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Authors: Arundhati Roy

The End of Imagination

BOOK: The End of Imagination
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Praise for Arundhati Roy:

“Arundhati Roy is incandescent in her brilliance and her fearlessness. And in these extraordinary essays—which are clarions for justice, for witness, for a true humanity—Roy is at her absolute best.”

—Junot Díaz

“Her incomparable divining rod picks up the cries of the despised and the oppressed in the most remote corners of the globe; it even picks up the cries of rivers and fish. With an unfailing charm and wit that makes her writing constantly enlivening to read, her analysis of our grotesque world is savagely clear, and yet her anger never obscures her awareness that beauty, joy, and pleasure can potentially be part of the life of human beings.”

—Wallace Shawn

“Arundhati Roy combines her brilliant style as a novelist with her powerful commitment to social justice in producing these eloquent, penetrating essays.”

—Howard Zinn

“Arundhati Roy is one of the most confident and original thinkers of our time.”

—Naomi Klein

“The fierceness with which Arundhati Roy loves humanity moves my heart.”

—Alice Walker

“Arundhati Roy calls for ‘factual precision' alongside of the ‘real precision of poetry.' Remarkably, she combines those achievements to a degree that few can hope to approach.”

—Noam Chomsky

“[Roy is] an electrifying political essayist. . . . So fluent is her prose, so keen her understanding of global politics, and so resonant her objections to nuclear weapons, assaults against the environment, and the endless suffering of the poor that her essays are as uplifting as they are galvanizing.”


“The notion of Democracy and the pleading for human compassion first came together in Sophocles and the Greek tragedies. More than two thousand years later we live under an economic world tyranny of unprecedented brutality, which depends upon the systematic abuse of words like Democracy or Progress. Arundhati Roy, the direct descendant of Antigone, resists and denounces all tyrannies, pleads for their victims, and unflinchingly questions the tragic. Reflect with her on the answers she receives from the political world today.”

—John Berger

“[Arundhati Roy is] India's most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence.”

New York Times

“The scale of what Roy surveys is staggering. Her pointed indictment is devastating.”

New York Times Book Review

The End of Imagination

Arundhati Roy

Haymarket Books

Chicago, Illinois

© 2016 Arundhati Roy

Published in 2016 by

Haymarket Books

P.O. Box 180165

Chicago, IL 60618


[email protected]

e-book ISBN: 978-1-60846-654-2

Trade distribution:

In the US, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution,

In Canada, Publishers Group Canada,

This book was published with the generous support of
Lannan Foundation and Wallace Action Fund.

Cover design by Abby Weintraub.

Printed in Canada by union labor.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


An Unfinished Diary of Nowadays

Map of India


Part I

1. The End of Imagination

2. Democracy

Who Is She When She’s at Home?

3. When the Saints Go Marching Out

The Strange Fate of Martin, Mohandas, and Mandela

4. In Memory of Shankar Guha Niyogi

5. How Deep Shall We Dig?

Part II

6. The Greater Common Good

7. Power Politics

The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin

8. The Ladies Have Feelings, So . . .

Shall We Leave It to the Experts?

9. On Citizens’ Rights to Express Dissent

10. Ahimsa

(Nonviolent Resistance)

Part III

11. The Algebra of Infinite Justice

12. War Is Peace

13. War Talk

Summer Games with Nuclear Bombs

14. Come September

15. An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

16. The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky

17. Confronting Empire

18. Peace Is War

The Collateral Damage of Breaking News

19. Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy

(Buy One, Get One Free)

20. Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?

21. Public Power in the Age of Empire



My Seditious Heart

An Unfinished Diary of Nowadays

On a balmy February night, aware that things were not going well, I did what I rarely do. I put in earplugs and switched on the television. Even though I had said nothing about the spate of recent events—murders and lynchings, police raids on university campuses, student arrests, and enforced flag-waving—I knew that my name was still on the A-list of “anti-nationals.” That night, I began to worry that, in addition to the charge of criminal contempt of court I was already facing (for “interfering in the administration of justice,” “bashing the Central Government, State Governments, the Police Machinery, so also [the] Judiciary,” and “demonstrating a surly, rude and boorish attitude”),
I would also be charged with causing the death of the eternally indignant news anchor on Times Now. I thought he might succumb to an apoplectic fit as he stabbed the air and spat out my name, suggesting that I was a part of some shadowy cabal that was behind the ongoing “anti-national” activity in the country. My crime, according to him, is that I have written about the struggle for freedom in Kashmir, questioned the execution of Mohammad Afzal Guru, walked with the Maoist guerrillas (“terrorists” in television-speak) in the forests of Bastar, connected their armed rebellion to my reservations about India’s chosen model of “development,”
—with a hissy, sneering pause—even questioned the country’s nuclear tests.

Now it’s true that my views on these matters are at variance with those of the ruling establishment. In better days, that used to be known as a critical perspective or an alternative worldview. These days in India, it’s called sedition.

Sitting in Delhi, somewhat at the mercy of what looks like a democratically elected government gone rogue, I wondered whether I should rethink some of my opinions. I thought back, for instance, on a talk I gave in 2004 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, just before the Bush-versus-Kerry election, in which I joked about how the choice between the Democrats and the Republicans—or their equivalents in India, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—was like having to choose between Tide and Ivory Snow, two brands of washing powder both actually owned by the same company. Given all that is going on, can I honestly continue to believe that?

On merit, when it comes to pogroms against non-Hindu communities, or looking away while Dalits are slaughtered, or making sure the levers of power and wealth remain in the hands of the tiny minority of dominant castes, or smuggling in neoliberal economic reforms on the coattails of manufactured communal conflict, or banning books, there’s not much daylight between the Congress and the BJP. (When it comes to the horrors that have been visited upon places like Kashmir, Nagaland, and Manipur, all the parliamentary parties, including the two major Left parties, stand united in their immorality.)

Given this track record, does it matter that the stated ideologies of the Congress and the BJP are completely different? Whatever its practice, the Congress
it believes in a secular, liberal democracy, while the BJP mocks secularism and believes that India is essentially a “Hindu Rashtra” —a Hindu nation. Hypocrisy, Congress-style, is serious business. It’s clever—it smokes up the mirrors and leaves us groping around. However, to proudly declare your bigotry, to bring it out into the sunlight as the BJP does, is a challenge to the fundamental social, legal, and moral foundations on which modern India (supposedly) stands. It would be an error to imagine that what we are witnessing today is just business as usual between unprincipled, murderous political parties.

Although the idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra is constantly being imbued with an aura of ancientness, it’s a surprisingly recent one. And, ironically, it has more to do with representative democracy than it does with religion. Historically, the people who now call themselves Hindu only identified themselves by their
, their caste names. As a community, they functioned as a loose coalition of endogamous castes organized in a strict hierarchy. (Even today, for all the talk of unity and nationalism, only 5 percent of marriages in India cut across caste lines. Transgression can still get young people beheaded.) Since each caste could dominate the ones below it, all except those at the very bottom were inveigled into being a part of the system.
—Brahminism—is the word that the anti-caste movement has traditionally used to describe this taxonomy. Though it has lost currency (and is often erroneously taken to refer solely to the practices and beliefs of Brahmins as a caste group), it is, in fact, a more accurate term than “Hinduism” for this social and religious arrangement, because it is as ancient as caste itself and predates the idea of Hinduism by centuries.

This is a volatile assertion, so let me shelter behind Bhimrao Ambedkar. “The first and foremost thing that must be recognised,” he wrote in
Annihilation of Caste
in 1936, “is that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives [who lived east of the river Indus] for the purpose of distinguishing themselves.”

So how and why did the people who lived east of the Indus begin to call themselves Hindus? Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the politics of representative governance (paradoxically, introduced to its colony by the imperial British government) began to replace the politics of emperors and kings. The British marked the boundaries of the modern nation-state called India, divided it into territorial constituencies, and introduced the idea of elected bodies for local self-government. Gradually, subjects became citizens, citizens became voters, and voters formed constituencies that were assembled from complicated networks of old as well as new allegiances, alliances, and loyalties. Even as it came into existence, the new nation began to struggle against its rulers. But it was no longer a question of overthrowing a ruler militarily and taking the throne. The new rulers, whoever they were, would need to be legitimate representatives of the people. The politics of representative governance set up a new anxiety: Who could legitimately claim to represent the aspirations of the freedom struggle? Which constituency would make up the majority?

This marked the beginning of what we now call “vote bank” politics. Demography turned into an obsession. It became imperative that people who had previously identified themselves only by their caste names band together under a single banner to make up a majority. That was when they began to call themselves Hindu. It was a way of crafting a political majority out of an impossibly diverse society. “Hindu” was the name of a political constituency more than of a religion, one that could define itself as clearly as other constituencies—Muslim, Sikh, and Christian—could. Hindu nationalists, as well as the officially “secular” Congress Party, staked their claims to the “Hindu vote.”

It was around this time that a perplexing contestation arose around the people then known as “Untouchables” or “Outcastes,” who, though they were outside the pale of the caste system, were also divided into separate castes arranged in a strict hierarchy. To even begin to understand the political chaos we are living through now, at the center of which is the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula—it’s important to understand, at least conceptually, this turn-of-the-century contestation.

Over the previous centuries, in order to escape the scourge of caste, millions of Untouchables (I use this word only because Ambedkar used it too) had converted to Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. In the past, those conversions had not been a cause of anxiety for the privileged castes. However, when the politics of demography took center stage, this hemorrhaging became a source of urgent concern. People who had been shunned and cruelly oppressed were now viewed as a population that could greatly expand the numbers of the Hindu constituency. They had to be courted and brought into the “Hindu fold.” That was the beginning of Hindu evangelism. What we know today as
ghar wapsi
, or “returning home,” was a ceremony that dominant castes devised to “purify” Untouchables and Adivasis, whom they considered “polluted.” The idea was (and is) to persuade these ancient and autochthonous peoples that they were formerly Hindus, and that Hinduism was the original, indigenous religion of the subcontinent. It was not only Hindu nationalists among the privileged castes who tried to embrace the Untouchables politically while continuing to valorize the caste system. Their counterparts in the Congress did the same thing too; this was the reason for the legendary standoff between Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi, and continues to be cause of serious disquiet in Indian politics. Even today, to properly secure its idea of a Hindu Rashtra, the BJP has to persuade a majority of the Dalit population to embrace a religion that stigmatizes and humiliates them. It has been surprisingly successful, and has even managed to draw in some militant Ambedkarite Dalits. It is this paradox that has made the political moment we are living through so incandescent, so highly inflammable, and so unpredictable.

Ever since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded, in 1925, this ideological holding company of Hindu nationalism (and of the BJP) has set itself the task of making myriad castes, communities, tribes, religions, and ethnic groups submerge their identities and line up behind the banner of the Hindu Rashtra. Which is a little like trying to sculpt a gigantic, immutable stone statue of Bharat Mata—the Hindu right’s ideal of Mother India—out of a stormy sea. Turning water into stone may not be a practical ambition, but the RSS’s long years of trying have polluted the sea and endangered its flora and fauna in irreversible ways. Its ruinous ideology—known as Hindutva, and inspired by the likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler—openly proposes Nazi-style purges of Indian Muslims. In RSS doctrine (theorized by M. S. Golwalkar, the organization’s second
, or supreme leader), the three main enemies obstructing the path to the Hindu Rashtra are Muslims, Christians, and Communists. And now, as the RSS races towards that goal, although what’s happening around us may look like chaos, everything is actually going strictly by the book.

Of late, the RSS has deliberately begun to conflate nationalism with Hindu nationalism. It uses the terms interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. Naturally, it chooses to gloss over the fact that it played absolutely no part in the struggle against British colonialism. But while the RSS left the battle of turning a British colony into an independent nation to other people, it has, since then, worked far harder than any other political or cultural organization to turn this nation into a Hindu nation. Before the BJP was founded in 1980, the political arm of the RSS was the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. However, the RSS’s influence cut across party lines, and in the past its shadowy presence has even been evident in some of the more violent and nefarious activities of the Congress Party. The organization now has a network of tens of thousands of
(branches) and hundreds of thousands of workers. It has its own trade union, its own educational institutions where millions of students are indoctrinated, its own teachers’ organization, a women’s wing, a media and publications division, its own organizations dedicated to Adivasi welfare, its own medical missions, its own sad stable of historians (who produce their own hallucinatory version of history), and, of course, its own army of trolls on social media. Its sister concerns, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, provide the stormtroopers who carry out organized attacks on anyone whose views they perceive to be a threat. In addition to creating its own organizations (which, together with the BJP, make up the Sangh Parivar—the Saffron Family), the RSS has also worked patiently to place its chessmen in public institutions: on government committees, in universities, the bureaucracy, and, crucially, the intelligence services.

That all this farsightedness and hard work were going to pay off one day was a foregone conclusion. Still, it took imagination and ruthlessness to come this far. Most of us know the story, but given the amnesia that is being pressed upon us, it might serve to put down a chronology of the recent present. Who knows, things that appeared unconnected may, when viewed in retrospect, actually be connected. And vice versa. So forgive me if, in an attempt to decipher a pattern, I go over some familiar territory.

The journey to power began with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In 1990, L. K. Advani, BJP leader and a member of the RSS, traveled the length and breadth of the country in an air-conditioned
—chariot—exhorting “Hindus” to rise up and build a temple on the hallowed birthplace of Lord Ram. The birthplace, people were told, was the exact same spot on which a sixteenth-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, stood, in the town of Ayodhya. In 1992, just two years after his
rath yatra 
(chariot procession), Advani stood by and watched as an organized mob reduced the Babri Masjid to rubble. Riots, massacres, and serial bombings followed. The country was polarized in a way it had not been since Partition. By 1998, the BJP (which had only two seats in Parliament in 1984) had formed a coalition government at the center.

The first thing the BJP did was to realize a long-standing desire of the RSS by conducting a series of nuclear tests. From being an organization that had been banned three times (after the assassination of Gandhi, during the Emergency, and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid), the RSS was finally in a position to dictate government policy. We can call it the Year of the Ascension.

It wasn’t the first time India had conducted nuclear tests, but the exhibitionism of the 1998 ones was different. It was like a rite of passage. The “Hindu bomb” was meant to announce the imminent arrival of the Hindu Rashtra. Within days, Pakistan (already ahead of the curve, having declared itself an Islamic republic in 1956) showed off its “Muslim bomb.” And now we’re stuck with these two strutting, nuclear-armed roosters, who are trained to hate each other, who hold their minority populations hostage as they mimic each other in a competing horror show of majoritarianism and religious chauvinism. And they have Kashmir to fight over.

BOOK: The End of Imagination
3.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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