Arundhati Roy – princess to pariah
Gurinder Osan /AP/Press Association Images
India, circa 2010, is not one country: it is two continents. If you are moneyed, middle class or English-speaking, your continent is a great place to live in. There is a lot of opportunity: great jobs, great bars, many houses to buy, many holidays to afford. Elections are held with exhilarating freedom, and democracy has never felt more robust.
If you are poor, tribal or Muslim, your continent is much darker.
In 2005, soon after he took over in his first term as India’s Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh made a statement that yanked off the fictional glue that kept these continents together. Left-wing extremism, he said, had come to be India’s ‘gravest internal security threat’. More than the unrest in Kashmir. More than the insurgencies in the Northeast.
Singh’s remark would have very far-reaching consequences.
On the face of it, he was right. Out of 630 districts in India, almost 220 are either ‘Maoist-affected’ or under Maoist control. The point is: what should have been the Indian state’s response to that? Should it have seen the spread of Maoist influence as a symptom or as a disease?
Tragically, it chose the latter. Since Singh’s remark, the Indian State has tried every draconian measure possible to suppress the Maoist movement in the country. It has created undemocratic laws that can imprison on mere suspicion; arrested dozens of civil libertarians; armed thousands of ordinary civilians to fight the guerrillas catalyzing civil war; and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. In its most suicidal move it has launched a nationwide ‘co-ordinated strategy’ call Operation Greenhunt to flush out the Maoists, moving battalions of ill-prepared paramilitary troops and police into heartland India to wage a brutal war against its own people.
In all of this, not once has it stopped to ask the most primary question: who is a Maoist?
Predictably then, a devastating chain of action and reaction has set in: as the state has cracked down hard on them, the Maoists have intensified their own attacks: ambushing contingents of paramilitary forces, taking hostages, blowing up trains, killing informers.
With each strike, the rhetoric all round has grown damagingly shriller. In fact, the Maoist issue has cracked open a debate about the nature of Indian democracy that gathers angrier force with every passing year.
Amongst the early diviners of this crisis was writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Way before the Indian state declared open war on its own people Roy saw the contours of the war coming: ‘Sometimes I can’t sleep at night with worry,’ she once told a friend. ‘I see all the dots joining.’
What the joined dots were telling her was that Indian democracy had reduced itself to a shell. Its institutions were hollowed out. All that was left was the electoral skin. In an introduction to her latest book, Listening to Grasshoppers, Roy writes: ‘What happens once democracy has been used up?’
That intuitive question underlies all of Roy’s political writing. And, in a curious way, the story of that writing itself and India’s ambivalent response to it is a sign of what happens when democracy is used up: you get a country made up of two continents.
Love and anger
Seers are never comforting people. And no-one can ever accuse Arundhati Roy of being comforting. Over the last decade, she has been there first at almost every trench-line: illuminating, dissecting, warning, presaging. Taunting the cosy out of their towers. Magnifying the fights of the voiceless. No other contemporary Indian writer – perhaps no Indian writer before – has engaged so fiercely and urgently with the idea and reality of India. And none have taken it apart as unflinchingly.
‘We hope Arundhati Roy is listening. We haven’t invited her to this show because we think she is disgusting.’
In keeping with the conflicted nature of India, this has earned Roy curious returns: huge love and huge anger. Two years ago, for instance, India was convulsed by a gruesome terror attack that has come to be known as ‘Mumbai 26/11’. For three days, a stupefied nation watched as a group of young gunmen held a city hostage, blasting people at will, in full view of the world. As the tragedies piled up, news came that Hemant Karkare, chief of Mumbai’s anti-terror squad, had been killed. Karkare was widely considered an honest officer and as the grieving praise poured in, a prominent Indian television anchor leaned into the screen and said: ‘We hope Arundhati Roy is listening. We haven’t invited her to this show because we think she is disgusting.’
The immediate provocation for this outburst lay in an incident earlier that year in Delhi. There had been a shootout in a minority neighbourhood and a police squad had killed two young Muslim boys, claiming they were terrorists. Swimming against the tide, Roy had condemned the incident stridently, asserting the cops had killed in cold blood and asking for an inquiry. Karkare’s martyrdom was now being used to hand out a stinging slap to her for these supposedly ‘anti-national’ stances.
But the ugly hostility of the television anchor is not a stray incident: it embodies the way a certain kind of privileged, English-speaking Indian has come to regard Roy. It is the legacy of her writing and activism. In a sense, it is the story of contemporary India.
It is difficult to understand the profound, yet scrappy, impact of Roy’s political writing and activism on India unless one recalls the dizzy euphoria of her arrival and the irony of the journey she picked for herself afterwards.
Roy was first announced to the world by a breathless article in a leading Indian magazine. The year was 1996. Liberalization of the Indian economy was just five years old. A jubilant middle class was looking for a mascot. Arundhati Roy came tailor-made from heaven: she had an elfin beauty, a diamond flash in her nose, a mane of gorgeous hair, a romantic back-story, and a manuscript that crackled with heart and scintillating prose and had triggered an international bidding war. India loved her.
From the moment The God of Small Things was published, Roy was deemed the chosen one. As the successes of the book piled up – huge advances, translations to 40 languages, and finally the 1997 Booker Prize – it was a done deal. Arundhati Roy was India’s triumphant entry on the global stage; she was the princess at the ball.
No-one could have anticipated that the princess would smash the glass slipper
No-one could have anticipated that the princess would strike the gong even before the midnight hour. Willfully bust the party. Pick open the seams of the gown. Expose the chariot for a pumpkin. Smash the glass slipper.
But that is what Arundhati Roy did. In May 1998, barely a few months into the rollercoaster ride of her Booker win, the right-wing BJP-led government tested India’s nuclear bomb. In August 1998, Roy wrote The End of Imagination, an angry impassioned critique of the bomb, her first piece of writing after the novel.
‘There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world, and made passionately, eloquently and knowledgeably,’ she wrote. ‘But I am prepared to grovel… because, in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible.’
Since The End of Imagination, there has never been a silence from Roy. It was the first in a series of essays that would grow in moral strength and clarity, moving from the somewhat over-emotional hyperbole of the nuclear piece to the clear-eyed discomfitures of her later ones. She had crossed over to the dark side.
With each counter-narrative she has written, in fact, Roy has set herself more askance from India’s wishful idea of itself. At each step, she has rejected the shoe that would allow her to slip back into a make-believe world. Instead, she has steadfastly worked at growing into her own ideal: to be a ‘troublesome citizen’. Expressing love through critical vigilance.
Arundhati Roy has grappled with all the big issues of our time: big dams, displacement, power projects, industrialization, privatization, globalization, terrorism, US imperialism, Hindutva nationalism, Kashmir and, most recently, the Maoist insurgency. Underlying all these varied concerns, Roy has had a thesis that has gathered more and more evidential truth: eight per cent growth and democracy are not mutually sustainable. Unless you morph Free Market and Democracy to mean the same thing: gain for a few, devastation for millions. And the ‘cost of living’ handed to the poor to pay.
Every conflict on the ground today bears this thesis out. In Niyamgirhi in Orissa, the Kondh tribal (or adavasi) people have been fighting the giant corporation Vedanta against the forcible takeover of their land for a bauxite factory. In Singur and Nandigram in Bengal, farmers have fought to protect their land from Tata and the Indonesia-based Salim group. But nothing bears her thesis out more soundly than the Maoist crisis.
Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh added another warning to his first: ‘If the Maoist insurgency was not curbed, it would harm the investment climate in India.’ This statement only accentuated the heart of the problem.
As one half of India tries to transform itself into an industrial-consumerist society, supping with big corporations, it has armed itself with a battery of laws that allow it to cannibalize the land of others – legally, at gunpoint. But in tribal areas, these legal weapons are not enough. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution – which forbids takeover of tribal land – stands in the way. The ruse to get the land and the minerals below them is to remove the tribal people: sound logic for Operation Greenhunt.
But the people on the ground are having none of it. They do not want to be ‘collateral damage’ in the march of history. Millions of them have been ousted from their land with neither recompense nor rehabilitation. Now they are saying if elected representatives are going to sell them down river, they’re getting themselves different representation. The corner-piece of a democracy is the individual voice. But the individual voice cannot be reduced to a once-in-five-years vote. And so pitched battles are breaking out across the country: some violent, some non-violent. And the gay mood among the blessed is beginning to wear a little thin.
Earlier this year, Roy travelled deep into the jungles of Chhattisgarh to understand that primary question: who is a Maoist? She wrote an evocative piece – ‘Walking with the Comrades’. The television anchor’s hostility spread like wildfire among the middle class. The top Maoist ideologues might be doctrinaire, Roy said, but the cadres were built of ordinary adavasi people who had been pushed to the last post and were making their stand. In giving that desperate stand voice, at least for this moment in time, the Maoist leadership was doing what India’s democratically elected leaders should have done.
Agitated television anchors – spokespeople for a larger middle class – ask: why can’t the Maoists join the mainstream and come and vote? The answer would dismay them: because voting no longer seems to provide the poor a bridge across India’s two continents.