Response – An Open Letter To Arundhati Roy
Dec 19, 2008
http://www.outlooki ndia.com/ full.asp? fodname=20081219&fname=abhinav&sid=1
To call the foreign funded insurgency in Kashmir and the terror attacks across the country as justified blowback for the failures of the Indian state and civil society is both false and callous. It implies a failure of the imagination and the intellect and the complete abdication of moral responsibility by you.
Dear Ms Roy,
For many years now you have enriched the public life of our nation. First, as a Booker winning novelist with a meteoric debut on the literary firmament, and then as an essayist, persistently pricking the conscience of a sometimes indifferent and ignorant nation, highlighting wide ranging issues of urgent concern. Over the years your provocative essays in the pages of Outlookmagazine amount to a substantial intellectual achievement in their own right. One has not always agreed with you, but from big dams to the nuclear bomb, from the vagaries of
capitalism to the dangers of American Imperialism, your writings on these important issues have left no one in any doubt about where you stand. Disagree with them as one might, your views occupied an intellectually coherent and morally compelling space in our public life.Until recently, when one read your two pieces on Kashmir and Mumbai with a growing sense of shock, anger, pity and dismay.
As a literary device, self loathing has its uses; the God of Small Things was a splendid lesson in the use of this sentiment. However I am not sure that nations and civilizations can organize their policies around this self indulgent mood. Your two pieces, ‘Azadi’ and `9 is Not 11′ see you as usual in top form as far as style and rhetoric are concerned, but as far as substance goes, I think you have fallen into the trap of being in love with the sound and significance of your own voice. It is still a powerful voice, a seductive voice too, but because it chooses to amplify only those other voices that are prepared to sing in chorus, it is a voice bereft of any sense of moral responsibility. I am sure once again your latest writings will bring you further international recognition as a writer of conscience and conviction, striving tirelessly to expose the monstrosities of the Indian state and civilization.
Dare I suggest that the Magsaysay and the Nobel Peace Prize, the Holy Grails of the seemingly rootless international intellectual might not be too far behind? But Madam, despite your great charm and greater intellect, this is a Faustian bargain. For in doing so you are doing irreparable harm to the very idea of the intellectual as a
defender of virtue and morality in public life who too, like the problems you write about, much as he or she would want to, cannot be removed from the context (your favourite word) that created her, nurtured her and accorded the civic and intellectual space for her to articulate and propagate her views.
As someone who for the past 12 years has worn the Khaki uniform, as a servant of your favourite object of hate, the Indian state, I confess to a persistent sense of ambivalence and despair about the manner in which I am expected to serve. At the same time I cannot deny an equally abiding sense of pride in the importance of what we are supposed to do and of the importance of institutions in general in giving meaning and protection to what would otherwise be a society ruthless and brutal, beyond even your considerable powers of comprehension and
Therefore, I am offended and disgusted by your incomplete, incoherent and therefore immoral portrayal of the recent upheavals of Indian history. I used to think that you articulate the pain of the silent, marginalized, oppressed masses of our country. I had no idea that you held a brief for all those who never felt anything at all not
just for India in particular, but who also actively profess violent rage at the shared values of the entire human race.
According to you, everything that the police and security forces do or say whether in Kashmir, or in the war on terror, or against Naxalism, is a falsehood, where as everything that is said by `Kashmiri Freedom Fighters’, or by the harmless theologians of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and their ideological cousins of the Al Qaeda, or by the peace loving disciples of Marx and Mao living a bucolic existence in the jungles of central India, constitutes sufficient grounds to indict the Indian state and civil society in perpetuity. The people of India have always had a tradition to look up to men and woman of the arts and culture to serve as their moral compass. One really wonders what lines of logic and ethics shape your sense of moral direction.
You seem to passionately believe in and defend the `right’ of the Kashmiris to ethnic, cultural, religious and geographical exclusivism. If this is correct than why should we vilify Raj Thackeray or any other chauvinist who seeks to preserve the purity (however defined) of his people (however defined) from outsiders (also however defined)? If the Kashmiris are justified in picking up the gun to safeguard their exclusive identity, then every part of India is justified in doing so. I do hope you have taken the trouble to examine the fundamental assumptions underlying all such movements based on an assertion of a cultural identity. The creation of a hated outsider, in the case of Kashmir, the Indian; in the case of Raj Thackeray, the bhaiya of UP and Bihar; and in the case of the jihadists, anyone and everyone who does not subscribe to their virulent strain of Islam, including Muslims, is
common to all these ideologies but you seem to pick and choose the bigotries you will demonize and the bigotries you will defend. Is it possible to freeze identity to a moment in time and on the basis of this demand recognition, retribution and rights for all time to come?
In your world view, the wrongs of Indian security forces of the last twenty years, and the failures of Indian state craft before it, are sufficient justifications for Kashmiri grievances, just as the wrongs of Babri Masjid, the Mumbai riots of 1993, the Gujarat riots of 2002, will justify Islamist terror against India, and the wrongs of corrupt governance and poor administration will justify Naxalite violence, in all perpetuity. Why should only these events be accepted as justification for settling scores by shedding the blood of innocents? By this logic, the Crucifixion of Christ amply justifies the Holocaust. We non white societies must all be allowed eternal rights to slaughter the
Europeans for the sins of colonialism and slavery. Islam itself had a long history of violent conquest and forcible conversions, perhaps that should justify an eternal crusade or dharmyudhh against Islam? The Greeks and Romans have their own scores to settle with the Christian Church. The Latin Americans have their own grievances with Spain and Portugal.
Seen this way, human history is merely a parody of the eternal theme of perpetrators and victims, and all present violence, no matter how barbaric or senseless, can be justified with reference to some past grievance, and we must allow these grievances full expression no matter what. Only then would we return to a state of original purity where all historical sins of the past and present have been fully avenged and the moral ledger as you see it stands perfectly balanced. The only thing is that after this bloody book-keeping, there may not be anyone left to
enjoy the fruits of such a `just’ society.
The Indian state, whose sworn servant I am, is by no means a perfect entity. It is certainly corrupt, it is sometimes brutal and it is often indifferent to the sufferings of the weak and the powerless. But it does have a vision and aim based on certain civilizational values that are uniquely Indian. Demography and history dictates that these values have a prominently Hindu flavour. It is undeniable that these values have come under attack at times from the Hindu right as well. But even the most rabid of the Hindutva forces do not see the world united under the saffron flag by force of arms, as is the Islamist project of one world under the Green Crescent, or the Naxal project of one world under the Red Star. It would take a pretty breathless and brainless leap of logic to equate violent, local outbursts of Hindu chauvinism, abetted by the sins of commission and omission of the state apparatus, in themselves however repugnant and indefensible, with the atrocities on a global scale that were inflicted by Communism in the 20th century or the outrages that are now threatened across all parts of the world by jihadi
Islam. To call the foreign funded insurgency in Kashmir and the terror attacks across the country as justified blowback for the failures of the Indian state and civil society is both false and callous. It implies a failure of the imagination and the intellect and the complete abdication of moral responsibility by you.
One could indeed forgive you, Ma’am, if you were purely an artist. Art has at the best of times a complicated relationship with truth and life.
But in your avatar as a public intellectual, you cannot abandon your commitment to the demands of truth, accuracy and the ability to discriminate between the varieties of human experience and action. The liberties you have exercised in the past and continue to do today, however gratuitously and offensively, do not exist in a vacuum. I am not sure if any of these liberties would have a place in a Naxalite Utopia or a Jihadi Caliphate or even in a self-determined Kashmiri paradise that you eloquently espoused. As visions of human perfectability they
are far more flawed than the vision of India that you love to denigrate. In any case, the liberties that you have recently taken with the sensibilities of proud Indians too exist in a cultural, political and constitutional context, a context that is ultimately safeguarded by men such as Hemant Karkare and Major Unnikrishnan with disregard for their own life. Remember that the next time you use your poisoned pen to vent your twisted logic on a polity that deserves better from its intellectuals.
Abhinav Kumar is a serving IPS officer.