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The Hindu on : The Arun Shourie of the left

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, December 17, 2000

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The Arun Shourie of the left

We have been noticing with joy and respect the attitude your esteemed newspaper has been taking in relation to issues related to justice, especially to those in distress- economic social and political. There have been a number of pieces on the Sardar Sarovar Project, after the Judgment which have improved our knowledge and built public opinion, a critical space in the democratic process.

The odd piece, the funny bone however, is the one by Ramachandra Guha - (Sunday, November 26, The Hindu) - someone who admittedly made the useful move of using his skills as a good mind and a reputed scholar, to record significant uprisings for justice in India such as the Chipko Andolan. Whose acceptance and veneration by those in struggle is because of the way he used his own special capabilities to widen the knowledge base and support for such important experiences such as the Chipko Andolan.

He upbraids Arundhati Roy for having encroached on the space of a mass-based struggle such as the NBA saying he, like her, is on the side of the NBA struggle, and against nuclearisation but, she, he says, who he has heard has written a good book (Really Mr. Guha, for such a literate person who obviously reads newspapers at least, we cannot believe you do not know of the Booker prize or the name of the book? Who are you kidding Sir?) is ill-equipped and a liability to the peoples movement. He then goes on, like the School Master of yester year, go back and write books. Do not dabble in using your skills to support these movements.

Why Mr. Guha? Only you should claim visibility and respect, iconhood, as someone from the ivory tower who is a noble hero and supports causes? Reserved seats? What is it that while supporting the cause, makes you so careless that you cast a stone at this delicate juncture in the history of people's struggles and the judiciary and the State? An anxiety that I am sure is in your nervous system too?

We are all puzzled. Some say men are threatened and lose balance when they are dealing with a woman in the same space, who is not only strong and respected, but also beautiful. In some times in history, say Joan of Arc, and in some spaces in modern India too, they burnt them as witches. Thank God, we can now do our venting on print.

Others say, that it is exploiting the space in papers that celebrity bashing gives. A notable instance is the way John Bailey, Iris Murdoch's husband and one time a member of the Jury for the Booker Prize, using his closeness to Iris, as she was declining with Alzheimers disease, wrote books and articles about it, which were a sell out , as Iris's fans were longing to hear about her. But poor Iris, who by the way was my tutor, when she was still teaching Moral Philosophy, and who was the more brilliant and more personality strong of the two, was not alive to see how undignified it was and how demeaning. She was such a shy and private person and he had simply stripped her in public. But he had a sell out.

This a puzzlement.

Devaki Jain


I agree with almost everything you say. Yet at the end of it one is left with a bad taste in the mouth.

There are two problems with Arundhati, one is the style and one is the substance. Her style doesn't appeal to me, but I don't mind it. Like you, I prefer Orwell, but I don't want everyone to write like Orwell, and I think that there is also a place for Arundhati's more emotional style, especially when it comes to issues like nuclear weapons, where some people really need a wake-up call. I am more concerned with the substance (e.g. the romanticisation of tribal life, etc.). But that's where one would have wished (in your article) more engagement with her arguments, and less focus on the person. I guess this would have required a longer article.

Anyway, it was a gutsy article, and I am sure that it will lead to some interesting discussion.

Jean Dreze

Dear Ram,

I largely endorse your criticism of Arundhati's largely emotionally argued pieces in The Outlook. Arundhati is unable to create a distance between the Subject and Self and her analysis is more emotional than rational, and therefore capable of being appropriated even by a Gurumurthy or a Govind Acharya. The new grammar of development politics is becoming very intolerant. For instance both Arundhati and Medha Patkar show a public distaste for terms like "investment" or "markets".

Markets have existed right through history and cannot be wished away in a whimsical manner. I think any form of sustainable empowerment of the deprived can happen only within the framework of the Market and State combine. The State's role of course is to appropriate the surpluses and divert to the poor, whether it is water, electricity or other public good.

M. K. Venu

An economic journalist

Ram is a friend and I write because I am pained by his style and tenor and the damage that he potentially does to the fragile struggles for justice and social sanity in our country. I also write because it is unusual for someone of his sensitivity and experience to make some basic political mistakes in both the timing of his article and his understanding of the role of those who respond to their conscience and commit themselves to critical cultural and political issues in the country.

Ram's overall tone sounds surprisingly hostile. For someone who has not only been an ideologue of the struggles of the underprivileged and unsung (note his work with the Subaltern group of scholars as well as his work on the social and ecological history of Garhwal in particular and also of India), it is surprising that he would sit in judgment of a writer who has so widely been accepted by a majority of the victims of the Narmada dams.

If he was indeed concerned about the adverse impact that Arundhati's writings and her presence were having on the Narmada movement, he should have first gone to the Narmada valley and sat with the movement people and gauged their sensibilities and their sentiment. They have wholeheartedly accepted the role that Arundhati has played. You can argue that this is false consciousness, but it cannot be refuted that at a time when middle class support to the struggle in the valley was waning, Arundhati was one of the few who actively participated in some of the most difficult actions, faced the wrath of the police and went through arduous treks to express her solidarity with the lives and livelihoods of the local people.

In the final analysis, they are the final arbiter and if concerned people like Ram and this author have to engage the movement on issues we have differences with, it is only appropriate that this is first done with those who have the most to lose. This is not to say that there is no role for the intellectual to assess social processes without immersion I them. In this case, however, Ram is a 'movement' person and has to exercise a different kind of caution and responsibility.

Ram criticises Arundhati for her thinking in extremes and yet falls into the same pattern when he criticises her for sharing RSS sensibilities. Almost since the inception of the nationalist movement and even in the statements from social and political movements among adivasis before that, there has been a debate on the developmental path that a community, region or India must follow if it has to secure sustainable livelihoods for all its people. The developmental path of the past thirty years has massively destroyed or undermined the ecological fabric of the country (threatening the livelihoods and cultures of millions), doubled the gap between the poor and the rich and only marginally assisted the poor to secure assets that can provide critical security from the vagaries of climate, hostile markets, even from social oppression. In this situation, there is legitimacy for groups of people and for several of India's social movements to chart a path that fundamentally criticises the present developmental path. Ram surely believes in the plurality of ideas and developmental paths co-existing. Why should a critique of present patterns of economic development or of the profound problems with the enterprise of modern science be a space that only the RSS can occupy? By comparing Arundhati's ideas with those of the RSS, he gives up the space for alternative development to the RSS. This is political understanding with grave consequences. While I share his concern about romanticisation of tribal life, it is in engaging people like Arundhati in the realities, histories and dreams of Adivasi communities in India (and the variations within each community) that a better purpose would have been served. His criticism could easily be used by those who see no other future for the adivasis but to "integrate them into the mainstream" on terms over which they have little or no control. Democracy must rest on informed consent and not on the arrogance of those who believe that their model of development is in the "national interest' just because they have been elected to power.

At a time of growing middle class apathy to the most critical issues of development, justice and democracy, the commitment of writers acting on their conscience and using the popular media to highlight these issues is critical in sensitising the middle classes and creating wider awareness amongst them. I have myself been witness to the dozens of young people, primarily inspired by her articles, who have since traveled to the Narmada valley (many several times) and committed themselves to the struggle there. Sensitising the youth about the struggles for justice in valleys far beyond their daily life is a crucial achievement. Ashish Kothari and Rajiv Bhartari's articles in the Economic and Political Weekly have another space, a more activist and scholarly space. In fact, we need more artists and literary writers and poets to respond to their conscience and commit themselves to the essential tasks of widening the sensitivity of the middle classes to the unjust and undemocratic processes in the country. The role of better known members of the writer and artists community needs to be celebrated and widened. Let me randomly cite some diverse examples - Mahashweta Devi's support to adivasis in eastern India. Shabana Azmi's central role in the Nivara Hakk Samiti, fighting for the rights of slum and pavement dwellers in Mumbai, the role of singers like the Vadali brothers or of writers like Zohra Sehgal. The role of some of India's best known artists - for instance mobilised around SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) - in issues as wide ranging and communalism and nuclear weapons or the work of Jatin Das in the aftermath of the gruesome tragedy of post-cyclone Orissa are other instances of privileged people of the arts responding to the call of their conscience and politically and culturally committing themselves to the wider struggle for justice and peace in India and beyond.

At a time in which we are under such a significant onslaught - both internal and external - it is incumbent upon us to understand who are allies are. When Lal Krishna Advani attacks those who oppose India's nuclear weapons programme and dams as "anti-national", when across the country we are becoming slavish in our almost uncritical acceptance of a consumerist, lifestyle that sacrifices the short and long term security of a majority of India's people, when so much of activism is becoming individualised and the collective political forums - from unions to radical parties and forums - are in crisis, we need to acknowledge that this is a time when new alliances have to forged, when we must lay aside (whilst being aware of them) our small differences in the broad left and mould a common strategy together.

Three other smaller errors:

1. Ram errs when he labels the Narmada movement as an "environmental' movement. I can only quote from a recent article of mine that addresses this issue: "The classification or labelling as 'environmental' of the myriad ways in which predominantly rural communities have struggled, fought repression and resisted co-optation is itself a problem. This classification has come primarily from the media but also from scholars and activists who do not adequately understand the nature, the context and the history of these struggles. An inevitable simplification has resulted where complex socio-cultural and political struggles are reduced as being those that are only concerned about elements of the natural environment - the Chipko movement is then only about preventing felling, the Narmada Bachao Andolan is anti-dam, the Kashtakari Sangathna wants control over land and forests, etc.

These three movements as well as the ones mentioned above are essentially political movements and while they differ significantly from one another, they are fundamentally different from identity (e.g. Dalit) or industrial working class or unorganised labour mobilisations. The primary difference is that while they seek a fundamental transformation of existing socio- economic structures, including the very patterns of political and economic development, they are centred on rights and control over productive natural resources...."

2. There are several inaccuracies when Ram says that after reading Ashish Kothari and Rajiv Bhartari's article, "....Medha Patkar was encouraged to move from social work in Mumbai to mobilising activists in Madhya Pradesh." While the article may have been a small inspiration, there were other more crucial factors. Medha was in the Panchmahals working on a project for SETU-Lokayan when the Kothari-Bhartari article appeared. She first went to the Narmada valley on a SETU project, went to Maharashtra (with legal activist, Vasudha Dhagamvar) and not M.P. and only later decided to move to the valley full time. It was the pioneering work of activists like Anil Patel and Ambrish of ARCH-Vahini in Rajpipla and the early legal battles in Gujarat's courts that had helped to highlight the plight of the displaced.

3. Ram identifies the 1970s as the beginning of protests at the sites of large dams. In fact, it is important to acknowledge the historic struggle in the 1960s around the Rihand dam in the Singrauli region on the border of U.P. and M.P. Ram Manohar Lohia and socialist activists staged a remarkable struggle for justice, which rocked Parliament and brought the social costs of large dams into the centre of political concern.

Smitu Kothari


Dear Ram,

Your piece on Arundhati Roy has sparked much discussion so I thought I would write to you about it. I agreed with what you said in part, but was somewhat mystified at the level of animosity that pervaded the piece. Why do you (along with Mahesh, Rohan D'Souza, and Sainath) all hate Roy so much? I'm not asking this as a Roy fan; I'm not one but then I don't hate her either. I don't like her style; I think she writes with occasional flashes of brilliance, but the self-indulgence puts me off. And I agree she's said stupid things: the banana republic remark being the most recent. But her essay on Narmada captures various dimensions of the issues and renders them in a way that catches the imagination. I think the essay was useful; it was widely read and it brought the dam issue closer to a large elite audience. For someone so new to the issue, she got many of the details right without losing sight of the main argument (and I found her outrage refreshing) about social justice. How many "celebrities" employ their talents to vociferously take the side of a minority (though I suppose you might argue that her stand on both Narmada and the bomb is not really all that brave since both these issues have been nurtured by a small but committed group of activists)? And how many put their money where their mouth is? No, she's no George Orwell. Yes, she is uninhibitedly flamboyant and that is often a liability when the media concentrates on her rather than on the issue she is promoting. I wish that in your essay you had discussed this aspect a little more....

Amita Baviskar


Icompletely agree with what you have written. I particularly like the comparison with Shourie, and it is good to remind people that long before these things became fashionable, people especially Anupam Mishra) were already writing about such issues.

Dr. Shobhit Mahajan


Not only was your piece in The Hindu, very balanced and well- expressed, it said something that need to be said. I'd been very uneasy ever since I heard the 'banana republic' statement. I do feel that if one wants a democracy one has to respect the institutions of democracy. I'm glad you said all that.

Shashi Deshpande


Iwas inspired to write to you and thank you for voicing an opinion that rises to the surface every time I see something written by Arundhati Roy on Narmada, which I would term as pop analysis. As you have implied, she says nothing new, and what she does say is made trivial by the context she says it in. But like you I have also been in a dilemma, as her involvement has definitely given the movement a wider audience....

Roxanne Hakim

Washington D.C.

May I say that your article is very well written, with things put in proper context. When I read Ms. Roy's article on the dam, I felt vaguely uneasy about the 'larger than work' image of the author that emerged so easily. In discussions with friends on issues relating to politics, society, the environment, etc., I have often seen that the ideological 'black and white' stance is indicative of inner conflict regarding that particular issue and that both extremes of view exist internally in strength, while only one emerges externally....

Madhusudan A. Padmanabhan

Ministry of Defence

I appreciate the frankness in your article. While celebrity endorsement of social issues like Aids Awareness and Gender empowerment, i.e. issues where there is a total unanimity of the goal and purpose is required to send the message across forcefully, issues such as Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD) cannot be played on emotions. It's not a question of comparative inter- state cost benefit analysis but involves a wider issue of making water available to areas not having an access so far and changing the lives of millions....

Arundhati's involvement in NBA I feel is for purely selfish reasons. The statements she makes and the quality of her articles (including the latest one in Outlook) are aimed at sensationalising issues to catch the attention of pseudo intellectual. Her careless and irresponsible "one-liners" are very meticulously chosen so as to ensure that they catch the attention of the western media. I would have appreciated her "tiring journeys in inhospitable terrain" if it were done quietly instead of carrying along a battery of photographers. I really wonder who stands to gain from her involvement in NBA?

Arvind Kumar

Deputy Commissioner,

Commercial Taxes, A.P.

Guha's article lacked content and amounted to nothing more than venomous personal attack. One may love or hate the form of Arundhati Roy's writing - one may call the form 'self indulgent' or 'hyperbole' but one can't replace that for the content. Guha needs to engage with the content of her writing. It is precisely this lack of engagement with the content that allows him to make the absurd analogy between Arun Shourie and Arundhati Roy in which the "left" and "right" almost sound like two opposing cricket teams. What is the political ground on which Guha stands when he makes this comparison - the space of the 'neutral' umpire? His postscript in which he wonders why Arundhati Roy is singling out the RSS for attack when she "seems to share the RSS's understanding of politics" is so grossly wrong that one wonders whether Guha has even read her article!

Guha should know that movements are not "owned" by groups or individuals. Movements do not have to have only one voice. If anything, the media is to blame for presenting Arundhati Roy as the movement....

Janaki Abraham and

Shahana Bhattacharya


Guha's attack on Arundhati Roy was vitriolic and disturbing. His argument rests on a dubious distinction between the world of "action" and the world of "contemplation". The latter, according to him, is the world novelists should inhabit, except in a few cases where he graciously grants permission for them to step out of this niche. How then, is Guha different from the hundreds of readers of Outlook who've been making precisely this argument since Roy's Narmada essay came out in 1999?

What is more upsetting is the purist strain in Guha's rhetoric, whereby "serious" pieces on environmentalism are separated from pieces like Roy's, which are - to use a bad word - popular. From here it is a short step to dismissing her arguments entirely, claiming that she is in the business merely for publicity. If we were all to unravel, the contradiction between our overwhelming middle class aspirations and our activist selves, surely Mr. Guha would be amongst those of us who live this contradiction?

While disagreeing with the writer on several other counts, Guha's highly ambiguous remark that Roy seems to share the RSS's understanding of politics deserves attention, as a remark both unsubstantiated through a reading of the essay, as well as being in very bad taste.

Ira Singh


The tone of the piece is well judged and it displays an admirable delicacy of judgment. Your comparison with Shourie is apt. I am entirely in agreement with your conclusions, although I suspect that there are large questions lurking in the background.... It seems to me that in both Roy and Shourie's case there is more than vanity at work. On reading your piece it struck me that the two "institutional" devices that check such presumption seem often to be very weak in India. One is a consensus on fair procedures - the point of which is ultimately to resolve the conundrum of Whose Authority? I am, as you probably know, no great fan of the Indian State, but the utter contempt for institutional forms and procedures that one often finds in Indian public discourse worries me a good deal. I understand the underlying frustrations and failures of the Indian state that have brought us to such a pass, but it seems to me that our "critical" consciousness ought to be a little more mindful of the necessity for generating institutional forms that command respect.... Of course, legalism and proceduralism have their own serious limitations but it seems to me that many of our leading public intellectuals seriously underestimate their importance. I can't help wondering whether the hyperbolic style of our discourse is as much a product of a lack of faith in any kind of proceduralism as it is an artifact of passionate commitment to substance. The more disillusioned and sceptical we are of formal institutions to adjudicate matters the more easy it is to convince ourselves that the only reason we lost was because we were not shrill enough.

Pratap Bannu Mehta

The article was a bit harsh though but sometimes a provocative title is necessary in order to make people read it. Anyone who suggests (as she does) that the dam be left incomplete as a museum for posterity as a proof of human foolishness (or something like that) is obviously not very serious about the cause! It is very important to point out that important social issues cannot be reduced to the status of debating topics for school boys. The idea is neither to win or lose an argument nor to speak for and against nor to attempt a flamboyant advocacy of this or that. Complex issues are often not divided between morality or absence of morality but between one form of morality and the other; one set of principles against the other. Ultimately people like Roy end up harming the cause they are meant to support. It is precisely in this sense that the Shouri equation does not work. He serves the right very well.

Salim Misra

IGNOU, New Delhi

"The Arun Shourie of the left" was simply wonderful. It was about time someone said it all.

Ravi Vyas

I was outraged when I began reading your article. But soon I was convinced that your heart was in the right place, vis-a-vis big dams and their supposed benefits.

I agree that attacking Supreme Court judges is hardly the way to get them to give a favourable judgment. And no doubt careful, measured pieces in the Economic and Political Weekly by scholarly pundits, who have thought long and deep about the subject, ought to carry more weight than that of a Jane-come-lately who devours columns and columns in popular weeklies, and sways people not just by her passion, but by her stylistic brilliance. As for your advice to her to keep to fiction, do you mean to say these weighty causes are better served by ho-hum articles?

Please, let's not punish her for being so readable. And pray, who are we to tell her what to write and what not to write?

So let's forgive the little lady her self-indulgence, shall we? I am sure you will agree that while means matter, the end result counts too. If it means waking up at least one person who actually does something about it, I say more power to Arundhati.

B. B. Subhash

Iam writing to congratulate you on the well-written critique of celebrity involvements in popular movements. I think you have really carefully addressed several problems and contradictions inherent in an effort made by such a person as Ms. Roy to be a torch bearer for a movement which in many ways has been always shied away from glamour and tamaasha. Her involvement, while sincere, has surely been strategically problematic for the NBA especially in the context of the supreme court case. I hope for the sake of the Valley she is listening and will desist from her heartful, yet naive and ill informed, jeremiads.

Venkatachalam Suri

You have articulated with force, erudition and elegance, what many like me have felt about Arundhati Roy (and Arun Shourie). "The God of..." book is a work of raw talent I have always felt that it is also a product of her brash smart-aleckiness. Ever since the triumph of her book she has been unabashedly disdainful of everyone else, including our nation. Hope your article will have a salutary effect on her.


Simova Education and

Research Pvt. Ltd.

Potshots at Miss People's Perfect Patron makes for a great Sunday morning! I hope she reads your article carefully and either makes the Pareto improvement or reviews her role seriously.

However, I'm sure she would have inspired many hyperventillating types through all her tirades (bombs, dams, etc.), especially the self-righteous NLS (Bangalore) women and who knows may be some good may come out of that!

Nillen Putatunda

I've just finished reading the supplement to The Hindu and your piece on the NBA and its more doubtful allies. Thank you for giving a middle-of-the roader like myself a chance.

I'm a student of the National Law School and I confess that interests such as corporate law, cricket and Rainer Maria Rilke don't give me much of a chance to examine the pros and cons of the Narmada issue in detail.

Nevertheless, I do seem to possess some kind of innate skepticism which reacts against all views which border on the extreme.

As such, I was sick of this... person holding forth every week in a magazine which I otherwise consider pretty entertaining. (Got a little carried away there.)

Neelanjan Maitra

NLSIU, Bangalore

I have read all the articles written by Ms. Arundhati Roy, referred to by Guha in this piece. I would like to disagree with his views on Ms. Roy's writings.

She is probably the only writer today who has managed to express and evoke emotions so freely from a philosophical view point that has almost completely disappeared from the "mainstream" media.

Probably it is the highly academic orientation of the left- oriented/environment/dalit writers that has alienated a substantial number of young English speaking urban middle class from reading such articles.

Only a person with a lot of patience and interest in the topic will care to read such articles.

The need of the hour is to regain that lost foothold and bring back at least some interest in developmental issues or problems of globalisation or communalism....

Rajesh J. Kurup

Sasthamangalam, Trivandrum

As a long time skeptic of Roy's activism, I am particularly thankful of your essay. I found it strong, true and poignant. I can't say I read Roy's writing on the dam issues, but I did read her essay on the bomb; and I found it, as you said, hyperbolic and immature.

Vikas Kapur

How wonderful it is to discover that there are others whom Ms. Roy annoys as profoundly as she does me! That Ms. Roy became a champion of the anti-dam movement was in itself an indication that it had lost momentum, and I have never been able to see how the nonsense she breaks into print with could possibly benefit any cause other than her own.

If her writing can be seen as indicative of the way her mind works, then I have a sneaking suspicion that her unspoken slogan may well be "After the Booker, the Peace Prize!"

Akila Seshasayee

I think the article summarises very well the feelings of many of use who very often are actually on her side - particularly on issues like the bomb, the almost fascist attitudes of the Gujarat Govt., towards the NBA and other such movements or abt Enron. Her shrill hectoring style definitely puts off people who would otherwise be sympathetic.

Dr. Rahul Basu

Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

This is to congratulate you on your excellent protest against the colonising of every conceivable arena by the brown, oriental and female...!

It's a pity that most of those with the gift of words have embraced silence on this matter - for, perhaps, fathomable reasons; and ungifted mortals such as yours truly have only fretted and fumed! Thanks again for finally so succinctly and objectively raising an alarm that has consumed so many of us for so long.

Anomita (Radha) Goswami

The article on Arudhati Roy's hysterical activism in support of NBA is superb and so are the observation on, and comparison with, Arun Shourie. I remember the crusading journalist who in Manila thundered "Puffed up bullies have seized the State", while accepting the Magsaysay award.

I also remember the clever rhetoric and selective quoting of Ambedkar in "Worshipping False Gods". It is a delicious irony or a logical journey of a person so righteous that he is now in the company of the same puffed up bullies, and the weekend your article appeared, he made a pilgrimage to placate (or worship) a false god residing at Kalanagar, Mumbai?

Milton D'Silva

Your piece is a fine balance of sharp criticism and gentle rebuke, laced with a suggestion that no novelist can complain about.

Geetha J.

Ms. Roy's recent discovery of utopian socialism - 200 years after the rest of the world - makes clear that she is a poor essayist.

Ashok Malik

I fully agree with your assessment of Roy's involvement in various non-literary issues. If it weren't for her fame I doubt anybody would have given credence to her pronouncements. Right from her days of promoting GOST, I've had the opportunity to listen to her in person and in the media, and have been uncomfortable with her seeming lack of good judgment....

Balaji Venkateswaran

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