Reading Arundhati Roy is often a chore. The tone veers inevitably into high-pitched ideological dudgeon, arguments gain a repetitive monotony, and the lack of literary discipline – as she jumps wildly from Kashmir to Salwa Juldum to the Ford Foundation – tax even the most sympathetic reader’s attention. And yet… in the over-written thickets of her lengthy expositions are unpalatable, important truths, delivered in devastating prose. Messages that deserve our attention, irrespective of our opinion of the messenger.
The 13-page cover story in Outlook Magazine, ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story‘, has all the trappings of an Arundhati Roy’s Theory of Everything. More so than her other writing, there’s an everything-and-the-kitchen sink quality to this one. By page two, the eye has already begun to skim past the too-familiar words: Special Economic Zones, dalits, Chhattisgarh, Salwa Judum… Been there, done that, thinks anyone who has followed Roy’s writing.
And in our hurry, we dismiss the greatest land theft in modern Indian history, where “the land of millions of people is being acquired and made over to private corporations for ‘public interest’ — for Special Economic Zones, infrastructure projects, dams, highways, car manufacture, chemical hubs and Formula One racing. (The sanctity of private property never applies to the poor.)”
We ignore little facts about Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand, as in the 2005 MoUs that turned “over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the free market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5 per cent and 7 per cent.)” And brush past odd coincidences such as these:
Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia, was inaugurated… It turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidised by mining corporations. In the other states, similar militias were created, with other names. The prime minister announced the Maoists were the “single-largest security challenge in India”. It was a declaration of war.
On January 2, 2006, in Kalinganagar, in the neighbouring state of Orissa, perhaps to signal the seriousness of the government’s intention, ten platoons of police arrived at the site of another Tata Steel plant and opened fire on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land.
Do you have to be a die-hard Marxist to worry about land acquisition in India? Do you have to be a Maoist supporter to ask why we need the army to clear land for mega-corporations, and at the expense of human life? No, and yet this is the tragedy of Arundhati Roy: the very legitimate issues she raises are swept aside by the deluge of toxic rage she provokes.
All the responses she elicits are personal — aimed at her ideology, her personality, her life choices. Lost in the sturm and drang are the hugely significant threats to our collective welfare as a nation. Threats that warrant a serious national debate, one which requires citizen awareness and democratic participation. How do we define “growth”? What is the price we pay? And who pays it, both in the short and long run? We may and will disagree on the answers, but these are far more important questions to consider than wasting our energy debating whether Roy is a terrorist/communist/Naxalite-loving traitor.
So whose fault is this? The editors at Outlook are partly guilty for choosing to splash a giant photo of Arundhati Roy across its cover, playing up her personality at the expense of her ideas. As long as Roy sells copies, who cares if her essays have any real impact.
A significant part of the blame must be shouldered by Roy herself who seems more interested in haranguing than persuading her middle class audience. Why write for a magazine like Outlook if she doesn’t have any respect for its readership? People who she insists don’t care about suicidal farmers or dead tribals, fairness or equity.
And worse why would anyone – middle class or not – respond to a vision of the world where everyone and everything is suspect, compromised or corrupt. In this latest outing, no one is spared. There are the usual suspects, as in the government, corporations, and the media. But also: philanthropists like Nandan Nilekani, Bill Gates, all large foundations, any form of corporate philanthropy, and the artists, writers, filmmakers conferences and literary festivals who receive their largesse. Their books, documentaries, and movies about the poor merely “exoticise” them.
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