Book Review-Arundhati Roy-Listening to Grasshoppers: Fieldnotes on Democracy

Arundhati Roy’s new book ‘Listening to Grasshoppers: Fieldnotes on Democracy’, a collection of articles written over the period 2002 to 2009 offers a sordid tale of Indian polity. The articles in the book deal with a number of issues from the Gujarat Riots to George Bush’s visit to India, announcement of death penalty to Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru, mass uprising of Kashmiris  for Azadi in 2008, the 26/11 attack on Bombay and more recently the counter insurgency operations in a number of places in India in the name of combating ‘Maoist menace’. These articles in her own words were written at a time when ‘remaining quiet became more difficult than speaking out’. Offering a strong critique of parliamentary democracy the way it is practised in India, she points out the dangerous implications of fusion of democracy with free market, the privatisation of natural resources like forests, water, land and the subsequent hollowing out of democractic institutions like the media, judiciary, etc. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections is a good case in point and reveals the farcical nature of parliamentary democracy in India. On one hand while during the election campaign policies like NREGA was the Congress party’s major plank, but once in power India Inc. lost no time to hail it as a victory for ‘reforms’. More money was spent on these elections(around two billion dollars, some media reports even put it at ten billion dollars) than that is spent on the US elections, media houses gave a free hand to political parties to advertise anything through them if they were willing to pay a hefty amount. It surely makes one thing pretty clear according to the author-‘without sponsorship it is hard to win an election’. Not surprisingly more than 90% of the independent candidates lost.

She traces the rapid about turn of the Indian state from the period post 1991. After the opening up of India’s markets in 1991, caused both due to external as well as internal factors, the Indian state has followed extremely rapacious policies. These two decades of new liberal ‘reforms’ has produced a vast middle class over a much vaster and a much more desperate underclass . Unlike the western countries that had colonies to plunder from, India (or rather its comprador section) is colonizing its own interiors.  The likes of former ‘Marxist’ economist Meghnad Desai and other apologists of the ruling class point to the 9% growth rate as an indicator of the benefits of the reforms and want us to believe that this growth rate is actually helping the poor out of their miseries. Nothing can be farther from the truth.  Despite this so called growth the reality is tragic. While India Inc. is reaping rich benefits through the non-payment of taxes, through a variety of subsidies and transfers, and through lucrative state support, the vast majority-the peasants, the workers, artisans, etc are living a life of utter destitution and misery. Maharashthra, Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh account for two-thirds of India’s farmer’s suicides. The year 2006 saw 1065 farmers killing themselves in the small district of Vidarbha. The same year saw 1483 farmer suicides in Chattisgarh followed by 1593 in 2007. Farmer suicides in the country since 1997 now total 182,936, but the real causes behind this devastation remain not just unaddressed but the tragedy also remains unacknowledged by the ruling class. More than 77% of Indians live under 20 rupees a day, 61% of India’s children are stunted by malnutrition(the highest figure in the world), over 90% of the labour is under the informal sector having absolutely no rights or protection

Superpower or superpoor?

measures, health care remains one of the most privatized in the world(even worse than that of the US), the plunder of the mineral rich tribal land in central India has been described by some as the ‘biggest land grab after Columbus’, infant mortality rate is through the roof, not to forget the numerous caste and communal conflicts that have intensified post these ‘reforms’.   On the international hunger index, India ranks below Sudan and Somalia and below Bangladesh on the human development Index. As an eminent journalist puts it “If you are rich, India is one of the best places for you to live in, but if you are poor you better live in sub-Saharan desert!”  To maintain such high rates of exploitation draconian laws like POTA, Chattisrgarh Public Security Act, UAPA, etc have turned large parts of the country into virtually a police state, where absolutely no form of dissent is tolerated and anyone disagreeing with the state policies can be labelled a ‘terrorist’ and imprisoned, tortured or worse still even executed. India has the highest number of custodial deaths in the world and according to the author “the ones who make it to torture chambers are the lucky ones because at least they’ve escaped being ‘encountered’ by our encounter specialists…India remains a country where the line between the Underworld and the Encounter Specialists virtually does not exist.”  As far as poverty is concerned, we have been recently informed by the corporate media that the government has finally found a plan-a better and more efficient one, as compared to the old boring Garibi Hatao ones- to combat this growing poverty- something that tarnishes its image as ‘the rising superpower’ internationally. They have sent their troops to eliminate the poor! A genocide is being carried out in our name and against our own people and remaining quiet at this time to quote Roy ‘will be just as political as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, we are accountable.’

The case of military occupation of Kashmir remains unaddressed and Roy points to ‘the insanity that permits the world’s largest democracy to administer the world’s largest military occupation and continue to call itself a democracy.’ The valley has been turned into one of despair, full of torture chambers, check points, army camps and bunkers. Army personnel shoot, rape, maim with impunity thanks to laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Indian army’s war in Kashmir has already taken 70,000 lives, thousands have simply ‘dissappeared’, thousands of women have been raped and widowed. She describes how despite all these brutalities and the heavy deployment of the army, none of the fears could hold people back from demanding Azadi. August 2008 witnessed tens of thousands of ordinary Kashmiris pouring out on the streets shouting slogans reiterating their only demand “Ay jabiron ay zalimon, Kashmir hamara chhod do (Oh oppressors, Oh wicked ones, Get out of our Kashmir)…Hum Kya Chahtey? Azadi! (We want freedom.)” Millions of rupees are spent by India on

Thousands of Kashmiris shout pro-freedom slogans at the Martyr's Grave yard in Srinagar on August 22, 2008

keeping this small piece of land military occupied, a land where none of its inhabitants want to be a part of it and at the same time as already mentioned 77% of Indians live below 20 rupees a day. This money ought to be spent on schools and hospitals and food for an impoverished, malnourished population in India. She also ridicules the current mood amongst the liberal intelligentsia in the country which sees the participation by the Kashmiris in the 2008 Rajya Sabha election as a mandate against Azadi. In the introduction to the book she describes how these polls were carried out with the help of elaborate network of spies, renegades and embedded journalists. The mainstream politicians were told specifically by New Delhi to delink Azadi with the polls and to insist that the polls were all about roads, water and electricity; the most militarized zones even inside the valley were the first to undergo polling; members of the dreaded counter insurgent groups like the Ikhwan were put in opposition and more than that all pro-freedom leaders were imprisoned. Even, she who had nothing to do with what has happening there was put under house arrest for 2 days! It would be too naive to draw conclusions as the ones being consciously drawn out by the mainstream political parties by this turn out in the 2008 Rajya Sabha polls. That in fact also fails to explain why people didn’t turn out once again in the Lok Sabha polls. After all, elections in the most militarized zone of the world are nothing more than military exercises. But unfortunately such quick fix face saving solutions on the part of India cannot solve the dispute, probably one of the oldest of all occupations along with Palestine. However it seems the Government of India isn’t even prepared to admit there is a problem, let alone try and solve it. At the same time some of its recent actions like the one to ban prepaid mobile connections in the valley and more importantly the CBI report on Shopian, which wants us to believe that the two women weren’t raped and killed by the army but they actually drowned in ankle high water just outside the army camp(!!!), only reaffirms in the eyes of the Kashmiris the real character of the Indian state in the valley-that of a colonizer. She concludes her essay on Kashmir by saying that ‘The Indian military occupation of Kashmir makes monsters of us all…India needs Azadi from Kashmir just as much as – if not more than – Kashmir needs Azadi from India’ otherwise democracy in Kashmir would remain what a placard during this uprising said ‘Democracy without freedom is demon-crazy.’

Apart from this there are also articles on the new trend of media trials of the ‘terror’ accused; the case of Afzal Guru in which the Supreme Court passed its judgement saying that ‘though we have no evidence to prove that he belonged to a terrorist group but the collective conscience of the society can only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the accused’;  the horrific response from some TV anchors, who make ‘Fox News look almost radical and left-wing’, post the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and a very good satirical play written at the time of George Bush’s visit to India. Arundhati Roy remains a figure who has been vilified by both the burgeoning Indian middle class as well as by a wide spectrum of political parties ranging from the BJP, to the Congress to CPI(M), however to once again quote her she carries this as ‘a badge of honour’. On the other hand this vilification is only symbolic of how we treat people who try to bring to the picture the numerous silent genocides going on in this semi-feudal semi-colonial land  of ours.

(This article was first published in Radiance Viewsweekly dated 9th January)


Failure of Democracy in India-Say no to use of Army and Air Force against our own people

How many times can a man turn his head,

And pretend that he just doesn’t see

-Bob Dylan

A spectre is haunting the Indian ruling class-the spectre of Maoism. All powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: P. Chidambram and Mohan Bhagwat, Manmohan Singh and Raman Singh, Budhhadev Bhattacharya and Tarun Vijay, N. Ram and Arnab Goswami. On various platforms, both national and international, our prime minister and home minister have been telling the world how it is the ‘biggest internal

Police atrocities in Lalgarh

threat’ facing the Indian nation. Corporate backed mainstream media houses have been penning down stories telling us about the trigger happy ways of the Maoists. What is surely left out quite intentionally in these stories is the context, or the socio-economic roots of the movement or even the innumerable atrocities committed by state backed militias in different parts of the country. Hundreds of villages have been evacuated in Chattisgarh alone and the mainstream media (barring a few exceptions) never found time to document it. Women of Chattisgarh are alleging rape by Salwa Judum men, but the courts in India refuse to listen. Only recently in September in Chattisgarh, the state personnel stabbed 19 people to death, raped the women, cut off the breasts of a 70 year old woman, cut off the fingers and tongue of a 2 year old kid. And precisely when the people retaliate on these forces, these mercenaries become national heroes overnight for the government. Police atrocities in Lalgarh crossed all limits, and the Central or the State Governement never found time to even acknowledge it. And the moment people rose up in rebellion, the Central Government wasted no time in cooperating with the state government in West Bengal to crush the movement. And who was it these forces crushing-its very own citizens, in fact the most impoverished ones, fighting against deprivation, destitution and for a life of dignity. However we have been told is that this is a fight against terrorism, and surely when it comes to terrorism it is blasphemous in our country to ask for any more details, it doesn’t matter if poverty is equated with terrorism.

War against ‘Terror’

In the last few days, the Indian government has deployed 100,000 troops in parts of central India, including Chattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. Forces are being withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast to join battalions of CRPF commandos, the ITBP, the CoBRA and the BSF. There is also talk of bringing in the Rashtriya Rifles – a battalion created specially for counter-insurgency work – and the purchase of bomb trucks, bomb blankets, bomb baskets, and sophisticated new weaponry. The Air Force has already been deployed and a full scale air operation is in the offing. There are reports that the operation in Jharkand has already started. There are also reports that the police and paramilitary forces have tortured people in Hardali village in Girdih district and Fatehpur village in Ranchi district. Indiscriminate arrests have also taken place. In short the Indian state has declared war against its most oppressed population. It is not a mere coincidence that the same region of Central India is highly rich in minerals, which can be sold to the highest bidders once the region is evacuated in the name of fighting the Maoists. Hundred of MoU’s have already been signed. All that stands between the politicians and this wealth are the tribals.

India was the one of the first countries to extend its hand of friendship to Sri Lanka in its recent genocidal war against Tamils. It also supported the rejection of a UN intervention by the Sri Lankan government this war. Home Minister P. Chidambram (former lawyer for Enron-the corporate involved in the biggest scam in the country and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, the multinational that is devastating the Niyamgari hills in Orissa) told us this was the perfect model to be adopted in India to fight the ‘Red menace’.  The reasons now seem pretty clear. The 5th the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution grants tribals complete rights over their traditional land and forests and prohibits private companies from mining on their land. Once the area is evacuated, like the Sri Lankan model, which by the way Salwa Judum has already been doing for the past few years in Chattisgarh, the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution will not apply, and the land can easily be handed over to the multi-nationals. And we were told only the Maoists didn’t respect the Indian constitution!

The NEP and its Consequences

Under Manmohan Singh as the finance minister in the year 1991, India opened up its markets to corporate globalization under the guise of making the economy more ‘efficient’. The consequences have been disastrous to say the least. Foreign capital, collaborating with and dominating over Indian capital, has acquired a strategic role hold over the economy. More Indians are below the poverty line than ever before. Malnutrition around the country is worse than at the time of Independence. The Arjun Sengupta report revealed that 77% of the population lives under Rs. 20 a day. The new economic policy has attacked whatever little access the poor had to forests, lands, water resources, etc.  Lakhs of farmers have committed suicide, over a lakh in the small district of Vidarbha alone.

Farmer suicides in Andhra-Around 25 farmers committed suicide within a period of 50 days around August 2009

The state is pulling out of its responsibilities even in sectors like education, health care, etc. The country’s healthcare sector is one of the most privatized ones in the world, even worse than that of the US. The problem of displacement has intensified to a great level in this era of privatization and free market. However, at the same time through the non-payment of taxes, through a variety of subsidies and transfers, and through lucrative state support, corporate fortunes have been built up. This period has also seen the rise of a burgeoning middle class, more indifferent and insensitive than ever and aesthetically, culturally, socially, politically at an all time low, making the situation even more depressing. What we are witnessing in our country, to quote Arundhati Roy is the ‘most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India — the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country.’ It is not a big surprise that our films, books and news channels also no longer speak about such issues. The priorities seem to have changed. In fact most of these purveyors of public opinion are funded by the same corporates who have brought the country to the brink of a civil war.

The apologists of the ruling class who point to the 9% growth rate as an indicator of the benefits of the 1991 ‘reforms’ should realize that the only meaningful criteria of economic progress is whether increased national incomes are available to the people. When the efforts of the working people produce wealth for a non-working minority, when the working people are deprived of their rightful share in the increased national income, what takes place is not progress but more exploitation and deterioration of the people’s living conditions. In fact, absorption into the imperialist sector does not mean that there will be no growth or development, only that it would be highly exclusionary and uneven and would mean intensified exploitation and greater misery for the vast majority. Therefore the way forward is not continued development, but a revolutionary break with the entire capitalist system. As imperialism always consists of unequal and uneven development, revolution is not only a possibility but a must.

P.Chidambram who insists upon only a military solution to the entire ‘problem’, recently came up with a wider developmental plan. According to him, once the entire Maoist presence is ‘wiped/flushed’ out, he will go ahead with his ‘developmental’ plan which, he says, will bring employment to the area. However, the fact of the matter is that the entire fight is against such a development model-one that is undertaken by multinationals, is exclusionary and displaces ten times more people than it employs. What he is offering is not the solution, but the problem itself.

Mode of Struggle

A lot of intellectuals, activists opposed to concept of armed struggle have pointed out that such a strategy has no place in a democracy. However there is an important need to question how democratic is ‘Indian democracy’? More than 90% of all independent candidates lost the current Lok Sabha elections, only underlining the fact that it is impossible to win an election without party support (which once again is funded by certain corporates). A democracy survives on certain institutions. However in the case of Indian society, in this era of free market, all these institutions, be it the press, judiciary, administration or even the civil society have been reduced to commodities to be sold to highest bidders. The class bias of Indian judiciary has also been quite well documented. The courts remain virtually inaccessible to a vast majority of is citizens. Even when they have been approached, the poor have got an unfavorable response, while at the same time powerful corporates have got highly favorable verdicts.  To cite a recent example in a case regarding urban slum dwellers the courts have gone to the extent of passing judgments which say “rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket.” At the same time a recent Supreme Court judgement, allowing the Vasant Kunj Mall to resume construction though it didn’t have the requisite clearances, said that the questions of corporations indulging in malpractice does not arise! According to Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan part of the reason for this “lies in the class structure of the Indian judiciary. The higher judiciary in India comes from the elite section of the society and has become a self appointing and self perpetuating oligarchy.” The state has also ignored virtually all non-violent resistance movements in the past be it in Bhopal or the ‘Narmada Bachao’ movement. The movement launched by the PCPA in Lalgarh against police atrocities, asking police forces to apologize for molesting women, was ruthlessly crushed. Various human rights activists who have spoken out against such policies have also been time and again targeted by the state. The case of Binayak Sen is well known who spent almost 2 years in prison only because the state felt it important to silence him for sometime to go ahead with its genocidal policies. Extra-judicial killings of political workers in some of these struggles are also a known phenomenon. The West Bengal government only last month arrested political activists who had been vocal in their ciriticism of the government. As economist Paul Sweezy points out ‘Third World countries that ally with the advanced capitalist countries are characterized by military or police state of one kind or another.’ India, under the garb of being the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is a police state in large parts of the country and is fast turning more authoritarian state with every passing day. The government uses draconian laws like AFSPA, UAPA, MCOCA, Official Secrets Act, Chattisgarh Public Security Act to silence all voices of dissent and to suppress people’s movements. It is impossible for the dominant classes to maintain high rates of exploitation without such coercion. At such a moment if people decide to pick up arms just because every other option has ended in despair, it is important on our part to realize the conditions that has led to such a situation. To sit in urban citadels and discredit the entire movement as a ‘terrorist movement’ will not just be wrong but also unethical. It will not only amount to supporting the status quo but will also legitimize the violence that is entrenched in the very structure of our so called ‘democracy’.

What we are witnessing is a failure of democracy. A democracy is known by how it treats its most vulnerable sections. If the most vulnerable sections of the country look up to the Maoists and not the Indian state for help, does it not mean that the Maoists are democratic in their outlook and worldview than the Indian state. It is important to realize that the Maoist movement has certain socio-economic roots and has highlighted certain genuine people’s issues. The current counter-insurgency strategy planned by the Indian state will only lead to death of thousands. This war is being fought in our name and against our own people. It is important to resist this and to let the Manmohan-Chidambram-Budhhadev fascist clique know that this war might satisfy the interests of their corporate lobbies, bit is certainly not in the national interest.

(This article was  published in Radiance Viewsweekly dated 14 November 2009 and Towards a New Dawn– November-December 2009)