Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy

By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Author: by Arundhati Roy
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd
Price: INR 499

Dedicated to those who have learned to divorce hope from reason, Booker prize winner author Arundhati Roy’s latest seminal work ‘Collection of her fiery essays deftly punctures into lofty but lame claims of India being the world’s largest democracy and a rising power.

Known for her devil-may-care writings and intrepid character, Roy takes on the might of state with artillery of pen and paper, and also stands vindicated. Her unwavering stand against anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and criticism of neo-imperialism preached by United States has won her many admirers. She has been a vocal critic of India’s nuclear ambitions. The approach to development policies practiced by State, like in case of Narmada Dam or Nandigram leaves her miffed. Her soft-corner for Kashmir is evident in her writings. She shares the pain of a common Kashmiri, living dangerously, under the shade of bunkers and army camps for decades now. Unlike those individualist and careerist writers, Roy is among the minorities who have shown an awareness of public issues.

Her latest book takes many critical, national issues head-on. And, it’s impossible not to admire her audacity and courage in heading to the territory where others fear to tread.

The fusion of democracy and free market into single predatory organism ruffles Roy no end. She fears the democracy can no longer be relied upon to deliver justice and stability. Her skepticism is not entirely unfounded and she explains why, as only she can.

The title of the book is drawn from a lecture Roy delivered in Istanbul in 2001. The essays written between 2001 and 2008 though have a common strand — They are about fire in ducts, which give detailed under-view of how democracy is practiced in world’s largest demon-crazy (read: democracy).

Her rage comes blazing out when talk veers to problems of floods, droughts, desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines, SEZs, which Roy believes are developed in the name of poor but really meant to serve the growing demands of the new aristocracy. She charges State with committing eco-side by backing marauding MNCs in ravaging forests, mountains and water systems.

Roy traces the genesis of BJP and Hindu nationalism (hindutva) to the historical moment when America traded communism with Islam as its great enemy. A strong opponent of nuclearisation, (remember her essay End of Imagination which she wrote after India went nuclear), Roy blasts saffron party for marrying Hindu communalism with nuclear nationalism, which ever since 1998 nuclear tests have like corporate globalization arched over the slated ideologies of political parties. The venom has been injected straight into our bloodstreams.

Communal carnages and genocides have unarguably left a blot on the face of largest democracy. Roy is scathing in her criticism of State in failing to protect its citizens from saffron zealots time and again. Whether it was Hindu mob rampaging through Mumbai in 1992 and walking past corpses of over a thousand people, mostly Muslims. Or the carefully planned genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 at the behest of Narender Modi government, which Roy calls, a genocidal massacre designed as public spectacle with unmistakable aims. Or the slaughtering of Sikhs on Delhi streets in 1984 by mobs led by Congress party. Or the recent ruthless attacks on Christians and desecration of churches by Hindu fanatics down South.

What makes Roy seethe with fury even more is the blatant endorsement of Modi as future PM by big business tycoons like Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, in exchange of Gujarat Garima awards. After the carnage, Roy hoped against hope that the twenty-two BJP allies would withdraw the support to government, as it was a litmus test of their moral fiber. But they stood their ground for petty political gains. She criticizes Farooq Abdullah, among the high-flying Muslim politicians left in India, for supporting Modi with dim hope of landing on Vice President’s chair. There is no terrorism like state terrorism,  says Roy, and how true.

UPA’s flagship programme NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme) that assures every rural family 100 days of work a year i.e., average Rs 8000 per family, fails to impress Roy. She finds the amount just about enough for a good meal in a restaurant.

Roy has always championed the cause of have-nots. She vigorously pleads the case of tribal people who in the name of development projects are driven to desperation by captains of industry. Be it chemical hub in Nandigram, manufacturing unit for Tata Nano in Singur or a Jindal steel plant in Lalgarh.

BJP’s latest poster-boy Varun Gandhi also comes in the line of Roy’s ire. She brands him a monstrous new debutant, who makes Modi sound moderate and retiring. Roy is bemused by the fact that while war (Mumbai attacks) coverage on TV stirred everyone out of their comfort zone, the war fought in Dalit bastis, on the banks of Narmada, Singur, and Lalgarh are cast into limbo. She talks about how investigations into Batla House encounter and Malegoan blasts were turned into a mockery of sorts.

Mention Kashmir and Roy turns argumentative. She frankly questions Indian army’s lame claims that it has crushed militancy in Kashmir, wondering if military domination means victory. How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation,  asks Roy. Elections are farcical, often rigged. The word Azadi resonates throughout her essays on Kashmir. She talks of how Azadi buzz swept across the valley last year and how panicked govt. resorted to extreme measures to crush democratic, non-violent protests. She talks of how Kashmiri freedom struggle with its crystal clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines is caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies. She talks of how the story of largest battlefield in world, Siachen Glacier has become the metaphor for insanity of our times. She talks about cases of disappearances, custodial killings, draconian laws like POTA and AFSPA with compelling arguments. And laments, that despite all this, India retains its reputation as a legitimate democracy in the international community.

Pointing to glaring loopholes in 2002 Parliament attach case, Roy castigates judiciary and police for failing to deliver justice. She defends Afzal Guru, who is on death row for his alleged involvement in the attack. Afzal is just a pawn in a sinister game, not a dragon that he is made out to be but only the dragon’s footprint,  says Roy. She further talks of how innocent Kashmiris, the likes of SAR Geelani, DU Lecturer and Iftikhar Geelani, a journalist were framed, illegally detained, and brutally tortured in custody for no crime of theirs. Roy blames mainstream media for being equal party to crime, and is miffed that not even a single newspaper journalist or TV channel saw it fit to apologize to SAR Geelani for the ordeal he had to endure because of their rash, irresponsible reporting. Media, Roy believes, is trapped in the game where carelessness and incomprehension is as deadly as malice. Afzal’s case, or for that matter the cases of SAR Geelani and Iftikhar Gelani proved it beyond doubt.

Roy, like most of us, is though bit uncomfortable with disparate views of various factions in this freedom struggle. But she minces no words in reiterating that India needs Azadi from Kashmir just as much Kashmir needs Azadi from India.

Taking pot shots at George Bush, Roy feels sorry that on his India visit in Feb 06, the only safe place for him to address gathering of bigwigs was a crumbling medieval fort, with few hundred caged animals of Delhi Zoo and caged human beings from power corridors for audience. The essay, Animal Farm II is hilarious yet makes telling statement about Bush and his warped world-view.

Roy is equally scathing in her criticism of former chief justice of Supreme Court Justice Sabharwal, who was involved in a big scandal that rocked the judiciary recently. Her essay listening to grasshoppers is extensive and an absolute treat. It aptly sums up the mess that is also known as largest democracy. She explains how the citizenry in this country are at odds to isolate the enemy existing within. Extermination, she thinks has become key word for establishment to tackle resistance groups.

Overall, it’s a must read for all those who, though having lost hope still believe in the notions of democracy, rights, liberty, and freedom. Freedom from menaces of occupation, state terrorism, neo-imperialism, poverty, corruption, propaganda war and list goes on. It’s for you, who dare to defy, no matter the odds.

The reviewer is a Kashmiri journalist working with a national newspaper in New Delhi. Any feedback must be sent to [email protected]

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