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Rec Room: Francis Reynolds: Field Notes on Democracy

December 3, 2009

Francis_Reynolds-small.pngIn the middle of her latest collection of essays, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, Arundhati Roy makes one of her most damning observations of the machinery of empire, war, and oppression that she has steadily confronted and documented for over a decade. The observation comes while Roy recounts the story of Mohammad Afzal, a Kashmiri convicted of conspiracy in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. According to Afzal, on his long journey from Indian-occupied Kashmir to India’s highest court he was tortured, imprisoned, extorted, forced to work as a Special Police Officer, and eventually coerced into taking one of the accused attackers to New Delhi.

What Afzal’s story tells us, Roy argues, is that it is only in the naive version of life in Kashmir that “security forces battle militants and innocent Kashmiris are caught in the crossfire. In the adult version, Kashmir is a valley awash with militants, renegades, security forces, double-crossers, informers, spooks, blackmailers, blackmailees, extortionists, spies, both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, human rights activists, NGOs, and unimaginable amounts of unaccounted-for money and weapons. There are not always clear lines that demarcate the boundaries between all these things and people.” That is, one of the most dangerously intractable symptoms of a territory under occupation is the unavoidable blurring of lines and the shifting definitions of what it means to be “innocent.” The tangles of allegiances and dependencies such situations foster make it much harder to remain free of damaging associations or unsavory business partners, and while Roy’s book is largely about India, her insights are applicable to any country with imperial ambitions. In an occupied territory characterized by greatly increased military presence and heightened surveillance with options for work and education curtailed, what it takes to survive can often involve living in a legal gray area. Occupations criminalize the occupied—in the sense that the occupied have to personally fight for the space, resources, money, and opportunities that international corporations and security forces ensure for the rest of us—but of course our connection to these entities and our complicity in their actions hardly make us any more innocent. Field Notes on Democracy ultimately asks us to rethink the goals of occupation, rethink the rule of the markets, rethink where we get our news, and, perhaps most originally, to rethink innocence.

Francis Reynolds is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read his last recommendation, of Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice, here. Read Arundhati Roy’s essay “What Have We Done to Democracy?” here.

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