Harsh Mander

Barefoot: Where grasshoppers do not settle


One may not agree with some of its positions but Arundhati Roy's ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ dissects contemporary Indian reality with intelligence and compassion.

Hordes of grasshoppers descended on ripening fields of wheat, months before one of the most brutal massacres of the 20th century was unleashed, in which half a million Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire because of their minority Christian faith, in 1915. The village elders saw in the arrival of the grasshoppers a bad omen. It is from this premonition of impending catastrophe that Arundhati Roy derives the title of her new volume of essays, Listening to Grasshoppers. But it is on India that the book is focused. In her words, the Gujarat genocide of 2002 warns us "that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India".

Roy is undoubtedly a writer of extraordinary talent. In luminous, lyrical but scathing prose, she dissects contemporary Indian reality with exceptional intelligence and compassion. The essays in her latest volume, like the two that preceded it, are "written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something" Her lucid voice, of barely controlled rage at persisting spectacular State injustices and impunity in contemporary India, and her clear-eyed analysis of genocide, occupation, brutal human rights violations and what she calls "ecocide" are compelling and disturbing, and help us make sense of several significant and traumatic events of the first decade of this century: the Gujarat carnage of 2002, the attack on Parliament, two decades of insurgency and its repression in Kashmir, the trial and conviction of Afzal Guru, "encounter" killings, and the Mumbai terror attack of 2008.

Her descriptions of growing, staggering inequality in India are particularly evocative. The "old society has curdled and separated into a thin layer of thick cream - and a lot of water. The cream is India's 'market' of many million consumers (of cars, cell phones, computers, Valentine Day's greeting cards), the envy of international business. The water is of little consequence". Even more scathing is her descriptions of "the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India - the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world's elite".

On State violence

I also find myself in agreement with much of her uncompromising interrogation of State violations of human rights, and its impunity. She illustrates the many assaults of the State in India on people's freedoms: killings of people in State custody; recurrent misuse of terror laws to detain and prosecute people of religious, ethnic or caste minorities and to repress democratic dissent; and dispossession of people from their lands and forests, and from their wealth of water and minerals to facilitate corporate profits and economic growth.

While there is so much that I concur with in her essays, so much that I am moved and stirred by, I still find myself in fundamental and passionate disagreement with some of her major conclusions. The first is her rejection of what she describes as "the failing light" of democracy in India. She believes that India pretends to be a democracy: "it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning"; and each of its institutions - the judiciary, police, "free" press and elections - "have metastasized into something dangerous", designed to uphold the consensus of the elite for market growth.

Roy rejects "liberals" who continue to have faith in a "tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy" in India. I am afraid I am one such "liberal". I am acutely aware of all the flaws in democracy in India, and join battle on many - indeed most - of the issues that Roy so eloquently dissects. And yet I do not share her terminal pessimism with the functioning of democracy in India. Unlike her, I do not believe that secular democracy in India is fake window dressing for the world to admire. With all its failings and betrayals, the guarantees contained in India's secular democratic constitution have made significant difference to the lives of its dispossessed people. They would have been even far poorer than they are now, more insecure, more oppressed without democracy. Of this, I am convinced.

Roy does not find significant the rejection of communal politics by the majority of Indian voters in 2004 and 2009. I do. These elections, especially the latter, are for me an endorsement - and an appeal - by the majority of Indian women and men, for more inclusive politics, for more equitable growth, and for decency in public life. Roy regards the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which creates a statutory right to 100 days employment in public works to every rural household as "crumbs". "It amounts to Rs. 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough", she says, "for a good meal in a restaurant, with wine and dessert". I have observed how much NREGA, again with its flaws, has meant for millions of India's poorest people. Many live on less than one dollar a day, therefore 170 dollars is not a trifle for them. It has enabled them to survive, and that too without doles but instead with the dignity of (admittedly hard) labour. It has reduced distress migration and debt, brought more food to their plates and those of their children, and has raised agricultural wages. It is likely that this partly influenced the emphatic vote for the UPA government in 2009. To me, this is evidence of democracy delivering to its dispossessed people. Even flawed democracy.

Equally profound is my disagreement with Roy's frequent endorsement of the legitimacy of violence as a means of people's resistance to injustice. She observes with approval that many of the poor are "crossing over to another side. The side of armed struggle". It is grave error, she believes "to conflate resistance with terrorism". People "have watched the great Gandhian people's movements being reduced and humiliated, floundering in the quagmire of court cases, hunger strikes and counter-hunger strikes". Faced with ever mounting injustice, people are justified in taking up arms, as they are doing in large tracts of central India under various Naxalite formations. She is equally dismissive of what she describes as the "well-endowed peace industry" which believes that "Kashmiris are tired of violence and want peace", and that many feel trapped in the crossfire between the guns of security forces and militants. I am not sure it is an industry, but I believe in a peaceful and just solution to the decades of violence in Kashmir.

Against violence

I agree that there is a difference between violence by the State, and the structural violence of oppression, on the one hand, and violence as resistance by peoples who are oppressed. And yet history bears testimony to the fact that violence in the end brutalises all those who resort to it, oppressor and oppressed. I mourn the death of innocent unarmed civilians in conflict zones, but I mourn also the death of policemen and armed insurgents. I find it ironical that people who would stoutly - and I believe rightly - oppose the death penalty, are prepared to endorse the murder by insurgents who combine in themselves the roles of self-appointed judge, prosecutor and executioner, of people they deem to be guilty of myriad crimes like exploitation, informing the police or joining rival militant factions. Or worse, the slaughter of complete innocents in bomb explosions or missile attacks.

And yet, even with these contestations, and partly because of them, I warmly recommend Roy's latest anthology of essays to all who care about the future of India - and the world - and the possibilities and prospects of its evolution into a humane, secular, democratic and equitable society, peopled by men and women who have "another imagination, another world view and a more sustainable way of life". To one on which the grasshoppers will not settle.

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