Arundathi Roy Vs Shalini Singh

Over the last few weeks with the Anna Hazare campaign reaching feverish heights, there have been many celebs who have been contributing their two cents and suddenly emerging from darkness to either speak for or against Hazare. Everybody wants to be a part of this revolution for more reason than one, whether they believe in the cause or not. I have been undoubtedly Anna’s well wisher and have written on a few occasions in the Times of India in favor of the Janlokpal and the importance of it’s implementation. I also believe that reasonable opportunities must be given for a debate in parliament on the merits and demerits of both the Lokpal and the Jan Lokpal bill. I also think that a trial version of the lokpal could be implemented and it may give the Government, Anna’s team and the public a reasonable chance to improvise and improve. There is no one way to get things right and we may not be necessarily right the tenth time either, but lets not stop trying.

Anna’s fast has now entered the tenth day and it is vital that he stays alive and healthy to steer the ship to the finish. There is enough of media coverage on Anna and the support that he has been getting is staggering. There have also been many points of view on Anna in the recent past. There are two articles that have caught my eye. One steers off from a sensible trajectory and borders on cynicism, whilst the other dissects the well oiled anti Anna pro Congress trajectory in a very logical fashion. The contributions are from Booker prize winner Arundathi Roy and the counter blog is from Times of India Assistant Editor in New Delhi, Shalini Singh.

I share both versions of the same :

I’d rather not be Anna – Arundathi Roy

If what we’re watching on TV is indeed a revolution, then it has to be one of the more embarrassing and unintelligible ones of recent times. For now, whatever questions you may have about the Jan Lokpal Bill, here are the answers you’re likely to get: tick the box — (a) Vande Mataram (b) Bharat Mata ki Jai (c) India is Anna, Anna is India (d) Jai Hind.

For completely different reasons, and in completely different ways, you could say that the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common — they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State. One working from the bottom up, by means of an armed struggle, waged by a largely adivasi army, made up of the poorest of the poor. The other, from the top down, by means of a bloodless Gandhian coup, led by a freshly minted saint, and an army of largely urban, and certainly better off people. (In this one, the Government collaborates by doing everything it possibly can to overthrow itself.)

In April 2011, a few days into Anna Hazare’s first “fast unto death,” searching for some way of distracting attention from the massive corruption scams which had battered its credibility, the Government invited Team Anna, the brand name chosen by this “civil society” group, to be part of a joint drafting committee for a new anti-corruption law. A few months down the line it abandoned that effort and tabled its own bill in Parliament, a bill so flawed that it was impossible to take seriously.

Then, on August 16th, the morning of his second “fast unto death,” before he had begun his fast or committed any legal offence, Anna Hazare was arrested and jailed. The struggle for the implementation of the Jan Lokpal Bill now coalesced into a struggle for the right to protest, the struggle for democracy itself. Within hours of this ‘Second Freedom Struggle,’ Anna was released. Cannily, he refused to leave prison, but remained in Tihar jail as an honoured guest, where he began a fast, demanding the right to fast in a public place. For three days, while crowds and television vans gathered outside, members of Team Anna whizzed in and out of the high security prison, carrying out his video messages, to be broadcast on national TV on all channels. (Which other person would be granted this luxury?) Meanwhile 250 employees of the Municipal Commission of Delhi, 15 trucks, and six earth movers worked around the clock to ready the slushy Ramlila grounds for the grand weekend spectacle. Now, waited upon hand and foot, watched over by chanting crowds and crane-mounted cameras, attended to by India’s most expensive doctors, the third phase of Anna’s fast to the death has begun. “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is One,” the TV anchors tell us.

While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare’s demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji’s ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official. The Lokpal will have the powers of investigation, surveillance, and prosecution. Except for the fact that it won’t have its own prisons, it will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable, corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies, instead of just one.

Whether it works or not depends on how we view corruption. Is corruption just a matter of legality, of financial irregularity and bribery, or is it the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society, in which power continues to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority? Imagine, for example, a city of shopping malls, on whose streets hawking has been banned. A hawker pays the local beat cop and the man from the municipality a small bribe to break the law and sell her wares to those who cannot afford the prices in the malls. Is that such a terrible thing? In future will she have to pay the Lokpal representative too? Does the solution to the problems faced by ordinary people lie in addressing the structural inequality, or in creating yet another power structure that people will have to defer to?

Meanwhile the props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism and flag waving of Anna’s Revolution are all borrowed, from the anti-reservation protests, the world-cup victory parade, and the celebration of the nuclear tests. They signal to us that if we do not support The Fast, we are not ‘true Indians.’ The 24-hour channels have decided that there is no other news in the country worth reporting.

‘The Fast’ of course doesn’t mean Irom Sharmila’s fast that has lasted for more than ten years (she’s being force fed now) against the AFSPA, which allows soldiers in Manipur to kill merely on suspicion. It does not mean the relay hunger fast that is going on right now by ten thousand villagers in Koodankulam protesting against the nuclear power plant. ‘The People’ does not mean the Manipuris who support Irom Sharmila’s fast. Nor does it mean the thousands who are facing down armed policemen and mining mafias in Jagatsinghpur, or Kalinganagar, or Niyamgiri, or Bastar, or Jaitapur. Nor do we mean the victims of the Bhopal gas leak, or the people displaced by dams in the Narmada Valley. Nor do we mean the farmers in NOIDA, or Pune or Haryana or elsewhere in the country, resisting the takeover of the land.

‘The People’ only means the audience that has gathered to watch the spectacle of a 74-year-old man threatening to starve himself to death if his Jan Lokpal Bill is not tabled and passed by Parliament. ‘The People’ are the tens of thousands who have been miraculously multiplied into millions by our TV channels, like Christ multiplied the fishes and loaves to feed the hungry. “A billion voices have spoken,” we’re told. “India is Anna.”

Who is he really, this new saint, this Voice of the People? Oddly enough we’ve heard him say nothing about things of urgent concern. Nothing about the farmer’s suicides in his neighbourhood, or about Operation Green Hunt further away. Nothing about Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh, nothing about Posco, about farmer’s agitations or the blight of SEZs. He doesn’t seem to have a view about the Government’s plans to deploy the Indian Army in the forests of Central India.

He does however support Raj Thackeray’s Marathi Manoos xenophobia and has praised the ‘development model’ of Gujarat’s Chief Minister who oversaw the 2002 pogrom against Muslims. (Anna withdrew that statement after a public outcry, but presumably not his admiration.)

Despite the din, sober journalists have gone about doing what journalists do. We now have the back-story about Anna’s old relationship with the RSS. We have heard from Mukul Sharma who has studied Anna’s village community in Ralegan Siddhi, where there have been no Gram Panchayat or Co-operative society elections in the last 25 years. We know about Anna’s attitude to ‘harijans’: “It was Mahatma Gandhi’s vision that every village should have one chamar, one sunar, one kumhar and so on. They should all do their work according to their role and occupation, and in this way, a village will be self-dependant. This is what we are practicing in Ralegan Siddhi.” Is it surprising that members of Team Anna have also been associated with Youth for Equality, the anti-reservation (pro-“merit”) movement? The campaign is being handled by people who run a clutch of generously funded NGOs whose donors include Coca-Cola and the Lehman Brothers. Kabir, run by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia, key figures in Team Anna, has received $400,000 from the Ford Foundation in the last three years. Among contributors to the India Against Corruption campaign there are Indian companies and foundations that own aluminum plants, build ports and SEZs, and run Real Estate businesses and are closely connected to politicians who run financial empires that run into thousands of crores of rupees. Some of them are currently being investigated for corruption and other crimes. Why are they all so enthusiastic?

Remember the campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill gathered steam around the same time as embarrassing revelations by Wikileaks and a series of scams, including the 2G spectrum scam, broke, in which major corporations, senior journalists, and government ministers and politicians from the Congress as well as the BJP seem to have colluded in various ways as hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees were being siphoned off from the public exchequer. For the first time in years, journalist-lobbyists were disgraced and it seemed as if some major Captains of Corporate India could actually end up in prison. Perfect timing for a people’s anti-corruption agitation. Or was it?

At a time when the State is withdrawing from its traditional duties and Corporations and NGOs are taking over government functions (water supply, electricity, transport, telecommunication, mining, health, education); at a time when the terrifying power and reach of the corporate owned media is trying to control the public imagination, one would think that these institutions — the corporations, the media, and NGOs — would be included in the jurisdiction of a Lokpal bill. Instead, the proposed bill leaves them out completely.

Now, by shouting louder than everyone else, by pushing a campaign that is hammering away at the theme of evil politicians and government corruption, they have very cleverly let themselves off the hook. Worse, by demonising only the Government they have built themselves a pulpit from which to call for the further withdrawal of the State from the public sphere and for a second round of reforms — more privatisation, more access to public infrastructure and India’s natural resources. It may not be long before Corporate Corruption is made legal and renamed a Lobbying Fee.

Will the 830 million people living on Rs.20 a day really benefit from the strengthening of a set of policies that is impoverishing them and driving this country to civil war?

This awful crisis has been forged out of the utter failure of India’s representative democracy, in which the legislatures are made up of criminals and millionaire politicians who have ceased to represent its people. In which not a single democratic institution is accessible to ordinary people. Do not be fooled by the flag waving. We’re watching India being carved up in war for suzerainty that is as deadly as any battle being waged by the warlords of Afghanistan, only with much, much more at stake.

Arundhati Roy’s anti-Anna tirade: High on anger, short on rigor – Shalini Singh

While the rest of the world is saluting the birth of a miracle – the manifestation of the best of the human spirit in a peaceful movement that is uniting millions of people across religions, geographies and social and economic groups – Arundhati Roy has seized the opportunity to be intellectually irreverent.

Sadly, her vituperative dismissal of this powerful human revolution in her piece, ‘I would rather not be Anna’ published in the Hindu, is short on factual rigor, even challenging her own convoluted reasoning in places. According to her, “If what we’re watching on TV is indeed a revolution, then it has to be one of the more embarrassing and unintelligible ones of recent times. For now, whatever questions you may have about the Jan Lokpal Bill, here are the answers you’re likely to get: tick the box – (a) Vande Mataram (b) Bharat Mata ki Jai (c) India is Anna, Anna is India (d) Jai Hind”.

The depth, magnitude and importance of this mass movement is clearly lost on Roy. Had Roy watched television carefully, she would notice that Team Anna has gone to great lengths to educate the public, holding press briefings on minute aspects of the Jan Lokpal Bill, while comparing it section by section with the government Lokpal Bill. If the mood and expression of the audience is nationalistic, it is only because they feel it is the best way to express solidarity. In no way does it suggest that people are unable to differentiate between the Jan Lokpal Bill and what they consider the toothless ‘Jokepal’ Bill so carelessly tossed up by the government – a bill which in Roy’s own admission, is indeed, “so flawed, that it was impossible to take seriously”.

Roy believes that, “For completely different reasons, and in completely different ways, you could say that the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common – they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State. One working from the bottom up, by means of an armed struggle, waged by a largely adivasi army, made up of the poorest of the poor. The other, from the top down, by means of a bloodless Gandhian coup, led by a freshly minted saint, and an army of largely urban, and certainly better off people”.

The facts – if Roy had the time and patience to analyze them – speak otherwise. Unlike the Maoist movement (in which Ms Roy may no doubt be the expert), the Jan Lokpal Bill does not seek a change in regime. It only seeks a change of response from the regime. Not a single word has been spoken about bringing the government down and misunderstandings to that effect have been effectively countered by Team Anna. Nor is Anna’s ‘army’ largely urban or better off – it encompasses all segments of society, with its ideology and sentiment even infiltrating rural India.

Roy goes on to offer another blinkered spin of Anna’s illegal prison detention, not highlighting that it was illegal, but pointing out, “cannily, he (Anna) refused to leave prison, but remained in Tihar jail as an honored guest, where he began a fast, demanding the right to fast in a public place. For three days, while crowds and television vans gathered outside, members of Team Anna whizzed in and out of the high security prison, carrying out his video messages, to be broadcast on national TV on all channels. (Which other person would be granted this luxury?)

Reality check Ms Roy: Anna Hazare was not in jail. After his release, he was in the office of the DG–Prison, which does not qualify as ‘jail’ under the jail manual. Movement to meet someone who is in the office of the DG–Prison is different from someone who is jailed. No video recordings were made or brought in and out of the Tihar premises when Anna Hazare was in jail. The fact that Ms Roy blurs the difference between jail (prison) and the DG’s office because it is situated in the same compound demonstrates her complete lack of understanding of how the prison system works. While Roy could be forgiven for not being able to comprehend such subtle differences, her choosing to mislead the nation and demean the selfless sacrifice of a man for the betterment of the country may not.

Yet, Roy persists. She writes: “Meanwhile 250 employees of the Municipal Commission of Delhi, 15 trucks, and six earth movers worked around the clock to ready the slushy Ramlila grounds for the grand weekend spectacle. Now, waited upon hand and foot, watched over by chanting crowds and crane-mounted cameras, attended to by India’s most expensive doctors, the third phase of Anna’s fast to the death has begun. “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is One,” the TV anchors tell us”.

For the past 65 years, the MCD has routinely undertaken maintenance and preparation of grounds such as Ramlila for peaceful political rallies and religious/social events – a guarantee offered under the Constitution. This was not an exception, as Roy attempts to make it out to be, especially since the government itself offered the Ramlila Maidan as a venue.

According to Roy, “While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare’s demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji’s ideas about the decentralization of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official. The Lokpal will have the powers of investigation, surveillance, and prosecution. Except for the fact that it won’t have its own prisons, it will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable, corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies, instead of just one”.

Roy is obviously confusing the need to create a central structure which is aimed at benefiting the poorest of the poor down to the villages with her interpretation and understanding of Gandhiji’s ideas. Contrary to Roy’s conclusions, a central body empowered to control or reduce corruption will ultimately deliver maximum benefits to those who are most vulnerable. Anna, like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi, has never made a speech without speaking about the strength and importance of the Gram Sabha, or how the poorest of the poor need to be benefited through this legislation. Clearly, Roy is spending little or no time whatsoever listening to what Anna and his team repeats three times a day on every channel while arguing their case.

As far as the structure is concerned, without question, there may be scope for improvement, but that will be no different from any other attempts at drafting Bills that have been made in the past. It is for this reason that legislations are open to amendments based on practical, on-ground experience. While Roy is perfectly within her right to question the future success of a legislation, perhaps a more pro-active approach could have been to provide superior, well reasoned alternatives.

Roy has trashed Anna’s fast by stringing together a list of other fasts which she believes are equally important. However, the people of India, in their wisdom, have decided to support a fast which opposes corruption. Is Roy expressing her intolerance and anger with the masses for backing the fast of a 74-year-old Gandhian? Is that an enlightened or democratic or intellectually acceptable line to take, or could one possibly dare to urge Ms Roy to respect the people’s right to choose their own cause?

Roy’s article reaches yet another intellectual low point. She writes: “Who is he really, this new saint, this Voice of the People? Oddly enough we’ve heard him say nothing about things of urgent concern. Nothing about the farmer’s suicides in his neighborhood, or about Operation Green Hunt further away. Nothing about Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh, nothing about Posco, about farmer’s agitations or the blight of SEZs. He doesn’t seem to have a view about the Government’s plans to deploy the Indian Army in the forests of Central India”.

The truth is that Anna Hazare has spoken in great detail about the plight of the Indian farmer, including the Pune events. He has spoken about the improvement of the downtrodden, including in his village. Roy is simply not paying attention. What would you prefer Ms Roy – for us to question why you do not speak about corruption with the same passion as you do about Maoists and question your motives, or congratulate your efforts in a handpicked area of your choice?

In another lethal attack, Roy writes: “He (Anna) does however support Raj Thackeray’s Marathi Manoos xenophobia and has praised the ‘development model’ of Gujarat’s Chief Minister who oversaw the 2002 pogrom against Muslims. (Anna withdrew that statement after a public outcry, but presumably not his admiration.)”

Anna’s view of development in Gujarat and his humility in withdrawing it after realizing what implications it may have, is a sign of his greatness, not his weakness. Is he not allowed some human flaws? Is Roy infallible? Will Roy write an apology letter after reading this factual dissection of her article? If she does, as Anna did, then she would demonstrate courage in seeking a public apology after having written a piece that is factually wrong and makes unsubstantiated allegations.

Like this one. “Is it surprising that members of Team Anna have also been associated with Youth for Equality, the anti-reservation (pro-‘merit’) movement? The campaign is being handled by people who run a clutch of generously funded NGOs whose donors include Coca-Cola and the Lehman Brothers. Kabir, run by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia, key figures in Team Anna, has received $400,000 from the Ford Foundation in the last three years. Among contributors to the India Against Corruption campaign there are Indian companies and foundations that own aluminum plants, build ports and SEZs, and run Real Estate businesses and are closely connected to politicians who run financial empires that run into thousands of crores of rupees. Some of them are currently being investigated for corruption and other crimes. Why are they all so enthusiastic?”

Assuming that Roy’s insinuations are correct, she fails to make the point that she hopes to since she is now arguing against herself. Is it her case that these corporates who are facing anti-corruption charges are funding a legislation which will lead to the reduction, if not the removal, of corruption and therefore cause a huge dent in their profits (because by definition they have done well out of arbitrage and corruption)? Or does she, like the Prime Minister, see some sophisticated conspiracy (foreign hand) which she is neither able to establish nor substantiate?

Ms Roy’s argument about corrupt corporates funding anti-corruption legislation can only have two meanings. Either these companies are completely suicidal and stupid (in which case the movement must accept such monies since it kills corruption) or are now reformed from the corruption disease (in which case they are welcome as new-found allies). Please pick your case, Ms Roy.

Roy’s flawed reasoning continues: “Now, by shouting louder than everyone else, by pushing a campaign that is hammering away at the theme of evil politicians and government corruption, they have very cleverly let themselves off the hook. Worse, by demonizing only the Government they have built themselves a pulpit from which to call for the further withdrawal of the State from the public sphere and for a second round of reforms — more privatization, more access to public infrastructure and India’s natural resources. It may not be long before Corporate Corruption is made legal and renamed a Lobbying Fee”.

Not a single such demand has been made in any speech or statement by those supporting the Jan Lokpal Bill. In sharp contrast to Roy’s weak attempt at a racy spin, Team Anna has argued that greater availability of legitimate funding through the exchequer will allow the state to play a more effective and comprehensive role in delivering services to those who need it the most. Statements by Team Anna about the State withdrawing from public infrastructure or governance is a figment of Roy’s imagination and she is welcome to place any that she can produce on record.

Roy wants to know if “the 830 million people living on Rs 20 a day really benefit from the strengthening of a set of policies that is impoverishing them and driving this country to civil war?”

That is a good question. The answer is Yes. It is well established that reduction in corruption helps reduce and eventually eradicate poverty, though the extent can vary. If Roy has an alternate economic analysis to present, she should do so.

Roy, in her wisdom warns us, “Do not be fooled by the flag waving. We’re watching India being carved up in war for suzerainty that is as deadly as any battle being waged by the warlords of Afghanistan, only with much, much more at stake.”

Is Roy serious in comparing Anna Hazare to the Taliban? Even Roy’s biggest supporters will have to distinguish between a violent, bloody, autocratic, drug-based, anti-human rights, anti-women regime of the warlords in Afghanistan versus a peaceful, honest, voluntary, non-violent protest against corruption in India.

Demeaning the efforts of millions of people who are willing to sacrifice self interest for a larger cause, trashing even print and television journalists (your own allies when it is convenient to you), displays a lack of grace, even when it is delivered in snotty English-with-a-twist, careless Cafe Coffee Day-style edit pieces.

You could do better, Arundhati Roy. You could do better.

P.S. My criticism of Arundhati Roy’s lack of rigor and unsubstantiated allegations is not intended to take away from her achievements in support of many worthy causes. Only this time, she has got it totally wrong.

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One Response to “Arundathi Roy Vs Shalini Singh”

  1. Open letter to Ford Foundation and Arvind Kejriwal on charge of US bankrolling anti-corruption agitation

    Business Standard published this morning an interview with Arvind Kejriwal and Steven Solnick, India country Rep of Ford Foundation in an article titled Claims that Hazare’s movement is US-funded baseless: Arvind.

    They confirmed Arundhati Roy’s charge that Kabir, a Kerjiwal NGO received $ 400,000 during the last 3 years as funding from Ford Foundation. On the broader allegations whether the US steamrolled the Anna Hazare anti-corruption agitation, they drove themselves further to a corner. We send them an open letter as a reaction to their interview.

    Read more: http://exitopinionpollsindia.blogspot.com/2011/08/open-letter-to-ford-foundation-and.html

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