Brave New India
Sunday 21 December 2008 by anik
ARUNDHATI ROY is the celebrated author of The God of Small Things, 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 winner of the 2002 Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom. Her latest books are The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, with David Barsamian, and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. DAVID BARSAMIAN interviewed her in New Delhi on December 29, 2007. David Barsamian is the producer of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado.
ALL NATIONS have ideas about themselves that are repeated without much scrutiny or examination: the United States—a beacon of freedom and liberty; India—the world’s largest democracy, dedicated to secularism.
INDIA HAS done a better job than the United States in recent years. The myth about the U.S. being a beacon of liberty has been more or less discredited amongst people who are even vaguely informed. India, on the other hand, has managed to pull off almost a miraculous public relations coup. It really is the flavor of the decade, I think. It’s the sort of dream destination for world capital. All this done in the name of "India is not Afghanistan," "India is not Pakistan," "India is a secular democracy," and so on.
India has among the highest number of custodial deaths in the world. It’s a country where 25 percent of its territory is out of control of the government. But the thing is that these areas are so dark, whether it’s Kashmir, whether it’s the northeastern states, whether it’s Chhattisgarh, whether it’s parts of Andhra Pradesh. There is so much going on here, but it’s just a diverse and varied place. So while there are killings going on, say, in Chhattisgarh, there’s a festival in Tamil Nadu or a cricket match between India and Australia in Adelaide. Where the light is shone is where the Sensex stock market is jumping and investments are coming in. And where the lights are switched off are the states where farmers are committing suicide—I think the figure is now 136,000—and the killing, in say, Kashmir, which is 68,000 to 80,000. We have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows even noncommissioned officers to shoot on suspicion.
It’s quite interesting what’s going on right now, because we are at the cusp where the definition of terrorism is being expanded. Under the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party—that’s the radical Hindu government previously in power—much of the emphasis was on Islamic terrorism. But now Islamic terrorism is not enough to net those that the government wants to net, because the minimum qualification is that you have to be a Muslim. Now, with these huge development projects and these Special Economic Zones that are being created and the massive displacement, the people that are protesting those have to be called terrorists, too. And they can’t be Islamic terrorists, so now we have the Maoists. The fact is that both in the case of militancy in Kashmir as well as the expansion of the Maoist cadres, they are both realities—it’s not that they are not—but they are realities that both sides benefit from exaggerating. So when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says it’s the greatest internal security threat, it allows various state governments to pass all kinds of laws that could call anybody a terrorist. Say, tomorrow, they came into my house here. Just the books that I have would make me qualify as a terrorist. In Chhattisgarh, if I had these books and if I weren’t Arundhati Roy, I could be put into jail. Human rights activists, like, say, a very well-known doctor, Binayak Sen, has just been put into jail on charges of being a Maoist. He’s being made an example of to discourage people from having any association with those who are resisting this kind of absolutely lawless takeover of land now. Thousands and thousands of acres are being handed over to corporates. So now we’re sort of, as I said, on the cusp of expanding the definition of terrorist so that a lot of people who disagree with this mode of development can be actually imprisoned and are being imprisoned.
Until recently, even post-1990s, when the sort of neoliberal model was imported into India, we were still talking about the privatization of water, the privatization of electricity, the devastation of the rivers. But when you look at privatization of water and electricity, still these corporate companies had to find their markets here, even if it was for the Indian elite, even if it was just making water and electricity too expensive for local people. But with the opening up of the mineral sector and the discovery of huge deposits of bauxite and iron ore in states like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, we are watching these places turn into what it was like in Africa, what it is like in the Middle East, where you don’t have to find a local market. You just take the whole mountain of bauxite and you store it in the desert in Australia and you trade bauxite on the futures market. So the corporates are here, and their guns are trained on these minerals.
If you look at a geographical map of India, you will see that the only areas where there are forests are where Adivasis, tribals, live, and under the forests are the minerals. It is these ecologically and socially most vulnerable parts of India that are now in the crosshairs of these big guns. So you have absolute devastation happening in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Chhattisgarh is like Colombia. The Tatas, who until just a few years ago were trying to be the sort of good-uncle corporation, have now decided to go aggressive and enter the world market big time. So, for example, they signed an MOU, memorandum of understanding, with the Chhattisgarh government for the mining of iron ore. And within days, not by coincidence I’m sure, was the announcement of what’s known as the Salva Judum, a people’s militia, which purportedly is a spontaneous movement that sprang up to fight the menace of the Maoists. Salva Judum is armed by the government. Something like four hundred villages have been evacuated and moved into police camps. Chhattisgarh is in a situation of sort of civil war, which is exactly what happened in Colombia. And while our eyes are on this supposed civil war, obviously the mining, the minerals, everything can be just taken away.
If you look at what’s going on in Orissa, the situation is similar. Orissa has bauxite mountains, which are beautiful and densely forested, with flat tops, like air fields. They are porous mountains, which are actually water tanks that store water for the fields in the plains. And whole mountains have just been taken away by private corporations, and, of course, destroying the forests, displacing the tribals, and devastating the land.
It’s really interesting, what’s going on in India today. It’s hard to know what to say or how to think about it anymore. We are all well versed in Noam Chomsky’s thesis of the manufacture of consent, but actually what’s going on now here is we’re living in the era of the manufacture of dissent, where you have these corporations who are making so much money. For example, the way the bauxite business works is that the corporates just pay the Orissa government a royalty, a small percentage, and they are making billions. And with those billions they can set up an NGO. Somebody says they’re going to set up Vedanta University in Orissa. They will mop up all the intellectuals and environmentalists. Alcan has given a million-dollar environmental award to one of the leading environmental activists in India. The Tatas have the Jamsetji Tata Trust and the Dorabji Tata Trust, which they use to fund activists, to stage cultural events and so on, to the point where these people are funding the dissent as well as the devastation. The dissent is on a leash; it’s only apparent. It’s a manufactured situation in which everyone is playing out this kind of theater. It’s completely crazy.
CLEARLY, THE state must be enabling these kinds of situations to occur and to continue.
THIS IS the genius of the Indian state. It’s an extremely sophisticated state. It has a lot to teach the Americans about occupation, it has a lot to teach the world about how you manage dissent. You just wear people down, you just wait things out. When they want to mow people down, when they want to kill and imprison, it does that, too. Who doesn’t believe that this is a spiritual country where everybody just thinks that if it’s not okay in this life it will be okay in the next life? Yet it is one of the most devastatingly cruel societies. Which other culture could dream up the caste system? Even the Taliban can’t come up with the way Indian civilization has created Dalits.
EXPLAIN WHO Dalits are.
DALITS ARE the "untouchables" of India.
THEY’RE ON the bottom of the economic, social ladder.
THEY’RE ON the bottom of everything, everything. They are routinely bludgeoned, butchered, killed. I don’t know whether it made it to the American press, but, for example, Dalits, because they have been at the bottom of Hindu society, often have converted and become Muslims, become Christians, become Sikhs. But they continue to be treated as untouchables, even in those religions. It’s so pervasive.
There was recently a man called Bant Singh, who is a Sikh Dalit. Even in India people would jump at the idea of there being such a thing as a Sikh Dalit. But, actually, 30 percent of Sikhs are Dalits and about 90 percent of them are landless. Because they are landless, obviously they work as labor on other people’s farms. Their women are very vulnerable. Upper castes all over India think that they have the right to pick up a Dalit woman and have sex with her or rape her. Bant Singh’s young daughter was raped by the upper-caste people in his village. Bant Singh was a member of the CPI (ML), which is the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), known as Naxalites, and he filed a case in court. They warned him. They said, "If you don’t drop the case, we will kill you." He didn’t drop the case, so they caught him and they cut off his arms and his legs.
He was in the hospital in Delhi. I went to see him there. It was a lesson to me about how being a political person saved him. He said, "Do you think I don’t have arms and legs? I do. Because all my comrades are my arms and legs." He’s a singer, so he sang a song about a young girl’s father getting her dowry ready for her just before her marriage, her trousseau. And she says to him, "I don’t want this sari and these jewels. What will I do with them? Just give me a gun." Unfortunately, more and more, because of, I think, what happened with the Narmada movement and the fact that that nonviolent movement, where people fought for fifteen years and were just flicked aside like chaff, that has resulted in a lot of people saying, "I don’t want the bangles, I don’t want Gandhi. Just give me a gun."
YOU WERE an active participant in, and observer and reporter on, the NBA, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. It was, of course, trying to fight many of these big dam projects in central India. Well, what happened exactly? Where did it go and where is it today? Is it still active? You once described it, I think, as the greatest nonviolent movement since [India’s] independence.
YES, I did. But I think people, including myself, are very disillusioned by what happened. And I personally feel that we really need to do a sort of post-mortem. The state did what’s in its nature, and it has won that battle. The Supreme Court judgment that came out in 2001 was a devastating blow. But, in my opinion, that should have been the time when people began to question these institutions such as the Supreme Court. Instead, people have gone on and on and on trying to find some embers of hope there and have not broken the faith. I have broken the faith. I don’t look to the court for any kind of real help, which is not to say that every single court judgment that comes out is terrible, but there is a systemic problem with the Supreme Court of India, with its views, with its ideologies. This is a huge subject separate to this question and, to me, one of the most important things that needs to be discussed.
But the Narmada movement now refuses to question itself, and I think that’s a problem. Because it was a wonderful and a magnificent effort, but it wasn’t faultless. Unless we try and think about what is it that was wrong, we can’t really just move on to something else. In fact, as I said, I think people have felt that there is a futility in these kind of hunger fasts and dharnas, sit-ins, and sitting on the pavement singing songs, because I think the government loves that. Now Sonia Gandhi is talking about satyagraha and Gandhi in Davos. We have satyagraha fairs in Connaught Place where they sell herbal shampoos. And when the government starts promoting satyagraha, it’s time for us to think about it.
I think it’s time to radically question many things, including what this kind of joyful freedom movement of 1947 was about and who did it benefit and was it really a middle-class revolution that, as usual, fired its guns off the shoulders of the poor, which it was. The Indian elites stepped very easily into the shoes of our white sahibs.
TALK ABOUT Narendra Modi and Gujarat. In December of 2007, he and his party were reelected. It was Modi in 2002 who presided over a pogrom resulting in the deaths of some two thousand primarily Muslims in Gujarat. What accounts for his ability to be reelected despite this record of promoting communal violence?
No, it’s not despite, it’s because. That polgrom in which between 1,500 to 2,000 Muslims were massacred on the streets, women were gang-raped, 150,000 Muslims were driven from their homes and today they live in ghetto conditions, economically and socially ostracized in Gujarat, this was all an election campaign. So I think we really need to question, structurally, what is this democracy? It’s kind of pointless to just demonize Modi, because there are going to be people like Modi, who understand that there is a very organic link between democracy and majoritarianism and between majoritarianism and fascism. As I keep saying, there is fire in the ducts. This has to be what’s going to happen, because what is a politician spawned by this kind of complex society going to do? He’s going to try and forge a majority for himself using the lowest common denominator, which will then be a sort of faithful vote bank. That’s what Modi did. Modi is a brilliant politician, and he has the corporates eating out of his hand. So that connection—just like we know happened during the Nazi era in Germany—the connection between the fascists and the big corporations, it’s no different here. Tata, Reliance, all these people say Gujarat is the dream destination for capital.
The RSS, which is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the cultural guild that spawned the BJP (which is just its political wing) was founded in 1925, and it’s been working all these years, sometimes underground, sometimes above ground. It was founded basically on the tenets of Mussolini’s Italian fascism—very open about saying that the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany. It’s the Indian liberals who try and say that it’s not fascist, whereas they themselves are very comfortable with the idea of fascism. In fact, there was a ridiculous moment during the Gujarat elections when Sonia Gandhi, campaigning for the Congress, called Modi "maut ka saudagar," which is a merchant of death. And Advani, who is the leader of the BJP, and Modi both came out and said, "We don’t mind being called Hitler, that’s acceptable, but don’t call him a merchant of death." In fact, in the history textbooks and things in Gujarat, Hitler gets quite high marks.
So what we are seeing in Gujarat is a kind of fascism, because I keep saying that having a fascist dictator is one thing, but having a fascist democrat elected to power, fattened on the approbation of millions of people, is a different thing. Because we have now millions of little Modis running around in Gujarat. Recently, just before the elections, Tehelka news magazine did a sting operation. It was shown on a major prime-time channel, where you had people coming out saying very openly how they had raped and then pulped Muslim women, how they had hacked to death people and then Modi had given them refuge or sent them out of Gujarat for a while and protected them.
THIS WAS all well documented?
WELL DOCUMENTED. Tehelka had these guys come out and say it themselves. All the documentation exists in great detail from human rights groups, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Communalism Combat. But when it was aired on TV, down the line everybody’s reaction was, "Oh, what terrible timing. Now Modi is going to win the elections." Because these people are boasting about this kind of massacre. It’s going to get him votes. So that’s what I meant by saying it’s not despite, it’s because of.
Having said that, it is important, when you look at the election results in some detail, to see that Modi in many constituencies just won by three hundred, five hundred, a thousand votes. It was close. But the thing is that if you look at how this democracy now has begun to function, I really find it chilling.
For example, during the pogrom there was one episode—I’m just telling you one of many episodes—there was an MLA, a member of the legislative assembly, called Ehsan Jafari, a poet, who lived in Ahmedabad in a housing society called Gulbarga. When the mobs began to gather, something like sixty Muslims from that area went and sheltered with him thinking he’s an MLA and he’s not going to get killed. A mob of some twenty thousand people gathered and started baying for his blood. This man made two hundred phone calls that day, from Modi, to the home minister Advani, to the police, to Sonia Gandhi, saying, "Please help." The police even came there and went away. Ehsan Jafari was pulled out of his house and in front of everyone, in broad daylight, was hacked into pieces. Something like twelve women were gang-raped and killed and everybody was burned alive. And the policeman who was there was promoted. The man who was organizing this now became the police commissioner of Gujarat. The lawyers who were representing the Muslims were actually lawyers who had been the lawyers for the accused. Some of the survivors knew who the killers were. The police refused to write their names in the FIRs, First Information Reports. Just that it was general mob violence.
The Supreme Court made some very virtuous sounds at that time, five years ago, saying Modi was like Nero: he was fiddling while Gujarat burned. And then they just clammed up. Nothing happened. And then you have these men come out and boast on prime-time TV of having raped and killed and looted, saying things like, "We know that these Muslims are terrified of being burned. They would need to be buried. That’s why we decided to burn them." And nothing happened.
So everything just goes on, every single institution has been penetrated by these people and functions, as long as you are open for investments, as long as all the Tatas and Reliance and all the rich people are happy. We’re looking at something that no dictator could do. This level of penetration of all these various institutions drives you completely crazy. You sit there and you just don’t know what to think. And even the political parties like, say, the Communist Party of India, that opposes Modi, then goes and does a Nandigram.
You’re really left to be a mad person in the wilderness. People are so disillusioned with the system. They are doing their own fighting. They are taking to arms, they have their own systems of justice, their own understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong and are turning their backs on this country with the greatest publicity in the world.
YOU JUST mentioned Nandigram, which is a small village in West Bengal, a state that is ruled by the Communist Party (Marxist). In 2007 there were killings there. You went to Nandigram. Can you explain what happened and what is going on?
Nandigram is not a small village. Nandigram is a district that consists of many, many villages. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CP(M)], which is the main parliamentary Left, which is in coalition with the center right now, has been in power in West Bengal for thirty years unchallenged. I grew up in Kerala, which also has had a communist government, but it’s all the time in and out of power. When I went to Bengal, I realized the first thing you do is to question how in this tumultuous place can a party remain in power for thirty years unchallenged. There is something terribly wrong there. It’s difficult to explain. I’ll try and explain it simply, because obviously it has led to a lot of confusion in the world. This particular Communist Party (Marxist) has been sort of not calling itself that but has been at the level of organizing, say, the World Social Forum in India, saying "Another World Is Possible" and trying to align itself with all the various people’s movements that have existed in India for many years. The Communist Party (Marxist), except in Bengal and to some extent in Kerala, does not have any cadres anywhere else in India, so it was consciously trying to sort of associate itself with all these various people’s movements, which was why it was so big into the World Social Forum.
IT WAS held in Mumbai in 2005.
BUT EVEN the ones that were held in Porto Alegre, very many people who were associated with the CP(M) were involved. And then a year and a half or two years ago, the Indian government announced this. And, of course, the CP(M) has always had as its war cry anti-U.S., anti-imperialism, and all that, and anti this whole neoliberal project.
But then the government announced this whole policy of SEZs, which are Special Economic Zones, an acronym that has spawned many sarcastic forms, such as Slavery Enabled Zones. These SEZs are huge economic enclaves, I don’t know the exact figure but there are hundreds. India used to be a feudal society, with huge feudal zamindars.
AND THEN there was a failed process of land reform in states like—actually, the state where the most successful land reforms happened, oddly enough, was Kashmir, and Kashmiris are still enjoying the benefits of that. But in places like Bengal and elsewhere there were some land reforms. And now this whole business of SEZs is almost reversing that whole process and taking away land and giving it to big corporations, like Reliance and Tata.
What the Communist Party (Marxist) has been doing is vociferously opposing SEZs, and then suddenly in West Bengal turning around to create one of the biggest SEZs, which is to be this chemical hub in the district of Nandigram. An Indonesian corporation called the Salim Group was its sort of front, and it was going to make this chemical hub. Nandigram is right near Haldia port.
Trouble started in West Bengal first with the Tatas in a place called Singur, where the government gave the Tatas something close to 1,000 hectares of land to make small cars. You can imagine the communist government wanting to make small cars, the people’s car. You know who else made the people’s car. So there was firing. People were killed in Singur. There was a huge resistance.
But then it announced this chemical hub in Nandigram, and notices went out for land acquisition. This was something like 18,000 hectares. Thousands and thousands of people were going to be affected. And Nandigram just rose up in revolt. It was interesting, because Nandigram used to be a CP(M) stronghold. I think it was a case of a party being so unused to any kind of opposition that it just misread the situation and thought it could do exactly what it wanted. It resulted basically in the party having what the people in Nandigram call the cadre police, which is party people dressed in police uniforms going in and committing acts of violence and even murder.
The first uprising was in March. It’s a whole mess of all kinds of politics, but basically it was a fantastic resistance. They dug up the roads, they refused the police entry, and they said, "You can’t come in and you can’t have our land."
I’ll just tell you what happened when I was there. The government kept saying the people barricaded Nandigram and, "They’re not allowing us in to do development work, they’re not allowing the police in, we can’t give polio drops." They kept saying this thing about polio drops. There is not a single health center in all those villages. The nearest hospital is in Nandigram town, which is very, very far for people to go. All these years, no electricity, none of that. And suddenly you’re talking about polio drops. Really what it is about is regaining complete control.
The second time I went, which was just last week, the people I had met the first time sent messages saying, "Please don’t come to us, please don’t recognize us, because we’ll just be eliminated." They just dare, and anyone who pops their head up, it’s off with their heads. So, in fact, just a few days ago, the last thing I did when I came out of Nandigram was I was present at the exhumation of a body in a field that had its legs smashed and two bullets in its back, and his wife had identified the body. The neighbor said to me that this man was a member of the Bhoomi Ucched Pratrirodh Committee, which is the resistance organization, and had been told several times that he must join the CP(M), otherwise he would be killed. And when he didn’t, he was made an example of.
I really salute the resistance there. I think it is so important for everyone else in India that they force the government to say they will not build the hub, even though nobody believes it. But even if it’s a temporary victory, it’s a great thing. It’s so important for the CP(M) government to keep saying, "Oh, it was the Maoists. It wasn’t the local people, it was outsiders." And this whole bullshit about outsiders. How dare a communist party come and say outsiders. What do they mean by outsiders? Beyond the district or outside Bengal? If they believe in that kind of rhetoric, what gives them the right to comment about Gujarat or fascism or the BJP or anything?
KASHMIR IS an area of conflict, but it’s largely unreported, particularly in the United States. The framework of the little information that is available is usually that these are Islamic extremists, terrorists. Now, since September 11, they’re labeled as Taliban and al-Qaeda. You have been going to Kashmir. What have you learned?
KASHMIR IS one of those places where every time I hear people say, "Oh, it’s more complicated than that," I get a rash, because all you need to do is to get out of the airport to see that here is a small valley where there are—I keep saying that to fight a full-blown war in Iraq, the Americans have 135,000 troops, and in Kashmir it’s something like 700,000 security personnel of different kinds: the army, the police, the paramilitary, the counterinsurgency, all the various kinds of people that are operating there. Certainly the situation has been made complicated with spies and double agents and informers and money being poured in by intelligence agencies from India and Pakistan.
But the bottom line is that it is the people’s will that the Indian government is seeking to subvert. Why is it so frightened of a referendum? Firstly, how can you talk about holding democratic, free, and fair elections in a place where a person isn’t even allowed to breathe without an AK-47 being stuck up his nostril? So what is it that so frightens the Indian government that they do not wish to assess what the people really want? In a way, it’s been complicated by the instrument of accession, genuine or not. Supposing it was genuine. Supposing it was.
THE TRANSFER from the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian union in 1947.
RIGHT. I’M just saying that what is it that the people want now? If we are going to be talking about democracy as being the foundation, the keystone of democracy being the will of the people, everybody seems to feel that they can speak on behalf of the will of the people, but nobody wants to ascertain what is the will of the people. Though, of course, I think that we’re not going to have an idealistic solution to the problem of Kashmir. India is never going to give up anything. Right now it’s stronger than it ever was. So how that fight, how that battle is joined still remains to be seen. But it’s clear that after having almost lost a whole generation of young people, the Kashmiris are nowhere close to saying "We give up." Of course, there is an elite that’s been co-opted that’s being made to feel like its stakes in peace are huge. But I think India is as far away from a solution to Kashmir as America is from a solution to Iraq or Afghanistan.
THE J&K Coalition of Civil Society has published numerous reports about human rights violations, disappear?ances, torture, molestation and rapes of women, and extrajudicial execu?tions. What kind of attention has this attracted in civil society in the rest of India?
BECAUSE THIS whole rhetoric of Muslim terrorism and so on is very deep. So you will see trucks going past that on the back say "Doodh mango to kheer deingay, Kashmir mango to cheer deingay." It means, Ask for milk and we’ll give you cream. Ask for Kashmir and we’ll disembowel you. Every part of the state machinery, including the press, is fully into the propaganda. At least Kashmiris have the hope, even if it’s never realized, of freedom inside them. At least they have the dignity that they are doing battle. What do you do for the people in Chhattisgarh or the Muslims in Gujarat? Where are they going to go? Kashmir is in some ways an old-world, classical battle for freedom, like Algeria.
I experienced one of the most beautiful moments of my life recently in Kerala. I heard that four thousand Dalit and Adivasi families captured a corporate rubber estate, about two hours away from where my mother lives. So I went there. It was amazing to me to watch the place that I had grown up in, to see a kind of nation rise up before me of people who are just disappeared by our society. It was just an amazing sight. It was the opposite of Nandigram, where the corporates are grabbing people’s land. Here the people are grabbing corporate land. Each of them has a little blue plastic sheet that they’ve made into a hut under a rubber tree. They’ve been there for something like three hundred days. There are twenty thousand people, women and children, and each of them says that they have a 5-liter can of petrol in their house, and "If the police come, we are just going to immolate ourselves, because we have nowhere else to go."
When I heard them speak and I saw that civilizational rage in them, it makes things very simple. They just said, "Look, this corporation has thirty-three estates. It has some 55,000 to 60,000 hectares of land. I have nowhere to sleep. I’m taking it." And I suddenly thought, someone like myself—I write, I’ve got all these figures and footnotes and statistics—am I turning into a clerk? Is this the way I want to fight? Because eventually who is one trying to convince? These people who read these things are never going to give up what they have. They have to be forced to.
That is the battle that’s coming here in India. The government is spawning these private militias. In Chhattisgarh you have the Salva Julum. In Gujarat you have the Bajrang Dal. In West Bengal you have the CP(M) cadre police. In Orissa the corporates have their own thugs. That’s what’s going on. And never mind that they are not even talking about what’s happening in the northeast of India, an ongoing situation since 1947, which is worse than Kashmir. Frederick Douglass once said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, it never will."
For myself, I think it’s very important for us to also continue to question ourselves and what we do and our role in it. Today in India it’s very easy for everybody to keep saying the Maoists are terrible, the government is also terrible, all violence is bad, one is the other side of the coin, these platitudes that are being mouthed. But today, unless I’m prepared to take up arms, I’m not in a position to tell others to take up arms. But unless I’m in a position where I’m at the other end of this battering ram, I’m also not going to sit around saying, "Let’s go on a hunger strike" and "Let’s go and sing songs outside the Ministry of Water Resources." I’m through with all that.
AT THE World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul in June of 2005, you made some comments about resistance and the right of resistance that raised a few eyebrows. Have your views on that evolved since then?
MY VIEWS on that have not changed since then. Maybe they’ve evolved. I think that it’s very important for us to understand that every day people are being decimated now. I was one of the people who said that the globalization of dissent was the way to fight the globalization of corporate capital. But that was the era of the World Social Forum. But I think things have changed since then, because the World Social Forum has been taken over. So what has happened is a kind of corporatization of dissent. And the globalization of dissent then ends up creating hierarchies, where you pick and choose your genocide or you pick and choose the worst thing that’s happening. Is what’s happening in Nandigram worse than what happened in the Congo? Of course it’s not. Everything gets slotted in and people locally get disempowered.
Everyone is looking for star recommendations from the superstars of resistance. Even someone like me. I’m always being asked to say something about things I don’t know enough about. I feel that it’s very important not to disempower people who are fighting and not to tell them how to fight. For example, in India it’s come to a stage where the only thing that people can do is to really do what the people in Nandigram did, dig the roads up and say "You can’t come in," because the minute they go in, the minute they start taking over, they co-opt, they pick off the leaders, they buy off someone, it’s over. There is a certain amount of brutality now that even resistance has to have, because the co-optation is amazing, the NGO-ization is amazing.
I’ll tell you a very interesting story. A lot of the royalties from my work I put into a trust. A few of us, friends, activists, run it. The only money that comes into it is the money from my writing and so on, because it’s not about trying to raise money, it’s just trying to give it out in solidarity to people who don’t know how to write proposals and work the system. It’s called Zindabad. Long live. We got a letter recently from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which is an institute that sometimes is like the post office to disburse funds given to various activists and movements by the Tata trusts. So on one hand you have Tatas, the capitalists, and on the other hand you have these trusts, as I told you, who are funding all these activists and so on. The letter says, "Dear Zindabad Trust, The tribals of Madhya Pradesh are grateful to the Tatas for having supported their struggles for rights and livelihood." And now, in order to expand their base, they want to have a seminar in the India International Centre to which judges and bureaucrats and activists and Adivasis will be invited. And there is a budget where, obviously, the bureaucrats’ and judges’ travel allowances are huge and the Adivasis’ and activists’ is very small. And there is a list of the activists and Adivasis, all of whom are funded by the Tatas. They are asking us to fund that seminar. It’s like a frog open on a dissecting table. You see how the world works. And I said, Let’s write to them and say basically we can’t afford to fund the seminar, but why not call the survivors of the people that were shot in Kalingnagar and Singur for Tata projects to put their views across and disseminate them.
IN THE last couple of years, India has had an expanding military relationship with the United States and Israel. What are the implications of that?
AFTER BEING part of the nonaligned movement, India is now part of the completely aligned movement. The government of India never tires of saying, Israel and the U.S. are its natural allies. So the nuclear deal, joint military exercises, the Indo-U.S. knowledge exchange, all these are ways of tying itself intricately to America by governments that have no idea of what has been the history of America’s non-white allies. I just find it insane that they don’t just do a quick Google search on the various despotic regimes that have been supported and then deserted by the United States.
But the thing is, in India we know that, for example, before the coup in Chile the Americans actually had a whole posse of young Chilean students taken to the Chicago school under Milton Friedman and taught free-market economics. In India, they don’t have to do it. We are willing to do it. The Indian elite are just wagging their tails and lining up. Because, as I keep saying, the most successful secessionist movement in India has been the secession of the elite into this kind of global community. Almost every bureaucrat, every politician, every senior member of the judicial, of industry, of the business class, of the academic, everybody would have a very, very close relative, as in a son or a daughter or a brother, in America. So we are organically tied and linked. Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, has never won an election in his life, has no imagination outside that of the IMF and the World Bank. He doesn’t sound to me like he’s ever read a primary textbook on history. He’s probably the only prime minister in the history of the world of a former colony that goes to Cambridge and in his speech thanks colonialism for democracy and thanks the British for every institution of state repression that India has today—the colonial police, the bureaucracy, everything. So it is a country that’s run on the lines of a colonial state, equally extractive, except that the colonizers are the upper caste.
This is something Frantz Fanon wrote about in The Wretched of the Earth, that the old colonial masters would be replaced by their native equivalents.
ABSOLUTELY. IT’S just like a comic book over here.
WHAT IS the nuclear deal that you referred to that would tie India to the United States? And you didn’t mention Israel in terms of its growing relationship with India as well.
We know that Israel is the largest beneficiary of American aid, and it’s like the American outpost in the Middle East, so I don’t think that you need to see the two, Israel and America, as conceptually separate. I think it’s a package. And it also helps to understand it because of the huge anti-Muslim feeling in the majority in India, the huge communal animosity toward the Muslims and terrorism, which just dovetails into all of that beautifully.
The nuclear deal, just to put it simply, ties India’s civil nuclear program entirely to America. Nuclear energy being the answer to India’s energy problems is not something that’s ever been studied in any kind of detail. Right now it’s almost as good as nothing, civilian nuclear energy’s contribution to the power grid. So what we’re talking about is a situation in which India invests hugely into civilian nuclear reactors and then is held to ransom. Even if the nuclear deal only purports to deal with the supply of fissile material and so on, actually what it does is puts India itself in a position where it’s entirely held to ransom on anything. If you don’t sign this, we will renege on that. How absurd to put yourself in such a position.
Unfortunately, all the criticism of it has been very unprincipled, even within India, even, say, the Communist Party, which once opposed nuclear weapons. Now its criticism is to say that we are a nuclear state and we mustn’t surrender our sovereignty. It’s almost standing on its head.
I REMEMBER your saying it is dangerous to be a tall poppy. One such tall poppy was Hrant Dink, an Armenian Turkish journalist who was murdered by a Turkish nationalist in the streets of Istanbul in January of 2007. You’ve been asked to speak on the occasion of his death anniversary [Speech published in ISR 58, March-April 2008]. I know you’re bombarded with requests from all over the world. What factors go into your making a decision? Why go to Istanbul?
FIRST, A bulk of the bombardment of interviews has recently had to do in some slimy way or another with the promotion of India, and just on principle I am not prepared to do that. We are re-creating India in such-and-such a town and such-and-such a place. And it’s all to do with corporate capital and it’s all to do with this cuddly toy, teddy bear we have, this wonderful, colorful, bumbling nation where we have cricket and Bollywood, and even the queen of dissent, Arundhati Roy. We actually are really a happy family sort of thing.
But about why I agreed to go to Istanbul. Partly because I think, once again, I am partial to going to places that are not just Europe and America, because that, too, can become a supermarket show—that we have everything, and everyone comes to us. Secondly, I think Turkey is fascinating, because it’s so similar to India in terms of its aggressive secular elite, its religious fundamentalism, its ugly nationalism. I think it’s far less subtle in some ways in its present-day self. It needs to take some lessons from the Brahmins. But it doesn’t have this sort of hippy paradise bit.
It fascinates me. How do you survive as a writer in a society like this? Recently in India, when this whole Nandigram issue erupted, one of the clever things that the CP(M) thought it did was to conjure up a protest against Taslima Nasrin, whose book Dwikhondito had been published four years ago and was on bestseller lists, and no one had anything to say about it.
THE BANGLADESHI novelist?
SHE WAS sort of thrown out of Bangla?desh and moved to Calcutta. The first people to ask for a ban were the CP(M). Then the high court lifted the ban. The book was published. Nothing happened. And then just at the time when massive protests erupted against the CP(M) for the first time in thirty years—because of Nandigram, where the bulk of the peasants to be displaced were Muslims, suddenly everything was sought to be distracted by suddenly saying "Taslima Nasrin insults Islam" and "Get her out of here." It was just a piece of currency put into the democratic negotiations that were going on. So how do you function in societies like Turkey and India as a writer? How do you continue to say the things you say? How do you try your best not to get killed? How do you understand that the countries that speak loudest and longest and have the most complex legislation about free speech, such as America, don’t have any real free speech but have managed to hypnotize people into thinking that they do. All these things interest me.
Obviously, the denial of the Armenian genocide is so blatant. Why do they deny it? Is it an admission that it’s such a horrendous thing to do that you need to deny it? Is it the best form of acceptance, denial? That you can’t bear to think that there was such a thing in your past? It’s interesting.
MAYBE IT has some analogy with the Indian government’s stand vis-à-vis Kashmir.
I don’t think it has an analogy, because the government is quite proud of what it does in Kashmir. I don’t think we’ve come to the stage where the government feels bad about it.
I MEANT in terms of denying history and denying self-determination and those kinds of issues.
The government is not denying its cruelties in Kashmir. The press doesn’t report much and doesn’t know much, but there’s pretty proud parading of how we are dealing with the terrorists, even amongst people in India. For example, I was talking about Gujarat. There is a proud owning up to that killing. There is a proud thing about "This is what these Muslims deserve." So it’s quite interesting, the psyche of these things. Which is what I was saying. When you deny something, inherently that denial is the acceptance that it’s a terrible thing, which is why you’re denying it. But in Gujarat it’s not thought of as a terrible thing right now. It’s thought of as a great thing.
YOU CONTINUE writing your political essays. What about fiction? Have you gotten back to it?
I’m trying to. As I said, I don’t really want to continue to do the same thing all the time. And I feel a bit of a prisoner in the footnotes department right now. One is constantly being co-opted. I could be forever on mainstream TV in India debating people and putting across my point of view, but eventually you’re just adding to the noise. That is part of the racket here right now, this wonderful, messy, noisy, argumentative, cutesy stuff that’s going on. I’m not denying the fact that we need very incisive collections of things, but personally, as a writer, I feel that much of my writing was for myself to understand how it works. And now, if I were to write, it would be a reiteration of my understanding. I want to do something that does something with that understanding rather than just collates it. So fiction I think is that place. I want to surprise myself. I want to see what comes out without knowing in advance.
WHAT WAS that comment you made about fiction and truth?
THAT FICTION is the truest thing there ever was.