India in the throes of "progress"
|Book: Listening to Grasshoppers|
ZNet Book Page
Arundhati Roy, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. Hamish Hamilton 2009.
India has often been described as the world's largest democracy. At the outset of this new book Arundhati Roy asks what happens when democracy has been used up. The world elites assure us that democracy and "free market" are two sides of the same coin. In this discourse people are denied language with which they can express their dissatisfaction. However destructive this so-called free market is — and India has plenty of examples — any criticism of its follies is labelled as being against "progress". How can anyone be against the "market"?
The Indian version of "progress" entails horrifying developments. Roy writes: "Two decades of this '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 of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy." (p. xiv)
Resistance to this kind of development is met by turning India into a police state. People who refuse to give up their land are forced to do so at gunpoint. Desperate farmers frequently commit suicide. The numbers again are horrifying, over the last few years 180,000. Imagine anything similar happening in a rich country. One can imagine the outcry. The world public seems much more prepared to accept this kind of horror in poor countries.
Internationally Indian governments have enthusiastically joined an anti-Islam front with the United States and Israel. Instead of increasing India's security the new alliance has drawn the country closer to what seems to be a constantly expanding war. Roy writes: "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 one hundred and fifty 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." (p. xxxv)
However, it is not only the Muslim minority which has suffered. The majority of the whole population has seen its dreams of a dignified and decent life crushed. As so often in similar situations, religion has been brought in as a consolation for people "who have lost control over their lives, people who have been uprooted from their homes and communities, who have lost their culture and their language..." (p. 19) They need something to be proud of. People also often turn against each other because their real adversaries are out of reach.
To make the country a playground for big international corporations needs harsh control of the population. Brutal repression in India is frighteningly common. The other way to control people's minds is to whip up nationalistic hysteria. Roy charts the various ways which are leading India to its own form of fascism. So much for democracy and "markets" being inseparable. As the whole political system is driven by the skewed model of development, only grassroots resistance can offer hope for a different kind of future. Roy supports non-violent resistance. This may seem ineffectual and it is true that the grassroots movements are isolated. But Roy adds that people need the courage to dream and they need vision. (See Roy's article about recent controversy related to this resistance: Operation Green Hunt's Urban Avatar, ZNet, 15 June 2010.)
South Asian geopolitics is in a dangerously unstable state. The United States created all sorts of Frankensteins in the area as means to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Then the jihad turned against the Americans. Pakistan is in danger of some degree of collapse with potentially horrifying consequences. Roy accuses the Indian government of serious myopia in allying itself with the US: "It's hard to understand why those who steer India's ship are so keen to replicate Pakistan's mistakes and call damnation upon this country by inviting the United States to further meddle clumsily and dangerously in our extremely complicated affairs. A superpower never has allies. It only has agents." (p. 188-189)