Authors: Arundhati Roy
It is this energy that Gandhi sought to harness when he rubbed the magic lamp and invited Ram and Rahim to partake of human politics and India’s war of independence against the British. It was a sophisticated, magnificent, imaginative struggle, but its objective was simple and lucid, the target highly visible, easy to identify and succulent with political sin. In the circumstances, the energy found an easy focus. The trouble is that the circumstances are entirely changed now, but the genie is out of its lamp, and won’t go back in. (It
be sent back, but nobody wants it to go, it’s proved itself too useful.) Yes, it won us freedom. But it also won us the carnage of Partition. And now, in the hands of lesser statesmen, it has won us the Hindu Nuclear Bomb.
To be fair to Gandhi and to other leaders of the National Movement, they did not have the benefit of hindsight, and could not possibly have known what the eventual, long-term consequences of their strategy would be. They could not have predicted how quickly the situation would careen out of control. They could not have foreseen what would happen when they passed their flaming torches into the hands of their successors, or how venal those hands could be.
It was Indira Gandhi who started the real slide. It is she who made the genie a permanent State Guest. She injected the venom into our political veins. She invented our particularly vile local brand of political expediency. She showed us how to conjure enemies out of thin air, to fire at phantoms that she had carefully fashioned for that very purpose. It was she who discovered the benefits of never burying the dead, but preserving their putrid carcasses and trundling them out to worry old wounds when it suited her. Between herself and her sons she managed to bring the country to its knees. Our new government has just kicked us over and arranged our heads on the chopping block.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is, in some senses, a specter that Indira Gandhi and the Congress created. Or, if you want to be less harsh, a specter that fed and reared itself in the political spaces and communal suspicion that the Congress nourished and cultivated. It has put a new complexion on the politics of governance. While Mrs. Gandhi played hidden games with politicians and their parties, she reserved a shrill convent-school rhetoric, replete with tired platitudes, to address the general public. The BJP, on the other hand, has chosen to light its fires directly on the streets and in the homes and hearts of people. It is prepared to do by day what the Congress would do only by night. To legitimize what was previously considered unacceptable (but done anyway). There is perhaps a fragile case to be made here in favor of hypocrisy. Could the hypocrisy of the Congress Party, the fact that it conducts its wretched affairs surreptitiously instead of openly, could that possibly mean there is a tiny glimmer of guilt somewhere? Some small fragment of remembered decency?
What am I doing? Why am I foraging for scraps of hope?
The way it has worked—in the case of the demolition of the Babri Masjid as well as in the making of the nuclear bomb—is that the Congress sowed the seeds, tended the crop, then the BJP stepped in and reaped the hideous harvest. They waltz together, locked in each other’s arms. They’re inseparable, despite their professed differences. Between them they have brought us here, to this dreadful, dreadful place.
The jeering, hooting young men who battered down the Babri Masjid are the same ones whose pictures appeared in the papers in the days that followed the nuclear tests. They were on the streets, celebrating India’s nuclear bomb and simultaneously “condemning Western Culture” by emptying crates of Coke and Pepsi into public drains. I’m a little baffled by their logic: Coke is Western Culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?
Yes, I’ve heard—the bomb is in the Vedas. It might be, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find Coke in the Vedas too. That’s the great thing about all religious texts. You can find anything you want in them—as long as you know what you’re looking for.
But returning to the subject of the non-Vedic 1990s: We storm the heart of whiteness, we embrace the most diabolical creation of Western science and call it our own. But we protest against their music, their food, their clothes, their cinema, and their literature. That’s not hypocrisy. That’s humor.
It’s funny enough to make a skull smile.
We’re back on the old ship. The SS
Authenticity & Indianness
If there is going to be a pro-authenticity/antinational drive, perhaps the government ought to get its history straight and its facts right. If they’re going to do it, they may as well do it properly.
First of all, the original inhabitants of this land were not Hindu. Ancient though it is, there were human beings on earth before there was Hinduism. India’s Adivasis have a greater claim to being indigenous to this land than anybody else, and how are they treated by the state and its minions? Oppressed, cheated, robbed of their lands, shunted around like surplus goods. Perhaps the place to start would be to restore to them the dignity that was once theirs. Perhaps the government could make a public undertaking that more dams like the Sardar Sarovar on the Narmada will not be built, that more people will not be displaced.
But, of course, that would be inconceivable, wouldn’t it? Why? Because it’s impractical. Because Adivasis don’t really matter. Their histories, their customs, their deities are dispensable. They must learn to sacrifice these things for the greater good of the nation (that has snatched from them everything they ever had).
Okay, so that’s out.
For the rest, I could compile a practical list of things to ban and buildings to break. It’ll need some research, but off the top of my head, here are a few suggestions.
They could begin by banning a number of ingredients from our cuisine: chilies (Mexico), tomatoes (Peru), potatoes (Bolivia), coffee (Morocco), tea, white sugar, cinnamon (China) . . . they could then move into recipes. Tea with milk and sugar, for instance (Britain).
Smoking will be out of the question. Tobacco came from North America.
Cricket, English, and Democracy should be forbidden. Either kabaddi or kho-kho could replace cricket. I don’t want to start a riot, so I hesitate to suggest a replacement for English (Italian . . . ? It has found its way to us via a kinder route: marriage, not imperialism). We have already discussed (earlier in this essay) the emerging, apparently acceptable alternative to democracy.
All hospitals in which Western medicine is practiced or prescribed should be shut down. All national newspapers discontinued. The railways dismantled. Airports closed. And what about our newest toy—the mobile phone? Can we live without it, or shall I suggest that they make an exception there? They could put it down in the column marked “universal.” (Only essential commodities will be included here. No music, art, or literature.)
Needless to say, sending your children to college in the US and rushing there yourself to have your prostate operated upon will be a cognizable offense.
The building demolition drive could begin with the Rashtrapati Bhavan and gradually spread from cities to the countryside, culminating in the destruction of all monuments (mosques, churches, temples) that were built on what was once Adivasi or forest land.
It will be a long, long list. It would take years of work. I couldn’t use a computer because that wouldn’t be very authentic of me, would it?
I don’t mean to be facetious, merely to point out that this is surely the shortcut to hell. There’s no such thing as an Authentic India or a Real Indian. There is no Divine Committee that has the right to sanction one single, authorized version of what India is or should be. There is no one religion or language or caste or region or person or story or book that can claim to be its sole representative. There are, and can only be, visions of India, various ways of seeing it—honest, dishonest, wonderful, absurd, modern, traditional, male, female. They can be argued over, criticized, praised, scorned, but not banned or broken. Not hunted down.
Railing against the past will not heal us. History has
. It’s over and done with. All we can do is to change its course by encouraging what we love instead of destroying what we don’t. There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, reinvented, and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it. Making bombs will only destroy us. It doesn’t
whether or not we use them. They will destroy us either way.
India’s nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people.
However many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it’s far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people.
According to opinion polls, we’re expected to believe that there’s a national consensus on the issue. It’s official now. Everybody loves the bomb. (Therefore the bomb is good.)
Is it possible for a man who cannot write his own name to understand even the basic, elementary facts about the nature of nuclear weapons? Has anybody told him that nuclear war has nothing at all to do with his received notions of war? Nothing to do with honor, nothing to do with pride? Has anybody bothered to explain to him about thermal blasts, radioactive fallout, and the nuclear winter? Are there even words in his language to describe the concepts of enriched uranium, fissile material, and critical mass? Or has his language itself become obsolete? Is he trapped in a time capsule, watching the world pass him by, unable to understand or communicate with it because his language never took into account the horrors that the human race would dream up? Does he not matter at all, this man? Shall we just treat him like some kind of a cretin? If he asks any questions, ply him with iodine pills and parables about how Lord Krishna lifted a hill or how the destruction of Lanka by Hanuman was unavoidable in order to preserve Sita’s virtue and Ram’s reputation? Use his own beautiful stories as weapons against him? Shall we release him from his capsule only during elections, and once he’s voted, shake him by the hand, flatter him with some bullshit about the Wisdom of the Common Man, and send him right back in?
I’m not talking about one man, of course, I’m talking about millions and millions of people who live in this country. This is their land too, you know. They have the right to make an informed decision about its fate and, as far as I can tell, nobody has informed them about anything. The tragedy is that nobody could, even if they wanted to. Truly, literally, there’s no language to do it in. This is the real horror of India. The orbits of the powerful and the powerless spinning further and further apart from each other, never intersecting, sharing nothing. Not a language. Not even a country.
Who the hell conducted those opinion polls? Who the hell is the prime minister to decide whose finger will be on the nuclear button that could turn everything we love—our earth, our skies, our mountains, our plains, our rivers, our cities and villages—to ash in an instant? Who the hell is he to reassure us that there will be no accidents? How does he know? Why should we trust him? What has he ever done to make us trust him? What have any of them ever done to make us trust them?
The nuclear bomb is the most antidemocratic, antinational, antihuman, outright evil thing that man has ever made.
If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God.
It’s worded quite simply: we have the power to destroy everything that You have created.
If you’re not (religious), then look at it this way. This world of ours is 4,600 million years old.
It could end in an afternoon.
Who Is She When She’s at Home?
Originally published in the May 6, 2002, issue of
Last night a friend from Baroda called. Weeping. It took her fifteen minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn’t very complicated. Only that a friend of hers, Sayeeda,
had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that after she died someone carved “OM” on her forehead.
Precisely which Hindu scripture preaches this?
Our Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, justified this as part of the retaliation by outraged Hindus against Muslim “terrorists” who burned alive fifty-eight Hindu passengers on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra.
Each of those who died that hideous death was someone’s brother, someone’s mother, someone’s child. Of course they were.
Which particular verse in the Koran required that they be roasted alive?
The more the two sides try and call attention to their religious differences by slaughtering each other, the less there is to distinguish them from one another. They worship at the same altar. They’re both apostles of the same murderous god, whoever he is. In an atmosphere so vitiated, for anybody, and in particular the Prime Minister, to arbitrarily decree exactly where the cycle started is malevolent and irresponsible.
Right now we’re sipping from a poisoned chalice—a flawed democracy laced with religious fascism. Pure arsenic.
What shall we do? What
We have a ruling party that’s hemorrhaging. Its rhetoric against terrorism, the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the saber-rattling against Pakistan (with the underlying nuclear threat), the massing of almost a million soldiers on the border on hair-trigger alert, and, most dangerous of all, the attempt to communalize and falsify school history textbooks—none of this has prevented it from being humiliated in election after election.
Even its old party trick—the revival of the plans to replace the destroyed mosque in Ayodhya with the Ram Mandir—didn’t quite work out.
Desperate now, it has turned for succor to the state of Gujarat.
Gujarat, the only major state in India to have a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, has for some years been the petri dish in which Hindu fascism has been fomenting an elaborate political experiment. In March 2002, the initial results were put on public display.
Within hours of the Godhra outrage, a meticulously planned pogrom was unleashed against the Muslim community. It was led from the front by the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. Officially the number of dead is eight hundred. Independent reports put the figure as high as two thousand.
More than one hundred fifty thousand people, driven from their homes, now live in refugee camps.
Women were stripped, gang-raped; parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children.
Two hundred forty dargahs and one hundred eighty masjids were destroyed. In Ahmedabad, the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the course of a night.
The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Ali Khan was desecrated and wreathed in burning tires.
Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, hotels, textile mills, buses, and private cars. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs.
A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the Director General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob dragged Ehsan Jaffri out of his house, and dismembered him.
Of course it’s only a coincidence that Jaffri was a trenchant critic of Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, during his campaign for the Rajkot Assembly by-election in February.
Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs. They were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives, swords, and tridents.
Apart from the VHP and Bajrang Dal’s usual lumpen constituency, there were Dalits and Adivasis who were brought in buses and trucks. Middle-class people participated in the looting. (On one memorable occasion a family arrived in a Mitsubishi Lancer.)
There was a deliberate, systematic attempt to destroy the economic base of the Muslim community. The leaders of the mob had computer-generated cadastral lists marking out Muslim homes, shops, businesses, and even partnerships. They had mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had trucks loaded with thousands of gas cylinders, hoarded weeks in advance, which they used to blow up Muslim commercial establishments. They had not just police protection and police connivance but also covering fire.
While Gujarat burned, our Prime Minister was on MTV promoting his new poems.
(Reports say cassettes have sold a hundred thousand copies.) It took him more than a month—and two vacations in the hills—to make it to Gujarat.
When he did, shadowed by the chilling Modi, he gave a speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp.
His mouth moved, he tried to express concern, but no real sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned, bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing around in a golf cart, striking business deals in Singapore.
The killers still stalk Gujarat’s streets. For weeks the lynch mob was the arbiter of the routine affairs of daily life: who can live where, who can say what, who can meet whom, and where and when. Its mandate expanded from religious affairs to property disputes, family altercations, the planning and allocation of water resources . . . (which is why Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan was assaulted).
Muslim businesses have been shut down. Muslim people are not served in restaurants. Muslim children are not welcome in schools. Muslim students are too terrified to sit for their exams.
Muslim parents live in dread that their infants might forget what they’ve been told and give themselves away by saying “Ammi!” or “Abba!” in public and invite sudden and violent death.
Notice has been given:
this is just the beginning
Is this the Hindu Rashtra, the Nation that we’ve all been asked to look forward to? Once the Muslims have been “shown their place,” will milk and Coca-Cola flow across the land? Once the Ram Mandir is built, will there be a shirt on every back and a roti in every belly?
Will every tear be wiped from every eye? Can we expect an anniversary celebration next year? Or will there be someone else to hate by then? Alphabetically: Adivasis, Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Parsis, Sikhs? Those who wear jeans or speak English or those who have thick lips or curly hair? We won’t have to wait long. It’s started already. Will the established rituals continue? Will people be beheaded, dismembered, and urinated upon? Will fetuses be ripped from their mothers’ wombs and slaughtered? (What kind of depraved vision can even
India without the range and beauty and spectacular anarchy of all these cultures? India would become a tomb and smell like a crematorium.)
No matter who they were, or how they were killed, each person who died in Gujarat in the weeks gone by deserves to be mourned. There have been hundreds of outraged letters to journals and newspapers asking why the “pseudo-secularists” do not condemn the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra with the same degree of outrage with which they condemn the killings in the rest of Gujarat. What they don’t seem to understand is that there
a fundamental difference between a pogrom such as the one taking place in Gujarat now and the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. We still don’t know who exactly was responsible for the carnage in Godhra.
Whoever did it—whatever their political or religious persuasion—committed a terrible crime. But every independent report says the pogrom against the Muslim community in Gujarat—billed by the government as a spontaneous “reaction”—has at best been conducted under the benign gaze of the state and, at worst, with active state collusion.
Either way, the state is criminally culpable. And the state acts in the name of its citizens. So, as a citizen, I am forced to acknowledge that I am somehow made complicit in the Gujarat pogrom. It is this that outrages me. And it is this that puts a completely different complexion on the two massacres.
After the Gujarat massacres, at its convention in Bangalore, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the moral and cultural guild of the BJP, of which the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, and Chief Minister Modi himself are all members, called upon Muslims to earn the “goodwill” of the majority community.
At the meeting of the national executive of the BJP in Goa, Narendra Modi was greeted as a hero. His smirking offer to resign from the Chief Minister’s post was unanimously turned down.
In a recent public speech he compared the events of the last few weeks in Gujarat to Gandhi’s Dandi March—both, according to him, significant moments in the Struggle for Freedom.
While the parallels between contemporary India and pre-war Germany are chilling, they’re not surprising. (The founders of the RSS have, in their writings, been frank in their admiration for Hitler and his methods.)
One difference is that here in India we don’t have a Hitler. We have, instead, a traveling extravaganza, a mobile symphonic orchestra. The hydra-headed, many-armed Sangh Parivar—the “joint family” of Hindu political and cultural organizations—with the BJP, the RSS, the VHP, and the Bajrang Dal, each playing a different instrument. Its utter genius lies in its apparent ability to be all things to all people at all times.
The Parivar has an appropriate head for every occasion. An old versifier with rhetoric for every season. A rabble-rousing hardliner, Lal Krishna Advani, for Home Affairs; a suave one, Jaswant Singh, for Foreign Affairs; a smooth English-speaking lawyer, Arun Jaitley, to handle TV debates; a cold-blooded creature, Narendra Modi, for a Chief Minister; and the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, grassroots workers in charge of the physical labor that goes into the business of genocide. Finally, this many-headed extravaganza has a lizard’s tail which drops off when it’s in trouble and grows back again: a specious socialist dressed up as Defense Minister, whom it sends on its damage-limitation missions—wars, cyclones, genocides. They trust him to press the right buttons, hit the right note.
The Sangh Parivar speaks in as many tongues as a whole corsage of tridents. It can say several contradictory things simultaneously. While one of its heads (the VHP) exhorts millions of its cadres to prepare for the Final Solution, its titular head (the Prime Minister) assures the nation that all citizens, regardless of their religion, will be treated equally. It can ban books and films and burn paintings for “insulting Indian culture.” Simultaneously, it can mortgage the equivalent of 60 percent of the entire country’s rural development budget as profit to Enron.
It contains within itself the full spectrum of political opinion, so what would normally be a public fight between two adversarial political parties is now just a family matter. However acrimonious the quarrel, it’s
conducted in public, always resolved amicably, and the audience always goes away satisfied it’s got value for its money—anger, action, revenge, intrigue, remorse, poetry, and plenty of gore. It’s our own vernacular version of Full Spectrum Dominance.
But when the chips are down,
down, the squabbling heads quiet, and it becomes chillingly apparent that underneath all the clamor and the noise, a single heart beats. And an unforgiving mind with saffron-saturated tunnel vision works overtime.
There have been pogroms in India before, every kind of pogrom—directed at particular castes, tribes, religious faiths. In 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party presided over the massacre of three thousand Sikhs in Delhi, every bit as macabre as the one in Gujarat.
At the time Rajiv Gandhi, never known for an elegant turn of phrase, said, “When a large tree falls, the earth shakes.”
In 1985 the Congress swept the polls. On a
wave! Eighteen years have gone by, and almost no one has been punished.
Take any politically volatile issue—the nuclear tests, the Babri Masjid, the Tehelka scam, the stirring of the communal cauldron for electoral advantage—and you’ll see the Congress Party has been there before. In every case, the Congress sowed the seed and the BJP has swept in to reap the hideous harvest. So in the event that we’re called upon to vote
there a difference between the two? The answer is a faltering but distinct yes. Here’s why: It’s true that the Congress Party has sinned, and grievously, and for decades together. But it has done by night what the BJP does by day. It has done covertly, stealthily, hypocritically, shamefacedly what the BJP does with pride. And this is an important difference.
Whipping up communal hatred is part of the mandate of the Sangh Parivar. It has been planned for
. It has been injecting a slow-release poison directly into civil society’s bloodstream. Hundreds of RSS shakhas and Saraswati shishu mandirs across the country have been indoctrinating thousands of children and young people, stunting their minds with religious hatred and falsified history, including unfactual or wildly exaggerated accounts of the rape and pillaging of Hindu women and Hindu temples by Muslim rulers in the precolonial period. They’re no different from, and no less dangerous than, the madrassas all over Pakistan and Afghanistan which spawned the Taliban. In states like Gujarat, the police, the administration, and the political cadres at every level have been systematically penetrated.
The whole enterprise has huge popular appeal, which it would be foolish to underestimate or misunderstand. It has a formidable religious, ideological, political, and administrative underpinning. This kind of power, this kind of reach, can only be achieved with state backing.