Arundhati Roy is an easy mascot and stereotype to measure women/postcolonials/Literary Studies folks from India, and as per usual I was asked to comment on this article on another forum. What follows shows why I did not give the expected answer.
There are many ways to arrange the dialectics of religion and land and state power; Roy uses only one. I am going to declare my scepticism about both sides of her particular alignment right away before I say the following:
1. We didn’t need Arundhati Roy to explain neo-colonialism or settler colonialism. For latter-day Rip van Winkles, corporations have long begun to run the world, India as it exists now is weak fry in this global techno-empire we all live in. No nation-state can oppose or close its borders to transnational money and remain insularly sovereign any more. To talk about India and Modi or any local point of politics, therefore, we need to also talk international geopolitics, risk and relief in this century, not extrapolate from the last century’s abortive trends.
2. The plight of the hundreds of millions on the bottom half of the ladder is not the fault of any one ‘evil thing’; many (as much as we) are complicit. That plight is also not unique to India. Many, many poor, working-class, indigenous and migrant populations are at risk, in almost every country. To agree to divide the good/evil of the world only along class and religious lines is a dangerous game. It led to the Partition; before we say ‘let it lead to the willful fracture’ of more nations I think we should be careful of what is waiting to take the place of the absence of existing power-structures. If we think, “Good fences make good neighbors” what kinds of fences and what kinds of neighbors can fit into that equation?
3. I don’t see anyone who claims to know what’s going on trying to actually allow the middle millions of India to decide for themselves. Most such speakers are trying to convince those millions to take one side or another in some great war against oppressors–state power, elite money, religion, etc. And on the basis of these efforts to ‘teach’ the population to direct their grievances this way or that, subnational groups are beginning to form affective solidarities based on negative identity and victimhood. These don’t make for good politics, national or international.
4. For all her idealism, I do not see a vision of future justice in Roy’s oppositional politics. The number of supporters of Roy and ‘the subaltern’ and ‘the minority’ I have seen do not inspire me with confidence when they share their ideas of future ‘justice,’ because usually identity politics based on grievances require as collateral damage much vengeance as well as the future subjugation of an oppressor population. The cycle of oppositional violence merely continues because the parties do not come to a table for negotiations, only for confrontations and zero-sum moves. Motivations where entire population groups salivate about drawing blood (however metaphorically) and reclaiming a lost ‘right’ by force are not what I want to see in politics in my lifetime.
5. Roy is the darling of militants from Kashmir, those who urge a ‘fight to the death’; a self-confessed ex-militant I met told me to write and remember like Roy. It was an eye-opening moment (a) to be treated like erring Hindu elite when caste and class and deed bar me from said club, (b) to be thought a usurper in a historically native subcontinent, (c) to be expected to support all victims everywhere, automatically, by virtue of my ethnic and gender identity, and through that support to righteously abdicate my previous religious/national/ethnic identity. And that moment told me that one cannot hold dialogue with, interact with or continue to live with final truths, ultimatums and guns.
6. To rephrase a familiar political and discursive motif from decades-old ‘postcolonial theory,’ who speaks for the subaltern? I. e., I wish to draw attention to the exact population groups Roy (and anyone who ventriloquizes Roy) is speaking for, and the relation (economic, political, structural, social and affective) of those groups to the rest of the population of the current Indian nation. The relation of the misery of those people to capital is not the only relation of concern; those people as individuals and as communities made some choices (free or not) and will have to continue to negotiate with whatever/whoever occupies the seat of power (Coca Cola, Bharat Sarkar, Monsanto, fill in the rest) if they want a viable future.
I don’t want to hear Roy speaking for them, I want to hear from them; it will have to be from their own ‘native informants’ first and then their own chosen representatives if possible. I cannot countenance filling in their silence and absence with Roy’s presence.
How do those people themselves understand their current situation? Who is explaining their current situation to them and to what gain? Who is going to explain to the rural dweller the hot urban ‘planet of slums’ we shall all inhabit in this century, one in which arable land, free water, affordable food and freedom of choice will become rarer by the decade? The numbers of the victimized will grow and their experiential positions will shift in the near future. Our sociological analysis of their growing crisis is one thing, ideological division of their worries and fears is another and inexcusable.
I repeat, all political solidarities now are transregional and even transnational. To then put religion and guns and gender and caste into anti-capitalist arguments but to keep out other cultural/economic/international security factors is too deliberately facile and too dangerous.
The ‘Subaltern.’ Discursive and conceptual term in postcolonial theory. Quick read here.
Mike Davis. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2006.