Rage against the democracy

Rage against the democracy

Arundhati Roy’s critics — and they are many — often accuse her of being too critical of the Indian state, too emotional and pessimistic. Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy tells you why it is hard to be anything but pessimistic when one examines the health of India’s secular democracy.

 Written at critical moments in India’s current history — the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, the trial of the accused in the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament, the mass protests in Kashmir in the summer of 2008 among others — the essays examine the performance of the country’s democratic institutions through the crises. And they come out with a poor grade.

“Every ‘democratic’ institution in this country has shown itself to be unaccountable, inaccessible to the ordinary citizen, and either unwilling, or incapable of acting, in the interests of genuine social justice,” Roy writes.
 India’s democratic institutions, Roy argues “far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They provide each other cover...” Her essays on the trial of the alleged co-conspirators in the 2001 attacks on India’s Parliament provide ample evidence of this. She traces how ‘evidence’ was doctored and ‘confessions’ cooked up. Instead of questioning the authenticity and legality of confessions taken in police custody, the media has been colluding with intelligence agencies and the government in declaring the accused to be guilty, despite the absence of evidence, she says.

It is hard not to agree with Roy’s scathing criticism of the Gujarat government’s role in the “genocide of Muslims” and harder still not to empathise with her anger over the Indian state’s use of torture to elicit confessions and encounter killings to deal with ‘terrorism’. And it is not just because of the eloquence of her prose — she is undoubtedly a supremely skilled writer — that the reader is moved while reading Listening to Grasshoppers. If the essays strike a chord with the reader it is because the issues she writes about are very real. Moreover, Roy seems more engaged with these issues in the essays in Listening to Grasshoppers, than she has in the past. She is less self-indulgent than she was in her earlier books, especially the recent The Shape of the Beast.

But Roy hasn’t lost her penchant for hyperbole. A literary device to emphasise a point, Roy’s rather excessive resort to it in essays that claim to be factual doesn’t quite work. It might serve to shock the reader into waking up to realities but it also leaves her writings open to allegations of exaggeration and undermines the credibility of the argument she makes.

Roy’s rage with a democracy that “has been used up,” “hollowed out” and “emptied of meaning” and whose institutions have “metastasised into something dangerous” is understandable but does she see no positives at all?
For all its flaws, elections provide every citizen the opportunity to bring change. It is a fact that Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis — India’s most alienated and dispossessed — vote most enthusiastically. They wouldn’t if democracy wasn’t delivering. Roy is silent on this. She fails to see that they would be worse off without this “used up” democracy.

Roy draws the title of her book from the swarming of grasshoppers — a bad omen that Armenians believe portends catastrophe  that preceded the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish state in 1915. The Gujarat genocide, Roy warns “tells us that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India.” India is on the road to catastrophe. And it is up to us to do something to avoid it.
  “We’re standing at a fork in the road,” Roy warns. “One sign points in the direction of Justice, the other says Civil War. There’s no third sign, and there’s no going back. Choose.”

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