Arundhati Roy’s New Book Looks at What We Have Done to Democracy

Reviewed: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, by Arundhati Roy. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL. 2009.

The essays in this new book by the brilliant Indian writer Arundhati Roy cover topics that range from the attack on the Indian Parliament to the Armenian genocide, and the terrorist attack on Mumbai to George Bush’s "triumphant" visit to India and Pakistan. But what runs through all of these essays is a critical look at democracy, as practiced in those countries that claim to be democracies.

Her examination prompts some important questions. What have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens when democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning?

One place where Roy looks for answers to these questions, although not the only place, is the Indian state of Gujarat. There, in 2002, a railroad coach was ser afire and the fifty-three Hindu pilgrims in it were burned to death. In response, as collective punishment for this unsolved crime, acts of genocide were carried out against the Muslim community. (The tern genocide is used here with precision – that is, exactly as defined in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.)

In a carefully planned "retaliation," squads of armed killers, organized by militias and backed by the Gujarat government and by the national administration, slaughtered two thousand Muslims in broad daylight. Muslim women were gang-raped and then burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses, and Muslim mosques were systematically destroyed. One hundred and fifty-thousand people were driven from their homes.

Roy notes that even today many of them live in ghettoes, with no water supply, no street lights, no health care. Meanwhile the killers, police as well as civilians, have been embraced, rewarded, promoted. And only a short time after the genocide, two of India‘s leading industrialists praised Gujarat as a dream location for finance capital.  

In Gujarat the genocide has been celebrated as the epitome of Gujarati pride, even of Indian-ness. What Roy calls "this poisonous brew" has been used twice to win elections. She concludes that this, and a dozen similar incidents that she describes, are "enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy."  

One of these incidents directly contrasts the corrupted form of democracy that Roy deplores in her book.

When India and Pakistan were partitioned after British rule a bloodbath followed that claimed the loss of more than a million people. In the contested region of the Kashmir valley a war has been going on for decades that has taken more than seventy thousand lives. Tens of thousands more Kashmiris have been tortured, thousands have "disappeared."  Women have been raped and tens of thousands of them widowed. Half a million troops patrol the Kashmir valley, making it the most militarized zone in the world.

With this as background, in the summer of 2008 a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board escalated into a massive, nonviolent uprising. Day after day hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and police, who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people. From early in the morning until late at night the city reverberated with chants of "Azadi! Azadi!." (Freedom! Freedom!)

Despite the Indian government’s reaction, enforcing a harsh curfew with shoot-to-kill orders, arresting the major pro-freedom leaders and hundreds more, the massive, nonviolent protest continued. Although she is horrified by the government’s response, for Roy this people’s plebiscite is democracy at its best .

During the protests banners proclaiming "We want freedom" were often accompanied by others reading "Long Live Pakistan." Some of this expression of affection for Pakistan has to do with the support for what Kashmiris see as their freedom struggle, and the Indian state sees as a terrorist campaign. Roy has no illusions about either Pakistan or India.

She writes that it’s "easy to scoff at the idea of a ‘freedom struggle’ that wishes to distance itself from a country that is supposed to be a democracy and align itself with another that has, for the most part, been ruled by military dictators."  A country whose army committed genocide in what is now Bangladesh and a country that is presently being torn apart by ethnic conflict. These are important issues but "perhaps it’s more useful to wonder what this so-called democracy did in Kashmir to make people hate it so."

What it did, of course, was to spend huge amounts of money on weapons, concertina wire, and prisons in Kashmir, money that could have been spent instead for schools, hospitals, and food for an impoverished, malnourished population. Elsewhere in the essay Roy looks more analytically at the meaning of the word itself, reeling at the insanity that permits the world largest democracy, as India markets itself, to administer the world’s largest military occupation and continue to call itself a democracy.

Nor do democracies reject using torture when there is what they consider a legitimate reason. Roy reports, with as much restraint as she can muster, the words of one superintendent of police in India: "Torture is the only deterrent for terrorism," he says, adding "I did it for the nation." This need to use torture against alleged terrorists is chillingly similar to what we heard from the highest elected officials in the US. Torture became policy in India, as it did in the US, although sometimes the US sent presumed terrorists to other countries to be tortured.     

The subtitle of the book, Listening to Grasshoppers, refers to Roy‘s visit to Istanbul where she gave a lecture about genocide. She was appalled to learn there that people who speak about the Armenian version can be jailed under the Penal Code. Some of them have even been killed by "patriots." And like those in India who terrorized innocent Muslims after the burning of Hindu pilgrims, these patriots were celebrated as heroes by some Turks.

In addition to being dismayed about how democracy is practiced in India (and many other countries), Roy is outraged at how development is carried out by that democracy. What is happening, in the name of development, is that multinational corporations are plundering India‘s natural resources, with the cooperation — indeed with the encouragement — of the government. Forests, agricultural land, and water systems are ravaged, the livelihood of millions of people destroyed. By some strange perversion of language this is called "progress."

Clearly Roy worries that what passes for democracy is compatible with, or actually promotes, torture, repression, and ecological destruction, reversing among other things the policy of land reform declared by the newly-independent India. On this last point, farmlands have been modernized, which means saturated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides that farmers go into debt to buy, and then gradually leave the land exhausted and infertile. The consequence of this "progress" is that over the past few years more than 180,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide.

Roy mourns for these and the millions of other victims of this false progress and perverted democracy. And she fears that the debased democracies on the planet may be doing even more harm to humanity than the brutal tyrannies that afflict the globe.