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The Hindu on : Perils of extremism

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Sunday, December 17, 2000

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Perils of extremism

Ramachandra Guha writes: (in response to letters on his article 'The Arun Shourie of the left' carried on December 10)

I have received some letters in response to my essay "The Arun Shourie of the Left', along with some letters sent directly to The Hindu. I need not dwell unduly on the encouraging ones. But I must address the critics. These suggest that I am an anxious, territorial academic male, who resents Arundhati Roy because she writes for a general, non-specialist audience, and because she is a woman.

As it happens, I have spent much of the past decade celebrating the work of two popular writers: Verrier Elwin and Madhaviah Krishnan. One wrote on tribals, the other on the environment: that is on subjects that Ms. Roy has chosen to make her own. Neither was dry or objective, and neither wrote for an academic audience. Both were passionate, but their passion was focussed and directed.

The example of Elwin is particularly relevant here. He wrote, as Ms. Roy does, about tribal cultures at the receiving end of the modern world. He was polemical, but also empathetic. His forte was reportage, allowing the tribals to speak in their own voices about their own dilemmas. Consider, by way of contrast, Arundhati Roy's essay on globalisation, published in the Outlook of November 27. As one letter writer, M. K. Venu, remarks, the essay displays a lamentable ignorance of economics. Ms. Roy gives up pages and pages of generalised outrage. Analysis is not her strong suit; still, one would expect a creative writer to seek out individual experiences, to tell stories of the changes in peoples' lives and emotions wrought by wider historical processes, not simply to state, and at such excessive length, her own opinions. Novelists who have written insightfully about social issues - V. S. Naipaul and Mahasweta Devi come to mind - have also been listerners. On the evidence of her essays Arundhati Roy does not belong in their company.

Information - particularly new information - understanding, coherence, readability: these are the criteria by which one judges good non-fiction. Mere passion, in the absence of those other virtues, too easily becomes shrill indignation. It is now being suggested that those who set store by these criteria are male chauvinists. The suggestion is insulting not to this particular male, but rather to Arundhati Roy herself. Unlike the professional feminist, she has never waved her gender before and after she speaks or writes.

In his rejoinder, Smitu Kothari worries that my article is badly timed and will fall into the wrong hands. Even if I had disagreements with the style and content of Arundhati Roy's writing, he suggests, I should have avoided the topic in the interests of the "movement".

This is an old argument, that the end must take precedence over the means. Through the 20th Century it was used most effectively by Communist parties to suppress dissent. Insecure intellectuals too easily capitulate to such pressures, preferring to stay silent rather than risk censure from the party or the movement. Thus is critical, independent thought silenced.

I have no doubt as to Ms. Roy's courage and commitment - I praise these myself - or that her support and its visibility has attracted to the Narmada valley dozens of young people. Her contribution to the Narmada debate, however, has to be seriously qualified in view of the irresponsible remarks she has made about the Supreme Court. As Pratap Mehta and Sashi Deshpande point out, those comments display a basic disrespect for the institutions and procedures of democracy. They were particularly unwise because it was the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and not the Gujarat Government, that had filed the case in the Court.

In private and in public the Andolan's own spokespeople have stood by Roy. That is admirably loyal. But the responses that followed my article suggest that many knowledgeable analysts of the Narmada debate agree with me. An anthropologist and a legal scholar who have both done outstanding work on the resettlement of dam oustees; two journalists who are intimately involved with the movement; an economist who has edited a book on the movement; an economist who has edited a book on the politics of the dam - all wrote to endorse my criticisms of Ms. Roy's writing - although they might have put them differently, or confined their reservations to the private realm. I treasure, too, the letter of an activist who lived for years with the adivasis of the Narmada valley. "I have been waiting a long time for someone to write something like this," says this activist: "And a lot of others have also been waiting. No one is writing because 'It would betray the cause', so to speak. This is a brave effort, if I may say so." The letter continues: "The articles (written by Ms. Roy) are points on her learning curve. She is just doing publicly what I learned in a small group 15 years ago. I can't hold those 15 years against her but I do object to such a public spectacle being made out of her education."

It is easy enough to attack the errors of the right; more difficult, but perhaps more necessary, to criticise the indiscretions of one's own side. It is my belief, and certainly not mine alone, that Ms. Roy's tendency to exaggerate and simplify, her Manichean view of the world, and her shrill hectoring tone, have given a bad name to environmental analysis. My reservations on this score were confirmed by her globalisation essay, which came too late for me to account of in my original critique. This essay presented a portrait of contemporary India as subtle as that of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch: Government Bad, Market Worse, Multinational Corporation Worst of All.

Six years ago, in our book Ecology and Equity, Madhav Gadgil and I thus described the central dilemma of Indian environmentalism: "In their own, undoubtedly sincere, opposition to large projects, environmental groups have not thus far spelt out any concrete alternatives to processes of destruction and deprivation. This might only be consistent with the defensive, almost siege-like position they find themselves in, but environmentalists have not always helped their cause by appearing to Just Say No to everything - be it eucalyptus, large dams or modern science. It has thus been easy for their opponents to dub them as anti- development, as backward-looking, retrograde rabble-rousers."

Alas, since those words were written Arundhati Roy has given a new meaning to environmental extremism. The essays she writes are unredeemingly negative. Her demonology is more capacious than that of the Ramayana. It includes impersonal forces like the State, the Market, and Science; institutions such as the World Bank; and individuals such as the President of the United States. There are no alternatives and no solutions: only rage, and more rage. Her arguments seemingly confirm what the gung-ho modernizers have been saying all along: that Greens shall Just Say No to everything.

This is unfortunate, for there are other and more constructive traditions of Indian environmental thought. Biologists like P. Pushpangadan have shown how indigenous knowledge can be creatively combined with modern science to enhance the income of tribal communities. Bureaucrats in the West Bengal forest service have crafted non-centrist, participatory and sustainable models of natural resource management that are widely admired and emulated.

I have indicated the creative possibilities of a responsive science and a reformed state. What about the market? Some Greens hate it, but the plain truth is that markets can help enforce efficiency and economy in the use of natural resources. There is no turning back on globalization. Rather, we must come to terms with it, and bend it as best we can to our own interests. If we do not want to become a "banana republic", if indeed we wish to hold our own against foreign capital, we must encourage innovation by our technologists and entrepreneurs, not mock them. Arundhati Roy, however, writes that "when the history of India's miraculous leap to the forefront of the Information Revolution is written, let it be said that 56 million Indians (and their children and their children and their children's children) paid for it with everything they ever had. Their homes, their lands, their languages, their histories."

This is typically hyperbolic, and also grossly slanderous. One it tempted to reply in the Royist mode: "Are you suggesting that this number should be divided up among the Indian software giants? Fifteen million displaced people on the conscience of Tata Consultancy Services, shall we say, ten million accounted for by WIPRO, another ten million by Infosys, with twenty-one million shared around among the rest?" As anyone except Ms. Roy knows, the IT industry uses a fraction of the energy that conventional factories do. With this tiny fraction they have generated jobs, income, foreign exchange and social equity.

The IT billionaires are, in comparison with Indian industralists of other times and stripes, more ethical and more innovative. They have given back a great deal more to society than they have taken out of it. Instead of attacking them in this ill-informed way, Ms. Roy could more fruitfully have studied how their success might be complemented by necessary reforms in other spheres of our economic and political life.

Public discourse in India is crippled by the disease of extremism. It is a disease encouraged and spread by television and colour magazines, which demand simple-minded positions on all topics, these positions then personalised in the shape of two prominent individuals with extreme and opposed views. In the latest issue of Outlook, the magazine's editor, Mr. Vinod Mehta, candidly writes: "All of us who write on day-to-day public affairs deal in hyperbole; we tend to create drama where none exists." A debate on conversion, did you say? Then we have, on the one side, Mr. Ashok Singhal, who insists that all Christians are at bottom American agents, and on the other, Mr. John Dayal, who says that Jesus has commanded him to take his Superior Gospel to the infidel.

Secularism, globalisation, the environment: on these subjects of vital importance the media, or at least large swathes of it, tends to offer only the extreme positions.

Politicians and propagandists are comfortable enough with this black-and-white view of the world. The task of the writer, and scholar, is to resist it.

That, at any rate, is how I understand the task of the writer, and that is why I wrote my original critique. Smitu Kothari now speaks of the "damage that he [Guha] potentially does to the fragile struggles for justice and social sanity in our country". This, if true, is a counsel of despair.

A writer (or struggle) that cannot withstand a single critical analysis is not worth defending at all.

Fortunately, the Indian environmental movement is more robust than that.

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