Into the Inferno: Hollow Language and Hollow Democracies
What can we do, now that democracy and the free market are one?
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.
© 2009 The New Statesman