Arundhati Roy’s Magic Journalism

An autopsy

This is not an unbiased piece. I became sceptical of the cult of Arundhati Roy at a time when the dams on the Narmada were still being debated. Even in agreement I was taken aback by the easy generalisations and overdose of capitalised words that marked her piece, The Greater Common Good. It seemed to me, though, that the real problems with her writing went much deeper, and these became apparent only once the breathlessness of the prose was set aside.

In a crucial section of the essay, she claims:

According to a detailed study of 54 Large Dams done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the average number of people displaced by a Large Dam is 44,182. Admittedly, 54 dams out of 3,300 is not a big enough sample. But since it’s all we have, let’s try and do some rough arithmetic. A first draft. To err on the side of caution, let’s halve the number of people. Or, let’s err on the side of abundant caution and take an average of just 10,000 people per Large Dam. It’s an improbably low figure, I know, but ...never mind. Whip out your calculators. 3,300 x 10,000 = 33 million. That’s what it works out to. Thirty-three million people. Displaced by big dams alone in the last fifty years. What about those that have been displaced by the thousands of other Development Projects? At a private lecture, N.C. Saxena, Secretary to the Planning Commission, said he thought the number was in the region of 50 million (of which 40 million were displaced by dams). We daren’t say so, because it isn’t official. It isn’t official because we daren’t say so. You have to murmur it for fear of being accused of hyperbole. You have to whisper it to yourself, because it really does sound unbelievable. It can’t be, I’ve been telling myself. I must have got the zeroes muddled. It can’t be true. I barely have the courage to say it aloud. To run the risk of sounding like a ‘sixties hippie dropping acid (“It’s the System, man!”), or a paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex. But it is the System, man. What else can it be?

Fifty million people.

Go on, Government, quibble. Bargain. Beat it down. Say something.

I feel like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave.

Rhetoric can win you the Booker, it can’t help you pass a course in elementary statistics.

The initial IIPA report she cites considers an average of 44,000 persons displaced per large dam. But it seems to have considered only the very largest of the dams in India, since even a dam like Bhakra displaced about 40,000 people. Roy, however, applies this figure to all of India’s ‘large’ dams, while condescending to reduce the number by a fourth to arrive at a figure of 10,000 per large dam.

She claimed, ‘It’s an improbably low figure, I know…’ Actually, it is an improbably large figure. The term ‘large’ she uses, applies to all dams whose height exceeds 15 metres. As far as displacement of people is concerned, what really matters is the area submerged by a dam, not its height. The vast majority of her ‘large’ dams have a reservoir area of less than 5 sq km, and to say each such dam displaces 10,000 people is a travesty.

The exaggeration involved in her claims is obvious once a serious attempt is made to arrive at the real figure. Consider the national register of dams compiled by the Central Water Commission registry, which lists 61 dams of ‘national importance’ with the largest reservoir areas in the country. The area submerged by these dams adds up to approximately 13,775 sq km. Rounding up the IIPA figure to 45,000 displaced for each of these 61 very large dams leads to an estimate of 2.75 million displaced persons. This implies a density of 200 persons per sq km for the submerged areas, which seems reasonably accurate given that the overall Indian population density is 364 per sq km and dams are built away from urban centres in areas of low population density.

Let us go back to the national registry of dams. A rough estimate shows the total reservoir area of all ‘large’ dams in India is under 40,000 sq km. Using the earlier estimate of 200 persons per sq km for the submerged areas, we arrive at a figure of 8 million people displaced by large dams in India. Every figure involved in the calculation is an overestimate, but even so, if you assume (unreasonably) that the population density for the submerged areas is the same as the Indian average, you still come up with a figure of 14 million displaced.

To reach Roy’s figure of 33 million, the area submerged by ‘large’ dams in India would have to be 165,000 sq km. This is a figure equal to the area submerged by all water bodies in the country, including all rivers and lakes. Another way to see the absurdity of her claim is to realise it requires a population density of over 1,000 per sq km in the submerged areas, three times the Indian average!

Roy, while invoking mass graves, has conjured an imaginary army of 20 million displaced simply to bolster her case. She continues to cite this number, most recently in her article on her travels with Naxals: ‘Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people.’

This is the problem with her radicalism. The realistic figure of 8 million or so is large enough on its own to stand up to critical scrutiny, and makes a strong case against large developmental projects in India. Certainly the Narmada dam projects, as is clear today, were a colossal mistake. But through her exaggeration, she damages the very causes she takes up, alienating a number of people who would happily trade her rhetoric for the truth.

This is not the only time Roy has exaggerated or invented crucial details in a piece.

After the 2002 killings in Gujarat, she wrote in an essay in Outlook titled Democracy: Where’s She When She’s At Home?:

‘A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the Director-General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob broke into the house. They stripped his daughters and burned them alive.’

Some days later, she wrote a letter to the magazine:

‘There is a factual error in my essay ‘Democracy: Where’s She When She’s At Home?’ (May 6). In describing the brutal killing of Ehsan Jaffri, I have said that his daughters had been killed along with their father. It has subsequently been pointed out to me that this is not correct. Eyewitness accounts say that Ehsan Jaffri was killed along with his three brothers and two nephews. His daughters were not among the 10 women who were raped and killed in Chamanpura that day.

I apologise to the Jaffri family for compounding their anguish. I’m truly sorry.’

She goes on to claim, ‘This and other genuine errors in recounting the details of the violence in Gujarat in no way alters the substance of what journalists, fact-finding missions, or writers like myself are saying.’

This sums it up rather well: errors in details should not really get in the way of the substance of what she is saying even when these ‘details’ involve invoking the displacement of 20 million people who never existed or the imagined rape and murder of women. In either case, the horror of what she described would have been conveyed with equal gravity if she had not chosen to embellish or invent facts.


Such surety can only be born of an exaggerated sense of self-importance, one created out of the collaboration of her uncritical readers and admirers. Addressing an audience in Istanbul, an oration that was published as part of Listening to Grasshoppers, she declared, “The battle with the cap-wearers of Istanbul, of Turkey, is not my battle, it’s yours. I have my own battles to fight against other kinds of cap-wearers and torchbearers in my country. In a way, the battles are not all that different. There is one crucial difference, though. While in Turkey there is silence, in India there’s celebration, and I really don’t know which is worse.” She was referring to the genocide of Armenians in Turkey in 1915 and the killings in Gujarat. Note how it is ‘my own battle’, a formulation that seems to suggest that the rest of us are celebrating the killings in Gujarat.

Horrendous as the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat was, it does not bear any comparison with the century-long silence in Turkey over the slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenians. If there was a part of India that was celebrating, there was also a part of India that was resisting it from the very day the violence broke out. Even if the process has been slow, even if Constitutional institutions have not acted with the urgency they should, it is still true that murderers have been sentenced, cases are being heard, and a large number of us, and by ‘us’ I mean Indians, continue to fight this battle. And we fight this battle not by exaggerating or inventing but by stating the truth of what happened. Whatever this battle may be, it is certainly not Roy’s battle.


Her exaggerated sense of self-importance and the slippery morality which far too easily invokes mass graves and genocide have now, in her latest avatar, led her to adopt Naxals as her own. She goes travelling through the ‘liberated zone’ escorted by armed Naxals, much like any embedded journalist. She is too polite to ask questions that would inconvenience her hosts. In fact, she is quite willing to go to the other extreme.

‘I asked what happened to the seven people who were captured. “The area committee called a jan adalat (people’s court). Four thousand people attended it. They listened to the whole story. Two of the SPOs were sentenced to death. Five were warned and let off. The people decided. Even with informers—which is becoming a huge problem nowadays—people listen to the case, the stories, the confessions and say, ‘Iska hum risk nahin le sakte (We’re not prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’, or ‘Iska risk hum lenge (We are prepared to take the risk of trusting this person)’. The press always reports about informers who are killed. Never about the many who are let off. So everybody thinks it is some bloodthirsty procedure in which everybody is always killed. It’s not about revenge, it’s about survival and saving future lives.... Of course, there are problems, we’ve made terrible mistakes, we have even killed the wrong people in our ambushes thinking they were policemen, but it is not the way it’s portrayed in the media.

The dreaded ‘People’s Courts’. How can we accept them? Or approve this form of rude justice?

On the other hand, what about ‘encounters’, fake and otherwise—the worst form of summary justice—that get policemen and soldiers bravery medals, cash awards and out-of-turn promotions from the Indian government? The more they kill, the more they are rewarded. ‘Bravehearts’, they are called, the ‘Encounter Specialists’. ‘Anti-nationals’, we are called, those of us who dare to question them.’

Any criticism of Naxal lynch mobs, she seems to suggest, is offset by the State’s ‘encounters’. But isn’t there a difference, a difference she had herself articulated in a different context while speaking of the violence of Gujarat?

‘There have been pogroms in India before, every kind of pogrom—directed at particular castes, tribes, religious faiths. In 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party presided over the massacre of three thousand Sikhs in Delhi, every bit as macabre as the one in Gujarat. At the time, Rajiv Gandhi, never known for an elegant turn of phrase, said, “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes”. In 1985 the Congress swept the polls. On a sympathy wave! Eighteen years have gone by. Nobody has been punished.

Take any politically volatile issue—the nuclear tests, the Babri Masjid, the Tehelka scam, the stirring of the communal cauldron for electoral advantage—and you’ll see the Congress Party has been there before. In every case, the Congress sowed the seed and the BJP has swept in to reap the hideous harvest. So in the event that we’re called upon to vote, is there a difference between the two? The answer is a faltering but distinct ‘yes’. Here’s why: It’s true that the Congress Party has sinned, and grievously, and for decades together. But it has done by night what the BJP does by day. It has done covertly, stealthily, hypocritically, shamefacedly, what the BJP does with pride. And this is an important difference.’

As a Sikh, I am left weary by the killings of 1984 being invoked by ‘secular’ writers only to make a comparative point about Gujarat, but I do find strength in the argument that what the Congress does by night the BJP does by day, with pride.

The same truth should also apply to Naxals and the State. By her own account, the State kills covertly, stealthily, hypocritically and shamefacedly, otherwise why the pretext of ‘encounters’, while Naxals do so with pride at ‘people’s courts’. What the State has done by night, Naxals do by day. There is a difference between the two.

Roy, though, can never acknowledge that there is some truth in what her opponents are saying. She is driven with certainty that allows no room for doubt, leaves no space for a middle ground. She is the sole proprietress of a truth no one else can glimpse, her own high priestess. She is not just a radical, she is the only radical.