Wars of Justice

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.

The caves at Ellora and Ajanta


Then I had confronted the stony-faced gods. These are my memories.

Feet, lamps, and monuments of stone rubbed little by little by relentless adoration. This is any temple.

A partial vision of vertiginous weight of rock and time. What went into the building of these? Who decided what statues, what figures, were there intrigues over preference and representation, what philosophies were poured into the ears of rulers, what persuasive arguments—

The ribs of god and man, rungs of our aspirations, vessels to contain our fragile thought-arguments. Flesh passes, this remains as memory.

Calculated architecture. This place was meant to impress upon the willing mind a realization, a philosophy, a structure of the cosmos. In flickering firelight, these figures must have moved to life, the chanting and the breathing of pilgrims resuscitating the relations of things time and time again, until the eye and the ear would take in as one this central structure of figuration, and the world outside the cave would take on meaning as formlessness to form and would become less frightening, a little blessed.

Cave 11, then, gathers unto itself our gaze, the world, all perspective, and draws us in. The truth sits there, yet is not embodied, so the Ego is an illusion and stone is a metaphor.

A sudden spyhole in the wall along a very steep staircase. Why was it made? Who approached thus seen?

Stone suddenly leaping to miniature virility—the belly of a horse, the thighs of a woman, powerful, steady.

The anonymity of a part of one cave. This could be any temple, any fort. This is indifference, is it not, when every place of worship begins to look the same, (and, some would say, thus argues for the compelling and universal value of all)?

An odd little creature, intent in its expression, assenting, inviting, accepting, yet capable of amusement.

Remote and inaccessible. The lighting merely draws life out of them, so that their soul retreats, they become merely the work of man, crafted things of symmetry and thought. Fire is essential to man’s psyche.

Too, the impenetrable mystery of stone. Something so large in so small a cave, placed where too many cannot crowd in, not like the temples we know. This was done deliberately. (see #22) Why? To force the seeker to enter alone, silent, to seek and receive with responsibility? Because this wisdom was not to be received, because Buddhism was rebelling against the heel of the priests of Hinduism in that time? But when you enter, the lit stone is flat. You must know in advance, prepare for this meeting, or else what you receive is nothing in its disappointing particularity.

Suddenly, atop pillars hidden in the gloom, thrones of emotions, boats of dreams. Who told the workers what to carve? The frozen emotions above me, unabashed.

If you wait, the pictures begin to complete themselves. They go a little way, and then we are at a loss to imagine their endings. This is art, it has a palpable effect beyond its teaching, yet one must know, to see both art and the sublime.

Humanity, and the mirror of the gods.

The ribs suddenly populated by the human story, just like a Maori meeting house. House of the people, mind of a collective One.

A place where people were meant to complete the paintings. This was meant to hold several, this was meant for speech, not contemplation. It was a place of the commerce of ideas, it held movement, now silent.

You see it thus, the earth’s rocks suddenly giving way to the refuge-worship of man, geometry and order and a peace emerging out of an indifference.

A more majestic phase now (remember #11). Thou shalt gather unto me like little children. This was a place of exaltation, of formal philosophy and a union of minds. The seated and painted figures high up near the window would bear witness as much as keep alive. No sibyls, they are atoms of proof.

Regal concretizations of a final formalized philosophy. Were these caves built later, for visitors and doubters and to establish the high place of a completed formulation of salvation?

The prone figure is supposed to be momentous. It cannot be viewed head-on. One must walk along a curved pathway around the inner perimeter of the cave, between close-set pillars on one’s left and richly mythologized figures on the other. This one is approached exactly as pictured. It is meant to be a finality. I do not think it asked me for worship. Its smile is absorbed in itself, elemental, like the mountains or the sea.

The average of action

But we have already chosen, haven’t we? In turning away we choose what to do about injustice just as much as we would choose if we intervened in any fashion at all.

We choose by drawing the definition of sane lines between the public and the private, forgetting each abuts, is commingled with, the other. We choose not to by saying, this is the public sphere, and I do not have time or ability to do this, sustain this collateral damage, and so we furl the horizon close about our private sphere, our solitary life and carry on. A million bubbles in the mainstream.

And if we make this separation, we are unlike many other peoples of the world, who believe that the personal and the public are dependent on a unified belief system.

What conception of practical politics divides a man into parts and calls it sanity?

The more we turn away, the more we are unable to see when we can help, when someone may need us. Are we never afraid that someday it might be us? That’s why we raise our fists about citizen’s rights, and invasions of the private sphere, but that is a fragile peace. What kingdom is safe if surrounded by hostile enemies?

‘Cholche-cholbe’ is always an average of what is and is not done. If the cholche-cholbe is to be maintained, then there must be some action that opposes the steady attrition and disintegration we keep complaining about. Now, we cannot make people virtuous, nor extract virtue, but we can ask them to maintain some average of action in their own lives, in their own calculations. Of course, they might decide their average is abdication.