Reflections / 03.06.2017

By Kabir Altaf Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways. Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris...

Politics / 31.07.2013

By Anjum Altaf It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people. The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth. Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India. This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect of people. First, Pakistan’s social...

Language/Meaning / 26.03.2013

By Hasan Altaf in The Millions: ScreenHunter_150 Mar. 26 15.40 From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work.
Development / 30.05.2010

How does one characterize the Indian state and understand its actions? In three posts (here, here and here) we have used the interaction of the Indian state with its tribal population to try and find some answers. None have been fully convincing and in this post we try a different vantage point to push the analysis further. The facts at hand point to a situation of neglect at best, exploitation at worst. There has been undeniable injustice and the resulting problems are being addressed with force, not through politics. And yet, there are very few voices speaking up for a fair deal. How are these outcomes possible in a liberal, democratic state?
Democracy/Governance / 26.05.2010

By Anjum Altaf My post in support of Arundhati Roy’s position on the rights of Adivasis had drawn an analogy with the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the US. The point I made was that in the latter case the political spectrum offered a range of options from the very extreme to the very moderate and that this facilitated convergence on an alternative in the middle of the spectrum. With this in mind I asked why the spectrum was so sparse in India with Roy almost being a lone voice easy to dismiss by the mainstream as extreme and unrealistic. We still don’t have an answer to the question but the comments on the post made me go back and look at some of the source documents pertaining to the civil rights movement in the US. The most relevant for our purposes is Martin Luther...

Democracy/Governance / 22.05.2010

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.
Democracy/Governance / 01.05.2010

A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end. You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The "liberal state" itself is a historically specific creation, isn't it?
Democracy/Governance / 14.04.2010

By Vijay Vikram I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India's choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it - along with Bollywood - is the source of much of our "soft power", whatever that is.
Miscellaneous / 10.10.2009

By Ibn-e Eusuf I still wish India success but now without much hope. The point of the story is different from what the sentence seems to convey; and thereby hangs a tale. Let me explain. When I was young I desperately wanted India to succeed. Looking at Pakistan, I could see it was a basket case, the quality of its leadership decaying at such a dizzying pace that the prospects of internally driven progress were non-existent. The only hope was in a miracle or in a dramatic breakthrough in India. The latter development would make Pakistan’s citizens see the light and make them demand change from its leaders who kept feeding the myth that Pakistan was doing better than India. Or so I thought, and so I prayed for India’s success.