Democracy as a form of government has been praised and criticized with equal passion and fervor by the common people and intellectuals alike. The concepts behind democracy vary so much that a universally acceptable format is non-existent. However, it is to be noted to its credit that no government on our planet is complete without an element of democracy in one form or other at some level of governance. Be it a republic, monarchy, theocracy or military dictatorship. Such is the panoramic versatility of democracy.
In her latest book “Listening to Grasshoppers — Field Notes on Democracy”, Arundhathi Roy passionately criticizes the way democracy is practiced by its most ardent supporters among contemporary states and questions its very credibility as the most acceptable form of government.
She doesn’t condemn it but argues for the need to go beyond democracy in search of a better form of government by the people and for the people. It certainly makes for interesting reading. Her arguments find fuel from issues related to the rights of minorities, refugees, people displaced in the name of development, protection of environment etc.
Nearly a dozen essays included in this book were written by the author in response to sociopolitical developments and were published previously. But in-depth analysis and the author’s ability to touch the very roots of controversial issues as well as her gifted capability to present her argument amidst the backdrop of fundamental human concerns make the book very much contemporary, relevant and widely appealing.
Roy is no ivory tower dweller. She is direct, transparent and forceful and moors her writing boldly on her convictions. Her concern for the underprivileged minorities and willingness to fight on their side is well known. “Listening to Grasshoppers” is mainly about the victimization of Indian Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis (Hindu low castes) and people driven away from their habitat to make way for mammoth dam projects.
According to Roy, a kind of perverted consensus exists within Indian democracy that tolerates these injustices. She cites it as examples of democracy facilitating fascism from within, nullifying its very essence and spirit.
The book is certainly engaging but disturbing and provocative at the same time with its threadbare observations about the vulnerable underbelly of Indian democracy. It keeps on thinking the unthinkable and speaking the unspeakable and questions the credentials celebrated within Indian democracy. The author even ridicules democracy by intentionally misspelling it as ‘demon-cracy’.
She pulls the reader from his comfort zone to face uncomfortable truths from recent history. She dwells on the past to give an insight into the unfolding world of democracy and development.
The ninth chapter, titled “Listening to Grasshoppers: Genocide, Denial and Celebration” is a commemorative lecture Roy delivered in Istanbul on assassinated newspaper editor Hrant Dink. This particular chapter is the crux of her presentation. She shocks her readers while she traces the undesirable but historical connection between genocide and development. The history of genocide is as old as man himself. An aggressive majority targeting a minority, blaming them for social and economical ills and eventually forming a consensus to annihilate the minority, is an oft-repeated scenario from human history.
In 1915 Ottoman Turks successfully targeted the Armenian minority, killing nearly one and a half million in Anatolia. White Americans targeted the original natives and systematically murdered 90 percent of the Red Indian population. One method was the distribution of blankets infected with small pox. America’s second biggest holocaust took place when thirty million Africans were kidnapped and transported to the US to be sold as slaves. Half of them died in the dirty dark gallows of ships from starvation and diseases.
In October 1904 the German general Adolf Lebrecht ordered the genocide of southwest Africa’s entire Herero tribe. They were driven into the desert and cut off from food and water, eventually perishing.
Germany exterminated six million Jews during the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Gypsies throughout Europe went unnoticed because they were too soft and vulnerable. The British killed the entire Tasmanian people of Australia. Massacres in Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq are also recent examples of genocide. The same can be said about the Indian state-supported 2002 mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat and the killing of Christians in Orissa in 2007.
Narendra Modi, the brains behind the Gujarat massacre and elected provincial chief executive is now being praised as an icon of development. He has become the darling of the corporate India. Everything, however heinous it is, can be pardoned in the name of development. The core of Roy’s argument is the alarmingly strengthening connection between genocide and development in the interests of a corporate mafia.
Roy feels that the next target will be the Dalits and tribal people (low caste Hindus) from the mineral rich provinces of southeast India. Telugana, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkand, Utharanchal, Orissa, among others, are the most economically backward regions with sizable lower caste populations.
They are disillusioned with mainstream political parties including the institutional communist parties and are being mobilized under the Maoist umbrella. One quarter of India is already under the control of these resistance groups.
Corporate India is impatient to evict these poor people from their mineral-rich land to harvest profits. Premier Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi and Communist Party secretary Prakash Karatt has already opined publicly that these lower caste resistance groups are the single largest threat to India’s unity and progress. The country is getting ready for another genocide, which has already started thanks to right wing militias such as the Salwa Judum, armed by the state and aided by upper caste Hindus.
Genocides have a common pattern. Victims are initially marginalized and later targeted for annihilation after the majority forms a consensus to justify the genocide. In other words a kind of democratic process underpins genocide.
Another common factor is the economical interests of the genocide masterminds. In the post-modern era old empires have been replaced with corporate giants. The drama goes on. Democracy is turning into a dictatorship of the majority. Is there a way out? Is there life after democracy? Shouldn’t we look for something more democratic than democracy itself? Roy passionately raises these questions.
The book is certainly worth reading. However I find it strange to find the author leaving the question of nationalism untouched. Does she too consider it as a holy cow? If we analyze the origin and development of democracy it is easy to observe that the encroachment of nationalism into the concept of democracy has created oppression against the minority, paving the way for eventual marginalization and probable extermination.
The very concept of nationalism tends to be chauvinistic and fascist in practice. Along with democracy, nationalism too needs some fundamental revamping.
PJJ ANTONY, firstname.lastname@example.org