Speaking of Arundhati…

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz SharifPrime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Arundhati Roy
Image by flamk via Flickr

I find that people the world over respect Arundhati Roy for her thoughts. So do I. She has some remarkable insights into the grassroots India most of us never think of, let alone touch. However, I think it is unfair to call her critics as suppressive of free speech or to think that only crazy nationalists disagree with her.

Arundhati speaks words of power, and she causes ripples because they resonate with truth. If they didn’t have the power to shake anything, there would be no desire to censor her at all. Unfortunately, the issue becomes about her rather than whatever the issue actually is. When she joined the Kashmiri cause, many people remarked that she was doing a service to India, because her record shows that she usually joins a powerful movement at its peak, post which the conversations increasingly become about her and the whole thing dies down.

Arundhati isn’t the only person to speak out on issues in India, though this phenomenon seems unique to her. In some ways, she is India’s golden child who bit us. A part of us will hope for some affection in return. And most of those celebrating her Booker Prize were from the kind of people she hates the most – the ‘haves’. Actually, I don’t think she hates us. She just thinks we are somehow creating lives of misery for the ‘have nots’ and disapproves. She claims to speak from love, and I guess she believes it, like a parent believes that they have the right to tell their child whom to date because they love them. It is something that often passes as love, but isn’t. Ask the child. Ask the people she fires her words at.

The general idea I’m going by is that love is experienced, not claimed. Like I said earlier, why is it that she gets so solidly objected to, when others speak many similar things? We loved her, and she had wonderful ideas to make us better, but she used them to show us down rather than guide us to better times.

I doubt if she can be charged with sedition and it would be sad if she could. Like it or not, ‘sedition’ in India is similar to ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan – both persecute someone for having an opinion – in this case. Sedition can be other things, and I disagree that just because a law is from the British Era or was used to persecute a national hero, its a bad law. The point however isn’t what the court decides, but that she is an “India hater” for many. This is an excellent strategy if the objective of the whole thing is gaining publicity, as many accuse her of. I am not saying anything is right or wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring publicity either. I am just looking at this phenomenon around her, where the whole country gets derailed.

Coming back on track, it is our conversations that invite the responses we get. She speaks of the middle and upper classes secession from the masses, yet is that useful to look at in a conflicted situation? Is it useful to accuse someone of something not immediately relevant to the conversation and hope that they will want to listen to more? Can every flaw in a country be addressed at once by listing it out and allocating blame?

There are times when she is flat out misleading in the way she uses facts. Take for example:

we have more poor people in India than 26 of Africa’s poorest countries put together.

And I put it in the context of the story of this country rather than a static number:

According to the criterion used by the Planning Commission of India 27.5% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2004–2005, down from 51.3% in 1977–1978, and 36% in 1993-1994.

Same country, same poor people, but the reality is that conditions are changing. Sure, we have more poor people than 26 of Africa’s poorest countries, but we also have the second largest population in the world. If we knew which those 26 countries were, we could compare total populations as well as the rate at which poverty is being reduced and use that to see if India really were the villain this quote suggests. Unfortunately, this widely quoted miracle argument doesn’t list out the countries in any of the places it is quoted. People should just believe, because they have been told.

I am not saying we are or aren’t. I am simply saying that using a snapshot of comparative numbers to judge a country is pretty much exactly what poverty index reports warn against BECAUSE there are so many other factors involved.

Yet, in one shot, this statement attacks and discredits that “India shining” that she hates so much, and takes us mentally into the “Mother India” scenes that we are trying to claw our way out of. How does this help anything? India IS a poor country. India IS a country that has been developing steadily on every front since its birth. We have our concerns, we have flat out tragedies, but turning India into a monument for poverty is a lie.

If she grudges all Indians patriotic pride because some suffer, she is not going to win friends or influence people – in ANY country. Citizens will retaliate, because their identity itself is turned into something vile. How the retaliation happens will vary from country to country, but I think I am not exaggerating when I say filing police complaints or protesting are legal and actually democratic ways that many countries in the world wouldn’t bother with. If she wanted to create awareness, she has. People are speaking up for their dignity and they are rejecting canned speeches – even hers.

Particularly people who see themselves as giving up luxuries in favour of the development of the country. Mumbai, for instance is the largest contributor of revenue to the country, yet the money spent on Mumbai is nowhere near proportional to that, because there is greater need in other parts of the country. Sure, there is far greater luxury, there is capitalism. There are no power cuts at all. Yet, that is where the money is coming in from. Very little pampering of Mumbai happens – most luxuries actually translate into things that facilitate the place to earn more money – capitalism, sure. Money that is steadily trickling into the rest of the country.

India actually is improving on many things that will lead to better lives for the people. We have reached a place in our economy where we can afford to take a few risks, to move more money from traditional expenses to development. Our media is quite lousy, but it loves a scandal, so scams are faithfully seeked and found. What is more, there is increased public scrutiny and demand for accountability and that is increasingly getting fulfilled. We have a very low prison population as well as crime rate as compared with other places in the world including developed countries. This is in spite of having all her pet insurgencies. We have reached here from a place of great communal conflict, mass riots, police inefficiency and lack of resources. We have our faults – corruption is a huge one. Another big one is health care. Then there are ‘must do betters’ like education, microfinance, etc. The key isn’t perfection, but what we do when we discover imperfection. India consistently seems to be moving in the direction of transparency.

On an international scale, our voice holds power. We matter. It didn’t come by automatically, we created it. It is a huge hope that we are increasingly demanding accountability. We are insisting on change. Scams and scandals are met with a flood of criticism and strategies. No one wants things to be like this. And because no one wants these things, in a democracy, we will find ways to change that. We WILL find a way to feed our poor, give them jobs…. etc.

If she believes in democracy, democracy inherently places trust in the capacity of human systems to continuously evolve and improve. Yet, her cynicism disregards that for what it is worth, India actually is a great democracy. Great, not as in size or fame, but great as in fantastic. The utopia she compares our imperfect country with doesn’t exist. It is unrealistic, and it is a denial of what we have done so far.

Nor is anarchy going to help matters in the near future, even though anarchy is the ultimate democracy – everyone gets a say. It is not useful to disregard facts like Maoists being the biggest hurdle for development to reach the tribals she claims to speak on behalf of. It is not useful to disregard the fact that while unrealistic loans led many farmers to suicide, they also took those unrealistic loans the government did not ram them down their throats. Its sad what happened, but allocating blanket blame only paralyzes initiative and inhibits solutions from being attempted. Her anti-government agenda actually serves to sabotage the causes of those she supports.

Take for instance Medha Patkars largely successful struggle in mobilizing resistance to the dams till it got obfuscated by exaggerated emotional rhetoric and antagonized the very people who could have helped by blaming them for the problem. Read news headlines from that period to see how public opinion and decisions changed.

She has seen this process enacted out so many times, yet she refuses to think that there may be something wrong with not what she is saying, but the way she says it. There is absolutely no evidence of introspection or openness to the possibility that there can be many valid perspectives to one issue. If she supports democracy, this is only another vote bank process.

If you look at India as a colonizing power, sure, it makes sense to imagine that ghastly visual of eating its own limbs. But IS India a colonizing power? Does Army presence equate colonization? Is that all there is to it? Is it just about resistance movements all being allocated their own countries? That will make their lives better – to now be poor and in charge of their own destinies with no opportunity for cash flows from more privileged regions? That will reduce the poor, or will it simply play with those statistics so that they don’t appear in one country? Are 26 states with a certain number of poor a better condition to be in than one larger country with more poor? If the poor govern themselves, where do they get money for their country from?

There is far more we can and should be doing for the poor, but with one extreme accusation, she significantly decreases chances that anyone will listen to the excellent observations and areas of concern she brings forth. The intellectuals get it, as do the activists – they are used to tuning out rhetoric – not those getting blackened. How does that help?

On her famous statement on Kashmir – what is the basis of that? Resistance? That’s it? India was never a part of the British Empire? I don’t know what the future holds for Kashmir, but its the height of schizophrenia to say that it was never a part of India. Even if India conquered and occupied and colonized it, it is a colony within India. Let’s get geography straight. Heck, lets get sociology straight while we are at it.

In the 1965 war, and then again during Kargil, the Pakistani Army had entered Kashmir with the express purpose of liberating it. The assumption was that the Kashmiri masses would aid their efforts. Makes sense, no, if Kashmir wanted to leave India? It was the locals who raised the alarm for the Indian Army. Even if some informers raised the alarm, there was absolutely nothing stopping the masses from supporting the attacks vigorously. They didn’t. That IS the truth, no matter what Geelani says. It is truth playing out on such a massive scale, that political boundaries had the possibility to change if there was will. The only instance of will evident was in the Pakistani troops and jihadis. So, what is the basis of saying what she said? Her estimation that Kashmir wants freedom based on the separatists she hangs around with or the pain she sees in the eyes of a mother losing her child?

In the process, she has managed to derail the crux of the matter to something peripheral. If India were a colonizing entity, it was actually great, because there is no risk in arguing with a schizophrenic person over something that is securely established in most ways the world recognizes. On the other hand, a colonizing power would be quite glad that something threatening to break its hold was destroyed.

Yet, the vast majority of Indians rose in protest. They saw Kashmir as theirs. They saw the Kashmiris as their people. They didn’t want them getting killed in violence. They didn’t want her encouraging further protests endangering lives. According to her theory of the colonizing power, India should be exploiting Kashmir, not spending money there. The India economy would likely rocket if we let go of Kashmir. Yet capitalist India has made no move to kick them out.

Ordinary citizens are pressuring the government over the killings. If India were a colonizing power, what did it matter if it killed 20 or 2000 to consolidate its rule? Crushing it could be easily possible with the much touted number of security forces already parked there.

What right did she have to call Panun Kashmir a fake organization? I go to the other extreme and say, let us assume that Panun Kashmir was entirely the creation of some evil entity – say the Hindutva lobby or the government or something. That is besides the point. Is the data they bring up wrong? THAT is the point, because that data speaks of a great injustice too. It speaks of the bottom line of the issue in kashmir for many people.

Her style is one of polarization. Extremes. Haves and have nots. Love her or hate her. Obscene rich, neglected poor. Colonizing power, victims etc. Somehow it sounds like the rich not just colonized India, but actually invaded first from another country – they are not Indians? If many people are hungry, does that mean that they shouldn’t have good things?

It is also a flat out lie that the upper and middle classes don’t care. It is these same people echoing her words across the press, exposing scams, publicizing the troubles faced by the poor, asking for accountability and getting indignant on behalf of the poor when their funds are misappropriated. Others do things in their own way. Many corporate offices have employees volunteering money as a group for donating to projects for development. Others quit careers to work among the poor. “Filthy rich” like Aseem Premji donate “obscene amounts”.

Bottom line is – we see what we are looking for. Look for injustice, it abounds. Look for people coming together for progress, it starts manifesting too. The polarization is in our mind that we project and impose on the world, so that by responding to us rationally, it must adopt that paradigm.

The same data can be interpreted to mean different things. Arundhati has a gift for noticing significant data. We need to extract it from her words so that it may be used in many and different ways. If we hate her for not having the flexibility to accommodate that, we are no different from her hating us for not having the flexibility.

She had once said in an interview that she isn’t trying to offer balanced opinions. Her objective is to see an area that needs attention and create enough pandemonium that it is addressed. I admire that. However, it is also important for her to read her own words and remember when she had once skirted around the possibility of admitting that she was not fair or intending to be fair when she did these stunts. To remember that in a democracy, there is a possibility that many, many people are right.

Statistics are numbers. Nations are full of people. Statistics are insights, not the sum total of realities. When Arundhati sees the people beyond the numbers, the country will be transformed. We need her insight. We need her caring enough to brave odds. We’d love her to love us a little too, but we’ll take her however we get.

Basically, she gets the crux of the matter brilliantly and then destroys its utility by making it combative. Nothing is an idea. It is criticism. It should have been done already before she noticed and had to lay things out by those running her country for her.
It isn’t the pointing out of failure that is the issue as she claims, but the conclusions of intentional oppression.
Also, like Ashish points out, there is absolutely no appreciation of what is. That this so called colonizing Hindu brahmanical capitalist oppressive state, that feeds its capitalism by chewing off limbs and subjugating minorities has no issues with her addressing the public decade after decade in spite of the fact that she has always criticized the country.
Its yet another manifestation of what I have really started seeing as a massive takeover of our roots where all our standards and morality comes from the west.
Hello Arundhati, last I knew, India had massive injustices of this sort well before capitalism happened, and reformers have worked hard to create change. This India you imagine as people somehow damaging has never been more democratic than it is right now – flaws and all. If that was an offshoot of Hindu culture, well, surprise….. the country does have Hindu roots. We imported the western ‘standards’ for judging things, we haven’t yet managed to rewrite our own history.

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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