Why it is important to listen to writers and thinkers from Arundhati Roy to Yanis Varoufakis
All democracies take pride in protecting free speech. Space for dissent is what differentiates a democracy from a dictatorship. But even in democratic societies, dissenters do not have it easy. Some get killed for their views (Narendra Dabholkar, M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh come to mind), some end up in jail (Anand Teltumbde, Umar Khalid), while those neither killed nor jailed are marginalised. As a result, they are frequently misunderstood. Their ideas don’t get the currency they deserve. This book seeks to remedy this by profiling seven dissenters: Arundhati Roy, Oliver Stone, Kancha Ilaiah, David Irving, Yanis Varoufakis, U.G. Krishnamurti and John Pilger.
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Each chapter is devoted to one individual. The author T.T. Ram Mohan, a professor of finance and economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has a two-fold objective: to summarise the work of these dissenters, and to engage with their ideas critically. He does an excellent job of the first. He falters sometimes in the second, owing primarily to the constraints of his own worldview, which he neglects to articulate upfront. But he never fails to be less than engaging.
The stupendous range of subjects covered — from the political economy of large dams and the bombing of Dresden to the future of the European Union, the military-industrial complex, the coups of Latin America, the nature of enlightenment — makes this a rewarding read. It is not often that a single book can prod the reader to question several stereotypes. For instance, what does it really mean to say that China is a “communist dictatorship” while the U.S. is a democracy? Journalist John Pilger interviews a Chinese businessman who debunks this truism thus: “In the U.S., he says, you can change parties but you can’t change policies; in China, you can’t change parties but you can change policies.”
Ram Mohan is at his best when engaging with themes related to military history, international politics, and spiritual philosophy. The chapters on maverick historian David Irving (especially the sections on the Nuremberg trials and the siege of Stalingrad), Oliver Stone, (whose films on Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Wall Street and American exceptionalism hold a mirror to his country’s ruling class), journalist John Pilger (and his films on Palestine, the West’s hostility to China, and Mandela’s politics in post-apartheid South Africa), and U.G. Krishnamurti (the ‘anti-guru’ who rubbished the whole idea of enlightenment as a spiritual experience) are a fascinating tour de force.
But his critical assessments are less persuasive when it comes to people and topics closer home. For instance, he is quick to dismiss Roy’s critique of neoliberal development and sees more value in her courage than in her ideas. Oblivious to how the structural nature of oppression inflects the political speech of the oppressed — writers like Franz Fanon have dwelled on this — he describes Ilaiah’s criticism of the bania community as “prejudice”. Exasperated by Varoufakis, a staunch critic of capitalism, he writes, “Like Arundhati Roy, Varoufakis looks at the world around him and finds that almost everything is wrong with it.” But seriously, isn’t almost everything wrong with the world? If this question is a matter of debate today, the credit must go entirely to people like those profiled in this book.
Rebels with a Cause: Famous Dissenters and Why They are Not Being Heard; T.T. Ram Mohan, Penguin Random House, ₹599.