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Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers

Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers

by Arundhati Roy

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"Gorgeously wrought...pitch-perfect prose...In language of terrible beauty, she takes India's everyday tragedies and reminds us to be outraged all over again."Time Magazine

Combining fierce conviction, deft political analysis, and beautiful writing, this is the essential new book from Arundhati Roy.

This series of essays


"Gorgeously wrought...pitch-perfect prose...In language of terrible beauty, she takes India's everyday tragedies and reminds us to be outraged all over again."Time Magazine

Combining fierce conviction, deft political analysis, and beautiful writing, this is the essential new book from Arundhati Roy.

This series of essays examines the dark side of democracy in contemporary India. It looks closely at how religious majoritarianism, cultural nationalism, and neo-fascism simmer just under the surface of a country that projects itself as the world's largest democracy.

Roy writes about how the combination of Hindu Nationalism and India's neo-liberal economic reforms, which began their journey together in the early 1990s, are now turning India into a police state.

She describes the systematic marginalization of religious and ethnic minorities, the rise of terrorism, and the massive scale of displacement and dispossession of the poor by predatory corporations. She also offers a brilliant account of the August 2008 uprising of the people of Kashmir against India's military occupation and an analysis of the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

Field Notes on Democracy tracks the fault-lines that threaten to destroy India's precarious democracy and send shockwaves through the region and beyond.

Praise for Field Notes on Democracy:

"In her searing account of the actual practice of the world's largest democracy, Arundhati Roy calls for 'factual precision' alongside of the 'real precision of poetry.' Remarkably, she combines those achievements to a degree that few can hope to approach. Roy shows in painful detail how the beneficiaries of the highly admired 10 percent growth rate are enjoying a 'new secessionism,' leaving the great majority languishing in poverty and despair, with malnutrition reaching the same levels as sub-Saharan Africa. As surveillance and state terror extend, all under the guise of flourishing democracy, India is becoming 'a nation waiting to be accused,' a nation where a confession extracted under torture can lead to the brink of nuclear war, and where 'fascism's firm footprint has appeared' in ways reminiscent of the early years of Nazism. Most chilling of all is that much of the grim portrait is all too familiar in the West. Roy asks whether our shriveled forms of democracy will be 'the endgame of the human race'—and shows vividly why this is a prospect not to be lightly dismissed." —Noam Chomsky

"After so much celebratory salesmanship about India the 'emerging market,' Roy draws us into India the actual country, peeling away the gloss until we are confronted with perhaps the most challenging question of our time: who and what are we willing to sacrifice in the name of development? Roy is one of the most confident and original thinkers of our time."
—Naomi Klein

"The notion of Democracy and the pleading for human compassion first came together in Sophocles and the Greek tragedies. More than two thousand years later we live under an economic world tyranny of unprecedented brutality, which depends upon the systematic abuse of words like Democracy or Progress. Arundhati Roy, the direct descendant of Antigone, resists and denounces all tyrannies, pleads for their victims, and unflinchingly questions the tragic. Reflect with her on the answers she receives from the political world today." —John Berger

Arundhati Roy is a world-renowned Indian author and global justice activist. From her celebrated Booker Prize–winning novel The God of Small Things to her prolific output of writing on topics ranging from climate change to war, the perils of free-market development in India, and the defense of the poor, Roy's voice has become indispensable to millions seeking a better world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Genocide, denial, and truth-as-a-victim are just a few of the big subjects dealt with by Booker prize-winning Indian author and activist Roy (The God of Small Things) in this essay collection, written with fluid precision and acute rage. Covering rampant injustices in India and Kashmir perpetrated by governments and corporations, most in the past decade, Roy is unfailingly eloquent, sorting through a complicated network of special interests and partisan governmental groups to reveal nuances of corruption and oppression even to non-nationals. Roy worries that "the space for nonviolent civil disobedience has atrophied," but finds hope and joy in developments including the "hundreds of thousands of unarmed people" returning to Kashmir "to reclaim their cities, their streets and mohallas," and a generation raised in "army camps, check-posts, and bunkers, with screams from torture chambers for a sound track" who have "discovered the power of mass protest and, above all, the dignity of being able to... speak for themselves." Roy details genocide instigated by Hindu interests against Muslims, revisits the recent Mumbai massacre, and pleads the people's case as vast rural areas are drained of resources while the Indian ruling class concentrates on corporate globalization. The Bush administration also comes in for scathing criticism in this vivid inside look at India's turbulent growth.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
Booker winner Roy (The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy, 2008, etc.) wields a potent pen in this collection of political essays, written between 2002 and 2008. The author argues that religious fanaticism and rapacious development now threaten the future of India's parliamentary democracy. "Fascism's firm footprint has appeared in India," she writes, noting that the country's much-vaunted economic progress has dispossessed and displaced millions of people-through mining, dams and other projects-while a Hindu majority government persecutes and marginalizes Muslims and other minorities. Delving underneath the successes of the Indian economy that nationalist politicians call "India Shining," Roy raises serious questions about government behaviors in many recent controversies. In several pieces on the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building, she calls for a government inquiry into the alleged police torturing of Mohammed Afzal, a Kashmiri who confessed to leading the attack and remains on death row. In "Democracy: Who's She When She's at Home?", Roy accuses the Hindu-nationalist government in Gujarat of complicity in a 2002 massacre of 2,000 Muslims in supposed retaliation for the burning of a railway coach in which 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed. Other pieces protest "world nightmare incarnate" George W. Bush's 2006 visit to Gandhi's memorial in Rajghat; the use of antiterrorist laws to harass critics and protesters, most often poor or Muslim people, who are imprisoned without bail to await closed court proceedings; and the propensity of governments, in India and elsewhere, to deny genocides. Throughout, Roy seeks to tear down the upbeat image ofemerging India-"The singing-dancing world of Bollywood's permanent pelvic thrusts, of permanently privileged, permanently happy Indians waving the tricolor flag and Feeling Good")-and she reveals a nation that treats many of its ordinary citizens with callousness and brutality. The author proves to be an artful and blistering polemicist fervently committed to the Indian masses. These radical, powerful broadsides, written in the white heat of anger, leave little doubt that this celebrated novelist intends to continue her role as India's fiercest agitator.

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Field Notes on Democracy

Listening to Grasshoppers
By Arundhati Roy

Haymarket Books

Copyright © 2009 Arundhati Roy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-608460-24-3

Chapter One

Democracy: Who's She When She's at Home?

Last night a friend from Vadodara called. Weeping. It took her fifteen minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn't very complicated. Only that a friend of hers, Sayeeda, had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that after she died, someone carved "OM" on her forehead.

Precisely which Hindu scripture preaches this?

Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee justified this as part of the retaliation by outraged Hindus against Muslim "terrorists" who burned alive fifty-eight Hindu passengers on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. Each of those who died that hideous death was someone's brother, someone's mother, someone's child. Of course they were. Which particular verse in the Koran required that they be roasted alive?

The more the two sides try and call attention to their religious differences by slaughtering each other, the less there is to distinguish them from one another. They worship at the same altar. They're both apostles of the same murderous god, whoever he is. In an atmosphere so vitiated, for anybody, and in particular the prime minister, to arbitrarily decree exactly where the cycle started is malevolent and irresponsible.

Right now we're sipping from a poisoned chalice-a flawed democracy laced with religious fascism. Pure arsenic.

What shall we do? What can we do?

We have a ruling party that's hemorrhaging. Its rhetoric against terrorism, the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the saber-rattling against Pakistan (with the underlying nuclear threat), the massing of almost a million soldiers on the India-Pakistan border on hair-trigger alert and, most dangerous of all, the attempt to communalize and falsify school history textbooks-none of this has prevented it from being humiliated in election after election. Even its old party trick-the revival of the plans to replace the destroyed mosque in Ayodhya with the Ram Mandir-didn't quite work out. Desperate, it has now turned for succor to the state of Gujarat.

Gujarat, the only major state in India to have a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, has for some years been the petri dish in which Hindu fascism has been fomenting an elaborate political experiment. In March 2002, the initial results were put on public display.

Within hours of the Godhra outrage, a meticulously planned pogrom was unleashed against the Muslim community. It was led from the front by the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. Officially the number of dead is eight hundred. Independent reports put the figure as high as two thousand.

More than one hundred and fifty thousand people, driven from their homes, now live in refugee camps. Women were stripped, gang-raped; parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children. Two hundred and forty shrines and one hundred and eighty mosques were destroyed. In Ahmedabad, the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the course of a night. The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Ali Khan was desecrated and wreathed in burning tires. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, hotels, textiles mills, buses, and private cars belonging to Muslims. Tens of thousands of Muslims have lost their jobs.

A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the director general of police, the police commissioner, the chief secretary, the additional chief secretary (home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob dragged Ehsan Jaffri out of his house, and dismembered him.

Of course, it's only a coincidence that Jaffri was a trenchant critic of Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, during his campaign for the Rajkot Assembly by-election in February.

Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs. They were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives, swords, and tridents. Apart from the VHP and Bajrang Dal's usual lumpen constituency, there were Dalits and Adivasis who were brought in buses and trucks. Middle-class people participated in the looting. (On one memorable occasion a family arrived in a Mitsubishi Lancer.) There was a deliberate, systematic attempt to destroy the economic base of the Muslim community. The leaders of the mob had computer-generated cadastral lists marking out Muslim homes, shops, businesses, and even partnerships. They had mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had trucks loaded with thousands of gas cylinders, hoarded weeks in advance, which they used to blow up Muslim commercial establishments. They had not just police protection and police connivance, but also covering fire.

While Gujarat burned, our prime minister was on MTV promoting his new poems. (Reports say cassettes have sold a hundred thousand copies.) It took him more than a month-and two vacations in the hills-to make it to Gujarat. When he did, shadowed by the chilling Modi, he gave a speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp. His mouth moved, he tried to express concern, but no real sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned, bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing around in a golf cart, striking business deals in Singapore.

The killers still stalk Gujarat's streets. For weeks the lynch mob was the arbiter of the routine affairs of daily life: who can live where, who can say what, who can meet whom, and where and when. Its mandate expanded from religious affairs and property disputes to family altercations and the planning and allocation of water resources (which is why Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was assaulted). Muslim businesses have been shut down. Muslim people are not served in restaurants. Muslim children are not welcome in schools. Muslim students are too terrified to sit for their exams. Muslim parents live in dread that their infants might forget what they've been told and give themselves away by saying "Ammi!" or "Abba!" in public and invite sudden and violent death.

Notice has been given: this is just the beginning.

Is this the Hindu Rashtra, the Nation that we've all been asked to look forward to? Once the Muslims have been "shown their place," will milk and Coca-Cola flow across the land? Once the Ram Mandir is built, will there be a shirt on every back and a roti in every belly?17 Will every tear be wiped from every eye? Can we expect an anniversary celebration next year? Or will there be someone else to hate by then? Alphabetically: Adivasis, Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Parsis, Sikhs? Those who wear jeans or speak English or those who have thick lips or curly hair? We won't have to wait long. It's started already. Will the established rituals continue? Will people be beheaded, dismembered, and urinated on? Will fetuses be ripped from their mothers' wombs?

What kind of depraved vision can even imagine India without the range and beauty and spectacular anarchy of all these cultures? India would become a tomb and smell like a crematorium.

No matter who they were, or how they were killed, each person who died in Gujarat in the weeks gone by deserves to be mourned. There have been hundreds of outraged letters to journals and newspapers asking why the "pseudo-secularists" do not condemn the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra with the same degree of outrage with which they condemn the killings in the rest of Gujarat. What they don't seem to understand is that there is a fundamental difference between a pogrom such as the one taking place in Gujarat now and the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. We still don't know who exactly was responsible for the carnage in Godhra. Home Minister L. K. Advani made a public statement claiming that the burning of the train was a plot by Pakistan's InterServices Intelligence (ISI). Months later, the police have not found a shred of evidence to support that claim. The Gujarat government's forensic report says that sixty liters of petrol were poured onto the floor by someone who was inside the carriage. The doors were locked, possibly from the inside. The burned bodies of the passengers were found in a heap in the middle of the carriage. So far, nobody really knows who started the fire.

There are theories to suit every political position: It was a Pakistani plot. It was Muslim extremists who managed to get into the train. It was the angry mob. It was a VHP/Bajrang Dal plot staged to set off the horror that followed. No one really knows.

Whoever did it-whatever their political or religious persuasion-committed a terrible crime. But every independent report says the pogrom against the Muslim community in Gujarat-billed by the government as a spontaneous "reaction"-has at best been conducted under the benign gaze of the state and, at worst, with active state collusion. Either way, the state is criminally culpable. And the state acts in the name of its citizens. So, as citizens we have to acknowledge that we are somehow made complicit in the Gujarat pogrom. It is this that puts a completely different complexion on the two massacres.

After the Gujarat massacres, at its convention in Bangalore, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the moral and cultural guild of the BJP, of which the prime minister, the home minister, and Chief Minister Modi himself are all members, called on Muslims to earn the "goodwill" of the majority community.

At the meeting of the national executive of the BJP in Goa, Narendra Modi was greeted as a hero. His smirking offer to resign from the chief minister's post was unanimously turned down. In a recent public speech he compared the events of the last few weeks in Gujarat to Gandhi's Dandi March-both, according to him, significant moments in the struggle for freedom.

While the parallels between contemporary India and prewar Germany are chilling, they're not surprising. (The founders of the RSS have, in their writings, been frank in their admiration for Hitler and his methods.) One difference is that here in India we don't have a Hitler. We have, instead, a traveling extravaganza, a mobile symphonic orchestra. The hydra-headed, many-armed Sangh Parivar-the "joint family" of Hindu political and cultural organizations-with the BJP, the RSS, the VHP, and the Bajrang Dal, each playing a different instrument. Its utter genius lies in its apparent ability to be all things to all people at all times.

The Parivar has an appropriate head for every occasion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an old versifier with rhetoric for every season. A rabble-rousing hard-liner, Lal Krishna Advani, for home affairs; a suave one, Jaswant Singh, for foreign affairs; a smooth, English-speaking lawyer, Arun Jaitley, to handle TV debates; a cold-blooded creature, Narendra Modi, for a chief minister; and the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, grassroots workers in charge of the physical labor that goes into the business of genocide. Finally, this many-headed extravaganza has a lizard's tail that drops off when it's in trouble and grows back again: George Fernandes, a specious socialist dressed up as defense minister, who it sends on its damage-limitation missions-wars, cyclones, genocides. They trust him to press the right buttons, hit the right note.

The Sangh Parivar speaks in as many tongues as a whole corsage of tridents. It can say several contradictory things simultaneously. While one of its heads (the VHP) exhorts millions of its cadres to prepare for the Final Solution, its titular head (the prime minister) assures the nation that all citizens, regardless of their religion, will be treated equally. It can ban books and films and burn paintings for "insulting Indian culture." Simultaneously, it can mortgage the equivalent of 60 percent of the entire country's rural development budget as profit to Enron. It contains within itself the full spectrum of political opinion, so what would normally be a public fight between two adversarial political parties is now just a family matter. However acrimonious the quarrel, it's always conducted in public, always resolved amicably, and the audience always goes away satisfied it's got value for its money-anger, action, revenge, intrigue, remorse, poetry, and plenty of gore. It's our own vernacular version of Full Spectrum Dominance.

But when the chips are down, really down, the squabbling heads quiet, and it becomes chillingly apparent that underneath all the clamor and the noise, a single heart beats. And an unforgiving mind with saffron-saturated tunnel vision works overtime.

There have been pogroms in India before, every kind of pogrom-directed at particular castes, tribes, religious faiths. In 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party presided over the massacre of three thousand Sikhs in Delhi, every bit as macabre as the one in Gujarat. At the time, Rajiv Gandhi, never known for an elegant turn of phrase, said, "When a large tree falls, the earth shakes." In 1985, the Congress swept the polls. On a sympathy wave. Eighteen years have gone by, and almost no one has been punished.

Take any politically volatile issue-the nuclear tests, the Babri Masjid, the Tehelka scam, the stirring of the communal cauldron for electoral advantage-and you'll see the Congress Party has been there before. In every case, the Congress sowed the seed and the BJP has swept in to reap the hideous harvest. So in the event that we're called on to vote, is there a difference between the two? The answer is a faltering but distinct yes. Here's why: It's true that the Congress Party has sinned, and grievously, and for decades together. But it has done by night what the BJP does by day. It has done covertly, stealthily, hypocritically, shamefacedly what the BJP does with pride. And this is an important difference.

Whipping up communal hatred is part of the mandate of the Sangh Parivar. It has been planned for years. It has been injecting a slow-release poison directly into civil society's bloodstream. Hundreds of RSS shakhas and Saraswati shishu mandir schools across the country have been indoctrinating thousands of children and young people, stunting their minds with religious hatred and falsified history, including wildly exaggerated accounts of the rape and pillaging of Hindu women and Hindu temples by Muslim rulers in the precolonial period. They're no different from, and no less dangerous than, the madrassas all over Pakistan and Afghanistan that spawned the Taliban. In states like Gujarat, the police, the administration, and the political cadres at every level have been systematically penetrated.

The whole enterprise has huge popular appeal, which it would be foolish to underestimate or misunderstand. It has a formidable religious, ideological, political, and administrative underpinning. This kind of power, this kind of reach, can only be achieved with state backing.

Some madrassas, the Muslim equivalent of hothouses cultivating religious hatred, try and make up in frenzy and foreign funding what they lack in state support. They provide the perfect foil for Hindu communalists to dance their dance of mass paranoia and hatred. (In fact, they serve that purpose so perfectly they might just as well be working as a team.)

Under this relentless pressure, what will most likely happen is that the majority of the Muslim community will resign itself to living in ghettos as second-class citizens, in constant fear, with no civil rights and no recourse to justice. What will daily life be like for them? Any little thing, an altercation in a cinema queue or a fracas at a traffic light, could turn lethal. So they will learn to keep very quiet, to accept their lot, to creep around the edges of the society in which they live. Their fear will transmit itself to other minorities. Many, particularly the young, will probably turn to militancy. They will do terrible things. Civil society will be called on to condemn them. Then President Bush's canon will come back to us: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."


Excerpted from Field Notes on Democracy by Arundhati Roy Copyright © 2009 by Arundhati Roy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arundhati Roy is a world-renowned Indian author and global justice activist. From her celebrated Booker-Prize winning novel "The God of Small Things," to her prolific output of writing on topics ranging from climate change to war, the perils of free-market "development" in India, and the defense of the poor, Roy's voice has become indispensable to millions seeking a better world.

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