Thursday, February 19, 2009

A critiqe of Arundhati Roy from almost 10 years ago

The Arun Shourie of the left
The Hindu
November 26, 2000

Celebrity endorsement of social movements is fraught with hazards. In the beginning, apart from inviting media attention, it may also draw to the cause previously silent bystanders ... Much depends on the kind of celebrity, says noted historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA.

THE Narmada Bachao Andolan is only the last in a series of social movements against large dams. True, the spectacular schemes of the 1950s and 1960s - Bhakra, Hirakud, Tungabhadra and the like - came up with scarcely a sigh of protest. Villages in the way of the reservoir were made to depart in the name of "national interest". It took fully two decades for this national interest to be revealed as the specific interests of the urban-industrial elite. Thus the 1970s witnessed a series of popular struggles on behalf of the to-be dispossessed. There were movements against the Koel-Karo project in Bihar, the Subarnarekha project in Orissa and the Vishnuprayag and Tehri projects in Garhwal. These varied movements and the questions they raised inspired the editors of the Second Citizens' Report on the Indian Environment, published in 1985, to dedicate their labours to the "dam- displaced people of India".

These movements were accompanied by intellectual critiques of the big dam idea. In 1981, the Gandhi Peace Foundation published a seminal document called Major Dams: A Second Look, based on a seminar held in Sirsi, in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Then, in 1984, two college students, Ashish Kothari and Rajiv Bhartari, published a wide ranging critique of the Narmada Valley projects in the Economic and Political Weekly. After reading this essay, Medha Patkar was encouraged to move from social work in Mumbai to mobilising adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. The following year, the Annual Number of the Economic and Political Weekly printed an essay by Nirmal Sengupta entitled "Irrigation: Traditional versus Modern", an empirically rich and thoughtful analysis that made a strong case for the continuing relevance of indigenous methods of water harvesting. Sengupta's work in English was complemented by the superb field studies of water conservation published in Hindi by Anupam Mishra. Meanwhile, Pune economist Vijay Paranjype was conducting case studies of individual dams, which showed that the actual costs incurred in their construction generally exceeded their putative benefits.

These precocious works raised the basic issues so spiritedly taken up by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA): social justice, environmental sustainability, economic efficiency and cultural survival. The movement brought to these old, and always relevant, issues, the vigour of a mass popular movement and the appeal of a charismatic leader. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Andolan organised a series of strikes, fasts, processions, padayatras and rasta rokos, these held in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and that continuing centre of imperial power, New Delhi. Inspired by an exemplary leader and a devoted cadre of workers, it drew into its fold adivasis and peasants as well as students and professionals from the cities.

This widening of the support base was necessary because of the growing pro-dam movement that confronted it. The Andolan's principal target, the Sardar Sarovar project, is a curious scheme whose benefits will flow almost wholly to one State, Gujarat, whereas its costs will be borne by upstream villages in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Gujaratis, regardless of ideology or political affiliation, stand as one behind the dam. The unanimity is complete, and sinister. When the respected Ahmedabad dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai, asked about the rights of the displaced, she was told to shut up or leave the State.

Then, in the summer of 1999, the NBA secured the support of the novelist, Arundhati Roy. Ms. Roy's involvement came at a time when the movement was at a particularly low ebb. Its offices in Gujarat had been attacked. Years of selfless activism were being answered with a barrage of criticism from the pro-liberalisation press. Medha Patkar, in particular, had become a hate figure for free-market columnists. The Andolan and its leader were accused for holding up the dams that would power the factories that would make India Singapore writ large.

Arundhati Roy's essay on the Sardar Sarovar dam was published by Outlook and Frontline magazines in May 1999. At the time, I had decidedly mixed feelings about it. As a work of analysis, it was unoriginal: Kothari and company had been there before her. As a piece of literary craftsmanship it was self-indulgent and hyperbolic. Still, to criticise the essay would be to let down the side. Might not her name and her fame attract to the "cause" the undecided upper class, men and women who would read Ms. Roy in Outlook but who had never heard of Nirmal Sengupta or the Economic and Political Weekly?

To suppress my reservations was not easy, for I had been intensely irritated by Ms. Roy's previous venture into public interest journalism: her polemic against the nuclear tests in 1998. There too, I was on her side, "objectively" speaking. Yet her vanity was unreal. Ms. Roy quoted, without irony, the judgment of her friend that after having written one successful novel she had seen it all, that a barren stretch of life lay before her until the final meeting with her Maker. She spoke of how she had disregarded the advice of those who insisted that the tax man would come chasing her were she to write against the bomb. A month before Ms. Roy sat down to write her piece, 4,00,000 adults had marched through the streets of Calcutta in protest against the Pokharan blasts. Were their homes all raided by the Income Tax Department?

The anti-dam essay had its signs of self-absorption too. Its opening scene, of Ms. Roy laughing on the top of a hill, seemed a straight lift from the first lines of that monument to egotism, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The essay was marked throughout by a conspicuous lack of proportion. To compare dams to nuclear weapons was absurd. To demonise technology was irresponsible. The scientists, K. J. Roy and Suhas Parajpye, had worked out an innovative compromise, a reduction in the projected height of the Sardar Sarovar dam which would reduce submergence while allowing the construction of "overflow" canals to the water-scarce areas of Kutch and Saurashtra. This scheme would minimise human suffering while creatively redeeming the thousands of crores already spent on the project. Ms. Roy wanted, however, for the dam to be made a museum for failed technologies. Altogether, this was an essay written with passion but without care. In her stream-of-consciousness style, the arguments were served up in a jumble of images and exclamations with the odd number thrown in. The most serious objections to the dam, on grounds of social justice, ecological prudence and economic efficiency, were lost in the presentation. What struck one most forcibly was her atavistic hatred of science and a romantic celebration of adivasi lifestyles.

It is tempting to see Arundhati Roy as the Arun Shourie of the left. The super-patriot and the anti-patriot use much the same methods. Both think exclusively in black and white. Both choose to use a 100 words when 10 will do. Both arrogate to themselves the right to hand out moral certificates. Those who criticise Shourie are characterised as anti-national, those who dare take on Roy are made out to be agents of the State. In either case, an excess of emotion and indignation drowns out the facts.

One must grant that Arundhati Roy is a courageous woman. Other novelists like to shut themselves away from the world, but she has sought engagement with it. She followed her printed blasts with long, tiring journeys in inhospitable terrain, to show her solidarity with the anti-nuclear and anti-dam protesters. Most writers have been individualists and careerists. An all-too-small minority has shown an awareness of public issues. Where do we place Ms. Roy in this line of honourable dissenters?

Perhaps the greatest of activist-novelists was George Orwell. Out of Eton and the Indian Police Service, he chose to work as a dishwasher in Paris and to live with miners in the north of England. Later, he fought with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. His engagements with poverty and fascism inspired his novels Animal Farm and 1984 and a series of imperishable essays on political subjects. In the great battles of the modern world, he took the brave, but intellectually unfashionable, stand of being for democracy but for socialism as well.

Orwell I know only through his books, but I had the honour of knowing, in flesh-and-blood, the finest novelist-activist of modern India, Kota Shivram Karanth. In a long life, Karanth helped revive Yakshagana, promote widow remarriage, transform the Kannada novel and pioneer the environmental movement in Karnataka. He translated and published the first Citizens' Reports on the Indian Environment. He led movements against the pollution of the Tungabhadra and against the Kaiga nuclear plant. These were all in the 1980s, when he was himself in his nineties. A decade previously he had inspired the successful campaign against the Bedthi power project in the district of Uttara Kannada.

Arundhati Roy might very well equal Orwell and Karanth in her bravery. But she lacks their intellectual probity and judgment. Those men wrote with a proper sense of gravitas, in a prose that was lucid but understated, each word weighed before it was uttered. Perhaps they were lucky to work in a pre-television and pre-colour supplement era, when the principle would take precedence over the personality.

Perhaps we should blame the time we live in for Arundhati Roy's carelessness. That she is careless is beyond dispute. She made disparaging remarks about the judges of the Supreme Court while that Court was hearing a case filed by the organisation she sought to support. Late in 1999, the National Law School in Bangalore convened a meeting on the Narmada issue. One of the NBA's leaders was present, as was its lawyer. At this meeting, the eminent legal scholar Upendra Baxi, a man who has written books on the functioning of the Supreme Court, gently suggested that it would be wise for the Andolan to disassociate itself from Arundhati Roy.

Now, in the light of the recent judgment sanctioning the elevation of the dam, five metres at a time, Ms. Roy has erupted again. The judges and judgment, she says, show that we are living in a "banana republic". She has suggested that the judges are ignorant and insensitive. Speaking to a foreign journalist, she has compared the judgment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) bombing of Yugoslavia. These opinions were offered as the Andolan prepares to file a review petition in the Supreme Court.

Celebrity endorsement of social movements is always fraught with hazard. In the beginning, it may attract media attention, and draw to the cause previously silent bystanders. However, the media will soon abandon the cause for the star, and the converts will soon return to their humdrum lives. Much depends on the kind of celebrity. A film star will wave and flash a smile: do little good but no harm either. But celebrity writers will write and speak. And the natural bent of this particular celebrity is towards hyperbole and hysteria. "When NATO bombed Yugoslavia," says Ms. Roy, "a tiger in the Belgrade zoo got so terrified that it started eating its own limbs. The people of the Narmada valley will soon start eating their own limbs." (quoted in the Asian Age, October 30).

I am told that Arundhati Roy has written a very good novel. Perhaps she should begin another. Her retreat from activism would - to use a term from economics - be a "Paretto optimum": good for literature, and good for the Indian environmental movement.

Postscript: As this article was going to press, the latest Outlook arrived, with Ms. Roy's latest venture into social science. It is like the others: self-regarding and self- indulgent. The essay is also self-contradictory, a jeremiad against the market and globalisation by one who is placed in the heart of the global market for celebrity-hood.

Among the targets singled out for attack this time is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This is a curious choice, for so far as one can make sense of her arguement, Ms. Roy seems to share the RSS's understanding of politics.

After reading Ms. Roy's most recent essay, I see no reason to revise my judgment: that we would all be better off were she to revert to fiction.

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