(This column was published in DNA edition dated October 27, 2010.)
There’s a mesmeric seductive quality to Arundhati Roy’s prose. For all its verbiage, it teases, tempts and torments the mind and lures it into the parlour of a contrarian world; it then persuades it, with the sheer power of its eloquence, that the natural order of things in the ‘real’ world as we know it is wholly unnatural and completely flawed.
“So you think India is a superpower in the making?” it says, and marshalls compelling arguments for why India is more in the “bhookey-nangey” category. “So you think big dams are great for development?” it asks. “Perhaps you’ll feel differently if it were your home, your village and your livelihood that needed to be sacrificed for the greater common good.”
A fair-minded person might concede that Roy has at least half a point, even if, once the seductive power of her prose has worn off, her polemical pounding of that half-point is grating in the extreme. Heck, she’s not even the only one who holds an unflattering mirror to Indian society and forces us to reflect on our failings rather than thump our chests in pride. The social historian Ramachandra Guha does it no less trenchantly, no less controversially – and no less eloquently; but he does it with a far greater sensitivity to the burden of history, and he at least has the intellectual honesty – and the good grace – to acknowledge the merits, such as they are, of India’s democracy, flawed though it is.
But whereas the soundbite-savvy Roy’s polemics were once merely infuriatingly dishonest (even when they had half a point), her most recent public articulations on Kashmir, coming on top of her unvarnished defence of Maoist resort to violence, cross the threshold of what any self-respecting law-bound nation-state can tolerate. Roy may have declared herself an ‘independent mobile republic’, as she did after the 1998 Pokharan nuclear tests in order to dissociate herself from the BJP’s nuclear jingoism; but she’s still bound by the sedition laws of the decidedly immobile republic she inhabits.
Apart from being historically inaccurate, Roy’s words also betray an inadequate sensitivity to the enormous gravity of any loose talk of azaadi or self-determination at a time when the separatist campaign in Kashmir finally stands exposed before the world as having been propelled all along by Pakistan-backed jihadis who are playing for much larger stakes: the disintegration of secular India.
Perhaps in parlour room polemics, among calm and politically sanitised minds, there may be little risk from intellectual explorations of the merits of Kashmiri self-determination. But the Kashmir mind today is in a fevered state as a result of years of hot-headed jihadi indoctrination; only when that fever subsides can other cures be contemplated. Right now, given that inflamed state, Roy’s words have the potency to bestir indoctrinated minds into extreme action.
History doesn’t flow in straight lines, but in contours, and in Kashmir’s tortured history there are many contours to negotiate. The Indian state may not always have got it right in Kashmir, but Roy’s black-and-white delineation represents a colossal and intellectually dishonest oversimplification of the problem without sufficient appreciation of the fanatical geopolitical forces at work. It also takes her farther down the slippery slope of shrill and decidedly dangerous sloganeering which has enormous lethal consequences in the real world. Perhaps she should break the spell that her own hypnotic prose appears to have on herself and her increasingly fanatical flock of followers.