Warnings from India

‘Azadi’
Arundhati Roy (Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo)

Azadi, a word of Persion origin, resounds throughout Asia as a cry for liberation. Declared in Hindi, Urdu, Armenian, Azeri, Kashmiri, and other languages, the word means “freedom,” and it’s the title of a timely new collection of essays by Arundhati Roy, which warns of the disappearance of freedom in the Indian subcontinent. Written between 2018 and 2020, the nine essays in Azadi (some of which were first delivered as lectures) confront many of the issues Roy has written about for over twenty years: the rise of Hindu nationalism, the conflict in Kashmir, the threat of nuclear war. It also features meditations on the power of language and the importance of literature for a society in decay.

Azadi comes just fourteen months after the publication of My Seditious Heart, a thousand-page volume that gathered twenty years’ worth of Roy’s nonfiction. But a lot has happened in the short period since she wrote the most recent essay in My Seditious Heart: India reelected a chauvinist Hindu government, annexed the most militarized part of the world, and enacted a law that bars Muslims from seeking citizenship. Students and teachers peacefully protesting at Jawaharlal Nehru University were assaulted by “armed Hindu vigilante mobs,” who also brutally attacked Muslims in working-class neighborhoods around the time of Donald Trump’s visit to India. And of course, there’s the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s neglect of millions of vulnerable migrant workers, its paltry financial support for the unemployed, and its weak health infrastructure have been nothing short of catastrophic. As of mid-October, there were over 7.4 million recorded cases of COVID-19 in India, but, because of insufficient testing, the real number was likely much higher.

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Yet to those who have been watching closely—and few have watched as closely as Roy—none of this is particularly surprising. Rather, it’s the natural trajectory for a country that has been deeply troubled since its inception. It’s here that Roy begins Azadi, outlining some of the difficulties of defining what India really is. She approaches an answer in the collection’s strongest essay, “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?”—words borrowed from Pablo Neruda. India, after all, has more than seven hundred languages, but only twenty-two are formally recognized by its constitution. This sheer heterogeneity makes a true democracy nearly impossible. “Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe,” Roy writes. English has imperfectly sutured India’s many linguistic gaps. For Roy, who is of Syrian Christian heritage, writing and speaking in English are not homages to the British Empire so much as the “practical solution to the circumstances created by it.”

India has more than seven hundred languages, but only twenty-two are formally recognized by its constitution. This sheer heterogeneity makes a true democracy nearly impossible.

The problems created by the British Empire only begin with language. The very unification of the Indian subcontinent, Roy writes, was a colonial endeavor. India has “more nationalities and sub-nationalities, more indigenous tribes and religions than all of Europe,” which makes the Hindu nationalist dream of “One Nation, One Language, One Religion, One Constitution” all the more dumbfounding. And while the current constitution calls India a “secular, socialist republic,” Roy argues that it has never really been either. Any attempts at Nehruvian socialism were abandoned following India’s globalization in the 1990s, and underneath a thin veneer of secularism India was always a country dominated by upper-caste Hindus. But the veneer has now been stripped off. In his May 2019 victory speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bragged that no politicians from any party had used the word “secularism” in their campaigns.

In fact, Roy suggests, India is still being colonized, this time by the military and financial powers concentrated in Delhi. The combined wealth of the sixty-three richest people in India is more than the annual budget for a nation of 1.3 billion. Elections in India are increasingly about money and the accumulation of power and capital—so “the chances of a free and fair election in the near future seem remote.” Like a frog in slowly boiling water, democracy is dying incrementally. We need look no further than the annexation of Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act, or the government’s decision to amend the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act so that its definition of a “terrorist” includes not only organizations but also lone individuals. In some Indian school textbooks, Hitler is now presented as a great leader, alongside Gandhi and Modi. Roy fears that the international community will not recognize all this as fascism until it is too late. Fascism, she notes, is characterized not just by its leaders but also by its opponents: “The exhausted, quarreling opposition, the vain, nit-picking Left, the equivocating liberals who spent years building the road that has led to the situation we find ourselves in, and are now behaving like shocked, righteous rabbits who never imagined that rabbits were an important ingredient of the rabbit stew that was always on the menu.” Sound familiar?

Because Roy has been writing about these issues for twenty-two years, the essays in Azadi can sometimes feel repetitive. But the continuity of their conviction also feels rare these days. When Roy writes that it is “exasperating to have to constantly repeat the story of Modi’s ascent to power,” it’s hard to blame her, given that she promptly denounced his deadly Hindu chauvinism right after the 2001 pogroms he oversaw as chief minister of Gujarat, in which more than two thousand Muslims were brutally raped and murdered. Yet despite bearing witness to decades of injustice, Roy’s writing is often imbued with optimism. In a 2019 speech delivered the day Delhi was set to vote, Roy still hoped that the Congress Party would actually win the election, and that “the fate of Turkey and Brazil does not await us too.” It was not to be.

 

Roy is not without her own blind spots. Her ability to write from personal experience about a country as diverse as India is understandably limited, but she sometimes oversimplifies complex issues to render them comprehensible to a general audience. Sometimes this lack of complexity amounts to misrepresentation. For instance, when Roy writes about the ongoing strife in Assam, whose roots lie in the migration of Muslim peasants to the region at the encouragement of the British, she oversimplifies the conflict as one between Assamese and Bengali people. In fact, many of the migrants did not neatly fit into either of these categories. East Bengal’s borders weren’t ratified until 1971, and the migration in question took place along the border with Sylhet, an area inhabited by its own ethnic group. Given the importance of language for Roy, it is surprising that she mischaracterizes Sylhetis as “Bengali-speakers.” As for the migrants, most of them were poor Muslim agricultural workers with little political agency. They moved because they had to or were told to. This is important to remember at a time when India has set up concentration camps for Muslim “encroachers” under the false pretense of preserving the land claims of indigenous people.

Roy’s focus might be India, but she is internationalist at her core and scathing in her criticism of American imperialism and injustices in Chile, Catalonia, Lebanon, Iran, and Hong Kong. She knows that the problems she names cannot be solved within national borders—she blames capitalism and its “gratuitous wars and sanctioned greed” that “have jeopardized the planet and filled it with refugees.” In her view, it’s the United States that shoulders most of the blame. Roy cites the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, its fraught relationship with the Taliban, and its destruction of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. She thinks most Americans have little idea how much damage their country has done to other parts of the world.

Historically, pandemics have been occasions to reimagine the world—and given all that’s wrong with the world now, “nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Any internationalist narrative, however, must account for the local context of particular injustices, and in India caste remains “the engine and the organizing principle that runs almost every aspect of modern Indian society.” In “The Graveyard Talks Back,” Roy denounces the “elaborate, institutionalized cruelty” of Brahmanism, championed by even the most publicly beloved figures like Gandhi, who embraced caste as an anti-colonial form of resistance. This has had devastating implications for millions of Dalits. Roy is careful to differentiate between caste and class, which the organized Left in India has often failed to do. This difference, Roy argues, has allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party to secure the votes of Dalits and other disadvantaged castes while simultaneously privatizing education and the public sector. “What we are living through now, in addition to the overt attack on religious minorities, is an aggravated class and caste war,” Roy writes.

All these problems have compounded in the time of COVID-19. In “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” the final essay in Azadi, Roy writes about the millions of migrant workers who were driven out by employers and landlords, forced to return from cities to their villages on foot. The people she spoke to were worried about the virus, but it presented less of a threat to them than “looming unemployment, starvation, and the violence of the police.” Roy argues that, historically, pandemics have been occasions to reimagine the world—and given all that’s wrong with the world now, “nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” But it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will mark some kind of political turning point in India’s history and, if it does, what the new direction will be. Given the current contraction of the Indian economy and a looming conflict with China over disputed territory that has only strengthened Modi’s nationalism, things do not look particularly promising.

What is the role of literature in a world like this? How can language be beautiful when it confronts unspeakably ugly issues? The pursuit of beauty and art in societies rife with injustice can feel indulgent or escapist. But Roy, we might remember, first rose to international acclaim with her fiction. The God of Small Things was released twenty-three years ago but now seems to come from a different eon, as Roy acknowledges. Throughout Azadi, Roy flits between different worlds, real and imagined, material from her novels interspersed with her polemics. It is “in the process of its telling of the past,” Roy writes, that “literature can also mold the future.” And in the meantime, literature has a healing function: a tenderness, a respite whose importance must not go underestimated. Roy writes of Anjum, a character in her second novel, as if she were a mother or an old friend. “I go to her when I need shelter from the tyranny of hard borders in this increasingly hardening world.” 

Azadi
Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.

Arundhati Roy
Haymarket Books
$22.95 | 240 pp.

Published in the November 2020 issue: 

Nicole-Ann Lobo writes from London. She was the 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal

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