Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

What Have We Done to Democracy?

Of Nearsighted Progress, Feral Howls, Consensus, Chaos, and a New Cold War in Kashmir

Arundhati Roy

 by TomDispatch

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 defense 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 metastasized 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 maximizing 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 I have the answers to any of these questions. But it
does look as if the beacon could be failing and democracy can perhaps
no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once
dreamed it would.

A Clerk of Resistance

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the
attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right
somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it
eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be
railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we
need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of
poetry.

Something
about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound,
"apply-through-proper-channels" nature of governance and subjugation in
India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say
that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy
that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the
world's favorite new superpower. Repression "through proper channels"
sometimes engenders resistance "through proper channels." As resistance
goes this isn't enough, I know. But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps
someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral
howl.

Today, words like "progress" and "development" have become
interchangeable with economic "reforms," "deregulation," and
"privatization." Freedom has come to mean choice. It has less to do
with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. Market
no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The "market" is a
de-territorialized 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 marginalize their detractors,
deprive them of a language 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 markets?

To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too
tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in
an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This
language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.

Two decades of "Progress" in India has 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 and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines, and
Special Economic Zones. All developed in the name of the poor, but
really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

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,
colorful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the
consensus.

A New Cold War in Kashmir

Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of
Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hard core.
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, tens of
thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir
valley, making it the most militarized 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?

How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a
military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections
in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged
state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed
uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely
honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for
India's deep state. Intelligence agencies have created political
parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed
political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide
what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the
Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from
the people of Kashmir.

In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the
Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, nonviolent uprising.
Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and
policemen -- who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of
people -- and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the
night, the city reverberated to chants of "Azadi! Azadi!" (Freedom! Freedom!). Fruit sellers weighed fruit chanting "Azadi! Azadi!"
Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet sellers
-- everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted "Azadi! Azadi!" The protests went on for several days.

The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were
nonviolent. For the first time in decades fissures appeared in
mainstream public opinion in India. The Indian state panicked. Unsure
of how to deal with this mass civil disobedience, it ordered a
crackdown. It enforced the harshest curfew in recent memory with
shoot-on-sight orders. In effect, for days on end, it virtually caged
millions of people. The major pro-freedom leaders were placed under
house arrest, several others were jailed. House-to-house searches
culminated in the arrests of hundreds of people.

Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did
something extraordinary -- it announced elections in the state.
Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were rearrested.
Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge
embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was
convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades, and
embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy. No chances were
taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on,
was put under house arrest in Srinagar for two days.)

Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People
turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since
the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so
that the first districts to vote were the most militarized districts
even within the Kashmir valley.

None of India's analysts, journalists, and psephologists cared to
ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including
bullets and shoot-on-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their
minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of
democracy -- who practically live in TV studios when there are
elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast and exit poll
and every minor percentile swing in the vote count -- talked about what
elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop
deployment (an armed soldier for every 20 civilians).

No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates
who materialized out of nowhere to represent political parties that had
no previous presence in the Kashmir valley. Where had they come from?
Who was financing them? No one was curious. No one spoke about the
curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were
going to the polls.

Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to de-link Azadi
and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only
about municipal issues -- roads, water, electricity. No one talked
about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades
-- where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any
time of the day or night -- might need someone to listen to them, to
take up their cases, to represent them.

The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream
press declared victory (for India) once again. The most worrying
fallout was that in Kashmir, people began to parrot their colonizers'
view of themselves as a somewhat pathetic people who deserved what they
got. "Never trust a Kashmiri," several Kashmiris said to me. "We're
fickle and unreliable." Psychological warfare, technically known as
psy-ops, has been an instrument of official policy in Kashmir. Its
depredations over decades -- its attempt to destroy people's
self-esteem -- are arguably the worst aspect of the occupation. It's
enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all
between elections and democracy.

The trouble is that Kashmir sits on the fault lines of a region that
is awash in weapons and sliding into chaos. The Kashmiri freedom
struggle, with its crystal clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines, is
caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies --
Indian nationalism (corporate as well as "Hindu," shading into
imperialism), Pakistani nationalism (breaking down under the burden of
its own contradictions), U.S. imperialism (made impatient by a tanking
economy), and a resurgent medieval-Islamist Taliban (fast gaining
legitimacy, despite its insane brutality, because it is seen to be
resisting an occupation). Each of these ideologies is capable of a
ruthlessness that can range from genocide to nuclear war. Add Chinese
imperial ambitions, an aggressive, reincarnated Russia, and the huge
reserves of natural gas in the Caspian region and persistent whispers
about natural gas, oil, and uranium reserves in Kashmir and Ladakh, and
you have the recipe for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is
cold for some and hot for others).

In the midst of all this, 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 brutalized, humiliated, and
marginalized. Notice has been given by the series of terrorist strikes
that culminated in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there,
along with Palestine, as one of the oldest, most intractable disputes
in the world. That does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Only that
the solution will not be completely to the satisfaction of any one
party, one country, or one ideology. Negotiators will have to be
prepared to deviate from the "party line."

Of course, we haven't yet reached the stage where the government of
India is even prepared to admit that there's a problem, let alone
negotiate a solution. Right now it has no reason to. Internationally,
its stocks are soaring. And while its neighbors deal with bloodshed,
civil war, concentration camps, refugees, and army mutinies, India has
just concluded a beautiful election. However, "demon-crazy" can't fool
all the people all the time. 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.

Is Democracy Melting?

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
degrees Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died
just from the elements.

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 standoff 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 in human rights.
They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the U.N.
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 Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan... it's
a long list.)

The glacial melt will cause severe floods on 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.


© 2021 TomDispatch.com
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."

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

'I Think He Should Resign': Biden Joins Chorus of Demands for Cuomo to Step Down

Calls for the New York Democratic governor's ouster are growing after an investigation found that he sexually harassed multiple women in violation of state and federal law.

Jessica Corbett ·


Cori Bush, Progressive Lawmakers and Activists Hailed for New CDC Eviction Moratorium

"I think the message here today is clear," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "It's that everyday people can make a change. We can always demand better."

Brett Wilkins ·


As Biden Touts 110+ Million Vaccine Donations to the World, US Urged to Go Much Further

"The president has said that the U.S. will serve as a vaccine arsenal for the world," said one campaigner. "Ten thousand people die each day waiting for ambitious action to match this vision."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Give the Money Back,' Demands Tlaib After Revelation of $1 Million Donation to House Dems From Real Estate Titan

The seven-figure contribution to the House Majority PAC came weeks before Congress let the federal eviction moratorium expire.

Brett Wilkins ·


NYC to Become First US City to Mandate Proof of Vaccination for Certain Indoor Activities

New Yorkers will need to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms, and theaters starting next month.

Julia Conley ·