Page 1 of 2 A new cold war in Kashmir
By Arundhati Roy
While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add
another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life
will it be? By "democracy" I don't mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration.
I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as
So, is there life after democracy?
Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different
systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defense of
democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than
everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say:
Saudi Arabia, Somalia ... is that what you would prefer?"
Whether democracy should be the utopia that all "developing" societies aspire
to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic
phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed
to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to
be democracies. It isn't meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited
models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It's meant to suggest that
the system of representative democracy - too much representation, too little
democracy - needs some structural adjustment.
The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? 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 when each of its institutions
has metastasized into something dangerous? 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
Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back
to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival
of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival
depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be
that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the
protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams,
will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy
is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest
folly - our nearsightedness?
Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do), combined
with our inability to see very far into the future, makes us strange in-between
creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have
outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that
accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing
that we have lost. It would be conceit to pretend I have the answers to any of
these questions. But it does look as if the beacon could be failing and
democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and
stability we once dreamed it would.
A clerk of resistance
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to
always be precise, to try and get it all factually right, somehow reduces the
epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth?
I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic,
factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the
transformative power and real precision of poetry.
Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound,
"apply-through-proper-channels" nature of governance and subjugation in India
seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes
odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the
callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world's favorite new
superpower. Repression "through proper channels" sometimes engenders resistance
"through proper channels." As resistance goes this isn't enough, I know. But
for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for
poetry and for the feral howl.
Today, words like "progress" and "development" have become interchangeable with
economic "reforms," "deregulation," and "privatization". Freedom has come to
mean choice. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands
of deodorant. Market no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The
"market" is a de-territorialized space where faceless corporations do business,
including buying and selling "futures". Justice has come to mean human rights
(and of those, as they say, "a few will do").
This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them
like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of
what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant
strategic victories of the czars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them
to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their
critique and dismiss them as being "anti-progress," "anti-development",
"anti-reform", and of course "anti-national" - negativists of the worst sort.
Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, "Don't you
believe in progress?" To people whose land is being submerged by dam
reservoirs, and whose homes are being bulldozed, they say, "Do you have an
alternative development model?" To those who believe that a government is duty
bound to provide people with basic education, health care, and social security,
they say, "You're against the market." And who except a cretin could be against
To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a
world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when free speech
has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the
keystone of our undoing.
Two decades of "progress" in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk
on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it - and a much, much
vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed
and displaced from their land by floods, droughts, and desertification caused
by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural
projects, dams, mines and special economic zones. All developed in the name of
the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new
The hoary institutions of Indian democracy - the judiciary, the police, the
"free" press, and, of course, elections - far from working as a system of
checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They provide each other cover
to promote the larger interests of union and progress. In the process, they
generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just
become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the
tolerant, lumbering, colorful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real.
But so is the consensus.
A new cold war in Kashmir
Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir.
When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hard core. It cuts across
every section of the establishment - including the media, the bureaucracy, the
intelligentsia, and even Bollywood.
The war in the Kashmir Valley is almost 20-years old now, and has claimed about
70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have
"disappeared", women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed. Half a million
Indian troops patrol the Kashmir Valley, making it the most militarized zone in
the world. (The United States had about 165,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at
the height of its occupation.) The Indian army now claims that it has, for the
most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that's true. But does military
domination mean victory?
How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military
occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have
had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987
was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since
then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military
occupation, a sinister playground for India's deep state. Intelligence agencies
have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and
destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who
decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the
Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the
people of Kashmir.
In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath
Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, non-violent uprising. Day after day,
hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen - who fired
straight into the crowds, killing scores of people - and thronged the streets.
From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of "Azadi!
Azadi!" (Freedom! Freedom!). Fruit sellers weighed fruit chanting
"Azadi! Azadi!" Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet
sellers - everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted "Azadi! Azadi!"
The protests went on for several days.