Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A response to Roy's Rage

My friend Nishant, a Delhi-based journalist and social worker, has sent me a strong, well-argued rejoinder to my post on Arundhati Roy (Roy's Rage). In his response, Nishant makes some nuanced observations (like the cast angle in Kashmir issue) which can only come from a person who has seen things on the ground. I am reproducing his letter here, with his permission:

Hi, Zafarbhai. Interesting posts you send me. They are thought provoking, and sometimes provocative too, like this one. I thought I would write my views on your views on Arundhati Roy. I decided to write, because I think there is one very obvious school of thought you have omitted, among many others, in the hate-Roy-love-Roy binary. There are people who are on the side of the issues that Roy raises but do not agree with her approaches to them. I am one such person. In fact, I think she needs to do some theoretical thinking to bind all the struggles through a coherent thread.

I have watched Roy closely ever since her first essays during the NDA regime started coming out. I mostly agreed with her in those days. But, with time she has shown the biases that rooted NGO-wallahs show in India, rather north India. Or, should I say in the Indo-Aryan India.

I will keep my criticism short, for I want to make it a bigger intellectual exercise some day.

Since you have talked about Kashmir in the post below and because this is Roy's favourite milch cow these days, let us begin with it. For a very long time, the security forces are involved in gross human rights violations in the Kashmir valley. And, for the equally long time the activists in Kashmir, the rest of India and other parts of the world have been trying to highlight the travails of the Kashmiri people. But, what Roy has started doing is using these violations to make a political point. She calls Kashmir India's colony. It will be great to know Roy's definitions of both 'colony' as well as the 'imperial centre'. But, no definitions ever emerge from her writing, for she is forever creating 'a maze of words'. If Kashmir is a colony, then is Punjab a colony as well? What about the Northeast then? And, the Red Corridor? And, the small Dalit ghettos that we find everywhere in the country? Is the net flow of money from the Kashmir valley to New Delhi? If we start defining the term colony in such a way, soon we will be left only with a Hindu India, which I think is an RSS project.

Perhaps, creative writers don't waste their time defining what can be called a colony and what cannot be. Perhaps, they are there only to create creative works out of popular struggles, without giving much thought to the discontents of these struggles. Or, perhaps, it's much easier to declare a bigger entity your enemy, rather than the negative forces contained in popular struggles.

It doesn't matter much to Roy and people like her -- I can count on my fingertips how many of them work closely to come out with a coherent line of thought on Kashmir and similar issues -- that the struggle in Kashmir is spearheaded by upper-caste Muslims, the likes of Gilani, that Brahmin among Muslims, with the sole exception of Yasin Malik. It does not matter to her that almost all lower caste Muslims of the valley are against the Hurriyat politics. It does not matter to her that no upper-caste Muslim is ever interested in getting Hindus back in the valley. It does not matter to her that the upper-caste leadership of the Kashmiri struggle is not only religious in nature, it is opposed to Left-wing politics as well. The second target of the Kashmiri militants in the early 1990s were left-wing activists of the valley, the first being Kashmiri Pandits.

It also does not matter to her that lower-caste Bihari Muslims and Hindus who go there every year for work work under abysmal conditions and suffer abuses from the elite of the valley. Gilani is a Bal Thackeray-like figure of the valley. He abuses all outsiders and particularly hates Biharis. He makes fun of Hindus and believes the Islamic culture is the most superior form of culture available. If he was borne into a differnt religion, Roy would have been writing articles against him.

Perhaps, it is more profitable to be left-wing in Delhi and quiet about ideology in Kashmir.

In 2004 summer when I was in Kashmir, I read hatred-driven articles in a religiously coloured newspaper called Greater Kashmir (Roy loves this paper; she keeps quoting from it). That was the time of the annual Amarnath yatra. We were yet to see the communal protests in the valley against it that we saw last year. But, in retrospect I can say that the unrest was building up. The Muslim elite of the valley has always been against the popularity of the Amarnath yatra, though their official stand is that it shows the syncretic spirit of the valley. In once such article, I read how the writer had described in graphic detail the scene of the base camp or the route of the yatra. It was full thinly-veiled caste remarks about the kind of people who had come to the valley from outside and spoiling its environment. The writer wrote about the shit gathered on the banks of the Lidder. A friend of mine did a performance at Khoj Studios called The Shit of the Other. I connected the two stories when I heard about his performance much later.

Much later when the Amarnath row broke out, another of such activists Gautam Navlakha reproduced that argument of the beautiful Lidder and the shit of the other. Needless to say, you have to be Brahiminical to hate shit so much.

Roy herself wasn't very far behind when she quoted from a placard that one protester was carrying during that mammoth march in Srinagar during the Amarnath row, which she described in her first major essay on Kashmir. The placard said something like 'Bhookha nanga Hindustaan, jaan se pyara Pakistan'. Being rooted in the Indo-Aryan ways of anti-establishment protests in north India, Roy gave a twist to the slogan. She thought the people of Kashmir were questioning the globalisation policies that India has pursued in the last few decades and which have increased poverty in India. Great interpretation. Even if that protest had taken place three decades back, the protesters would have carried similar banners. She missed the caste abuse implicit in the slogan. She forgot that Pakistan was an upper-caste Muslim's upper-caste dream. She forgot that when the Muslim elite of the Kashmir valley see kinship in Pakistan, it's nothing but a caste kinship. She obviously has read no literature of the partition time, in which both upper-caste Hindus and upper-caste Muslims hurled caste abuses at each other when they counted the underbelly of both religions.

My friend Sanjay Kak made a film on Kashmir. He is Roy's friend as well. I remember one scene in which he is trying to show the strategies used by the security forces to win over a local villager. A uniformed officer is seen to be felicitating the villager with a radio set. The context of the film makes it look like an Indian nationalist trick. But, Kak too belongs to the same caste group that so much dominates India, both in its oppression and its opposition to its oppression. He forgot to seek the opinion of the villager who accepted the 'gift'. I guess the villager was a Gujjar. The caste of the villager makes him that sort of character that you see in the paintings of the colonial times, where among sahebs, both white as well as brown, you see a lower-caste dhobi, maali, malishwala or one such professional almost tripping out of the painting at the edge. I like to believe that Kak muffled a voice. Perhaps, he missed out on an Ambedkar. He had the golden chance of following a lower-caste voice in a film otherwise full of upper-caste characters.

Zafar, if there is one dominant struggle in India that is upper-caste in character, this is it. And, I am not surprised that an activist community that is characterised by their annual candle-lighting exercise at the Wagah border -- that another symbol of caste solidarity and hatred at the same time -- feels so close to the struggle in Kashmir.

You have quoted Roy as saying, 'No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialized out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir Valley.' I guess you know that some of these candidates were from the Bahujan Samaj Party. Mayawati is expanding. Hers is the only national party that has found support in every corner of the country. She put up candidates in all assembly segments in the elections last year. I think the BSP managed around 5 per cent votes. It will be great to do a caste analysis of Mayawati's candidates and the ones who issue election boycott calls in the valley. Roy will get her answer then.

Some day Roy should also tell us where she has got the figure of 'one armed soldier for every 20 civilians' from. Whatever number of soldiers we have in Kashmir is a huge and horrible number, but Roy's number borders on propaganda and it keeps changing. According to the 2001 census, the population of the valley was approximately 56 lakh. Is she using this figure to make her point? If yes, then total number of armed soldiers will be 56 lakh/20 = 2 lakh 80 thousand soldiers. But, she has quoted a much higher number on different occasions. In this interview given in Feb. 2009, she says this number is between five lakh and seven lakh. Other activists and my friends in Kashmir have quoted a figure of 10 lakh soldiers as well. Pakistan also quotes a figure of one million soldiers. I guess you get the point here.

This is not to say that I don't agree with her that Kashmir is a heavily militarized zone, but perhaps one should not get carried away in creating a scary picture that can bring personal benefits.

Let's come to her ideas on the nuclear bomb. She wrote a lengthy article on the issue of India and Pakistan going nuclear. The BJP government was in power in those days, and the tests were done by a BJP prime ministers. When a right-wing government is in power, it's much easier and simpler to hate the state. Then one does not get into the ideological complexities that she got into on the Kashmir issue. But, Roy has no original argument ever. She picks them from here and there, most notably from the popular struggles which already have developed arguments. This is what she did in the case of her anti-nuke arguments.

If you notice, Zafar, these days our rhetoric against nuclear bombs is based on the same principles on which our nationalism is based. Many dominant groups in India see the nuclear bomb as a signifier of an assertive India. And, these groups include both pro-bomb guys as well as anti-bomb buys. The idea of India that both these groups have in mind are the same upper-caste elite of India who sometimes hate Pakistan and on other occasions want to love it, both on the ground of race solidarity.

But, I object to viewing a nuke only through this lens. I feel a nuke is a signifier in a pure sense. When a right-wing government uses it, it acquires a right-wing character. And, if a left-wing government wants to use it, it can use it international negotiations. Is it important to tie the Indian nuclear bomb to Pakistan? Isn't this a 90s phenomenon? When Indira Gandhi ordered first nuclear tests, she was willing to be on the side of the global left than on the side of the Indian right. But, half-baked arguments of people like Roy and Anand Patwardhan do is make all other interest group retreat from the nuclear debate. They project the bomb as a Hindu bomb to be deployed against a Muslim neighbour. So, other groups that may have believed in the theory that either everybody can have this bomb or nobody should have it are forced to retreat.

Both Patwardhan and Roy ignore the fact India has and is developing missile capabilities that can deliver a nuke up to and beyond 2,000 kilometres. If we were to have only Hindu nukes, then there is no need to waste money on developing more missiles. Pakistan is already covered in the existing range. But, such details usually escape creative writers. They are more interested in creating impact through their works than argue their case. This is not to say that India's nuclear programme is not directed against Pakistan, but it is not exclusively tied to it.

And, of course, the anti-nuke lobby has never heard of using the bomb to press for disarmament.

I have an observation on Roy's stand on the Narmada issue as well. I quite liked her article on the Narmada dam. That, I think, is her best argued work. Even if all arguements are borrowed, we need such articles. And, I don't support Ramachandra Guha's critique of Roy's stand on the Narmada dam. But, I do agree with him that she is more interested in her popularity than the fate of the cause.

Look at what happened to the whole issue after the Supreme Court judgment. Both Medha Patkar and Roy have moved on to greener pastures, Patkar to Singur and SEZ-related issues and Roy to Kashmir, after making many other popular stops. I think the Narmada issue is one of the biggest defeats of the social movements in India. And, look at the contrast: while the peole have lost their land and livelihood, its leaders have prospered in their social standing.

The Medha Patkar kind of politics that Roy supported is primarily the cause for this defeat. Because Patkar is Gandhian, she did not allow any violence to take place on the Narmada issue. When the state and the courts went against the people, she simply retreated, or, should I say, moved on. Compare that to the fate of anti-land-acquisition movements. A lot of them, like Singur and Nandigram, are successful, and in many of them Patkar is involved. The deciding factor, however, was that no Gandhian was the supreme leader of these movements. In fact, violence proved to the ultimate deterrent against the capitalist encroachment.

These days Roy is busy lauding Kashmiris for their non-violent struggle. She may end up helping the people she is fighting against, which I won't mind in this case. But, her record is that wherever she goes, that struggle is screwed in a few years. A very dangerous activist to have among your midst.



Jawaid Naiyer said...

Many thanks Zafar for sharing this piece. Now, we have a semblance of an anti-Roy argument. When she started writing non-fiction, mostly political in nature, it was nice to be on her side. But her recent essays have left me perplexed. But my question is should a creative writer (?) take political side? Why a creative writer can’t have biased political view?
Some time back, in 2001 to be precise, Sagarika Ghose wrote in Outlook a piece on Roy title “Her Red's Sexy”…Ghose says, “Old commies should immediately adopt Arundhati Roy as one of their trendy new avatars. The class struggle might become much sexier than saffron.”
Now we are left with more questions about her; why Roy takes sides? Does she represent class struggle? Or caste struggle? Or she is just hungry for media attention?

Zafar Anjum said...

I don't think Roy is hungry for media attention. What she is trying to do is to get the media focus on matters that is not on the media's (and their advertisers') agenda. She has pretty much said that in one of her interviews.

As of anti-Roy argument, I am sure she is open-minded enough and broadminded enough to take criticism (the kind of critique Nishant does here).

But yes, I agree with you--a writer can take sides. Why not? If there is apartheid, oppression, you have to take side--no matter who you are.

Like Desmond Tutu said, you are either in favor of evil or in favor of good. Your are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can't be neutral.

This is pretty much what the Quran teaches us too. Zulm ke khilaf bolna bhi insani farz hai, chahe zulm kisi par bhi ho.

But that brings us to the question of being an artist too. Someone once said (and this quote is pinned on my desk) "a public figure can never be an artist and no artist should ever become one, unless his work being done, he should choose to retire to public life."

So, it is up to the artist to decide for himself or herself--what does she want to do and how does she want to do it.