“Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers,” Essays by Arundhati Roy, 2009
India is a caldron of ethnic, religious and class hatreds, folks. Not the land of mellow ‘gurus,’ yoga, Gandhi, vegetarian food, beaches and quaintness, as it is marketed to the hipster elite. Or of bright, enthusiastic entrepreneurs and high-tech workers in Bangalore, marketed to, and also paid-for by corporate America.
Roy is the gorgeous pin-up woman of Indian activism, who wrote the novel “The God of Small Things,” which won the Booker prize in 1997. This, her latest book, details the slow descent of Indian political culture, of both the Congress and BJP parties, into an India dominated by Hindu nationalism and creeping fascism. Bollywood objected to “Slumdog Millionaire,’ which revealed India’s poverty-ridden cities. The Indian political elite ground their teeth when “The White Tiger,” about a servant who kills his master in Delhi, wound up on the best-seller charts. (And which also won the Booker prize.) The Congress and BJP hate Roy and various other writers like Vandana Shiva, who detail the legal, political, environmental and communal disasters that have occurred on their watches. They have both been threatened many times for speaking out and organizing.
India broke with a somewhat centralized economic model of development in 1991, which consisted of controlling the ‘commanding heights of the economy;’ then adopted neo-liberal market methods, at which point many things began to come apart. According to Roy, this period was preceded in 1989 by the BJP beginning a program of Hindu nationalism – Hindutva. This is a country, after all, that has as one of its major founding events the British ‘Partition’ of 1947. Partition resulted in hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims dying in communalist violence, and millions became homeless or moving, as the British ‘created’ Pakistan, Bangladesh and India out of the fabric of one multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
The recent slaughter of Tamil’s in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese government’s army in April and May 2009, mostly hidden from the world, has inspired the present Congress government to now declare war on the Maoist Naxalites in the east-central regions of India. I think hoping to duplicate that feat. The Naxalites, who got their name from a village in West Bengal named Naxalbari, are still waging a guerrilla war to defend the forests and land of the poor, bottom-caste people of those regions against corporations eager to control their land and the mineral and water wealth beneath it. This struggle has been almost invisible outside India. Congress hopes that drowning it in blood will be equally invisible.
Against this background, Roy's essays focus on the collapse of the police and legal system in the face of Hindu fundamentalism and Muslim terrorism - real and fabricated – something that accelerated greatly after 9/11. George Bush essentially gave the green light to anti-Muslim pogroms and politics in India, and the Hindu nationalist politicians eagerly took advantage of it. Essentially, Roy sees much evidence pointing to the Indian secret police carrying out many frame-ups and provocations. For her, the central events are:
- 1984 - Congress Party leads mobs in Delhi in slaughter of thousands of Sikh’s as revenge for the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
December 1992 – mobs of Hindu fundamentalists converged on the town of Ayodhya and demolished an old Muslim mosque. Plans to build a huge Hindu temple over that spot are underway.
1993 – a fundamentalist Hindu mob killed a 1,000 Muslims in Mumbai. In response, Muslim terrorists used bombs to kill 250 people in that same city.
1998 – Using this polarization, the BJP takes national power after starting with only two representatives in 1989. Roy sees this as linked to the anti-Islamism of the first Gulf war. The BJP then conducted nuclear tests within weeks of taking power, linking nuclear weapons to the pride of being ‘Hindu.’
January 1999 – Bajrang Dal, a Hindu militia, burns a Christian missionary and his two sons alive.
December 2001 – Attack on the Indian parliament resulted in 5 dead “Pakistani” terrorists, never identified, and the remaining ‘conspirators’ being judging innocent or being declared guilty in the face of much evidence that this was actually a police provocation by the “Special Cell.” Roy spends several chapters on this incident.
February 2002 – 58 Hindu pilgrims on an express train burned alive as they returned from Ayodhya. According to Roy, the BJP government in Gujarat, lead by Chief Minister Modi, responded with a carefully planned genocide; 2,000 Muslims were murdered, Muslim women gang-raped, and 150,000 Muslims driven from their homes and forced to live in the woods or on the outskirts of towns. Modi has now been re-elected 3 times, running against Congress party candidates that are mostly ex-BJP. He has never been prosecuted. Roy focuses especially on this event.
November 2002 – Undercover Delhi police kill alleged Muslim terrorists in Lashkar-e-Taiba. Witnesses say the victims were unarmed.
2002 - Draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act passed. The Indian Congress repealed it in 2004, then adopted a tougher law in December 2008, with almost no debate between parties.
December 2007 – Systematic attacks in three states against Christians lead to the burning of churches. Lower-caste Muslim Dalit and Adivasi are urged to attack Christians Dalits and Adivasi by the BJP. Thousands of Christians now live in refugee camps in the forests. Roy thinks this was actually an attack on the base of the Maoists.
November 2008 (or as the press calls it, 26/11) - The attack in Delhi by alleged Pakistani-backed Muslim terrorists, has been promoted to basically turn India into a police-state. Roy hints that it, too, might have been a police operation.
December 2008 – Hindu fundamentalists attack women in Bangalore and Mangalore for wearing jeans and western clothes, protected by the new BJP government.
Roy links the recent 2009 election – in which UPA/Congress triumphed with 10% of the vote – as showing the unity of both parties behind neo-liberal economic practice. Roy delineates how this economic philosophy is actually intimately linked to the pogramist BJP and the tolerant-of-pograms Congress. For instance in Chattisgarh, the BJP government and the Congress-Party militia Salwah Judum work together in a war with the Maoists and the low-caste Adivasis population. 644 villages have been emptied. 50,000 people have been moved into Salway Judum camps. 300,000 hide in the forests. The newest Gandhi, Varun Gandhi, is a BJP campaigner who believes Muslims should be sterilized. He won overwhelmingly.
The Left Front in West Bengal took a hard right, according to Roy, and made deals to build a chemical complex, a plant for Tata motors, and a Jindal steel plant in the forests. This was opposed by the population, but the Left Front attempted to make this come true virtually at gun-point, using thugs in their own party militia. The population eventually defeated the Front over these plans. The Left Front, of course, was decimated in the 2009 elections for embracing neo-liberalism - the first time they had lost elections in 30 years. The ruling class press said it was because the Left Front was too antagonistic to neo-liberalism, not the reverse. Roy also analyzes the strengths of the multi-headed, very well-organized, reactionary-nationalist, pogramist BJP, which has mass educational, military, economic and social organizations all over the country.
Roy ends with a description of the endless and brutal occupation of Islamic Kashmir by the Indian army, supported by both Indian Parties, the intelligentsia, the bureaucracy and the media. The occupation has gone on for 20 years, leaving 70,000 dead, 1,000s tortured, many raped, fabricated elections, and an occupation army of half-a-million. Massive non-violent protests by the Kashmiri population in summer 2008 put a dent in this occupation, but it still sits at the center of every violent vortex in the area, and even Indian politics itself.
For those Americans who have only the haziest understanding of India, and think of it more in relation to the beaches in Goa, this book is a great introduction to the politicians, organizations and issues that are tearing India apart. Within the limitations of the essay style, Roy makes impassioned, yet factual, analyses of every contradiction she uncovers, in sibliant prose.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 11/09/2009