Arundhati Roy's early warning: behind India's 'miracle'

December 4, 2009

Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
By Arundhati Roy
Penguin, 2009
256 pages, $30

India successfully markets itself to the globe as the "world's largest democracy" — but what kind of a democracy is it?

In Listening to Grasshoppers, Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy gives a devastating verdict on her country that should serve as a warning to the world.

The title of the book comes from Roy's friend, whose mother recalled how swarms of grasshoppers visited her Armenian village in 1915. The village elders were alarmed because they knew that grasshoppers were a bad sign.

A few months later, 1.5 million Armenians were wiped out by a genocidal Ottoman Empire.

In India today, says Roy, the grasshoppers are calling.

The 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai could be seen as the grasshoppers nibbling on a harvest of poisonous seeds sown long ago.

India, which is often lauded as an all-inclusive, secular society of more than a billion different souls, has been sowing those poisonous seeds by persecuting its 150 million Muslims for decades.

What kind of a democracy, asks Roy, would hand over the keys of an Islamic mosque, the Babri Masjid, to a baying Hindu mob, so they could demolish it brick by brick, as happened in 1992?

What kind of a democracy would allow the murder of 2000 Muslims and the eviction of a further 150,000 in the Gujarat riots of 2002?

What kind of a democracy would use half a million soldiers to persecute a mostly Muslim nation, Kashmir, in the world's biggest military occupation, leading India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war?

The type of democracy, says Roy, now dominant in the Western world.

Since India fled the Non-Aligned Movement after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, it has often referred to itself as the "natural ally" of Israel and the United States.

Certainly, says Roy, India's occupation of Kashmir is a mirror image of Israel's occupation of Palestine and the US-led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But superpowers such as the US, she points out, do not have allies — only agents.

India, a loyal agent of the US-led free market, is now persecuting another of its own minorities — the Adivasi tribal people, who happen to live on the land containing India's richest unexploited resources of iron ore, bauxite and uranium.

India's strategy to get rid of the Adivasis is unsurprising — it has labelled them terrorists. India's Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA — like the US Patriot Act — was brought in to strip the rights of anyone it considers inconvenient.

India's home affairs minister P. Chidambaram, a former Enron lawyer and mining director, says his vision is to get 85% of India's population to live in cities. This would entail the upheaval of 500 million people.

A plan to force indigenous people off their resource-rich lands and into cities — does that sound familiar?

But the analogies with Western democracies do not end there. India's government claims a thumping mandate gives it the right to enact sweeping powers, yet is elected by only 10% of the people, says Roy.

In Britain, a Labour government that was last elected with the support of barely a fifth of the British adult population is now conducting a fire sale of public assets.

In the US, vote-rigging now seems as American as apple pie and obesity.

Obesity is fine, but democracies don't take kindly to starvation deaths, says Roy. "So, dangerous levels of malnutrition and permanent hunger are the preferred model these days.

"Forty-seven per cent of India's children below three suffer from malnutrition, 46 per cent are stunted ... about 40 per cent of the rural population in India has the same food grain absorption level as sub-Saharan Africa."

But Roy predicts that the bitterest harvest is yet to come. The rights of all Indians are being eroded by the Supreme Court.

"The judiciary has managed to foil every attempt to put in place any system of checks and balances that other institutions in democracies are usually bound by."

Indian TV news, which Roy says makes Fox News look left-wing, has been backing the courts in attacking anyone who criticises the police and military.

Though she doesn't mention it in this book, Roy has been jailed for doing just that.

There is hope. Roy notes that the greatest optimism for Kashmir came in a peaceful uprising by its people in 2008. After all, how could India crush the kind of movement that brought about its own freedom?

Yet Roy also says that when people's rights are eroded, they are left with little choice but armed struggle.

"We're standing at a fork in the road", she says. "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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