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)


Empire’s New Emperor

Umar Khalid

It has always been those few who can see through the political correctness and hypocrisy of popular attitudes who are considered the most dangerous. — Robin Davis

Many Muslim leaders across India and the world have hailed US President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world as “historic” and “a major breakthrough”. This response is not just premature but also flawed.

The speech was full of rhetoric and riddled with contradictions suited to safeguard American strategic interests. He begins his speech by asserting that “the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalisation led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam”. This is quite reminiscent of the famous George Bush speech: “Why do they hate us? Because they hate our freedoms!”

No, Dear President, there are other reasons for what fuels anti-Americanism among many Arab nations and in other parts of the world. It concerns what the American State has been doing in these nations for the past 50 years (either militarily or through economic sanctions). Things like the UN sanctions in Iraq which resulted in the death of half a million Iraqi children after the Kuwait invasion by Saddam Hussain), a US-backed coup to topple the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran (incidently he accepts this in the latter part of the speech!), are just a few of the many instances.

He terms the American occupation of Afghanistan a “humanitarian intervention” and “a war of necessity”. Well, the war in Afghanistan is part of the imperialist drive of the US to dominate the world’s two most important sources of oil and gas, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin. The American invasion of Afghanistan has resulted in the death of more than 80,000 Afghan civilians. That’s quite a large number of human casualties which, rather than challenging the extremists, has further strengthened them because they represent the only section challenging the occupation. Also, the secular sections of the Afghan society have either been bought by the empire or roped into the NGO business. Besides, wasn’t it the Reagan administration that really backed the same “stirred up mullahs” to fight the Soviets during the late 1980’s in what was termed as a holy war? As Arundhati Roy asserts, “Justifying imperialism is like justifying something as bad as child abuse or rape.”

Coming to the Iraq invasion, Obama informs us that while America seeks no basis in Iraq, Iraqi society is better off without the tyranny of  Saddam Hussain. This is once again quite similar to another famous remark made by George W. Bush that “the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussain”. Obama makes no mention of the destruction caused by the American invasion– death of 1.2 million civilians, devastation of infrastructure, and millions being brought to the brink of starvation. Ironically, when Hussain was conducting his worst atrocities, he had the full support of the US (and the CIA) both financially and politically, both overtly and covertly.

On the Palestinian issue, he justifies the creation of Israel on account of the massacre of 6 million Jews during the first few decades
of the 20th century due to the barbaric wave of anti-Semitism. But then 12 million Congolese were also killed by the Belgian occupiers and America never demanded a separate state to ensure their safety. The creation of Israel was not because America was concerned about the treatment meted out to the Jews in Europe. In fact, it had shut its doors to the Jews when they were being massacred by Hitler’s troops.

The creation of Israel was to ensure the presence of an ally in the Middle East which has 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves. Not a single Palestinian was responsible for what happened to the Jews in Europe, but still thousands of them were evicted, massacred to make way for Jewish settlers in 1948 in the bloodbath that followed the UN mandate for the creation of Israel when illogically and unfairly 55 per cent of the Palestinian land was given away to them. Hundreds of Palestinians were either wiped out or driven away, in one of the most cruel instances of ethnic cleansing of our times.

Israel has gone on to occupy more land through wars far exceeding the UN mandate on account of its superior military strength. International laws, previous agreements and accords have been set aside as Israel has been waging a virtual genocide against people struggling to protect their lands. And every form of resistance to this illegal grabbing of land has been termed as terrorism or anti-Semitism by the Israeli and even more so by the western media.

Two State Solution: I do not call for the destruction of Israel and withdrawal of complete land to Palestine. What is needed is a two-state solution, something Obama also mentioned in his speech. Noam Chomsky has called it the only substantive thing in the entire speech. As Chomsky observes, “Obama while asking both sides to not see the conflict from only one side or the other has quite intelligently omitted the role of the third side in the conflict — that of the US. He did not even acknowledge its role let alone indicating that it should change.”  The US government has blocked along with Israel almost every UN resolution that sought a peaceful, equitable solution to the conflict.

While asking Hamas to abandon violence in its fight against Israel, he makes no mention of Israeli violence. The massacre in Gaza last December, that left 1,300 dead — half of them women and children, a massacre in which banned chemical substances like white phosphorous which induce genetic mutations and deformities were used, UN run schools were bombed — were not mentioned by the American president.

In fact, after this naked display of State terror by Israel, Hamas has succeeded in convincing the Palestinians and sensible people across the world that armed resistance is not a choice but the only legitimate political option.

Obama and Middle East: Obama does not seem to support the idea of Iran developing nuclear weapons unless it confers to the responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But is that not what Iran has been saying all along?

Coming to the question of a nuclear arms race, Chomsky once quipped that the US along with Israel has barred all attempts to prevent a nuclear arms race. The US remains the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons against civilians when it dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Another key issue Obama mentioned was that of democracy. To quote him, “We welcome all elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people.” But, as it turns out, the US has always had a key role in suppressing the democratic aspirations of  many Middle East nations. The most notorious and unpopular of rulers in these countries have always had the complete support of US, be it the monarchs of Saudi Arabia, the Shahs of Iran or the sheikhs of Kuwait . The problem is that if you allow democracy to emerge in these countries they might elect governments that the US does not like.

As Tariq Ali points out, the only regimes Americans like working with are the ones that can guarantee the flow of oil at affordable rates.

Taking this rhetoric about human rights and democracy. Further, Obama informs us that America has always been the arch
defender of human rights in every part of the world. The United States, which Obama wants us to believe is the harbinger of peace in
the world, has been at war with one country or another since the last 50 years! South American countries like Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, etc have been avenues for covert and overt operations by the CIA. Besides, there is another set of countries which have had to suffer military interventions by the US like Vietnam which caused millions of human casualties, Somalia, Korea, Indonesia, Iraq.

We should also not forget the countries that have suffered due to the IMF and World Bank policies and UN sanctions – thousands of children died in Africa due to World Bank policies. Martin Luther King once called the American government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”.  Out of all of the things said by the American president this one surely has the least basis in history.

Gobalisation and the US: Another issue he talks about is globalisation and informs us that the face of globalisation is contradictory. This is perfectly  true but rather than talking about the real contradictions of the ‘development model’ under a globalised economy he intelligently moves on to other unimportant ones. By starting the whole modernity vs tradition debate he hides the real problems of globalization — the neo-liberal policies which privilege the rich and crush the working class, the peasantry and the poor. Besides, how did globalisation stop the massive crash of world capitalism? Or was it due to globalisation itself?

However, there are certain things on which I do agree with the American president. It is when he says that America was never at
war with Islam. This is completely true. These are wars for oil, wars for American strategic interests and wars for the ultimate
supremacy of the American empire. Islam as it turns out is just one of  the many instruments used effectively and cunningly in the war. I hope Barrack “Hussain” Obama does the least by acknowledging it.

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