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Into the Inferno: Hollow Language and Hollow Democracies

What can we do, now that democracy and the free market are one?

Arundhati Roy

 by The New Statesman

W­hile we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can
we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy?
What sort of life will it be? By democracy
I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working
model: western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.

So, is there life after democracy? Attempts to answer this question
often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and
end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s
flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else
that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say:
“Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia . . . is that what you
would prefer?”

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all “developing”
societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it
should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question
about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live
in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It
isn’t meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of
totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It’s meant to suggest that
the system of representative democracy – too much representation, too
little democracy – needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What
have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up?
When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when
each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous?
What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a
single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that
revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? Is it
possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go
back to being what it used to be?

What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is
long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on
immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that
democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the
protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious
dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be
that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it
mirrors our greatest folly – our nearsightedness? Our inability to live
entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our
inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between
creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to
have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping
that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound,
unfathomable thing that we have lost.

It would be conceit to pretend that my new book of essays, Listening to Grasshoppers,
provides answers to these questions. It only demonstrates, in some
detail, the fact that it looks as though the beacon could be failing
and that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the
justice and stability we once dreamed it would. All the essays were
written as urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India –
during the state-backed genocide of Muslims in Gujarat; just before the
date set for the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, the accused in the 13
December 2001 parliament attack; during US President George Bush’s
visit to India; during the mass uprising in Kashmir in the summer of
2008; and after the 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Often they were
not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses.

Though many of them were written in anger, at moments when keeping
quiet became harder than saying something, the essays do have a common
thread. They’re not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the
democratic pro­cess. They’re about the consequences of and the corollaries to
democracy and the ways in which it is practised in the world’s largest
democracy. (Or the world’s largest “demon-crazy”, as a Kashmiri
protester on the streets of Srinagar once put it. His placard said:
“Democracy without Justice = Demon Crazy.”)

In January 2008, on the first anniversary of the assassination of
the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, I gave a lecture in Istanbul. Dink
was shot down on the street outside his office for daring to raise a
subject that is forbidden in Turkey – the 1915 genocide of Armenians,
in which more than one million people were killed. My lecture was about
the history of genocide and genocide denial, and the old, almost
organic relationship between “progress” and genocide.

I have always been struck by the fact that the political party in
Turkey that carried out the Armenian genocide was called the Committee
for Union and Progress. Most of the essays in Listening to Grasshoppers
are, in fact, about the contemporary correlation between union and
progress, or, in today’s idiom, between nationalism and development –
those unimpeachable twin towers of modern, free-market democracy. Both
of these in their extreme form are, as we now know, encrypted with the
potential of bringing about ultimate, apocalyptic destruction (nuclear
war, climate change).

Though the essays were written between 2002 and 2008, the invisible
marker, the starting gun, is the year 1989, when in the rugged
mountains of Afghanistan capitalism won its long jihad against Soviet
communism. (Of course, the wheel’s in spin again. Could it be that
those same mountains are now in the process of burying capitalism? It’s
too early to tell.) Within months of the collapse of the Soviet Union
and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Indian government, once a
leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, performed a high-speed somersault
and aligned itself with the United States, monarch of the new unipolar
world.

The rules of the game changed suddenly and completely. Millions of
people who lived in remote villages and deep in the heart of untouched
forests, some of whom had never heard of Berlin or the Soviet Union,
could not have imagined how events that occurred in those faraway
places would affect their lives. The process of their dispossession and
displacement had already begun in the early 1950s, when India opted for
the Soviet-style development model in which huge steel plants and
thousands of large dams would occupy the “commanding heights” of the
economy. The era of privatisation and structural adjustment accelerated
that process at a mind-numbing speed.

Today, words like “progress” and “development” have become
interchangeable with economic “reforms”, deregulation and
privatisation. “Freedom” has come to mean “choice”. It has less to do
with the human spirit than it does with different brands of deodorant.
“Market” no longer means a place where you go to buy provisions. The
“market” is a de-territorialised space where faceless corporations do
business, including buying and selling “futures”. “Justice” has come to
mean “human rights” (and of those, as they say, “a few will do”).

This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and
deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean
exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been
one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new
dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalise their detractors,
deprive them of a language in which to voice their critique and dismiss
them as being “anti-progress”, “anti-development”, “anti-reform” and of
course “anti-national” – negativists of the worst sort. Talk about
saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, “Don’t you believe
in progress?” To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs
and whose homes are being bulldozed they say, “Do you have an
alternative development model?” To those who believe that a government
is duty-bound to provide people with basic education, health care and
social security, they say, “You’re against the market.” And who except
a cretin could be against a market?

This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing. Two
decades of this kind of “progress” in India have created a vast middle
class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes
with it – and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of
millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land
by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate
environmental engineering – the massive infrastructural projects, dams,
mines and Special Economic Zones. All of them promoted in the name of
the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new
aristocracy.

The battle for land lies at the heart of the “development” debate.
Before he became India’s finance minister, P Chidambaram was Enron’s
lawyer and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, a multinational
mining corporation that is currently devastating the Niyamgiri Hills in
Orissa. Perhaps his career graph informed his world-view. Or maybe it’s
the other way around. In an interview a year ago, he said that his
vision was to get 85 per cent of India’s population to live in cities.
Realising this “vision” would require social engineering on an
unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about 500
million people to migrate from the countryside into cities. That
process is well under way and is quickly turning India into a police
state in which people who refuse to surrender their land are being made
to do so at gunpoint. Perhaps this is what makes it so easy for P
Chidambaram to move so seamlessly from being finance minister to being
home minister. The portfolios are separated only by an osmotic
membrane. Underlying this nightmare masquerading as “vision” is the
plan to free up vast tracts of land and all of India’s natural
resources, leaving them ripe for corporate plunder.

Already forests, mountains and water systems are being ravaged by
marauding multinational corporations, backed by a state that has lost
its moorings and is committing what can only be called “ecocide”. In
eastern India, bauxite and iron ore mining is destroying whole
eco­systems, turning fertile land into desert. In the Himalayas,
hundreds of high dams are being planned, the consequences of which can
only be catastrophic. In the plains, embankments built along rivers,
ostensibly to control floods, have led to rising riverbeds, causing
even more flooding, more waterlogging, more salinisation of
agricultural land and the destruction of livelihoods of millions of
people. Most of India’s holy rivers, including the Ganga and the
Yamuna, have been turned into unholy drains that carry more sewage and
industrial effluent than water. Hardly a single river runs its course
and meets the ocean.

Sustainable food crops, suitable to local soil conditions and
microclimates, have been replaced by water-guzzling hybrid and
genetically modified “cash” crops which, apart from being wholly
dependent on the market, are also heavily dependent on chemical
fertilisers, pesticides, canal irrigation and the indiscriminate mining
of groundwater.

As abused farmland, saturated with chemicals, gradually becomes
exhausted and infertile, agricultural input costs rise, ensnaring small
farmers in a debt trap. Over the past few years, more than 180,000
Indian farmers have committed suicide. While state granaries are
bursting with food that eventually rots, starvation and malnutrition
approaching the same levels as in sub-Saharan Africa stalk the land.

It’s as though an ancient society, decaying under the weight of
feudalism and caste, was churned in a great machine. The churning has
ripped through the mesh of old inequalities, recalibrating some of them
but reinforcing most. Now the old society has curdled and separated
into a thin layer of thick cream – and a lot of water. The cream is
India’s “market” of many million consumers (of cars, cellphones,
com­puters, Valentine’s Day greeting cards), the envy of international
business. The water is of little consequence. It can be sloshed around,
stored in holding ponds, and eventually drained away.

Or so they think, the men in suits. They didn’t bargain for the
violent civil war that has broken out in India’s heartland:
Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal.

As if to illustrate the connection between “union” and “progress”,
in 1989, at exactly the same time that the Congress government was
opening up India’s markets to international finance, the right-wing
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in the opposition, began its
virulent campaign of Hindu nationalism (popularly known as “Hindutva”).
In 1990, its leader, L K Advani, travelled across the country whipping
up hatred against Muslims and demanding that the Babri Masjid, a
16th-century mosque that stood on a disputed site in Ayodhya, be
demolished and a Ram temple built in its place. In 1992 a mob, egged on
by Advani, demolished the mosque. In early 1993, a mob rampaged through
Mumbai attacking Muslims, killing almost 1,000 people. As revenge, a
series of bomb blasts ripped through the city, killing about 250
people. Feeding off the communal frenzy it had generated, the BJP
defeated the Congress in 1998 and came to power at the Centre.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of Hindutva corresponded with
the historical moment when America substituted communism with Islam as
its great enemy. The radical Islamist mujahedin – whom President Reagan
once entertained in the White House and compared to America’s Founding
Fathers – suddenly began to be called terrorists. The Indian
government, once a staunch friend of the Palestinians, turned into

Israel’s “natural ally”. Now India and Israel do joint military
exercises, share intelligence and probably exchange notes on how best
to administer occupied territories.

By 1998, when the BJP took office, the “pro­gress” project of
privatisation and liberalisation was about eight years old. Though it
had campaigned vigorously against the economic reforms, saying they
were a process of “looting through liberalisation”, once it came to
power the BJP embraced the free market enthusiastically and threw its
weight behind huge corporations like Enron. (In representative
democracies, once they are elected, the people’s representatives are
free to break their promises and change their minds.)

Within weeks of taking office, the BJP conducted a series of
thermonuclear tests. Though India had thrown its hat into the nuclear
ring in 1975, politically, the 1998 nuclear tests were of a different
order altogether. The orgy of triumphant nationalism with which the
tests were greeted introduced a chilling new language of aggression and
hatred into mainstream public discourse. None of what was being said
was new, only that what was once considered unacceptable was suddenly
being celebrated. Since then, Hindu communalism and nuclear
nationalism, like corporate globalisation, have vaulted over the stated
ideologies of political parties. The venom has been injected straight
into our bloodstream.

In February 2002, following the armed raid on a train coach in which
58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned alive, the BJP
government in Gujarat, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, presided
over a carefully planned genocide of Muslims in the state. The
Islamophobia generated all over the world by the 11 September 2001
attacks put the wind in their sails.

The machinery of the state of Gujarat stood by and watched while
more than 2,000 people were massacred. Gujarat has always been a state
rife with tension between Hindus and Muslims. There had been riots
before. But this was not a riot. It was a genocidal massacre, and
though the number of victims was insignificant compared to the horror
of, say, Rwanda, Sudan or the Congo, the Gujarat carnage was designed
as a public spectacle whose aims were unmistakable. It was a public
warning to Muslim citizens from the government of the world’s favourite
democracy.

After the carnage, Narendra Modi pressed for early elections. He was
returned to power with a decisive mandate from the people of Gujarat.
Five years later he even repeated this success: he is now serving a
third term as chief minister, widely appreciated by business houses for
his faith in the free market, illustrating the organic relationship
between “union” and “progress”. Or, if you like, between fascism and
the free market. In January 2009, that relationship was sealed with a
kiss at a public function. The CEOs of two of India’s biggest
corporations, Ratan Tata (of the Tata Group) and Mukesh Ambani (of
Reliance Industries), celebrated the development policies of Narendra
Modi and warmly endorsed him as a future candidate for prime minister.

Only two months ago, the nearly $2bn 2009 general election was
concluded. That’s a lot more than the budget of the US elections.
According to some media reports, the actual amount that was spent is
closer to $10bn. Where, might one ask, does that kind of money come
from?

The Congress and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA),
have won a comfortable majority. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent
of the independent candidates who stood for elections lost. Clearly,
without sponsorship, it’s hard to win an election. And independent
candidates cannot promise subsidised rice, free TVs and cash-for-votes,
those demeaning acts of vulgar charity that elections have been reduced
to.

When you take a closer look at the calculus that underlies election
results, words like “comfortable” and “majority” turn out to be
deceptive, if not outright inaccurate. For instance, the actual share
of votes polled by the UPA in these elections works out at only 10.3
per cent of the country’s population. It’s interesting how the cleverly
layered mathematics of electoral democracy can turn a tiny minority
into a thumping mandate.

In the run-up to the polls, there was absolute consensus across
party lines about the economic “reforms”. Several people have
sarcastically suggested that the Congress and BJP form a coalition. In
some states they already have. In Chhattisgarh, for example, the BJP
runs the government and Congress politicians run the Salwa Judum, a
vicious, government-backed “people’s” militia. The Judum and the
government have formed a joint front against the Maoists in the
forests, who are engaged in a brutal and often deadly armed struggle.
Among other things, this has become a fight to the finish, against
displacement and against land acquisition by corporations waiting to
begin mining iron ore, tin and all the other wealth stashed below the
forest floor. So, in Chhattisgarh, we have the remarkable spectacle of
the two biggest political parties of India in an alliance against the
Adivasis of Dantewara, India’s poorest, most vulnerable people. Already
644 villages have been emptied. Fifty thousand people have moved into
Salwa Judum camps. Three hundred thousand are on the run, and are being
called Maoist terrorists or sympathisers. The battle is raging, and the
corporations are waiting.

It is significant that India is one of the countries that blocked a
European move in the UN asking for an international probe into war
crimes that may have been committed by the government of Sri Lanka in
its recent offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Governments in this part
of the world have taken note of Israel’s Gaza blueprint as a good way
of dealing with “terrorism”: keep the media out and close in for the
kill. That way they don’t have to worry too much about who’s a
“terrorist” and who isn’t. There may be a little flurry of
international outrage, but it goes away pretty quickly.

Things do not augur well for the forest-dwelling people of India.
Reassured by this “constructive” collaboration, this consensus between
political parties, few were more enthusiastic about the recent general
elections than major corporate houses. They seem to have realised that
a democratic mandate can legitimise their pillaging in a way that
nothing else can. Several corporations ran extravagant advertising
campaigns on TV – some featuring Bollywood film stars – urging people,
young and old, rich and poor, to go out and vote. Shops and restaurants
in Khan Market, Delhi’s most tony market, offered discounts to those
whose index (voting) fingers were marked with indelible ink. Democracy
suddenly became the cool new way to be. You know how it is: the Chinese
do sport, so they had the Olympics; India does democracy, so we had an
election. Both are heavily sponsored, TV-friendly spectator sports.

Even the BBC commissioned the India Election Special – a coach on a
train – that took journalists from all over the world on a sightseeing
tour to witness the miracle of Indian elections. The train coach had a
slogan painted on it: “Will India’s voters revive the World’s
Fortunes?” BBC (Hindi) had a poster up in a café near my home. It
featured a $100 bill (with Ben Franklin) morphing into a 500 rupee note
(with Gandhi). It said: Kya India ka vote bachayega duniya ka note? (Will India’s votes rescue the world’s currency notes?)

In these flagrant and unabashed ways, an electorate has been turned
into a market, voters are seen as consumers, and democracy is being
welded to the free market. Ergo: those who cannot consume do not matter.

For better or for worse, the 2009 elections seem to have ensured
that the “progress” project is up and running. However, it would be a
serious mistake to believe that the “union” project has fallen by the
wayside.

As the 2009 election campaign unrolled, two things got saturation
coverage in the media. One was the 100,000-rupee ($2,000) “people’s
car”, the Tata Nano – the wagon for the volks – rolling out of Modi’s
Gujarat. (The sops and subsidies Modi gave the Tatas had a lot to do
with Ratan Tata’s warm endorsement of him.) The other is the hate
speech of the BJP’s monstrous new debutant, Varun Gandhi (another
descendant of the Nehru dynasty), who makes even Narendra Modi sound
moderate and retiring. In a public speech Varun Gandhi called for
Muslims to be forcibly sterilised. “This will be known as a Hindu
bastion, no ***** Muslim dare raise his head here,” he said, using a
derogatory word for someone who has been circumcised. “I don’t want a
single Muslim vote.”

Varun Gandhi won his election by a colossal margin. It makes you
wonder – are “the people” always right? The BJP still remains by far
the second largest political party, with a powerful national presence,
the only real challenge to the Congress. It will certainly live to
fight another day.

The hoary institutions of Indian democracy – the judiciary, the
police, the “free” press and, of course, elections – far from working
as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They
provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of union and
progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a
cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise.
And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering,
colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the
consensus.

Speaking of consensus, there’s the small and ever-present matter of
Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir, the consensus in India is hardcore.
It cuts across every section of the Establishment – including the
media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia and even Bollywood.

The war in the Kashmir Valley is almost 20 years old now, and has
claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured,
several thousand have “disappeared”, women have been raped and many
thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir
Valley, making it the most militarised zone in the world. (The United
States had about 165,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of
its occupation.) The Indian army now claims that it has, for the most
part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that’s true. But does
military domination mean victory?

Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem
unfolding in Afghanistan and Pakistan spills into India, where it will
find purchase in the anger of the young among India’s 150 million
Muslims who have been brutalised, humiliated and marginalised. Notice
has been given by the series of terrorist strikes that culminated in
the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

India’s temporary, shotgun solutions to the unrest in Kashmir
(pardon the pun) have magnified the problem and driven it deep into a
place where it is poisoning the aquifers.

Perhaps the story of the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in
the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our
times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed
there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40°
Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from
the cold – from frostbite and sunburn. The glacier has become a garbage
dump now, littered with the detritus of war, thousands of empty
artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice-axes, old boots, tents and
every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings
generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy
temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly.

While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars
on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield
has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The
melting has less to do with the military stand-off than with people far
away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They’re
good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They
live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security
Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the
sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda,
Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan . .
. it’s a long list.) The glacial melt will cause severe floods in the
subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives
of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight.
We’ll need more weapons. Who knows, that sort of consumer confidence
may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession.
Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life
– and the glaciers will melt even faster.


© 2016 The New Statesman
Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, and screenplay writer in India. Her most recent book, a novel, is: "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness." Her other books include: "Listening to Grasshoppers: Fields Notes on Democracy," "The God of Small Things," and "The End of Imagination."

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