Journalist | Writer | Analyst
In 2000, the historian Ramachandra Guha wrote a withering critique of Arundhati Roy, calling her the ‘Arun Shourie of the Left’. Guha attacked her essay on the Narmada project and said her ‘celebrity endorsement’ of the NBA did the environmental movement more harm than good. “I am told that Arundhati Roy has written a very good novel”, he concluded. “Perhaps she should begin another. Her retreat from activism would be – to use a term from economics – “Pareto optimum”: good for literature, and good for the Indian environmental movement”.
Ten years and many political essays later, Guha has been joined by the political philosopher, Jyotirmaya Sharma. Sharma, who is a professor at Hyderabad University, critiques Roy’s long piece in Outlook on the Maoists, ‘Walking with the Comrades’.
Roy’s essay has generated strong reactions, not so much because of its criticism of the Indian State, whose violence and villainy against the tribals and others no rational person can defend, but because of her attitude towards the Maoists. On the splendid website, kafila.org, Anirba Gupta Nigam has picked apart her romaticism:
Two tropes underpin Roy’s rhetoric throughout: the constant equation of weaponry with beauty and joy, and the repeated emphasis – if without much insight – on the militarisation of daily life. Both seem to suggest to her, the epitome of revolutionary spirit – the one we have learnt India needs right now. But this affinity of death with beauty harks back to another – perhaps more accurate – tradition that Susan Sontag spoke of in her 1975 essay ‘Fascinating Fascism.’ National Socialism, she wrote, stood for values which at the time she was writing, were deeply cherished by ‘open societies.’ Among these were “the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.” Roy’s representation of the Maoists is nothing short of similar fetishisation.
Sudhanva Deshpande has critiqued her “embedded journalism”, Chasing Fat Tails doesn’t like her tendency to lapse into Orientalism and B.G. Verghese finds fault with her distorted Maoist idyll. Of all these critiques, only Verghese has anything reasonably positive to say about the Indian State (I personally think he’s being a little too happy-happy) but he cannot be faulted for introducing a note of realism about what the Maoists actually say they want (see, for example, the full text of my interview with Azad, spokesperson of the CPI (Maoist) or selected extracts from the same). The rest of the critics cited here, and dare I say most of the anti-Arundhati pieces I have seen over the past few weeks, come from a left-liberal POV. They are worked up because, as Guha’s 2000 piece said in a different context, they fear Arundhati’s criticism of the government’s approach to the Maoist insurgency actually plays into the hands of the security establishment.
And the ‘celebrity’ factor is there again. Many academics and activists signed a statement recently attacking the Chhattisgarh police for threatening to charge Arundhati under the state’s draconian Public Safety Act. The police is nuts and such moves must be condemned. But the trouble with ‘celebrity’ oriented campaigns is that we lose sight of underlying processes. If tomorrow the CG police decides not to charge Arundhati, that will not mean a change in their authoritarian attitude towards criticism and dissent. But many will feel the ‘threat’ has passed and that we can all relax. Two Delhi University professors, Ujjwal Singh and Nandini Sundar (who has filed a PIL against the salwa judum) were hustled out of Dantewada by the police recently, the Hindu‘s Raipur correspondent was prevented from reaching Gompad village (where the security forces killed innocent villagers) from the Chhattisgarh side, Manish Kunjam and other unsung and unnamed CPI activists have been at the forefront of tribal mass struggles all these years in the face of police pressure, local reporters who tried to expose Salwa Judum were attacked. If only such signature campaigns had been mounted then. The attempts to silence criticism did not begin with Arundhati walking with the comrades!
In his piece, Jyotirmaya comes at the problem from a philosophical angle. He shares Arundhati’s disgust with official policies towards the tribals and her impatience with P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister. But he dislikes her mode of argument. Like Guha, her moral certitude and length of writings remind him of Arun Shourie. Sharma also sees in her ‘us versus them’ approach a reflection of Carl Schmitt, and goes after her for the manner in which she uses and abuses Gandhi.
Since the Mail Today website is pretty useless in terms of providing access to articles more than a few days old, I have posted his full piece below.
24 April 2010
We can do without her moral certificates
There is much in Arundhati Roy’s writings and pronouncements that I have little difficulty, at least with certain qualifications, in accepting. I agree that Indian democracy is far from perfect. I agree that successive regimes in India, at the Centre and at the level of the states, have short-changed vast sections of Indian people, mostly the poor and the marginalized. I think that the continuation of outfits like the salwa judum is an abomination and no civilized society ought to tolerate such vigilante groups.
I am with Roy when she says that the lifestyles and livelihood of the adivasis is under grave threat in the name of harebrained ideas of progress and development.
I also agree that P. Chidambaram is a disaster as home minister and has scant political sense and no vision, the proverbial man without qualities. At the same time, I dislike Roy’s illusions of certainty, her self-righteousness, her inability to go beyond self-serving monologues and her prophetic tone.
Arundhati Roy’s essays remind me of two people. Their length and their tone of moral certitude remind me of Arun Shourie, the journalist. He landed ultimately in the BJP and now endorses every crime and misdemeanour of the BJP, including the 2002 post-Godhra riots and Narendra Modi’s role during that period. The second person that Roy’s writings remind me of is Carl Schmitt.
Those unfamiliar with Schmitt would do well to remember that he was Hitler’s apologist, wrote tracts that supported the Nazi regime. He found liberal democracy and parliamentarianism impotent and mediocre ways of organizing human societies. But even today, he is studied seriously for suggesting that in the age of technology, the only political relationship that is feasible is the one between friend and foe. The political for him lies in identifying the enemy and eliminating the enemy. There is, therefore, always an in-group and an out-group, those who belong and those who do not.
While Roy might use the word `fascist’ as a term of abuse, she is hardly aware that she, perhaps unconsciously, shares much with one of the most articulate and thoughtful apologists of the Nazi regime.
In romanticizing the naxals and justifying their violence, she is merely a victim of a philosophy that designates virtue and moral superiority to one section of the population and delineates the rest as morally and ethically compromised. It would be perfectly right to say that the naxals imitate the criminality of the state (a phrase paraphrased from Marx, no less), but to justify violence as a legitimate means of redressal of grievances is plainly silly.
But Roy justifies naxal violence by adding emotive elements on to the question of naxal violence. Hunger and the loneliness of the forests in her eyes justifies this brand of violence. Let us take the question of hunger first. The assumption implicit in Roy’s argument is that once people are well-fed, they will not resort to violence. If this was the case, the bovine placidity and conspicuous affluence of the middle class in Gujarat ought to have ensured that not a fly was hurt in that state.
The loneliness of the forest is also based on an equally tenuous assumption. The romanticization of the naxal in the forest follows from a romanticization of nature as pure, unsullied, and benign. The aranyaka delineated in ancient wisdom is really an internal condition, a state of poise and repose than a material reality. In truth, the forest was always a terrain inhabited by bandits and sages alike, a home for wild beasts who consumed weaker animals for survival. Those who have worked tirelessly in protecting the weak in the forest have done so by taming the proverbial wild beasts rather than justifying violence as a way of finding solutions to the tyranny of the state and of various rapacious regimes.
Arundhati Roy will hardly understand any of this, not because she is incapable of understanding, but because she is incapable of holding a conversation with anyone other than those that agree with her.
This instinct has two sources. The first comes from the fear that she will lose her identity if she ceased to be marginal. Her marginality is her advertisement, and excess of anything, as Lenin’s Russia taught us, is advertisement. The second is a degree of Platonism, where politics is seen as a relentless tutorial in the hands of a few chosen wise men and women.
These wise men and women, it is assumed, have seen the Light and have truth and God on their side. Everyone else lives under a veil of ignorance, incapable of perceiving their true interests and what is good for society as a whole.
The reason why Roy finds Gandhi to be pious humbug stems from the above reasons.
Gandhi, with all his faults, did not divide the world into friend and foe. He did not believe in winning wars quickly and expeditiously. If delay in getting justice be the price to pay for simple ideas of decency and civility, Gandhi was patient enough to wait, sacrifice and endure, rather than let the wild beasts of the forest rule our world. Aurobindo Ghosh asked Devdas Gandhi what the Mahatma would have done in the face of an adversary like Hitler, who was different from the imperial, but fundamentally liberal, British rule. Gandhi thought it would be right for millions to happily die in the gas chambers than compromise on ideas of civility and decency.
Roy finds Gandhi redundant because his politics depended on a certain degree of theatricality and the presence of an audience, something denied to the naxals and the tribals. This is right in a way, since even Roy, the city-dwelling champion of those in the forest, has to invoke Gandhi in order to be heard in order to carry off her own piece of theatre. She obviously knows that the modern Indian state has nothing to do with either Gandhian ideas or with Gandhian methods.
Had she said Manmohan Singh is pious humbug or Sonia Gandhi is pious humbug, foreign newspapers would hardly have reproduced her article in their pages. Both Mont Blanc and Arundhati Roy need Gandhi, after all, to sell their products.
Having said this, Roy is `right’ that Gandhi has little to say about the plight of the naxals and tribals, and even much less about the mining sharks and the marauding multinationals active in India.
But he also did not have much to say about the cell phone, the ipod and cybercrime.
In sharp contrast, Roy is better placed in having a view about all things known and unknown.
She suffers from no degree of doubt, has little sense of irony and no humour. Along with the BJP and certain strands of the loony Left, she has opened her own National Bureau of Moral Certification.
We now await the founding of her autonomous republic, where the heart will always be full, but the mind empty.