent years.” This could not be clearer. The extent of poverty and disease in India is indeed horrific, but the UNICEF report regards India’s capitalist boom not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.
The simplest way to describe India’s insufficient but impressive steps to combat poverty would be to say that they represent progress. But Roy has chosen to make progress—along with democracy—her bête noire. “I have always been struck by the fact that the political party in Turkey that carried out the Armenian genocide was called the Committee for Union and Progress,” she remarks mindlessly. “Most of the essays in this collection are, in fact, about the contemporary connection Union and Progress, or, in today’s idiom, between Nationalism and Development—those unimpeachable twin towers of modern, free market democracy.” The “twin towers” reference is worse than unseemly. Roy expends considerable energy explaining that international capital flows are responsible for destroying the foundations of nationhood. But when it suits her purposes she is equally happy to make a contradictory point, and blame society’s ills on nationalism.
If Roy’s disgust with America helps to explain her opinion of India, then her opinion of democracy helps to explain her disgust with America. From the very start of her book she shows nothing but condescension and contempt for democracy. “While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death,” she begins, “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 aspiration. I mean the working model—Western liberal democracy and its variants, such as they are.” According to Roy, “the West” is no longer democratic. “The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy,” she writes. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something malign and dangerous?” The strangeness of this passage—its false idea that Europe and India and the United States are less democratic than they used to be—is never really explained or expanded upon. It is quite remarkable to see the arch-progressive Roy so unexcited by great strides toward minority rights, gender equality, the acceptance of homosexuality, and a whole range of other breakthroughs in social fairness. One begins to get the suspicion that Roy simply dislikes democracy.
She certainly has no use for democratic institutions. “The politics of mass markets and vote banks is leading to majoritarianism and eventually fascism,” she ominously observes. “These essays show how the institutions of democracy—the courts, the police, the ‘free’ press, and, of course, elections—far from working as a system of checks and balances, often do the opposite.” After commenting on an unsavory Indian politician and his style of campaigning, she adds scornfully: “One person’s monster is the other one’s messiah. That’s democracy.” Well, no, that isn’t democracy. Democracy is much more, and much harder, and much more precious, than that.
Most appalling, and most revealing, is her attack on the Indian judiciary. The Indian Supreme Court has long been one of the country’s most resilient and democratic institutions. But sometimes it interprets the law on issues of land management in a manner that allows for large-scale development projects, and so Roy has only contempt for it. “The higher judiciary, the Supreme Court in particular, doesn’t just uphold the law, it micro-manages our lives,” she warns. “Its judgments range through matters great and small. It decides what’s good for the environment and what isn’t, whether dams should be built, rivers linked, mountains moved, forests felled. It decides what our cities should look like and who has the right to live in them. It decides whether slums should be cleared, streets widened, shops sealed, whether strikes should be allowed, industries should be shut down, relocated, or privatized.... It has become the premier arbiter of public policy in this country that markets itself as the World’s Largest Democracy.” A judiciary that settles disputes, that concerns itself with environmental questions, that reviews the laws of the elected branch: imagine!
Roy returns to the subject of the Supreme Court in a later essay in her book. She claims that India is now engaged in two projects, Union and Progress. The first is an extreme nationalist form of Hinduism, and the second is capitalism. She writes: “The Progress project has its own tradition of impunity and subterfuge, no less horrific than the elaborate machinery of the Union project. At the heart of it lies the most powerful institution in India, the Supreme Court, which is rapidly becoming a pillar of Corporate Power, issuing order after order allowing for the building of dams, the interlinking of rivers, indiscriminate mining, the destruction of forests and water systems. All of this could be described as ecocide—a prelude perhaps to genocide.” Or perhaps not. There you have it: democratic accountability in the form of an independent judiciary is a mask for corporate interests that are themselves designed to destroy the planet and maybe also the human race. This is the sort of lunatic critique from which the corporations have nothing to fear.
Roy has for many years been a forceful opponent of Hindu chauvinism and extremism in India, and her piece on Gujarat, the Indian state that has been scarred by anti-Muslim violence, is very fine. When she explains a Hindu party’s demand that Muslim citizens “earn the ‘goodwill’” of the majority, she nicely catches the threat lurking beneath the ostensibly outstretched hand. But even this narrative is marred by her tiresome overstatements and stabs at cleverness. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is indeed despicable, but it is not “no less dangerous” than the Taliban. Moreover, Roy cannot seem to write about anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination without mentioning Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. They seem to organize the entirety of her view of the world.
India is a country that has experienced its share of terrorism from both Muslim and Hindu extremists, and so it makes a good test of Roy’s analytical powers. “There is a fierce, unforgiving faultline that runs through the contemporary discourse on terrorism,” Roy writes. “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 to place it in a political context, or even to 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 it, terrorism exists in a particular time, place, and political context, and to refuse to see that will only aggravate the problem and put more people in harm’s way. Which is a crime in itself.” She then adds: “Through the endless hours of analysis and the endless op-ed essays, in India at least, there has been very little mention of the elephants in the room: Kashmir, Gujarat, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid [a mosque destroyed in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu fanatics].” And finally: “What we’re experiencing now is blowback, the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds.”
Roy makes it quite clear, in other words, that she belongs to Side B. But who, precisely, fails to see that terrorism exists in a particular time, place, and political context? Not the intelligent members of Side A, or the people who plan and execute the anti-terrorist wars that Roy deplores. And another problem immediately presents itself. Roy has just listed a number of “root causes” for the murders in Mumbai. What about the demolition of the Babri Masjid? What of the crimes committed by Hindu extremists? What are the root causes of this form of extremism? Roy does not really canvas any possible explanations, and seems dead to the possibility that religious terrorism is about more than historical grievances. But she is blind to this point. And because India’s Hindus are not a besieged minority, Roy is both more critical of them and unwilling to provide context or explanations for their behavior. Her sympathies only extend to “out” groups, which are of course the progressive’s “in” groups.
Oblivious to the hole she has dug for herself, Roy keeps digging. “But where would Side A accommodate the saying of Babu Bajrangi of Ahmedabad, India, who sees himself as a democrat, not a terrorist?” she asks, all of a sudden accepting the self-description “democrat” at face value. “He was one of the major linchpins of the 2002 Gujarat genocide and has said (on camera): ‘We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them.’” It is important to answer Roy’s question. What would Side A make of Babu Bajrangi? My guess is that Rumsfeld and Bush would call him a murderer. Remember, it was the Bush State Department that revoked the visa of Gujarati chief minister Narendra Modi after the riots. No matter: the real question is how Roy explains Bajrangi, and unfortunately there is no answer.
Since the two things that Roy hates most are democratic capitalism and Hindu fundamentalism, it makes sense that she would try and connect the two. Unfortunately, she has no evidence of any kind for such a connection, and so we are given passages such as this one: “It’s interesting that just around the time Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister, was preparing India’s markets for neo-liberalism, L.K. Advani [a BJP leader] was making his first Rath Yatra, fueling communal passion and preparing us for neo-fascism. In December 1992, rampaging mobs destroyed the Babri Masjid. In 1993, the Congress government of Maharashtra signed a power purchase agreement with Enron.” This is equivalent to saying that in 1995 Michael Jordan returned to the NBA and in 1996 Bill Clinton was re-elected president. Roy adds, pathetically, that “the inexorable ruthlessness of one process feeds directly into the insanity of the other.” One is tempted to remind Roy that correlation does not prove causation, but since she has not even bothered to prove correlation, the point would be futile. When Roy writes about Muslim Kashmiri extremists, she tries to summon our sympathy and our understanding, and explain how people could be driven to commit despicable crimes. When she writes about Hindu terrorism, she merely takes quick swipes at American capitalism.
Roy’s aversion to complex thinking shows up again in her discussions of Kashmir. This Indian state, whose full name is Jammu and Kashmir, was the only Muslim-majority state that opted to be a part of India after partition. It has been the focus of wars between India and Pakistan, and is now under de facto martial law, administered from New Delhi. Roy rightfully bemoans a policy that has become a blight on the Indian state, but she does not broach any of the difficult questions left in partition’s bloody wake. After indicting India for its crimes in Kashmir, Roy writes that “India needs Azadi [the Urdu word for ‘freedom’] from Kashmir just as much—if not more—than Kashmir needs Azadi from India.” Roy is correctly arguing that anti-democratic actions harm the fabric of a society, but her statement also reveals an unwillingness to wrestle with a crucial question. As the world’s largest multi-ethnic democracy, what would it mean for India to lose its only Muslim-majority state? Would another partition lead to a backlash against India’s remaining Muslims? Roy gives no sign of even having considered these questions.
One further comment must be made about Roy’s discussion of Kashmir. It is that her attack on other Indian journalists for ignoring the issue is shameful. In her introductory essay, she declares that, “None of India’s analysts, journalists, and psephologists cared to ask [tough questions about the Kashmiri elections].... None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy ... talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment.... No one talked about why people who lived under a military occupation ... might need somebody to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.” But Roy’s central essay on Kashmir in this collection was itself published in a first-rate Indian magazine; and many fine Indian journalists have written honestly and toughly about the issue. (Roy footnotes the above paragraph with an essay about Kashmir that appeared in the excellent Indian journal Economic and Political Weekly.) Roy perfectly exemplifies the self-righteousness of radicals: she needs to see herself as a dissident in the wilderness, a lonely hero.
If Roy believes that her activism is more important than her fiction, there is a certain honor in her decision to abandon the novel form. But these essays show a woman whose reading and experience and engagement with the world have served to narrow her thinking rather than enlarge it. Instead of allowing her reporting to shape her story, she has allowed her preconceived notions to shape every last drop of her analysis. At the beginning of this book, after asking some rhetorical questions about democracy (or “democracy”), Roy adds: “It would be a conceit to pretend that the essays in this book provide answers to any of these questions.” When I first read this passage, I wondered whether Roy was setting the bar too low. In fact, she does not even approach her own paltry standard.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.