22 May In Support of Arundhati Roy
By Anjum Altaf
Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens.
Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal rights of all its citizens, this is not supposed to happen, and unless we subscribe to a utopian idea of everything turning out well on its own, the fact that the systematic problem exists should force us to ask some difficult questions. Patting ourselves on the back for being the “world’s biggest democracy” is unpardonable – to use the term applied to Roy’s alleged advocacy of violence – when more than half the population “survives” on a starvation diet. Roy’s question must be asked: what is the flaw in Indian democracy that has brought us to this point and that now promises no sure path out beyond a nebulous and credulous statement of faith?
On violence as well, Roy’s underlying point bears listening to: she says that this failure of governance has brought us to the point where millions of marginalized people are expected to roll over and die, simply because mineral wealth has been discovered in their habitats. Why are we surprised when they won’t, and instead resist such exploitation? And, given that there is no credible political process to mediate the conflicting claims – what form can that resistance take? Force is used to resolve what should be a political difference, and once that begins, the conflict is bound to spin out of control, as external agents on all sides muscle in to advance their own unrelated agendas.
Each side commits acts of violence against the other; the point is not to support either, but to ask, instead, how we have to come a point where the state is arrayed against its citizens. This is supposed to happen in the brutal dictatorships of Central America – not in the largest democracy in the world. Roy asks if this Central American route is the one we really wish to pursue now, and if anyone believes, now, that any kind of violence can spawn justice.
It is illogical now to believe in the power of ragtag jungle armies to overthrow the might of modern states. But once the state has vanquished its enemies, then what? If we believe that democracy is about people’s welfare, not just about the freedom to accumulate, we must face this question as well.
The principal concern of this post is the issue of the political process – let me address it by means of an anecdote narrated by a friend many years ago; the details have faded, but the gist remains imprinted on my mind.
This friend living in Washington, DC, was in the process of shifting houses and had a moving crew in the house. Not unusually, the crew was comprised exclusively of African-Americans. During a break, the host got talking to them about the struggle for Black rights in the US, and one of the crew confided that he had participated in the riots in the District in the 1960s. The host asked why he had chosen that path as opposed to the one advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The response struck a chord with the host, and it did with me, too, when I heard the story. The man asked, essentially, Do you believe Dr. King would have succeeded if we had not rioted in the cities? What was it that made Dr. King acceptable as the best (or least worst) of the bad options?
Thinking about this response made me realize that the struggle for Black rights was strung out all across the political spectrum, stretching from Malcolm X and the Black Muslims at one end, passing through Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the other. It was the pressure generated at the extreme that made Dr. King’s alternative appear moderate by comparison.
Of course, the situation of the African-Americans was different from that of India’s tribals in one important respect: the African-American population was distributed in such a way that it could bring cities to a standstill but not be crushed by the use of force. The tribals are concentrated in isolated forests. They have no such leverage or strategic advantage. They are closest in kind to the rebels in Central American forests, who were all ultimately subdued – which does not mean to suggest that they should have been, or that the tribals should be now.
The political point, though, remains. If Arundhati Roy is indeed the Malcom X or Angela Davis of tribal politics in India, where is the Dr. King? Instead of merely dismissing her as an extremist, should we not fill the political spectrum with an alternative proposition to Roy’s – a proposition more moderate, yet capable of alleviating the injustice that it is now impossible to deny?
Or we could just believe that such injustice could not occur, not in the world’s largest democracy – perhaps this is all a myth, dreamt up by Arundhati Roy exclusively to disturb our peace and contentment.
Many thanks to Hasan Altaf for a major contribution to this post.