Monday, 21 February 2011

Revolts and Rebellions- Arundhati Roy

Interviewed by David Barsamian

New Delhi, India 

Arundhati Roy is the celebrated author of “The God of Small Things” and winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. “The New York Times” calls her, "India's most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence." She is the recipient of the Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom. She is the author of many books including “The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile,” a collection of interviews with David Barsamian, and “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.”

The summer of 2010 was one of the bloodiest in Indian-administered Kashmir. It was the summer of the stones and the stone throwers. You’ve been going to Kashmir and writing about it. What are those stones saying and who are the stone throwers?

I guess we should qualify the bloodiest, because obviously it’s been a very bloody time since the early 1990s for the people of Kashmir. We know that something like 68,000 have been killed. But this summer the difference, I think, was that having somehow strangled the militant uprising of the early 1990s and convinced itself that under the boot of this military occupation what the Indian government likes to call normalcy had returned, and that it had somehow managed to co-opt the groovy young people into coffee shops and radio stations and TV shows. As usual, powerful states and powerful people like to believe their own publicity. And they believed that, that they had somehow managed to break the spine of this movement. Then suddenly, for three summers in a row, there was this kind of street uprising.  In a way what happened over the last three summers was similar to Tahrir Square in Egypt over and over again, but without a neutral army, with a security force that was actually not showing restraint and was shooting into the crowds and so on. So what we saw is a sentiment for freedom, which keeps expressing itself in different ways.

This way was difficult, I think, for an establishment that has over the last 20 years entrenched itself and geared itself to deal with militancy and some sort of armed struggle, and was now faced with young people, armed only with stones. And with all this weaponry that the Indian government has poured in there, they didn’t know what to do with those stones.

Couple this with the fact that one of the other great weapons of the Indian occupation has been the manipulation of the Indian media. That was like a big, noisy dam of misinformation. That was breached with the new techniques of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. So the stories were coming out. These were the two new things that the Indian government was faced with.

Kashmir is criss-crossed with a grid of army camps, interrogation centers, prisons, guard posts, bunkers, watchtowers. It has now earned the dubious distinction of being the most militarized zone in the world. People like you and me are somewhat privileged. We go there for a while and come out. But what is living under occupation like for Kashmiris?

I think a good thing is that Kashmiris have begun to write and speak about that themselves, so I don’t think it needs someone like me to really tell that story. Because, like you said, we don’t know that story from personal experience. You and I are not the people who would be stopped and humiliated at a check post. I keep wondering about the fact that, of course, the human rights reports and the newspaper stories are about deaths or false arrests or torture, but not about the quality of the air there. I keep wondering how you would feel if you were just stopped at a check post and your mother or father was slapped or beaten up or your husband was just humiliated, just casually—not necessarily your husband — anybody who you were with. That kind of thing happens in prisons. It’s like a kind of prison memoir—you could write about that sort of daily humiliation— where you’re told, “This is the hierarchy and this is who you will bow your head to, regardless of what you think or don’t think.” They (the security forces)  think nothing of putting out a news item saying, “This boy was shot because he didn’t stop when we asked him to stop.”

I just want to say that that the Indian government has waged wars on the edges of this country—in Kashmir, in Manipur, in Nagaland, in Mizoram, in Assam—ever since India was independent. Kashmir is not the only place where there are check posts and bunkers and killings and humiliation. But war has now spread to the heart of this country. The Indian state doesn’t want to consider or address the conversations that are coming out of Kashmir, or read the messages on those stones. but the rest of India is becoming Kashmir in some ways. The militarization, the repression, all of that is spreading to the whole country.

Why isn’t Kashmir getting more international attention?

Good question. When the uprisings happened in Egypt, and when people moved into Tahrir Square, I, being somebody who has sort of followed the ways in which the international media reports things, began to wonder. Why does it choose some uprisings and not others? Because the bravery of people, whether it’s in Egypt or whether it’s in Kashmir or whether it’s in the Congo, wherever it’s going on, one is not questioning that. But why will the international, Western media, in particular, pick up one and switch the lights off on the other? That’s really the question.

As we saw in Egypt, you had this kind of breathless reporting about this move for democracy, and then the headlines actually said “Egypt is Free, Military Rule.” Why will they not talk about Kashmir and talk about Egypt? It’s just your politics, isn’t it? Egypt is so important for the Americans and the Western establishment to control, because without Egypt the siege of Gaza doesn’t exist. And you know that Hosni Mubarak, if you read the papers from a few months ago, was ill, was dying. There had to be a replacement. There was going to be a real problem during the handover of power. I don’t think that it will necessarily succeed, but I think the attempt was to kind of use and direct peoples’ energy in a sort of controlled-fission experiment. But so far as Kashmir goes, right now the Afghanistan, Pakistan, India equation vaults over Kashmir.

It’s not something that the international world—the world of corporations, the world of markets, the world of even strategic geopolitics—sees as something that’s going to change the status quo. There are deals being made. The West needs Pakistan very badly. It cannot do anything with Afghanistan unless Pakistan is on board. And yet it needs India badly for two reasons: one is the great, huge, big market; and the other is as a very willing fallback for a presence in South Asia, given the rise of China. So it is seen as a stable and willing ally right now that should not be ignored. So to annoy India on Kashmir is not something that strategically suits the Western powers right now.

A week before candidate Obama was elected in 2008, he announced that Kashmir would be among his “critical tasks.” How was that comment received in Delhi? And what has Obama done since then to follow up? He was in India in November of 2010.

That comment was treated with absolute and righteous outrage by the Indian establishment. And I think it was made very clear to him, or to anybody who says anything about Kashmir internationally, that the Indian establishment will use everything in its power to make sure that people back down. And Obama backed down. He came here at a time when the streets of Kashmir were full of young people calling for azadi, when already many people had been killed. And he said nothing.

Azadi is freedom. Talk a bit about post-colonial states, not just India. For example, Frantz Fanon, who was active in the resistance in Algeria to oust the French, wrote, We don’t want to change white policemen for brown or black ones. He was talking about fundamental changes in the structures of power. Algeria, after independence, evolved into a tyrannical state, not the state that the revolution was dreaming of.

That’s the thing. You’re not allowed to use that word “revolution” anymore. It’s sort of passé, and they will tell you that you’re an old socialist with dead dreams. That word has passed out of the political lexicon in some ways. I began to think about this when I was actually in the forest with the comrades. People accused Maoists in India of believing in what they call protracted war. And they do believe in it. But I was thinking about what is protracted war. And the fact that from the moment India became independent, it began a protracted war. That war has been fought since 1947 in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Telangana, of course later the Punjab. They announced Operation Green Hunt last year. There is a situation of war in the heart of India. Who are these people who have had war declared on them again and again and again? If you look at it, they are, the people of Manipur, Nagaland, and Mizoram, largely tribal, many of them Christians. In Kashmir it’s been a Muslim population that has borne the brunt of it. In Telangana it was largely tribal. Against the Naxalites in the 1967 uprising, also it was largely tribal, poor, Dalit. In Hyderabad it was Muslims. In Goa it was Christians. So you see somehow a pattern of an upper-caste Hindu state waging war continuously on the other. When there is a problem, like there was, let’s say, in Bombay in 1993 or in Gujarat in 2002, when the agressors are Hindus, then the security forces are on the side of the people who are doing the killing.

So what does this say about post-colonial states? I’ve said this again and again, I don’t know any longer what you mean when you say India this or India that. You see a situation where the middle and upper classes have seceded into outer space, and the global elites are acting together against an increasingly disempowered mass of people in the world. And you see how cleverly things are twisted. Constantly people will say to me, “Oh, you are very unpopular in India,” because the elite and the establishment appropriates the definition of India They are India. And then the games. Like, for example, in Kashmir this summer what was the slogan? It was “Go, India, go.” That slogan has been appropriated for the World Cup for cricket, “Go, India, go.” It’s just been totally leached of meaning and become the opposite of what people meant it as. So the post-colonial state, even the name of the country, has been taken over by the elite.

I’ll say this: That I think that the struggle in Kashmir, with the people in Kashmir, the fight that’s going on there, one of the attempts has been to isolate them, to put them into a ghetto and make them live in an intellectual and political ghetto, where anybody with any ideas, any vision, any sense of leadership is shot and jailed and disappeared. That’s, obviously, the technique which all repressive regimes use. But that struggle has to get out of its ghetto and make alliances with what’s going on, not just in India but in the rest of the world. That will lead to a kind of political maturity, where you yourself don’t fall into the trap of falling into the conventional understanding of a nation state.

One of the characteristics of post-colonial states is the manipulation of oppressed minorities. For example, Kashmiris are sent to police and patrol in Chhattisgarh, and people from the northeast are sent to Kashmir to do the exact same thing.

That’s also something that I’ve written about, that India acts just like a colonial state, just like Indians were sent to Iraq and all over the place to fight Britain’s wars for it. And you see the sort of unknown Indian soldier buried all over the world, fighting for empire. And even within India, if you look at it historically, look at 1857—some call it a mutiny, some call it the first freedom struggle—you will see that’s exactly what happened. How many British soldiers were there in India? Not that many. But, for instance, in 1857 the Sikhs fought on the side of the British in the ransacking of Delhi. But today India does that. It sends Nagas to Chhattisgarh, it sends Chhattisgarhis to Kashmir, it sends Kashmiris to Orissa.

And constantly, even in today’s papers, you will see on the front page—look at all these Kashmiris, they actually want to join the army, they actually want to join the police. There is a sort of humiliation. Yesterday’s papers had the fact that the Valley’s people quietly accept compensation. So what happens, somebody is killed by the security forces, then even to take compensation for that killing is wrong. If you were to take help from, let’s say the resistance—not that that help is forthcoming—that would be wrong too. That’s a limitation of the movement in Kashmir, that they have not supported each other in dealing with the deaths, the repression. But if they did, that would have been wrong, too. So everything is wrong. It’s not a double bind; it’s a triple bind or a quadruple bind. And everything is used to humiliate you, not just torture or killing but psychologically, in every sort of way.

The constant refrain from the Indian government is that Kashmir is an integral part of India, atut ang, is the phrase in Hindi. And the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who was finance minister in the early 1990s, when so-called neoliberal reforms were introduced in India, acknowledged that there has been “some turbulence” in Kashmir but things were now “under control.” And then he went on to say that there would be no replication of the Middle East events. Why? He said, “Because India is a functioning democracy.” There are a lot of formulaic expressions, obviously, when politicians talk, but there is also something deeply revealed about the justification that the state puts out to remain in Kashmir.

If you look at it with this idea of India being a functioning democracy and that the events of the Middle East will not be replicated, much of it is just based on falsehoods and on an assertion rather than any kind of real analysis. To begin with, why the head of a functioning democracy has never won an election in his life, is a good question. From there we can start. From the history of what Kashmir’s relationship is to India politically and geographically and all of that. See, these are not the reasons why there may or may not be a replication of that situation.

The reason that there may not be a replication of that situation in Kashmir next summer is that there is a huge crackdown going on, hundreds of young people are being caught and put into jail. There is talk of shutting down Facebook. There are police just going around intimidating people, burning things, breaking windowpanes in people’s homes. In a place where the temperature can be -30C, you can imagine what that means. So if there isn’t a replication, it’s not because it’s a functioning democracy but because it’s a functioning military occupation. To say that India is a functioning democracy, I would say that there are certainly parts of India, take areas of Delhi like Greater Kailash or Vasant Vihar or Jor Bagh or Green Park, which is a functioning democracy. But it’s not a functioning democracy in Dantewada, it’s not a functioning democracy in Kashmir, nor in Manipur, nor in Orissa, nor in Jharkhand, nor in Chhattisgarh.

In fact, I would ask the prime minister of ours one question: If an ordinary person, let’s say an ordinary tribal person in a village in Chhattisgarh, had been treated unjustly—by unjustly we just mean if a few of his family members had been killed or his daughter had been raped by a security force—which institution in this country can a poor person appeal to in order for us to call it a democracy? Which institution? There is not one left now.

Given the level of opposition to its rule in Kashmir, what keeps India there?

A whole lot of things. One is that both India and Pakistan have a great vested interest now in keeping Kashmir on the boil, a vested interest that ranges from political to actual material. To have 700,000 soldiers there, you can imagine the amount of money that’s poured into that occupation and what’s going on with that money—property, concertina wire, petrol, vehicles. Power. The power to control a population like that. The business deals with the collaborators and the local elites. It’s like running a little country. Why would anybody want to give that up? That’s one thing.

The other thing is that, oddly enough, it’s just become such a question of the national ego that to rethink that position when you’re so far down into the tunnel would require a great amount of vision. Then you have a situation where political parties, let’s say, in India, are vying with each other. Like if the Congress, that’s in power now, would do anything that remotely resembled something progressive, the Bhartiya Janata Party would immediately try and capitalize on it. So this democracy doesn’t have any space to maneuver in that sense, because it’s a democracy, and the other party is just waiting to capitalize on the poisonous publicity that you’ve already used to keep this machine going.

So there are a lot of reasons why. And yet today I think that one of the really big problems that the state faces is that after very many years there are fissures in the consensus amongst Indians, and those fissures have come because people have seen this sort of undeniably mass democratic unarmed protest day after day, year after year in Kashmir. And people are affected by it. They’re not easily able to say, “Oh, these are militants, these are Islamists, these are Taliban.” So there has been a fracturing of the old consensus. And in the case of the war in Chhattisgarh and Orissa and Jharkhand and in the case of places like Kashmir, and even Manipur to some extent, the fact is that the state is very well aware that that massive consensus is a bit shaky. There are cracks, and serious ones.

A journalist in Kashmir told me that over the last several years top Israeli military and intelligence officials have been visiting Kashmir. What are they doing there?

I think that the U.S. is aware of the fact that Pakistan is on very shaky ground. We know it’s a nuclear power. We know that the whole adventure in Afghanistan is on the skids. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get out. They want to get out, I think, but they don’t know how to get out, even, now. You have the rise of China. You have a huge, huge, huge stake in the gas fields of Central Asia. And you have Pakistan, an old, old ally, that’s also on the skids, partly because of the US’s history of intervention or, I would say, almost wholly because of that. Pakistan was never allowed to administer its own affairs, ever since it became a country. That country has not been allowed to develop democratic institutions. At least India was allowed to, and now its kind of hollowing them out, but Pakistan was never allowed to. In this battle the U.S. needs to step back on to surer ground. It needs a new frontier because the Pakistan frontier is collapsing. And I think that’s what’s going on. How do they now build a retreat in Ladakh, in Kashmir, in these areas where it’s a fallback plan?

And the Israeli involvement?

That’s the same as the American involvement. There is no difference between them. The Israelis and the Indians are now thick.

The U.S. conducts more military exercises with India than any other country in the world. The New York Times, when Obama was visiting here in November of 2010, announced that the country “is rapidly turning into one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets.” And Obama arrives here with 200 top U.S. corporate executives in tow, signs a deal for Boeing C-17 cargo planes worth $5 billion, and there are many more arms deals in the offing. All to sate, again, what The New York Times calls India’s “appetite for more sophisticated weaponry.”

India’s appetite certainly has grown. Partly that appetite has to do with pleasing the masters. Because I want to know when the last time was that they used any of these sophisticated weapons, and who are they going to use them against? Can they use any sophisticated weapons in a war against China or in a war against Pakistan? They can’t. Because these are all now nuclear-armed countries. The great irony is that the more sophisticated these weapons that this military-industrial complex develops, the less the real threats are from conventional warfare. The threats that are coming from terrorism are threats that cannot be addressed with sophisticated weapons, with tanks, with torpedoes, with any of that.

Certainly what is going on, I think, is that all countries—and I’m sure India is right on top of the pile—have a huge appetite for weapons of surveillance and spying and things like that. But conventional weapons for conventional warfare, I think the greatest use that they put it to is to have them parade up and down Rajpath in NewDelhi on Republic Day, just as a sort of narcissistic show rather than for any practical use. A country that spends billions and billions and billions on these weapons while 800 million people live on less than 20 rupees a day.

Twenty rupees a day is about 50 cents in U.S. currency. In fact, the India that is essentialized, the one that the West identifies with, is lauded and praised as new billionaires are added to the Forbes list. But Utsa Patnaik, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says there is “a deep agricultural depression” in the country. Farmer suicides because of indebtedness are at unbelievable levels, and there has been, correspondingly, a sharp decline in grain output and grain consumption. The Republic of Hunger is actually the title of one of Utsa Patnaik’s books.

That’s what I sometimes think. India has more poor people than seven of the poorest African countries put together. And we have this litany of 200,000 farmers who have killed themselves because they’ve gone into debt, you have increasing ecological and environmental crises, you have wars breaking out, all of that. And yet this kind of cabaret goes on.

I actually spoke to some correspondents of major Western publications, and they told me they have strict instructions: no bad stories about India, because India is the finance destination for the rest of the world. So you have people looking to India to revitalize their economies, and you have an Indian government which has just become so servile that it doesn’t any longer know what’s good for it. You have a situation, leaving aside these wars in Kashmir and Manipur, which are a different kind of war—they’re battles for identity and nationhood—but the other battle is in some ways a battle that concerns the rest of the world. Because it’s not just a battle for survival of millions of people; it’s also a battle for ideas of the future of the world and what it’s going to be.

What you have is somebody like Chidambaram, the home minister, who used to be the finance minister, from Harvard Business School, directly in line with Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, (deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission), that kind of IMF imagination, saying that he visualizes an India in which more than 70% of its people live in cities, which is something like 500 million people that he expects should be on the move. They cannot be moved unless it becomes a military state. And then a couple of years later that same minister says that the migrants in cities “carry a kind of criminal behavior that’s unacceptable in modern cities”, so they have to be policed. You have judges and all these kinds of people basically sanitizing India against the poor.

There isn’t any place for poor people to plant their feet anymore. We’re not talking about a minority. We’re not talking about the few. But here we’re talking of a majority of people in this country who have no place in the country. They have no place in the imagination, they have no place in the institutions, they have no place in the law. They have a few bones thrown at them, like the National Employment Guarantee Act, but that, too, generates a kind of capital that middlemen siphon off. So you’re really heading for a kind of crisis which I don’t think any of the people who are in charge of this country have a handle on.

In your “The Trickledown Revolution” essay you write, “The real power in the country has passed into the hands of a coven of oligarchs, judges, bureaucrats, and politicians. They in turn are run like prize racehorses by the few corporations who more or less own everything in the country. They may belong to different political parties and put up a great show of being political rivals, but that’s just subterfuge for public consumption. The only real rivalry is the business rivalry between corporations.”

Remember that I wrote this before the exposé of the Radia tapes. In the Radia tapes this is like a diagnosis that is confirmed by MRIs. Now we’re in a very interesting phase in India where the corporations are battling each other and therefore leaking news about each other to the press. The Radia tapes were the taps on the phones of Niira Radia. She is the sort of PR person for Mukesh Ambani (Reliance) and for the Ratan Tata Group, two of the biggest corporations in the country. The tapes reveal the fact that they are running everybody. They are deciding who the ministers should be. They are discussing what is now called the 2G scam. Telecom spectrum which was sold by the government to these companies at absurdly low prices and in turn by these companies for huge, huge amounts of money, I mean beyond belief, billions of dollars. But in the case of natural resources, whether it’s water, whether it’s minerals and so on, the same thing is happening, with an enormous human cost.

I tell you what’s interesting about what’s happening in India. It’s not unlike what has happened historically in Africa or in Latin America, in Colombia, in Argentina. It’s not unlike that except that it’s overlaid with this grid of a fast becoming farcical democracy. That’s what’s new. And that’s why it’s very interesting to analyze it. Otherwise the looting, the hollowing out—it happened in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The privatization of everything has led to Russia being basically ruled by a mafia, because it generates such a huge amount of hot capital that you can buy everybody or have those who you can’t buy incarcerated or put away. So none of these things are unique, in a sense. What’s happening is not unique.

However, given the history of this country and given the rhetoric of democracy and the new era of climate change and all of that, that’s what’s interesting about it. How do you continue to do what you’ve done for centuries? It was all right in those days, the Western world was democratic and it was developing the ideas of civil rights, and it was colonizing and committing genocide in other countries. Now you have both those things superimposed on each other. You have India colonizing itself. You have India developing its own idea of civil rights and yet needing to commit a kind of slow genocide on people. They are not lining them up and killing them, surely, but you’re starving them, you’re slowly cutting them off from their resources, you’re encircling them, you’re calling the army out. And it’s all superimposed. It’s not geographically this country doing it to this country but the elites of one country doing it to its own poor.

There is a kind of lexical framework in which this takes place. Such terms as “public-private partnerships,” “memorandums of understanding” and “special economic zones.”

And, of course, people have their own versions of that. “Slavery empowered zones” or “special”—I’ve forgotten the euphemism.


-- “exploitation zones,” and so on. But the point is that now in India really in some ways the great debates are over, because those debates were taking place 10 years ago, when people were protesting about privatization and other people were insulting those of us who talked about it and said, “What, do you want us, to live in a bullock cart age.” But today everybody knows that it’s banditry. The divisions are only on what you’re prepared to do about it and how you’re going to fight it. Those are the divisions that exist between people.

So they’re tactical, not strategic?

No, they are tactical and strategic, not ideological, not in terms of exactly what you’re opposing. So the resistance movements, ranging from the Gandhians to the socialists to the Maoists, are all fighting the same things, but their strategies of resistance are different. And surely their ideologies are different, but a lot of the difference somehow has to do with the geography of where the site of resistance is. You can’t fight in the jungle the way you fight in an open plain, in the villages, and so on.

Your essay “Walking with the Comrades,” recounts the time you spent in the forests of Chhattisgarh with what are called, alternately, Maoists or Naxalites. What kind of fundamental change are they proposing in terms of restructuring society?

They are pretty straightforward in that they’re communists, and they believe in overthrowing the Indian state with violence, they believe in the rule of the proletariat, and so on. But right now the place where they’re fighting from, 99.9% of them are all Adivasi people. By Adivasi I mean indigenous people, tribal people. And that brings a different color to the nature of this battle. A lot of those people have never, ever been outside the forest. They’ve never seen a bus or a train or a small town, let alone Delhi or a big city. So I would say that the battle right now is that in these huge areas where the indigenous people of this country live, the government, quite against its own constitution, has signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding to turn that land over to private corporations for mining, for bauxite, for iron ore, for every kind of other mineral.

The contours of the battle, even though ultimately they believe in a different society—and they do have a pretty conventional idea of the nation, which I don’t share—but right now it’s really a battle to stop those lands from being taken over, to stop the annihilation of a way of life which today is the only surviving way of life that can have any claims to being sustainable. It’s in great threat: people are starving, people are ill, people have malnutrition. But that is because there has been such an endless assault on them. But they still do have the tools and the wisdom to teach us something about how to live and how we are going to have to live in the future. It’s not that we all have to become tribal people, but we have to learn to re-understand what civilization means.

I can hear anchors on Times Now TV and the other critics who carp at you saying, “There goes Arundhati again, romanticizing tribals.”

It’s interesting. If you go in there and if you read what I’ve written, the thing that I really thought was very, very interesting about my experience walking with the comrades in the forest was that is one thing that they did not do. They did not go in there and say, “Oh, this is a perfect society and they’re so egalitarian and they’re so beautiful, and let’s all be like this.” They went in there, and there were so many things that they looked at.

And what struck me most was the relationship between men and women within those tribal communities. At the cost of not having easy acceptance, they worked there, they spoke about what they thought of, their ideas of justice. Today, 45% of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army consists of tribal women. I spoke to many of them. Many of them joined because they were reacting to the patriarchy of their own very conventional communities. So the battle within that area—forgetting about the overthrow of the state or the new corporations that have come in, those are new things—historically the tribal people, especially tribal women, have been considered the natural trophy of forest department officials, government officials, police, who just go in there and pick up who they like, rape who they like.

Today that cannot happen. So in a sense they’ve already won. They’ve already won huge victories of dignity. So to say romanticizing—when you’re threatened by arguments and by actual war, you have to find ways of undermining, you have to find ways of labeling, of delegitimizing. It’s all a part of that. But in actual fact, the real thing is that there was no romanticizing, which is why there’s so much strength. There was a very clear idea of justice.

Operation Green Hunt is the government military operation to crush the Maoist rebellion. You say that Operation Green Hunt actually did a “favor” by clarifying the situation for people. Could you elaborate on that.

The thing is that, to go back to what I said earlier, the fact of this kind of exploitation of indigenous people and this sort of open genocide that happened in Africa in the early parts of the last century we know about. We know about the slaughter and the genocide. Now what’s interesting, as I said, is that you have this constitution and this democracy superimposed. So you have to do things quietly. You can’t be as brazen as people were in those days. So you have things in our constitution which are trying to make up for the completely colonial attitudes towards tribal people in post-independence India.

So you have a new law, for example, called the Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas Act, PESA, which disallows the government from taking over tribal land and handing it over to companies. But in spite of this, the prime minister himself, the home minister himself comes out and says, “This is what we have to do.” So the existence of this law, which has become a part of the constitution and then this business of we need to progress and we need the minerals—it smokes up the mirrors. Operation Green Hunt clarified things to local people. It is very, very clear. Here is the policeman. He has a gun. He wants your village and he wants your land and he wants your house. Do you want to give it or do you want to fight? In that way it clarified things. I’m being very schematic about it.

Often people who are in urban areas who have been thinking of things get wind of things really early. Say, you’re talking about a dam. It takes years and years for the actual effects of that dam, once it’s constructed, to come and affect people. If you are trying to be an early warning system, you have a lot of work, because people can also believe, oh, that’s our river, it’s our devta (our god). They’ll say, “The river is a goddess and it can never be dammed up.” You can even have to deal with something like that. In this way the soldiers stepped out of the corporate boardroom and said, “Okay, now it’s a war.”

You found an anonymous quote from England, “The law locks up the hapless felon who steals the goose from off the common but lets the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose.” This kind of encapsulates much of what you’ve been describing.

It was the time, obviously, of the enclosure of the commons, when that poem was written. Here it’s the enclosure and corporatization of the commons. It’s not just the enclosure, but the enclosure and the destruction of the commons simultaneously that’s going on—a destruction which I think even the middle class, who has so far benefited greatly from the opening up of the markets and the creation of an Indian middle class, is now slowly, very, very slowly, beginning to feel an unease. People know that eventually you’re pissing in the pond. Eventually you’re soiling your own nest. That’s not going to get you very far.

And that, I think, is why we are in such an interesting time. A few years ago these were things that some of us were saying. Now, with the exposure of the Radia tapes, everybody knows it. So I almost feel like I can sort of put my feet up and sit back now and think about doing something else, because it’s street talk. What we were yelling about earlier is street talk now.

The case of Binayak Sen has attracted a lot of international attention. Forty Nobel Prize winners have called for his release. What does he represent? In a country where there is so much injustice, why is his particular case worthy of attention?

I think it represents the fact that the rot and the injustice and the fear that just stalked a certain class has now breached a barrier and it’s coming into middle class drawing rooms—who is Binayak Sen? He is a doctor trained at the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore in South India.  He is a person who an ordinary middle-class Indian would think has done a great thing by giving up a lucrative middle-class life and working among the poorest of the poor. And if you’re going to go after him...

As far as the state is concerned, once again I think very clearly it’s sending out a signal that—I keep calling Binayak Sen case the  urban avatar of Operation Green Hunt. They know how to deal with the Maoists in the forest, and they know how to fire into crowds of unarmed villagers protesting in small towns or villages. How are you going to deal with the middle-class person who disagrees? And who has the ability, the power, the education, the skills of communication to make other people, powerful people, status quo-ists look at things in another way? Binayak Sen was the first person to blow the whistle on the Salva Judum, the government militia which was unleashed in the forests of Chhattisgarh very much at the behest of the government and some corporations, to clear the ground, to do what the British General Briggs called strategic hamleting when they were fighting the Communists of Malaya, of terrorizing populations and making them move into roadside camps and clearing the land. That’s what the Salva Judum was doing in Chhattisgarh. Binayak was one of the people who raised an alarm and spoiled things for them. That’s why Operation Green Hunt was announced, because the sort of Salva Judum style strategic hamleting thing didn’t work.

I’m interested to note that in spite of all you’ve been saying about the depredations of the Indian state, the shrinking of public space for dissent, that you write, “Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still immense hope.” Where do you find that hope?

I find it in people. Look at what’s happening. I mentioned these massive numbers of MoUs that have been signed with multinational companies for mineral exploitation. And yet those MOUs were signed in 2005. It’s 2011. The protests have increased, they have been repressed, there are hundreds of people in jail. But they’re not managing to actualize most of them. So I don’t think there are many places where the world’s richest and biggest corporations, with a state that completely colludes with them, have been unable to get what they want. And that through all the disagreements and arguments within resistance movements about violence and nonviolence and armed struggle and Gandhian protest, whatever it is, eventually, between them, they have stopped powerful forces. It’s a very fragile standoff, but it’s there. And we have to salute it.

And I hope that it coincides with a time in which people all over the world are beginning to understand, because of not just the debates but because of the obvious sort of onset of climate change, that things can’t go on like this. And maybe they will go on like this, in which case there will be a complete collapse. But the point is that at least we’ll go down fighting. At least we’ll go down saying that we’ll do everything to stop this. I think that is a tremendously hopeful thing.

Are the solutions to the problems created by the masters going to come from the masters?

They’re not. I did a lecture at Harvard recently. It was called “Can We Leave the Bauxite in the Mountain?” Part of me was sort of thinking that the real effect I would like this lecture to have is to make them feel sort of deprived and helpless, the masters of the universe who were there, because the solutions are not going to come from the people who created the problem in the first place. I’m not saying everyone in Harvard has no imagination, but it is the sort of pinnacle of the establishment in some ways.

I think that this whole idea of how you look for a solution, too, needs to be talked about, because there can be a very imperialistic understanding of that solution. You have an imperial vision that created the problem, and you want an imperial vision that comes up with an imperial solution. It’s not going to happen. You have to be able to look at it in fractured ways. You have to pay respect to the fact that different ecosystems and different people and different kinds of situations will have different problems. It’s not going to be a broad-spectrum antibiotic that will create the solution. And surely it’s not going to be a solution that voluntarily comes from some climate-change conference in Copenhagen. It’s not going to happen. It’s going to have to be forced on people.

The beginning of that for me has to be a fight to protect places physically and cultures physically where there is the practice of a new imagination, or an old imagination that could become a new imagination, without going through the horrors of what we call civilization.

You’ve become, whether you like it or not, the de facto chronicler of dissent from Kashmir to Chhattisgarh. A lot of people are interested in how you work. They ask me to ask you, what is her writing routine like? How does she organize material? Do you have a process that you follow?

None whatsoever. Someone asked me this question, actually, recently. They asked me, “How do you go about doing the kind of research that you need to write your pieces”? And I said, “I don’t do research to write my pieces. I just keep myself informed in order to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda. Then, when you understand what the real story is, you’re so angry that you have to write something.” Because I don’t research things in order to write. I think it’s just something that’s in my DNA, maybe, just the idea of how do these things connect up and how—like, I don’t think that you can just assume things like the people are always right and resistance is always wonderful and people’s movements are great. Because they’re not. You can have greatly unpleasant and almost sometimes repulsive peoples’ movements. The largest people’s movement in this country in recent times is Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad…

Those are right-wing Hindu nationalist formations.

Yes. And recently there was a march of millions of them in Madhya Pradesh, like a flag march through Christian and tribal and Muslim areas sort of warning people that this is the new way. The truth is that some yogi or some obscurantist person can attract 10 lakh, (one million), people to learn a yoga asan, (posture), and not that many are listening to us. So we can’t have too much of a jumped-up notion of who we are either.

It seems, as a trained architect, you’ve brought some of that discipline to the work you’re doing today in terms of deconstructing things and then putting them back together.

I don’t know. I try not to comment on my own work in terms of what I’m trying to do. Eventually it’s there in what I write, and hopefully it manages to communicate a certain urgency.

I remember in one of the earliest interviews we ever did, perhaps in the very flat we’re sitting in now, in Green Park, you talked about the danger of being a tall poppy, of standing out, of being visible, and of fighting the silence. You know that you’ve attracted a lot of animosity and hatred.

You forgot to mention love.

How could I have forgotten to mention love? Are you ever worried or do you find yourself inhibited in any way because of fear?

That’s a good question. Am I worried? I would be stupid not to be worried. I would be stupid not to be aware of what’s going on. So I won’t say that I’m not worried. But what’s happened, once again to come back to the idea of how do you play these things out while you’re pretending to be a democracy? In many ways infrastructure of democracy has been—the upper infrastructure has been rented out to the corporates and the lower infrastructure has been rented out to the mob. So now, wherever I go, wherever I speak—and I’ve been traveling a lot and speaking a lot to rather huge audiences—the Hindu right always tries to make sure that there is some Bajrang Dal there or some kind of protest, physically threaten me and all that. And then there is this thing of trying to ensnare you in a sort of legal morass, where you have court cases against you. That kind of thing they’re trying to do. So far nothing serious has happened.

Nothing serious has happened in legal terms, but your house was attacked in New Delhi.

I meant in legal terms nothing serious has happened. But there is this constant threat. Right now there is this attempt to charge me with sedition, but the police themselves are reluctant to go ahead with it because there’s that trade-off all the time. If you do that, you’re going to internationalize the Kashmir issue in a way. So we are playing for high stakes, and it’s something which I think I should not be blasé about. But at the same time, when you see what ordinary people are going through and the threats and the horrors of people’s prison experiences and of torture and of death. The poorest people in this country. Can you imagine? People that live from hand to mouth being picked up and put in jail. How are they ever going to get a lawyer or get out of prison, and how are their families going to survive? So just one little look around and you get a little steel in your spine, thinking, Come on, let’s not feel sorry for ourselves here.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Un-Victim

The Un-Victim

Amitava Kumar interviews Arundhati Roy February 2011
In the wake of sedition threats by the Indian government, Arundhati Roy describes the stupidest question she gets asked, the cuss-word that made her respect the power of language, and the limits of preaching nonviolence.
Have to be
These Days

That is what I read on the little green, blue, and yellow stickers on the front door of Arundhati Roy’s home in south Delhi. Earlier in the evening I had received a message from Roy asking me to text her before my arrival so that she’d know that the person at her door wasn’t from Times Now. Times Now is a TV channel in India that Roy memorably described, for non-Indian readers, as “Fox News on acid.” The channel’s rabidly right-wing anchor routinely calls Roy “provocative” and “anti-national.” Last year, when a mob vandalized the house in which Roy was then living, the media vans, including one from Times Now, were parked outside long before the attack began. No one had informed the police. To be fair, Times Now wasn’t the only channel whose OB Van was parked in front of Roy’s house. But that too is a part of the larger point Roy has been making. Media outlets are not only complicit with the state, they are also indistinguishable from each other. The main anchor of a TV channel writes a column for a newspaper, the news editor has a talk show, etc. Roy told me that the monopoly of the media is like watching “an endless cocktail party where people are carrying their drinks from one room to the next.”

In most other homes in rich localities of Delhi those stickers on the door could be taken as apology for the heavy locks. But in Roy’s case the words assume another meaning. They mock the ways in which people rationalize their passivity and silence. You can shut your eyes, complacently turn your back on injustice, acquiesce in a crime simply by saying, “We have to be very careful these days…”

In November 2010, following a public speech she had made on the freedom struggle in Kashmir, a case of sedition was threatened against Roy. Several prominent members of the educated middle class in India spoke up on Roy’s behalf but a sizable section of this liberal set made it clear that their support of Roy was a support for the right to free speech, not for her views. What is it about Roy that so irks the Indian middle-class and elite? Is it the fact that she has no truck with the sober, scholarly, Brahmanical discourse of the respectable middle-of-the-road protectors of the status-quo? Her critics, among whom are some of my friends, are also serious people. But their objections appear hollow to me because they have never courted unpopularity. They air their opinions in op-eds, dine at the corporate table, are fêted on national TV, and collect followers on Twitter. They don’t have to face court orders. Naturally, I wanted to ask Roy whether she feels estranged from the people around her. She does, but also not. Her point is, which people? A bit melodramatically, I asked, “Are you lonely?” Roy’s wonderfully self-confident response: “If I were lonely, I’d be doing something else. But I’m not. I deploy my writing from the heart of the crowd.”
When I sat down for dinner with her I noticed the pile of papers on the far end of the wooden table. These were legal charges filed against Roy because of her statements against Indian state atrocities. Roy said to me, “These are our paper napkins these days.” What toll had these trials taken on her writing? Was her activism a source of a new political imagining or was her political experience one of loneliness and exile in her own land? What would be the shape of any new fiction she would write? These and other questions were on my mind when I began an exchange with Roy by email and then met with her twice at her home in Delhi in mid-January.

—Amitava Kumar for Guernica

Guernica: Before we begin, can you give me an example of a stupid question you are asked at interviews?

Arundhati Roy: It is difficult to answer extremely stupid questions. Very, very, difficult. Stupidity defeats you in some way. Especially when time is at a premium. And sometimes these questions are themselves mischievous.
My father turned out to be an absolutely charming, unemployed, broke, irreverent alcoholic.
Guernica: Give me an example.
Arundhati Roy: “The Maoists are blowing up schools and killing children. Do you approve? Is it right to kill children?” Where do you start?

Guernica: Yes.
Arundhati Roy: There was a Hardtalk once, I believe, between some BBC guy obviously, and a Palestinian activist. He was asking questions like this—“Do you believe in killing children?”—and any question he asked, the Palestinian just said, “Ariel Sharon is a war criminal.” Once, I was on The Charlie Rose Show. Well, I was invited to be on The Charlie Rose Show. He said, “Tell me, Arundhati Roy, do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons?” So I said, “I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the United States should have nuclear weapons.” “No, I asked you do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons.” I answered exactly the same thing. About four times… They never aired it!

Guernica: How old were you when you first became aware of the power of words?
Arundhati Roy: Pretty old I think. Maybe two. I heard about it from my disappeared father whom I met for the first time when I was about twenty-four or twenty-five years old. He turned out to be an absolutely charming, unemployed, broke, irreverent alcoholic. (After being unnerved initially, I grew very fond of him and gave thanks that he wasn’t some senior bureaucrat or golf-playing CEO.) Anyway, the first thing he asked me was, “Do you still use bad language?” I had no idea what he meant, given that the last time he saw me I was about two years old. Then he told me that on the tea estates in Assam where he worked, one day he accidentally burned me with his cigarette and that I glared at him and said “chootiya” (cunt, or imbecile)—language I’d obviously picked up in the tea-pickers’ labor quarters where I must have been shunted off to while my parents fought. My first piece of writing was when I was five… I still have those notebooks. Miss Mitten, a terrifying Australian missionary, was my teacher. She would tell me on a daily basis that she could see Satan in my eyes. In my two-sentence essay (which made it into The God of Small Things) I said, “I hate Miss Mitten, whenever I see her I see rags. I think her knickers are torn.” She’s dead now, God rest her soul. I don’t know whether these stories I’m telling you are about becoming aware of the power of words, or about developing an affection for words… the awareness of a child’s pleasure which extended beyond food and drink.
What’s interesting is trying to walk the path between honing language to make it as private as possible, then looking around, seeing what’s happening to millions, and deploying that private language to speak from the heart of a crowd.

Guernica: How has that early view changed or become refined in specific ways in the years since?

Arundhati Roy: I’m not sure that what I had then was a “view” about language—I’m not sure that I have one even now. As I said, it was just the beginnings of the recognition of pleasure. To be able to express yourself, to be able to close the gap—inasmuch as it is possible—between thought and expression is just such a relief. It’s like having the ability to draw or paint what you see, the way you see it. Behind the speed and confidence of a beautiful line in a line drawing there’s years of—usually—discipline, obsession, practice that builds on a foundation of natural talent or inclination of course. It’s like sport. A sentence can be like that. Language is like that. It takes a while to become yours, to listen to you, to obey you, and for you to obey it. I have a clear memory of language swimming towards me. Of my willing it out of the water. Of it being blurred, inaccessible, inchoate… and then of it emerging. Sharply outlined, custom-made.

Guernica: As far as writing is concerned, do you have models, especially those that have remained so for a long time?

Arundhati Roy: Do I have models? Maybe I wouldn’t use that word because it sounds like there are people who I admire so much that I would like to become them, or to be like them… I don’t feel that about anybody. But if you mean are there writers I love and admire—yes of course there are. So many. But that would be a whole new interview wouldn’t it? Apart from Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Nabokov, Neruda, Eduardo Galeano, John Berger, right now I’m becoming fascinated by Urdu poets who I am ashamed to say I know so little about… But I’m learning. I’m reading Hafiz. There are so many wonderful writers, my ancestors that have lived in the world. I cannot begin to list them. However, it isn’t only writers who inspire my idea of storytelling. Look at the Kathakali dancer, the ease with which he can shift gears within a story—from humor to epiphany, from bestiality to tenderness, from the epic to the intimate—that ability, that range, is what I really admire. To me it’s that ease—it’s a kind of athleticism—like watching a beautiful, easy runner—a cheetah on the move—that is proof of the fitness of the storyteller.

Guernica: American readers got their introduction to you when, a bit before The God of Small Things was published, an excerpt appeared in the New Yorker issue on India. There was a photograph there of you with other Indian writers, including Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, and a few others. In the time since then, your trajectory as a writer has defined very sharply your difference from everyone in that group. Did you even ever want to belong in it?

Arundhati Roy: I chuckle when I remember that day. I think everybody was being a bit spiky with everybody else. There were muted arguments, sulks, and mutterings. There was brittle politeness. Everybody was a little uncomfortable, wondering what exactly it was that we had in common, what qualified us to be herded into the same photograph? And yet it was for The New Yorker, and who didn’t want to be in The New Yorker? It was the fiftieth anniversary of India’s Independence and this particular issue was meant to be about the renaissance of Indian-English writing. But when we went for lunch afterward the bus that had been booked to take us was almost empty—it turned out that there weren’t many of us, after all. And who were we anyway? Indian writers? But the great majority of the people in our own country neither knew nor cared very much about who we were or what we wrote. Anyway, I don’t think anybody in that photograph felt they really belonged in the same “group” as the next person. Isn’t that what writers are? Great individualists? I don’t lose sleep about my differences or similarities with other writers. For me, what’s more interesting is trying to walk the path between the act of honing language to make it as private and as individual as possible, and then looking around, seeing what’s happening to millions of people and deploying that private language to speak from the heart of a crowd. Holding those two very contradictory things down is a fascinating enterprise. I am a part of a great deal of frenetic political activity here. I’ve spent the last six months traveling across the country, speaking at huge meetings in smaller towns—Ranchi, Jullundur, Bhubaneshwar, Jaipur, Srinagar—at public meetings with massive audiences, three and four thousand people—students, farmers, laborers, activists. I speak mostly in Hindi, which isn’t my language (even that has to be translated depending on where the meeting is being held). Though I write in English, my writing is immediately translated into Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Odia. I don’t think I’m considered an “Indo-Anglian” writer any more. I seem to be drifting away from the English speaking world at high speed. My English must be changing. The way I think about language certainly is.

Guernica: We are going to entertain the fantasy that you have the time to read and write these days. What have you been reading this past year, for instance?

Arundhati Roy: I have for some reason been reading about Russia, post-revolution Russia. A stunning collection of short stories by Varlam Shalamov called Kolyma Tales. The Trial of Trotsky in Mexico. Emma Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life. Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg… troubling stuff. The Chinese writer Yu Hua…

Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time.
Guernica: And writing? You have been effective, at crucial moments, as a writer-activist who introduces a strong opinion or protest when faced with an urgent issue. Often, these pieces, which are pretty lengthy, must require a lot of research—so much information sometimes sneaked into a stunning one-liner! How do you go about doing your research?

Arundhati Roy: Each of these pieces I have written over the last ten years are pieces I never wanted to write. And each time I wrote one, I thought it would be my last… Each time I write something I promise myself I’ll never do it again, because the fallout goes on for months; it takes so much of my time. Sometimes, increasingly, like of late, it turns dangerous. I actually don’t do research to write the pieces. My research isn’t project-driven. It’s the other way around—I write because the things I come to learn of from the reading and traveling I do and the stories I hear make me furious. I find out more, I cross-check, I read up, and by then I’m so shocked that I have to write. The essays I wrote on the December 13 Parliament attack are a good example—of course I had been following the case closely. I was on the Committee for the Free and Fair trial for S.A.R Geelani. Eventually he was acquitted and Mohammed Afzal was sentenced to death. I went off to Goa one monsoon, by myself with all the court papers for company. For no reason other than curiosity. I sat alone in a restaurant day after day, the only person there, while it poured and poured. I could hardly believe what I was reading. The Supreme Court judgment that said that though it didn’t have proof that Afzal was a member of a terrorist group, and the evidence against him was only circumstantial, it was sentencing him to death to “satisfy the collective conscience of society.” Just like that—in black and white. Even still, I didn’t write anything. I had promised myself “no more essays.”
But a few months later the date for the hanging was fixed. The newspapers were full of glee, talking about where the rope would come from, who the hangman would be. I knew the whole thing was a farce. I realized that if I said nothing and they went ahead and hanged him, I’d never forgive myself. So I wrote, “And his life should become extinct.” I was one of a handful of people who protested. Afzal’s still alive. It may not be because of us, it may be because his clemency petition is still pending, but I think between us we cracked the hideous consensus that had built up in the country around that case. Now at least in some quarters there is a healthy suspicion about unsubstantiated allegations in newspapers whenever they pick up people—mostly Muslims, of course—and call them “terrorists.” We can take a bit of credit for that. Now of course with the sensational confession of Swami Aseemanand in which he says the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] was behind the bomb blasts in Ajmer Sharif and Malegaon, and was responsible for the bombing of the Samjhauta Express—the idea of radical Hindutva groups being involved in false-flag attacks—is common knowledge.
To answer your question, I don’t really do research in order to write. Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life now for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time, if nothing else.
The Indian elite has seceded into outer space. It seems to have lost the ability to understand those who have been left behind on earth.
Guernica: What would it mean for you to write fiction now?

Arundhati Roy:  It would mean finding time, carving out a little solitude, getting off the tiger. I hope it will be possible. The God of Small Things was published only a few months before the nuclear tests which ushered in a new, very frightening, and overt language of virulent nationalism. In response I wrote “The End of Imagination” which set me on a political journey which I never expected to embark on. All these years later, after writing about big dams, privatization, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Parliament attack, the occupation of Kashmir, the Maoists, and the corporatization of everything—writing which involved facing down an incredibly hostile, abusive, and dangerous middle class—the Radia tapes exposé has come like an MRI confirming a diagnosis some of us made years ago. Now it’s street talk, so I feel it’s alright for me to do something else now. It happens all the time. You say something and it sounds extreme and outrageous, and a few years down the line it’s pretty much accepted as the norm. I feel we are headed for very bad times. This is going to become a more violent place, this country. But now that it’s upon us, as a writer I’ll have to find a way to live, to witness, to communicate what’s going on. The Indian elite has seceded into outer space. It seems to have lost the ability to understand those who have been left behind on earth.
Guernica: Yes, but what do you have to do to write new fiction?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t know. I’ll have to find a language to tell the story I want to tell. By language I don’t mean English, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, of course. I mean something else. A way of binding together worlds that have been ripped apart. Let’s see.
Guernica: Your novel was a huge best-seller, of course. But your nonfiction books have been very popular too. In places like New York, whenever you have spoken there is always a huge turnout of adoring fans. Your books sell well here but what I’ve been amazed by is how some of your pieces, including the one published in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, become a sensation on the Internet. Could you comment on this phenomenon. Also, is it true that the New York Times refused to publish that piece?

Arundhati Roy: As far as I know the New York Times has a policy of not publishing anything that has appeared elsewhere. And I rarely write commissioned pieces. But of course “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” the essay I wrote after 9/11, was not published in any mainstream U.S. publication—it was unthinkable at the time. But that essay was published all over the world; in the U.S. some small radio stations read it out, all of it. And yes, it flew on the net. There’s so much to say about the internet… Wikileaks, the Facebook revolution in places like Kashmir which has completely subverted the Indian media’s propaganda of noise as well as strategic silence. The Twitter uprising in Iran. I expect the internet to become a site of conflict very soon, with attempts being made by governments and big business to own and control it, to price it out of the reach of the poor… I don’t see those attempts being successful though. India’s newest and biggest war, Operation Green Hunt, is being waged against tribal people, many of whom have never seen a bus or a train, leave alone a computer. But even there, mobile phones and YouTube are playing a part.

Guernica: Talking of the New York Times, I read your recent report from Kashmir, just after you were threatened with arrest on the slightly archaic-sounding charge of sedition.

Arundhati Roy: Yes, there was that. But I think it has blown over. It would have been a bad thing for me. But I think, on balance, it would have been worse for them. It’s ludicrous because I was only saying what millions of Kashmiris have been saying for years. Interestingly, the whole thing about charging me for sedition was not started by the Government, but by a few right-wing crazies and a few irresponsible media channels like Times Now which is a bit like Fox News on acid. Even when the Mumbai attacks happened, if you remember it was the media that began baying for war with Pakistan. This cocktail of religious fundamentalism and a crazed, irresponsible, unaccountable media is becoming a very serious problem, in India as well as Pakistan. I don’t know what the solution is. Certainly not censorship…

Guernica: Can you give a sense of what is a regular day for you, or perhaps how irregular and different one day may be from another?

Arundhati Roy: My days and nights. Actually I don’t have a regular day (or night!). It has been so for years, and has nothing to do with the sedition tamasha [spectacle]. I’m not sure how I feel about this—but that’s how it is. I move around a lot. I don’t always sleep in the same place. I live a very unsettled but not un-calm life. But sometimes I feel as though I lack a skin—something that separates me from the world I live in. That absence of skin is dangerous. It invites trouble into every part of your life. It makes what is public private and what is private public. It can sometimes become very traumatic, not just for me but for those who are close to me.

Guernica: Your stance on Kashmir and also on the struggles of the tribals has drawn the ire of the Indian middle class. Who belongs to that class and what do you think gets their goat?

Arundhati Roy: The middle class goat is very sensitive about itself and very callous about other peoples’ goats.
Guernica: Your critics say that you often see the world only in black and white.
Arundhati Roy: The thing is you have to understand, Amitava, that the people who say such things are a certain section of society who think they are the universe. It is the jitterbugging elite which considers itself the whole country. Just go outside and nobody will say that to you. Go to Orissa, go to the people who are under attack, and nobody will think that there is anything remotely controversial about what I write. You know, I keep saying this, the most successful secession movement in India is the secession of the middle and upper classes to outer space. They have their own universe, their own andolan, their own Jessica Lal, their own media, their own controversies, and they’re disconnected from everything else. For them, what I write comes like an outrage. Ki yaar yeh kyaa bol rahi hai? [What the hell is she saying?] They don’t realize that they are the ones who have painted themselves into a corner.
It would be immoral of me to preach violence unless I’m prepared to pick up arms myself. It is equally immoral for me to preach nonviolence when I’m not bearing the brunt of the attack.
Guernica: You have written that “people believe that faced with extermination they have the right to fight back. By any means necessary.” The knee-jerk response to this has been: Look, she’s preaching violence.

Arundhati Roy: My question is, if you are an Adivasi living in a village in a dense forest in Chhattisgarh, and that village is surrounded by eight hundred Central Reserve Police Force who have started to burn down the houses and rape the women, what are people supposed to do? Are they supposed to go on a hunger strike? They can’t. They are already hungry, they are already starving. Are they supposed to boycott goods? They can’t because they don’t have the money to buy goods. And if they go on a fast or a dharna, who is looking, who is watching? So, my position is just that it would be immoral of me to preach violence to anybody unless I’m prepared to pick up arms myself. But I think it is equally immoral for me to preach nonviolence when I’m not bearing the brunt of the attack.

Guernica: According to Macaulay, the rationale for the introduction of English in India, as we all know, was to produce a body of clerks. We have departed from that purpose, of course, but still, in our use of the language we remain remarkably conservative. I wonder sometimes whether your style itself, exuberant and excessive, isn’t for these readers a transgression.

Arundhati Roy: I wouldn’t say that it’s all Macaulay’s fault. There is something clerky and calculating about our privileged classes. They see themselves as the State or as advisors to the State, rarely as subjects. If you read columnists and editorials, most have a very clerky, “apply-through-proper-channels” approach. As though they are a shadow cabinet. Even when they are critical of the State they are what a friend once described as “reckless at slow speed.”  So I don’t think my transgressions as far as they are concerned has only to do with my style. It’s about everything—style, substance, politics, speed. I think it worries them that I’m not a victim and that I don’t pretend to be one. They love victims and victimology. My writing is not a plea for aid or for compassion towards the poor. We’re not asking for more NGOs or charities or foundations in which the rich can massage their egos and salve their consciences with their surplus money. The critique is structural.

Guernica: Your polemical essays often draw criticism also for their length. (We are frankly envious of the space that the print media in India is able to grant you.) You have written “We need context. Always.” Is the length at which you aspire to write and explain things a result of your search for context?

Arundhati Roy: I don’t aspire to write at any particular length. What I write could be looked at as a very long essay or a very short book. Most of the time, what I write has everything to do with timing. It’s not just what I say, but when I say it. I usually write when I know the climate is turning ugly, when no one is in a mood to listen to this version of things. I know it’s going to enrage people and yet, I know that nothing is more important at that moment than to put your foot in the door.

Guernica: But even as we raise the issue of criticism, it is also important to say that some of these critics who accuse you of hyperbole and other sins are hardly our moral exemplars. I’m thinking of someone like Vir Sanghvi. His editorial about your Kashmir speech was dismissive and filled with high contempt. We’ve discovered from the recent release of the Radia tapes that people like Sanghvi were not impartial journalists: they were errand boys for corporate politicians.

Arundhati Roy: We didn’t need the Radia tapes to discover that. And I wouldn’t waste my energy railing against those who criticize or dismiss me. It’s part of their brief. I don’t expect them to stand up and applaud.
Guernica: Having read all your published writing over the past twelve years or more, I wonder: Is there anything you have written in the past that you don’t agree with anymore, that you think you were wrong about, or perhaps something about which you have dramatically changed your mind?

Arundhati Roy: You know, ironically, I wouldn’t be unhappy to be wrong about the things I’ve said. Imagine if I suddenly realized that big dams were wonderful. I could celebrate the hundreds of dams that are being planned in the Himalayas. I could celebrate the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. But there are things about which my views have changed—because the times have changed. Most of this has to do with strategies of resistance. The Indian State has become hard and unforgiving. What it once did in places like Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland, it does in mainland India. So some of the strategies we inherited from the freedom movement are a bit obsolete now.

Guernica: You have pointed out that the logic of the global war on terror is the same as the logic of terrorism, making victims of civilians. Are there specific works, particularly of fiction, that have arrived close to explaining the post 9/11 world we are living in?

Arundhati Roy: Actually I haven’t really kept up with the world of fiction, sad to say. I don’t even know who won the Booker Prize from one year to the next. But when you read Neruda’s “Standard Oil Co.” you really have to believe that while things change they remain the same.

Guernica: Your old friend Baby Bush is gone. But has Obama been any better? While we are worried about the TSA at airports, in less fortunate places U.S. drone attacks are killing more civilians than militants. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices against the role played by the U.S. terrorist-industrial complex instead of backing, as you suggest, the Iraqi resistance movement?

Arundhati Roy: I hope I didn’t say we should back the Iraqi resistance movement. I’m not sure what backing a resistance movement means—saying nice things about it? I think I meant that we should become the resistance. If people outside Iraq had actually done more than just weekend demonstrations, then the pressure on the U.S. government could have been huge. Without that, the Iraqis were left on their own in a war zone in which every kind of peaceful dissent was snuffed out. Only the monstrous could survive. And then the world was called upon to condemn them. Even here in India, there are these somewhat artificial debates about  “violent” and “non-violent” resistance—basically a critique of the Maoists’ armed struggle in the mineral-rich forests of Central India. The fact is that if everybody leaves adivasis to fight their own battles against displacement and destitution, it’s impossible to expect them to be Gandhian. However, it is open to people outside the forest, well-off and middle-class people who the media pays mind to, to become a part of the resistance. If they stood up, then perhaps those in the forest would not need to resort to arms. If they won’t stand up, then there’s not much point in their preaching morality to the victims of the war. About Bush and Obama: frankly, I’m tired of debating U.S. politics. There are new kings on the block now.