New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 5 Aug 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Why democracy isn’t about vote margins


By Saif Shahin


STRIKE a conversation about Arundhati Roy and you are almost certain to evoke reactions ranging from the furrowed brow to the fuming larynx. The perplexing thing about this goddess of small beings is that even kurta - clad, Left- leaning progressives — her ‘type’ of people basically — loathe her just about as much as a knicker wallah or a Banana Republic patron. Listening to Grasshoppers, her latest collection of subversive writings, tells you why.

The book is sub- titled Field Notes on Democracy, but that isn’t strictly what it is. The ten essays, one short play and a brief fictional piece contained here were written at various times of domestic and international turbulence over the past seven years. They deal with a range of topics that don’t exactly segue from one to the other.

You get to smell Roy’s nausea from the 2002 riots of Gujarat, hear her impassioned plea for those incarcerated in the Parliament attack case, touch the pulse of Istanbul in the wake of Hrant Dink’s assassination, taste the morbidity of President George W. Bush’s visit to India and see the utter pointlessness of our rhetoric- laced reaction to last year’s Mumbai attack.

Her targets are the government, the police, the judiciary and the media — particularly the media.

All along these writings, there is a sixth sense of a deeper malaise, an intuition of a more fundamental fault with the way things are.

This sense is given sensibility in her astutely powerful introduction to the anthology.

“What have we done to democracy?” asks Roy. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short- term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?” Roy, of course, doesn’t talk of a return to authoritarianism. She X- rays the symbiotic relationship between democratic governance, the growth of fascism and the free market, and exposes how they all feed off one another.

The ascent of the “fascist BJP” began around the same time as economic liberalisation, the book points out. Today, the Sangh Parivar’s biggest project is “Hinduising” Dalits and Adivasis, and pitting them against each other and against the minorities and Maoists. This has been visible in the way Dalits and Adivasis were unleashed on Muslims in Gujarat, the killings of Christians in Orissa, and in the creation of the anti- Maoist Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, Roy argues.

“ It’s not a coincidence that these communities live in forests and on mineral- rich lands that corporations have their eyes on and governments want vacated,” writes Roy.

Once the land is taken over and the corporations have set up their neo- colonial outposts on them, the government can lay claims to “development”, rely on the support of the “progressive” media and win landslide victories.

The emptiness of such democracy is brought home by the most recent of these landslides, says Roy. The actual share of votes polled by the UPA in Lok Sabha polls works out to 10.3 per cent of the national population — and yet it was declared by one and all to be a thumping mandate. So much for democracy.

The wretched of the earth, warns Roy, are not going to accept their dispossession as a fait accompli.

Already, grassroots resistance movements scattered across the country are fighting the violation of fundamental rights resulting from ‘development’. “If they got together,” the writer predicts, “they could be a force to reckon with.” Her nib cuts through the web of deceit spun by the forces behind the nexus of democracy, fascism and neoliberalism. But what Roy really achieves is holding a concave mirror in front of our professional cause junkies. They look puny in it.

The shrillness of Roy’s prose accentuates the silence of political, media and civil rights activists on issues like the growing hold of the free market on our society and our lives. The temerity of her arguments exposes the timidity of secularists when talking about Gujarat and Kashmir. Hence the furrowed brow, or the fuming larynx. Email:

Source: Mail Today