Sometimes, the best way to challenge a dangerous consensus is to ask questions. In the midst of India’s many trysts with nationalism, Arundhati Roy examines the functioning of the world’s largest democracy and asks some of the most uncomfortable yet pertinent questions:
Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? What happens once democracy has been used up?
It is these questions that form the crux of her collection of essays “Listening to Grasshoppers”. These essays reflect different periods in India’s recent history, such as the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests, the 2001 attack on Parliament, the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, the trial and sentencing of Afzal Guru and the visit of George W. Bush to India. During each of these, Roy found an inconvenient truth to raise as question.
Nearly a decade on, we still don’t have answers to many of them. Was the 1998 nuclear test necessary? Did India hang the right man regarding the 2001 attack on parliament? Was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) misused to arrest the innocent? Are our courts functioning in accordance with our rights? Were the 1984 or 2002 riots ‘spontaneous reactions’ to perceived injustice?
For Roy, it’s clear that the answer to these questions is no. But ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ isn’t an endless vindication of one person’s ideology. She takes us through the questions we need to have asked when these events took place, the evidence and facts that exist in public domain yet are seldom discussed and the words that accompanied democracy’s most brutal forays into violence.
Perhaps the most dangerous question today is:
How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation?
The case of Kashmir remains a tragic, unresolved and touchy topic for those who believe in the Indian state.
The book gets its title from a talk Roy delivered in Istanbul, Turkey in 2008. She notes that the party that perpetrated the Armenian Genocide had “Change and Progress” in its name. It’s this contrast – of words that should mean better than their actions – that Roy weaves into her narrative of the atrocities of the Indian state.
Alongside her often brutal narrations of genocide, arbitrary arrests, police brutality and the endless suffering of the deprived; there is another contrasting narration of skyrocketing GDP-figures and shining ivory towers under construction. Roy argues that in the last ten years, it is this narrative that has prevailed in collective conscience. “India Shining” beats out “India running a militarised occupation in defiance of all human rights” – not because the narrative of a shining, growing India is sexier, but also because it is difficult to stomach the narrative of a militarised occupation.
Her powerful essays suggest, with evidence, that the instruments of democracy have failed to stop some of its greatest excesses. She cites the tens of thousands who have died in Kashmir, the many more who have been arrested and processed in India’s unforgiving prison and police system. Mentioned in particular detail is the aspect of custodial confession – where the police utilise many forms of torture to extract ‘confessions’ from their suspects. Even the Indian courts don’t accept these confessions as sacrosanct. But that doesn’t mean they play no role in fostering the ‘collective conscience’.
With capitalism, it’s a slightly more tenuous one. Roy belies the corporate parallel narrative of India – that necessarily accompanies tragedy with a straight face.
It’s easy to understand why: from where she is standing, and with the people she writes about, there is visibly little with which to link GDP-growth and human development. Her contention has more to do with the experience that the poor have had with capitalism, in particular those in the tribal belt – the many millions displaced by capital and the state in the name of ‘development’ and growth. It is from these people that the Naxalite movement has emerged – the most direct ideological challenge to capitalism in India, and one which Arundhati has openly backed.
Her reasons are not spelled out in detail in this collection. She writes that we must negotiate “the dangerous cross currents of neo-liberal capitalism and communal neo-fascism.” But it seems more apparent that the neo-liberal current has been marching ahead – unhinged.
Listening to Grasshoppers is an examination of the darkest deeds of the world’s largest democracy in recent history. And Roy’s report card isn’t glowing. Her footnotes and everything she cites is in the public domain. The real question is why we have never truly taken heed of it.
As Roy prepares to release her first novel after the Booker-winning “God of Small Things”, it’s worth heeding the collection of essays that makes her such an astute non-fiction writer – and the most level-headed anti-national in the country today.
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