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The Crime of Progress, the Crime of Caste

Some of Arundhati Roy’s most galvanizing essays describe the ruin of the forest people, whose lands in India were flooded to create huge dams. Over the past fifty years, as many as 56 million people were displaced by Big Dams, many reduced to utter destitution. These ancient villages of “ferrymen, fisher folk, sand quarriers and cultivators of the riverbed” were not compensated for their dispossession. Instead, as Roy writes, “I can warrant that the quality of their accommodation is worse than any concentration camp in the Third Reich…In cities like Delhi, they run the risk of being shot by the police for shitting in public places.” She calls the Indian state “a giant poverty producing machine.”

“When the history of India’s miraculous leap to the forefront of the information revolution is written,” according to Roy, “let it be said that 56 million Indians (and their children and their children’s children) paid for it with everything they ever had.” As of the late 1990s, 700 million rural people lived in India. Many of their lands have since been stolen and privatized, what Roy calls “barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.” If this sounds familiar, that’s because it resembles what the U.S. army and government did to Native Americans during the nineteenth century.

India is a country, Roy writes, “where something akin to an undeclared civil war is being waged on its subjects in the name of ‘development.'” In essay after essay of her new collection, My Seditious Heart, she describes how the Indian government dispossesses tribal forest people (Adivasis) and desperately poor Untouchables (Dalits), to gift their lands to mining corporations, hydro-electric corporations and other industries. When these forest people resist, the government declares them Maoists or terrorists and sends in the military. If a tribal person plants a vegetable garden, that’s proof he or she is a Maoist. If they fish the rivers – they’re Maoists. If they refuse to abandon their huts – they’re Maoists. Small wonder that in the end, many of these crushingly poor people react to the banditry called privatization by becoming Maoists.

My Seditious Heart spans the period from 1994 to 2016, during which India became a magnet for capital investment, underwent an “information revolution,” and privatized forests, rivers and mountains, which were previously the people’s commons. During this time, the Hindu fanatics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sister organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) transformed the country from a secular democracy with a socialist constitution into a religious, ethnocentric autocracy espousing fascist doctrines. This transition relied on calculated violence. The RSS’s early twentieth century founders admired Hitler, Mussolini and the Nazi drive for ethnic purity. One founder of this Hindu movement, also called Hindutva, said it should take Hitler as a model. And indeed, several decades ago, starting with a call to destroy an ancient mosque, the Babri Masjid, and replace it with a Hindu temple, the BJP began whipping up the population against the minority of 170 million Muslims.

This frenzy of anti-Muslim attacks, murder and propaganda culminated in 2002 in a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat. Two thousand Muslims were butchered by mobs, many disemboweled, women were raped and burned alive, children slaughtered, tens of thousands of Muslims permanently fled their homes, and one prominent Muslim politician, Ehsan Jaffri, who also happened to be a fierce critic of Modi, was dragged from his house by a Hindu mob and dismembered. Modi, the leading government official at the time, was accused of inciting this pogrom. Several of his ministers went to jail for just that. Indeed when Modi became prime minister, he was denied a U.S. visa for these human rights violations. The Indian Supreme Court exonerated Modi, but this is the same court that looked the other way when told that the law required those dispossessed by Big Dams be recompensed. Also, it is a crime in India to criticize the Supreme Court. So, not surprisingly, there was little uproar over its whitewashing of Modi’s role. Predictably, after he rose to be prime minister, Modi fomented the anti-Pakistan frenzy and put the entire population of Kashmir – the world’s largest occupation – on lockdown. Conditions were already dreadful in Kashmir, with the police murdering “suspected terrorists” at will. Now they are worse.

Modi’s party promotes the idea of India as a Hindu nation. As such, it has inherited Hindu anxiety that its dreadful caste system – which brutalizes, stigmatizes and humiliates the lowest castes – will so alienate Dalits that they will convert to Christianity, Islam or another religion. Indeed many have. Roy critiques Gandhi’s defense of caste, in her excellent essay on his opponent, the Dalit intellectual Ambedkar. The Indian establishment long insisted that caste was an internal Indian matter, but for Ambedkar “there cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the caste system.” Roy reports that Dalits are prohibited from using certain roads, wells and temples, while the occupation of many Dalit women is cleaning shit with their bare, ungloved hands and carrying it away in baskets on their heads. Dalits who “pollute” upper castes with their proximity are beaten, and Dalit women frequently raped. Ambedkar called out Indian communists for their hypocritical failure to attack caste. Indeed, it is scarcely imaginable how any leftist could ignore such injustice.

“No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land,” Ambedkar wrote. Yet upper caste politicians have slyly worked to keep Dalits from leaving the Hindu fold. Indeed Roy reports that the early twentieth century Hindu dilemma was how to recruit people they believe should be treated abominably. “Even today…the BJP has to persuade the majority of the Dalit population to embrace a creed that stigmatizes and humiliates them.” Meanwhile Dalits who convert to other religions are still treated abysmally. Dalits who manage to get a university education, often turn sharply left and so become police targets. Not surprisingly, Dalits and Advasis constitute the majority of the millions of people displaced by mines, dams and other major infrastructure projects.

Roy reports that Adivasis practice primitive communism. “Today Adivasis are the barricade against the pitiless march of modern capitalism.” As such they are a target of its military. “This is a war against people who have barely enough to eat one square meal a day,” she writes.

Roy concludes her collection with a grim, foreboding picture of modern India under Modi, a country in which the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir looms as a possibility. After all, that would be of a piece with events in India proper: “Our forests are full of soldiers and our universities are full of police.”

My Seditious Heart
Arundhati Roy
Haymarket Books, 1000 pages
$29.95

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Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Further Adventures of Feckless Frank. She can be reached at her website.

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