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)