Bursting the Dam of Dissent

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Review of 'Power Politics', Arundhati Roy, South End Press £7.99

'To be a writer--supposedly a famous writer--in a country where 300 million people are illiterate is a dubious honour,' writes Arundhati Roy in this latest collection of her essays. Roy's way of addressing this contradiction has been to use her fame to give a voice to those who feel they have no power. She has obviously been effective, for she faced a prison sentence this year for standing up to the Indian High Court which had allowed a massive dam project to go ahead that will mean 25 million people losing their homes and livelihoods. The absurd charges against her are reprinted here, which include the accusation that she has been involved in 'vulgar debunking' of the justice system!

Power Politics shows why the authorities so fear Roy. She is angry, articulate and principled--a powerful combination. The first two essays are on the issue for which she is most famous, the Indian government's dam building programme and her account is devastating. For instance, she writes that planners 'boast that India consumes 20 times more electricity today than it did 50 years ago... They omit to mention that 70 percent of rural households still have no electricity.' The dam building programme that is feeding this expansion will not help these people, and for the up to 56 million people displaced by big dams in the last 50 years there is still not a national rehabilitation policy to resettle them.

Roy has been outspoken ever since 11 September against Bush's 'war on terrorism'. She understands that it wasn't the US's 'freedoms' that the suicide bombers hated, but 'the US government's record of commitment to and support for exactly the opposite things--to military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry...' She argues that even the biggest military arsenal in the world can't stamp this feeling out: 'Anger...slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn't show up in baggage checks.'

In 'War is Peace' she spells out the hypocrisy of the war. She mocks the ludicrous sight of food being dropped with bombs: 'Imagine if the Taliban government was to bomb New York city, saying all the while that its real target was the US government and its policies. And suppose, during breaks between the bombing, the Taliban dropped a few thousand packets containing nan and kebabs impaled on an Afghan flag. Would the good people of New York ever find it in themselves to forgive the Afghan government?'

This is good stuff and confirms that Roy is as determined as ever to stand out against injustice, not just in India, but internationally. She is one of the new voices of resistance against capitalism and has shown she won't be silenced. But what makes her stance so valuable is that she is an activist and derives inspiration from the activity and struggles of ordinary people. One of the most moving passages in the book describes her experience walking with 4,000 people to a dam site to take on the police: 'They came in tractors, in bullock carts and on foot. They came prepared to be beaten, humiliated and taken to prison.' They walked in silence for three hours through the night and succeeded in capturing the dam site before being arrested but 'we were not just fighting against a dam. We were fighting for a philosophy. For a world view.'

'Power Politics' shows how lucky the movement is to have this Booker Prize winner using her wonderful writing to fight the system. As she says, 'The only thing worth globalising is dissent.'