Friday, February 01, 2008

Arundhati Roy & Tony Judt on Genocide

On January 18th, Arundhati Roy spoke in Istanbul at the first death anniversary of Hrant Dink, the courageous Turkish-Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, who was assasinated by a 17 year old Turkish nationalist. With more than 100,000 people marching silently through the streets of Istanbul at Dink's funeral last year, the assasination brought into focus, yet again, the deplorable official Turkish position of continued denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. In this speech titled "Listening to Grasshoppers", (reprinted in abridged version by Outlook India) Roy does not have much to say about the Armenian tragedy specifically but reflects more generally on the nature of genocides ("Its an old human habit, genocide is").

To her, "Union" and "Progress" are code words that are the "twin coordinates of genocide". Notions of "Union" pitch their populist but exclusionary appeal on platforms of shared race, religion, ethnicity and nationality and "Progress" on the ideals of individual and national attainment of wealth. Both these ideas inevitably lead to the dehumanization of those who are a threat to the "union" project or are obstacles to "progress". In Roy's Indian examples these "twin coordinates" inevitably lead to the genocidal mindset of Narendra Modi's Gujarat ("Union") or to the brutalities of Nandigram in West Bengal ("Progress"). Into this argument she weaves the idea of the expansionist need for "Lebensraum" ("living space"); a notion that necessitates the displacement or even 'extermination' of those who occupy land and resources thwarting the "noble" goals of union and progress. This is a powerfully engaging piece and reminiscent of Hannah Arendt's work ("Eichmann in Jerusalem", "The Origins of Totalitarianism") to make sense of man's murderous instincts.

In the past, Roy's non-fiction has sometimes struck me as emotionally overwrought. Her relentless attacks on India's (unequal) growth, even when fair, have never even cursorily acknowledged that growth (even with all its terrible inequalities) has been effective in bringing millions out of poverty in places like East Asia where the process has gone on longer. In 1997, the American economist and now the famously liberal New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman wrote a classic piece called "In praise of cheap labor" that articulates a different point of view that, at the very least, requires honest intellectual acknowledgment. However, despite these reservations about Arundhati Roy, I have come to admire her fierce and passionate intellect. There is no shortage of people who will always be willing to promote the economic miracles of China or fuel the hype of a "Shining India" with pride. But it takes a peculiar combination of intellectual acumen, relentless courage and a deep commitment to the plight of the powerless to keep an uncompromising focus on "Narmada Bachao", farmer suicides, Nandigram and Gujarat in the shadow of a frequently unreflective triumphalism of the "New India". Even if one quarrels with some of her intellectual foibles the world needs more Arundhati Roys.

Co-incidentally, Tony Judt , the British historian, also has an interesting piece on the issue of genocide in the February 14th, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books. The essay is titled "The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe". This piece too starts with a reference to Hannah Arendt's influential work. It goes on to state that Europe may be in danger of trivializing the lessons of its own genocidal past. The repetitive invocations of the Holocaust and its sometime political use as a defensive shield for Israel is desensitizing modern Europeans to the scale of these crimes.

"Meanwhile, we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality. There is the notorious banality of which Arendt spoke —the unsettling, normal, neighborly, everyday evil in humans. But there is another banality: the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality— or "banalization"—that we face today."

1 comment:

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

liked this piece, particularly since i am a huge fan of Arundati Roy. she feels the thought- truly unified sensibilities.
she is an intellectual
and she is genuine
and a great humanitarian
and a master craftsman where language is concerned.