Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture

Good news came yesterday in the form of an acceptance letter to the Hellenic Association for the Study of English‘s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture.” The event is hosted by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s School of English Language and Literature and will take place from May 15-17, 2015. You can learn more by visiting the conference website. I’m eager to see the other panelists’ abstracts, which should be posted soon, but in the meantime I’ll settle for posting mine below:

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

India’s 2014 general elections reshaped the political status quo in the world’s largest democracy. Led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized an outright majority in the nation’s lower house of parliament, thus securing Modi’s position as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Modi’s campaign slogan—Unity. Action. Progress.—echoes the mix of Hindutva and neoliberal ideologies that have distinguished the state of Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, as a site of both human rights abuses and economic privatization. Indeed, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others, did little to discourage multinational corporations from responding to Modi’s privatization policies with an influx of investment dollars. That such human rights abuses occur so comfortably alongside neoliberal economic developments in one of the world’s leading democracies raises troubling questions about democracy’s role in facilitating some of globalization’s most egregious abuses.

My paper addresses this problem as explored by two contemporary Indo-Anglian writers—Arundhati Roy and Neel Mukherjee. These writers critique the way Indian democracy privileges its neoliberal economic agenda over and against the basic human rights of its many impoverished ethnic/religious minorities and internally displaced denizens. Mukherjee’s 2014 novel, The Lives of Others, traces the development of India’s Naxalite insurgency from its early days of targeted attacks on local landlords in the 1960s to the present day guerrilla war it’s waging against the State’s ongoing attempt to forcibly relocate India’s Adivasi population from their native forests, thus clearing the way for multinational infrastructure projects and natural resource extraction. Mukherjee’s fictional narrative is bolstered by fellow novelist Arundhati Roy’s incisive piece of long-form journalism, Walking with the Comrades (2011), which not only provides a rare opportunity to listen to the Adivasi militants in their own words, but also establishes direct and compelling connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the human rights abuses that accompany India’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Cold War. While Mukherjee and Roy are quick to acknowledge the Naxalite’s violent methods, they contextualize the insurgency in relation to the systematic human rights abuses that underwrite concepts like unity, action, and progress, all of which are promoted as fundamental to what the popular media often (and wrongly) calls the “deepening democracy in India.” If anything, Mukherjee and Roy expose a deepening crisis in democracy, a crisis that pits multinational business interests, backed by ultra-nationalist ethnic/religious majorities, against the basic democratic rights of those at the bottom of a rapidly-widening economic divide.

I’ve been thinking through the complexity of democracy for a few years now, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to gather with a group of scholars committed to interrogating and/or theorizing democracy and its cultural representations. That I get to do so in the birthplace of ancient democracy makes the opportunity doubly exciting!

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins