Magazine article New Internationalist

Arundhati Roy - Princess to Pariah

Magazine article New Internationalist

Arundhati Roy - Princess to Pariah

Article excerpt

India, circa 2010, is not one country: it is two continents. If you are moneyed, middle class or English-speaking, your continent is a great place to live in. There is a lot of opportunity: great jobs, great bars, many houses to buy, many holidays to afford. Elections are held with exhilarating freedom, and democracy has never felt more robust.

If you are poor, tribal or Muslim, your continent is much darker.

In 2005, soon after he took over in his first term as India's Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh made a statement that yanked off the fictional glue that kept these continents together. Left-wing extremism, he said, had come to be India's 'gravest internal security threat'. More than the unrest in Kashmir. More than the insurgencies in the Northeast.

Singh's remark would have very far-reaching consequences.

On the face of it, he was right. Out of 630 districts in India, almost 220 are either 'Maoist-affected' or under Maoist control. The point is: what should have been the Indian state's response to that? Should it have seen the spread of Maoist influence as a symptom or as a disease?

Tragically, it chose the latter. Since Singh's remark, the Indian State has tried every draconian measure possible to suppress the Maoist movement in the country. It has created undemocratic laws that can imprison on mere suspicion; arrested dozens of civil libertarians; armed thousands of ordinary civilians to fight the guerrillas catalyzing civil war; and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. In its most suicidal move it has launched a nationwide 'coordinated strategy' call Operation Greenhunt to flush out the Maoists, moving battalions of ill-prepared paramilitary troops and police into heartland India to wage a brutal war against its own people.

In all of this, not once has it stopped to ask the most primary question: who is a Maoist?

Predictably then, a devastating chain of action and reaction has set in: as the state has cracked down hard on them, the Maoists have intensified their own attacks: ambushing contingents of paramilitary forces, taking hostages, blowing up trains, killing informers.

With each strike, the rhetoric all round has grown damagingly shriller. In fact, the Maoist issue has cracked open a debate about the nature of Indian democracy that gathers angrier force with every passing year.

Amongst the early diviners of this crisis was writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Way before the Indian state declared open war on its own people Roy saw the contours of the war coming: 'Sometimes I can't sleep at night with worry,' she once told a friend. ? see all the dots joining.'

What the joined dots were telling her was that Indian democracy had reduced itself to a shell. Its institutions were hollowed out. All that was left was the electoral skin. In an introduction to her latest book, Listening to Grasshoppers, Roy writes: 'What happens once democracy has been used up?'

That intuitive question underlies all of Roy's political writing. And, in a curious way, the story ofthat writing itself and India's ambivalent i-esponse to it is a sign of what happens when democracy is used up: you get a country made up of two continents.

Love and anger

Seers are never comforting people. And noone can ever accuse Arundhati Roy of being comforting. Over the last decade, she has been there first at almost every trench-line: illuminating, dissecting, warning, presaging. Taunting the cosy out of their towers. Magnifying the fights of the voiceless. No other contemporary Indian writer - perhaps no Indian writer before - has engaged so fiercely and urgently with the idea and reality of India. And none have taken it apart as unflinchingly.

In keeping with the conflicted nature of India, this has earned Roy curious returns: huge love and huge anger. Two years ago, for instance, India was convulsed by a gruesome terror attack that has come to be known as 'Mumbai 26/1 G. …

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