While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are. So, is there life after democracy?
Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: ‘Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia . . . is that what you would prefer?’
The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit?
… As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favourite new Superpower. Repression ‘through proper channels’ sometimes engenders resistance ‘through proper channels’. As resistance goes this isn’t enough, I know. But for now, it’s all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.
… The battle for land lies at the heart of the ‘Development’ debate. Before he became India’s finance minister, P. Chidambaram was Enron’s lawyer and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, a multinational mining corporation that is currently devastating the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa … Underlying this nightmare masquerading as ‘vision’ is the plan to free up vast tracts of land and all of India’s natural resources, leaving them ripe for corporate plunder. In effect, to reverse the post-Independence policy of Land Reforms.
…The irony doesn’t end there. In a fiendishly clever sleight of hand, the defeat of the Left is being attributed to its obstructionism and anti-development policies! ‘Corporate captains feel easy without Left’, the papers said. The stock market surged, looking forward to ‘a summer of joy’. CEOs on TV channels celebrated the new government’s ‘liberation’ from the Left. Hectoring news anchors have announced that the UPA no longer has any excuse to prevaricate on implementing Reforms, unless of course it has ‘closet Socialists’ hiding in its midst.
… How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for India’s Deep State. Intelligence agencies have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the people of Kashmir.
… Perhaps the story of the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times…While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They’re good people who believe in peace, free speech and human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the UN Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan … it’s a long list.) The glacial melt will cause severe floods in the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight.
… While I read ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ to a tense audience packed into a university auditorium in Istanbul (tense because words like unity, progress, genocide and Armenian tend to anger the Turkish authorities when they are uttered close together), I could see Rakel Dink, Hrant Dink’s widow, sitting in the front row, crying the whole way through. When I finished, she hugged me and said, ‘We keep hoping. Why do we keep hoping?’
We, she said. Not you.
The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung so hauntingly by Abida Parveen, came to me:
Nahin nigah main manzil to justaju hi sahi
Nahin wisaal mayassar to arzu hi sahi
I tried to translate them for her (sort of):
If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place
If reunion is impossible, then longing must take its place
You see what I meant about poetry?
(The above excerpts, exclusive to Dawn, are from the writer’s new book — Listening to Grasshoppers. Its full version is available on the website dawn.com)