Saturday, 9 April 2016

Arundhati Roy and Her Typical Brand of Pseudo-Intellectualism

Before I start my slamming of Arundhati Roy’s worldview, let me start off by saying that I do not endorse Hindu extremism. Let me first make it a point to rebut the Hindu extremists’ worldview, lest this article of mine slamming Roy be misused by them.

We should only be glad that we opted for being a modern, inclusive state, rather than defining our nationalism based on religious identity, as Pakistan and Uganda did, and we all know the havoc that religious extremism has wreaked for even the majority Muslim and Christian communities respectively in those two countries by the TTP and Lord’s Resistance Army respectively.

As much as some tend to level baseless allegations against and float nonsensical conspiracy theories about Gandhi and Nehru (to clarify any misconceptions you have about them, see this article and this one), these two personalities, while certainly not being above criticism, undoubtedly have great legacies, and one should not fall prey to the Hindu right trying to appropriate the legacies of Sardar Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose either. (I am not a supporter of the Congress party of today if anyone inferred that, and I am a supporter, though not uncritical admirer, of the AAP, though I respect everyone’s political preferences in a democracy.) It is wonderful to identify with the heritage of one’s civilization, which has also evolved, but to imagine scientific or artistic creativity or valid notions of morality to be the sole preserve of one’s own version of Indian culture, imagining other influences as necessarily being pollutants, is nothing but intolerance (which the Rigved opposes, saying one should accept noble thoughts from all directions), and one must guard against chauvinistic notions of tolerance that can and indeed do also produce very lethal intolerance.

I personally know several Muslims who are unprejudiced and are strongly patriotic Indians, and I see no reason to see Indian Muslims loyal to their country as being exceptions to the general norm. In fact, a Hindu acquaintance of mine, who studied at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told me that while those cheering for Pakistan were quite a vocal lot there, most Muslims cheered for India, and this was in a Muslim-majority setting where the apparently pro-India majority did not have to conceal its true feelings, and another friend of mine, who is an Assamese Hindu from Guwahati and who is very resentful of the Bangladeshi Muslim influx in his state, told me that on a train journey, he overheard a conversation between two Muslims from AMU bashing the students who cheer for Pakistan. Also, another friend of mine whose father is an Indian Army officer once told me that he loves the entire Muslim community (though I don’t support any stereotyping, positive or negative!), for once, his father was fired at by militants in Kashmir and his father’s driver, a Muslim, rushed to bear the bullet to save his father’s life! He also narrated another anecdote of how a Muslim once donated blood to save his father’s life and asserted that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact that “Muslim blood” (whatever that is supposed to mean!) runs through his veins!

Terrorism, and even terrorism citing a theological basis, is not a Muslim monopoly. As you can see here, very many instances of terrorism globally, even in the name of religion, have been carried out by those identifying themselves as Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and even Buddhists, the victims of the acts of terrorists from each of these religious groupings not always being Muslims. However, just like most people of these religious groupings are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they do not believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with most Muslims (and not supporting terrorism applies to even most of those Muslims with other regressive and not-so-liberal attitudes on issues like gender and homosexuality).

It is possible to quote any scripture (allegedly out of context according to its liberal adherents) to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible namely Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocate violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved, an ancient Hindu scripture, is taken by some to justify caste discrimination, but these verses do not define the entire religion. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this regard, as does this video make an interesting watch in this connection. There are Quranic verses like 2:2565:25:85:326:1086:15110:9949:1360:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore, indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically, winning over her by way of humanitarian affection. Those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book, and preaches nothing but peace.

There is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, levelling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites. Indeed, as you can see here and here, there are several other apostates of Islam who have stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are correct and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), they have equally explicitly emphasized that that does not in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people.

And in fact, even speaking of the West, a report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (amounting to about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims. Even in the United States, most terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 were not carried out by Muslims. And no, I am not in the least seeking to undermine the heinousness of the crimes committed by some in the name of Islam by pointing to others having committed similar crimes under other ideological banners, for a more highlighted wrongdoing is no less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted wrongdoing, but only to point out that viewing only Muslims as villains, and that too, all or even most of them, would indeed be grossly incorrect. However, despite jihadist terrorists being a microscopic minority of Muslims, Islamist terrorism has become a bigger global threat for its well-coordinated international network since the 1990s, with the US-backed Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan having signaled its rise. And, let us not forget that when we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the victims included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died fighting the terrorists (and by the way, there are more French Muslims in the local police, including those who have died fighting jihadist terrorists, than in the Al Qaeda unit in their country), Mustapha Ourad, a Muslim who was one of the magazine staff members killed in that attack and there was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shopkeeper who gave sanctuary to many innocent civilians during the hostage crisis in Paris that followed. Even in the context of the more recent attacks in Paris, a Muslim security guard Zouheir, risking his own life, prevented one suicide bomber from entering a packed football stadium. More recently, Kenyan Muslims very laudably protected fellow bus commuters, who were Christians, from jihadist terrorists, and Kurdish, Emirati, Iraqi and Syrian Muslims have also been fighting the ISIS. In India too, most of the terrorism is not by Muslims, as you can see here and here.

I am not even suggesting that it is so much as possible to classify any religious grouping into watertight compartments of ‘communal’ or ‘secular’, and communalism among those we identify as communal does vary in degree. I would even assert that not every instance of Muslim communalism in India necessarily, in the conventional sense, amounts to affinity with Pakistan or hostility to India, and while communalism, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other, strikes at what Tagore called the “idea of India”, any communal statement from a Muslim, like Azam Khan’s ridiculous statement attributing India’s victory in the Kargil war only to Muslim soldiers (but he did indeed explicitly glorify these Muslim soldiers serving India’s national cause in the same speech), should not be seen as “anti-national” in the conventional sense of the term if Hindu communal statements are not seen in the same vein, and even Asaduddin Owaisi has ridiculed Pakistan for the partition dividing the Muslims of the subcontinent as also for being backward as compared to India but bearing animosity towards India, making life difficult for Indian Muslims. Also, I do not believe that communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species  that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.

Sacrificing animals as a religious ritual is indeed not exclusive to Muslims, and ‘bali’ has existed among Hindus too, something Gautam Buddha (who lived centuries before Jesus and Muhammad) had opposed (and even Emperor Ashok the Great consumed meat of peacocks, which he stopped after embracing Buddhism, though interestingly, Buddhists in China, Japan, Bhutan etc. do consume meat, as do most Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsis, and what is halal for Muslims in terms of dietary regulations and the mode of slaughtering some animals is almost identical to what is kosher for Jews and several sects of Christians, and that is true for the practice of circumcision for males as well, which even has health benefits), and still continues in many Hindu temples across India, especially in West Bengal during the Navratri season. Also, it may interest some to know that the story of Prophet Abraham associated with Id-ul-Zuha is found in the Old Testament of the Bible too, which the Jews and Christians also believe in (those regarded as prophets by the Jews are regarded as prophets by the Christians too, with the addition of Jesus, and those regarded as prophets by the Christians are regarded as prophets by the Muslims as well, with the addition of Muhammad). And obviously, not all of Arab cuisine is non-vegetarian either, with Arab vegetarian dishes like strained yogurt using labneh cheese and sweet dishes like zlabia, popular in South Asia as jalebi!

And yes, all those resorting to whataboutism misusing the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits or other such episodes should read this article and this one, and as far as the rhetoric of love jihad goes, please see this article. And yes, I, for one, do not, in the least, shy away from calling the MIM a communal party which should be rejected, as you can see here. For all residual resentment against Muslims, I’d request you to peruse (not skim through and judge based on one’s preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download.

And also, while some Hindus may not have had the opportunity to make many Indian Christian friends, I have, and can assertively state that all claims of them being ultra-westernized and unpatriotic are completely fabricated generalizations, and a certain Malayali Christian friend of mine knows the Hindu epics better than many of my Hindu friends, and it would be interesting for some to know that Malayali Muslims and Malayali Christians observe the harvest festival of Onam, in spite of its Hindu religious connotation, as being their own, some Malayali Muslims preparing the Onam feast even when Onam falls in Ramzan.

Now, coming to Roy. Her silence on many issues is loud, but selective activism/outrage, while being very unhealthy, isn't a very sustainable argument beyond a point for the simple reason that anyone can claim a different set of priorities inasmuch as what they want to raise their voice against. Issues in the world or even India are far too many and that way, all of us can be accused of not speaking up for something or the other, and she has made a few token statements here and there condemning the driving out of the Kashmiri Pandits and Maoist violence.

That said, I guess the larger problem with Arundhati Roy is this-

Part 1 - Public Policy and Forms of Government

(a) She wants the state to control and regulate the economy, and detests private enterprise (read corporates), and instead of lamenting the lack of stronger law-and-order mechanisms to check exploitation by some corporates, has demonised corporates, many of whom offer innovation, efficiency and employment-generating capacity, when even non-corporate entities like small-time vegetable-vendors and milkmen engage in unethical business practices. There is no disagreement on the point that an MNC has much more money power to exert, and hence, more influence, but the underlying dishonesty is the same - someone below the poverty line is a different case, but a relatively non-rich guy too has no moral rationale to engage in malpractice - the reason for both is greed, but not every corporate executive or small-time shopkeeper engages in malpractice, and there are those among both who doOf course, the rule of law needs to be strengthened so that no one gets away with wrongdoings, and that is another matter. 

(b) She sees the state and the media as not being as she desires them to be and therefore, without much evidence, makes baseless exaggerated claims that the state machinery and the media have no human complexities and are completely sold out only to corporate interests, as if every media outlet, every judge, every university is completely dehumanised and is acting as an agent of vested interests (though she ironically gets her articles published in the very same media and gives lectures in government universities like JNU). Interestingly, as you can see here, when asked as to how she could claim that the entire Indian media was on the payrolls of the Tatas, to prove her point, she cited a report by the mainstream Indian magazine Outlook, perhaps not even realising the self-contradictory nature of her argument! As noted social activist Harsh Mander, who is far from being a right-winger, points out-

//I still find myself in fundamental and passionate disagreement with some of her major conclusions. The first is her rejection of what she describes as "the failing light" of democracy in India. She believes that India pretends to be a democracy: "it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning"; and each of its institutions - the judiciary, police, "free" press and elections - "have metastasized into something dangerous", designed to uphold the consensus of the elite for market growth.

Roy rejects "liberals" who continue to have faith in a "tolerant, lumbering, colourful, somewhat chaotic democracy" in India. I am afraid I am one such "liberal". I am acutely aware of all the flaws in democracy in India, and join battle on many - indeed most - of the issues that Roy so eloquently dissects. And yet I do not share her terminal pessimism with the functioning of democracy in India. Unlike her, I do not believe that secular democracy in India is fake window dressing for the world to admire. With all its failings and betrayals, the guarantees contained in India's secular democratic constitution have made significant difference to the lives of its dispossessed people. They would have been even far poorer than they are now, more insecure, more oppressed without democracy. Of this, I am convinced.

Roy regards the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which creates a statutory right to 100 days employment in public works to every rural household as "crumbs". "It amounts to Rs. 8,000 (about $170) per family per year. Enough", she says, "for a good meal in a restaurant, with wine and dessert". I have observed how much NREGA, again with its flaws, has meant for millions of India's poorest people. Many live on less than one dollar a day, therefore 170 dollars is not a trifle for them. It has enabled them to survive, and that too without doles but instead with the dignity of (admittedly hard) labour. It has reduced distress migration and debt, brought more food to their plates and those of their children, and has raised agricultural wages. It is likely that this partly influenced the emphatic vote for the UPA government in 2009. To me, this is evidence of democracy delivering to its dispossessed people. Even flawed democracy.//

(c) By doing so, she undermines the work of activists for social and ecological causes who work within the democratic system with all its flaws, with PILs, agitations etc. to get better laws (e.g. the RTI Act or the Forest Rights Act which has empowered Adivasis more than Maoism) or implementation of existing laws, better policies etc. To study the nuances of the system, to lobby for laws, to fight it out in the judicial system, to work for the implementation of government schemes etc. is a tedious process, which acknowledges the state as legitimate, and which can be reformed democratically. Strongly left-leaning lawyer and civil rights agitator Prashant Bhushan operating under the Indian constitution branded Roy as downright jealous for her rejection of a popular anti-corruption struggle that took India by storm.

(d) She is not interested in doing what I stated above and even practically sabotaged a negotiated settlement of the Narmada issue, as Ramachandra Guha pointed out. She subtly almost questions the legitimacy of the state, and romanticizes Maoists but falls short of supporting them. By being so strongly anti-establishment and making sweeping claims, she impresses impressionable people with her rhetoric, who even overlook the falsehood in her claims like tracing Naxalism/Maoism, which started in the 1960s, and went strong in the 1970s and 1980s, to have emerged from the economic reforms of 1991! Interestingly, it was big development projects by government undertakings or misplaced environmentalism that kept the tribals disempowered even before liberalisation. The jobs created by liberalisation for those who managed some high school or college education, in call centres or even further up the success ladder in many private companies, or by being entrepreneurial, that have reduced poverty in very many cases, after liberalisation, are ignored by her, even if left-leaning economists like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and others have appreciated this development, albeit with some reservations. She chooses to believe statistics that suit her, reject those that don’t and base her contentions, which do have an element of truth (but then, all bigots engaging in sweeping generalisations do base their contentions by citing some valid examples of wrongdoing by some from the set of folks they seek to bash), into sentimental bombast with hyperbole, as discussed here, here, here and here.

(e) What alternatives/solutions does she have to offer on the table? Does she suggest doing away with democracy? No. Would even that guarantee a better human rights scenario? China and North Korea suggest otherwise, and China has made economic progress by moving away from the communist model! The Indian Maoists bombing election booths and their kangaroo courts don't inspire any confidence either. In fact, after a lot of ranting, when asked for a solution, she shied away citing time constraints, as you can see here! As Mander points out-

//I find it ironical that people who would stoutly - and I believe rightly - oppose the death penalty, are prepared to endorse the murder by insurgents who combine in themselves the roles of self-appointed judge, prosecutor and executioner, of people they deem to be guilty of myriad crimes like exploitation, informing the police or joining rival militant factions. Or worse, the slaughter of complete innocents in bomb explosions or missile attacks.//

Part 2 - Analysing the Caste and Religious Dynamics and Secessionist Movements

(a) She rightly sees Hindu majoritarianism as a problem.

(b) She sees Muslim extremism as borne out of Hindu extremism, which is partly true but overlooks its larger genesis in the concepts of 'ummah' and 'sharia' as an international problem (if jihadist terrorism is only a product of victimhood, then who is being victimised by a Malala going to school or the tiny Yazidi minority of Iraq?), or even the movement that led to the partition of India in the first place. Also, what is to one make of her argument of Pakistanis feeling victimised by the Gujarat riots (as you can see here)? This is like suggesting that Indian Hindus should feel victimised by Buddhists because of the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army against Tamils and by that token, it would understandable if the Hindus engage in mass murders! Likewise, the problem of global jihadist terrorism affecting countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Sweden is relegated only to a reaction against US neo-imperialism, with little acknowledgement of genuine regressive (by Universal Declaration of Human Rights standards) and even nihilistic theological ideas that have existed among Muslims, and her reluctance to praise even Muslims standing up to the same, like Malala Yousufzai, is something for which she has drawn criticism from liberal Muslim intellectuals, like scientist Parvez Hoodhboy from Pakistan, as you can see here.

(c) She treats the Indian state as an extension of the Hindu majority, which is why she once declared India as a militaristic Hindu state, as if it actually mirrors Pakistan, which is a joke. She has gone on record to describe 150 million Indian Muslims in general as persecuted and impoverished, and has even disgraced them by calling them in general potential terrorists, as you can see here! Leave aside the super-rich and middle class among Indian Muslims, even their disproportionate poverty as compared to other religious groupings is not largely the fault of Hindus in general, as I’ve discussed in this article, which also differentiates between India and Pakistan on the nature and extent of religious majoritarianism.

(d) She fails to acknowledge separatist movements in Kashmir, Punjab or India's northeast as brute majoritarian, non-pluralistic movements localised to those regions, or the larger historical and legal issues pertaining to Kashmir, and for her, it's about the brute majority of the Hindu majority oppressing minorities through the state, though let me also clarify that the neglect of the northeast culturally and economically has indeed been shameful. On Kashmir, she has factually erred when it comes to statistics of Indian soldiers deployed, engaging in misleading exaggeration. That the insurgency started in the first place, and the compulsions of giving statutory immunity to security personnel, failing which they can be dragged to court over even false claims to disturb their counter-insurgency work, are overlooked in her analysis. Also, that human rights violations by elements in security forces are carried out in any secessionist conflict zone even where the majority of the population isn't of a different religion from the majority of the security personnel, as in Assam, Meitei areas in Manipur, Balochistan or even  the erstwhile East Pakistan (or even in the counter-insurgency operations in Khyber Pakhtoonwa) is slyly never acknowledged by her.

She often wrongly cites Goa as being Christian-majority (though it was Hindu-majority even under Portuguese rule, despite some forced conversions to Christianity by the Portuguese in the early period of their rule in Goa) and refers to Nehru’s military operation against the Portuguese in Goa as a sign of the Indian state's (read Nehru’s) fascist design to subjugate Christians (when many Goan Christians and even Muslims, with the support of left-leaning Indian nationalists like Lohia, had actually been fighting the Portuguese and sought merger with India, as you can read about hereherehere and hereand there has been no anti-India separatist movement there)! This can be seen in her numerous videos. By the way, I acknowledge and condemn the human rights violations that were carried out by some Indian soldiers in that operation, but acknowledging and condemning those is a far cry from what Roy says time and again.

(e) The usual harmonious coexistence of minorities with the majority and huge achievements of those among the minorities are to be seen as aberrations in her worldview, even though many achievers from the minorities, like Shah Rukh Khan, Arshad Warsi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irfan Pathan, Yusuf Pathan and APJ Abdul Kalam have also come from weak economic backgrounds.

(f) On casteism, its declining relevance in social life, evident by how more and more castes are clamouring for a ‘bavkward’ status and upper caste folks have been caught faking SC certificates (showing how people regard reservation benefits as favourable, and don’t imagine they would face hige social stigma) cannot be acknowledged in her worldview, as if a Dalit can't be rich or a Brahmin can't be poor, and almost every upper caste Hindu should be taken as casteist by default.

(g) Any upper caste Hindu who dares to question her on facts, like even Ramachandra Guha, is branded as casteist and asked to shut up!

(h) In her worldview, it is subtly suggested that Muslims indeed have every right to assert their religious identity, but Hindus should be ashamed of religiosity in the context of their faith (even a man like Gandhi, who fought untouchability and died for Hindi-Muslim unity, is to be branded mindlessly with negative labels), for their religion is only about caste and patriarchy, as if it can't have multiple interpretations as it actually does.

Tufail Ahmad (though better than Roy when it comes to incisive analysis and concrete policy recommendations), Minhaz Merchant, David Frawley and François Gautier are to the Hindu extremists what Roy and her ilk to the Muslim extremists, and extremisms of both camps feed off each other and indeed, both need to be rejected. Also, in fact, by misrepresenting secularism in the Indian context as Hindu-bashing, the ilk of Roy has only moved many Hindus away from secularism and has strengthened the Hindu extremists.

Karmanye Thadani

(The author would like to thank his dear Kashmiri friend Khalid Baig, who is not a fan of Roy’s the way many other Kashmiri Muslims are, for his valuable inputs.)

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