By CAROLYN COOKE, Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy lodged a few eloquent arguments against the world’s largest democracies last Friday night at the gorgeous Mission High School Auditorium in San Francisco. “What have we done to democracy?” she asked. “What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?”
The occasion was the publication of Roy’s new collection of essays, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Haymarket Books) and a benefit for the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK), sponsored in part by CIIS and Dr. Angana Chatterji,a Professor of Anthropology at CIIS, who is a founder of the Tribunal.
Alice Walker introduced Roy; David Barsamian of Alternative Radio interviewed her and fielded questions. According to the organizers, attendance at the event approached 1,000. Roy, who is also the author of the Booker-Prize winning novel, The God of Small Things, received a standing ovation even before she began to speak.
The essays in Field Notes describe various “public interventions at critical moments in India,” including the state-backed genocide in Gujarat, the mass uprising in Kashmir in 2008 and the Mumbai attacks later that year. Kashmir was Roy’s focus for the evening – both as evidence and metaphor of how “easily victims become perpetrators.” She described India becoming a colonial power almost immediately after Independence in 1947, pushing people off their land in Goa, Hyderabad, Punjab and elsewhere, and massacring Muslims, most egregiously in Kashmir, today the most heavily militarized region on earth.
“What did Democracy do to Kashmir, to make people hate it so?” Roy asked and then answered, quoting a Kashmiri woman, who told her, “What freedom do we have now, to be raped by Indian soldiers?”
Roy pointed out that a younger generation of Kashmiris have already and successfully “discerned the power of mass protest.” David Barsamian noted that “in the United States there is weekend activism, here are motions but no movements. Movements must involve risks and consequences.” He asked about the multiplicity of movements in India, including resistance by those hundreds of thousands of young, unarmed Kashmiris.
Roy cited instances throughout India of robust resistance against structures of oppression and what she described as the “consequences” of a democracy that promises to serve as “the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams.” The poor are better at resistance than the middle classes, she asserted, because “People who have their backs against the wall, people who are being killed and buried in mass graves, have more hope than people who are comfortable.” Further, she argued that Indians who are not “starving and naked” have been complicit in supporting structures that oppress the Kashmiris and the indigenous peoples of India and open the country’s resources to corporate pillaging in the name of economic development. She called for an end to romanticizing India as the kinder, gentler superpower – an alternative to “nasty China and dangerous Pakistan.”
Roy’s environmentalism, her call for protections of India’s forests, water and the minerals in the ground, is tempered by her fierce insistence that for effective resistance “you have to do damage,” and that “knowledge of how to live with a very light footprint is something we have to preserve” – by force, if necessary.
“I wanted to write a play,” she said, “called Gandhi get your gun.”