Interview with Arundhati Roy
Your writings have grappled with ruthless state violence which is often at the behest of corporate interests. Much of the corporate-owned media in India shies away from covering the civil war-like conditions in many parts of the country. The establishment tends to brand anyone who attempts to present the other side’s points of view as having seditious intent. Where is the democratic space?
You’ve partially answered your own question – newspapers and television channels do not make their money from subscriptions or viewership; in fact, corporate advertisements actually subsidize TV viewership and newspaper and magazine readership, so in effect, the mass media is run with corporate money. Some media houses are directly owned by corporations, some indirectly by majority share-holdings. Some media houses in, say, Central India, have a direct interest in mining and infrastructure projects, so they have a vested interest in the push to displace people in the huge, ongoing land-grab in which land and resources are forcibly taken from the poor and given to the rich – a process which goes by the name of ‘development’. It would be foolish to expect objective reporting: not because the journalists are bad people, but because of the economic structure of the organizations they work for. In fact, what is surprising is that despite all of this, occasionally there is some very good reporting. But overall we either have silence, or a completely distorted picture, in which those resisting their impoverishment are being labelled ‘terrorists’ – and these are not just the Maoist rebels who have taken to arms, but others who are involved in unarmed, but militant, struggles against the government. A climate has been created which criminalizes dissent of all kinds.
There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of the poorest people in jails across the country under charges of sedition and waging war against the state. Many others are just charged under the common criminal penal code. There are the other ‘seditionists’ too, of course – those who have been fighting for self-determination after being inducted into the Union of India without their consent, when the British left in 1947. I refer to Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland... in these places, tens of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands tortured in the nightmarish interrogation centres and army camps all around the country. And now, the Indian army is migrating to the heart of the country – to fight the adivasi people whose lands the corporations covet. They say Pakistan is a military dictatorship, but I don’t think the Pakistani army has been actively deployed against its ‘own’ people the way the Indian army has been: Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Hyderabad, Goa, Telengana, Punjab and now, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa...
Anti-corruption campaigning has been at the forefront of media-reported news in India. Meanwhile, the relative silence on civil war conditions continues. How does one explain this gap in what makes the news?
I have mixed feelings about the anti-corruption campaign. It gathered momentum after a series of huge scams hit the headlines. The most scandalous of them was what has come to be known as the ‘2G scam’ in which the government sold telecom spectrum for mobile phones (a public asset) to private companies at ridiculously low prices. The companies went on to sell them at huge profits to other companies, robbing the public exchequer of billions of rupees. Leaked phone taps showed how everybody, from the judiciary to politicians to high profile journalists and low profit hit-men, were in on the manoeuvring. The transcripts were like an MRI scan that confirmed a diagnosis that had been made years ago by many of us.
The 2G scam enraged the Indian middle classes, who saw it as a betrayal, as a moral problem, not a systemic or a structural one. Somehow, the fact that the government has signed hundreds of secret Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) privatizing water, minerals and infrastructure, and signing over forests, mountains and rivers to private corporations, does not seem to generate the same outrage. Unlike in the 2G scam, these secret MOUs do not have just a monetary cost, but human and environmental costs that are devastating. They displace millions of people and wreck whole ecosystems. The mining corporations pay the government just a tiny royalty and rake in huge profits. Yet the people who are fighting these battles are being called terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. Even if there were no corruption and everything were above board on these deals, it would be daylight robbery on an unimaginable scale.
On the whole, when a political movement is mobilized using the language of ‘anti-corruption’, it has an apolitical ‘catch-all’ appeal which could result in a hugely unfair system being strengthened by a sort of moral police force which has authoritarian instincts. So you have ‘Team Anna’: a sort of oligarchy of ‘concerned citizens’ – some of them very fine people – led by the old Gandhian Anna Hazare, who talks about amputating the limbs of thieves and hanging people and who has praised Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who presided over the public massacre of thousands of Muslims in broad daylight. On the other hand, to shun the anti-corruption movement and set your eyes on a long-term political goal lets the corporate looters and their henchmen in the media, parliament and judiciary off the hook. So it’s a bit of a dilemma.
Recent Indian government legislation permits web content to be shut down for a variety of reasons. Film censorship is still widely used. Why does the state take such a paternalistic role towards what its citizens have to say?
I think overt censorship is slated to become a big problem in the near future. Internet censorship, surveillance, the project of the electronic UID (Unique Identity card)... ominous. Imagine a government that cannot provide food or water to its people, a government whose policies have created a population of 800 million people who live on less than 20 rupees [about 45 US cents] a day, a country which has the largest number of malnourished children in the world, which has, as a major priority, the desire to distribute UID cards to all of its citizens.
The UID is a corporate scam which funnels billions of dollars into the IT sector. To me, it is one of the most serious transgressions that is on the cards. It is nothing more than an administrative tool in the hands of a police state. But coming back to censorship: since the US government has pissed on its Holy Cow (Free Speech – or whatever little was left of it) with its vituperative reaction to Wikileaks, now everybody will jump on the bandwagon. (Just like every country had its own version of the ‘war on terror’ to settle scores.) Having said this, India is certainly not the worst place in the world on the Free Speech issue: the anarchy of different kinds of media, the fact that it’s such an unmanageable country and, though institutions of democracy have been eroded, there is a militant spirit of democracy among the people... it will be hard to shut us all up. Impossible, I’d say.
You have pointed out that nonviolent positions are difficult to hold on to when there is no audience to witness them, and when the opposing force does not blink at the moral challenge and responds with murder. Why do you think pointing that out caused such an uproar?
I have written at some length about this. I do not say that nonviolent satyagraha is an obsolete tool of resistance, not at all. It can be extremely effective; but has to be carried out in the public eye, in front of TV cameras, and for demands – like ‘anti-corruption’– which appeal to the sympathies of the middle class. However, I do believe that preaching ‘nonviolence at any cost’ from a safe distance to adivasi people who live in remote forest villages and have watched hundreds of security forces arrive, surround their villages, burn their homes and kill and rape their people, can also be pretty immoral. If the middle class were to join the battle, then of course nonviolent satyagraha would be an option. But of course it won’t. It can’t. That would be a political oxymoron.
Why does pointing this out cause an uproar, you ask? I think because of the fear that once those millions of people who have been so cruelly dispossessed of all they have in order to fire India’s ‘growth’ suddenly unshackle their imaginations and realize that they are not so defenceless after all, the Beautiful People know that no power on earth will be able to protect them. Sure, there may not be a perfect, synchronized revolution in which the masses will overthrow the ruling classes. Instead, there will be a messy insurrection, when all manner of brutality will occur. The poor may not win, but the rich will certainly lose. The feast will end. That’s why the uproar.
Are we talking about the narratives we like to make up and then believe in, regardless of the reality of the situation? What is your take on the narratives, especially those of the Western media, around the Arab uprisings?
Well, when the mainstream media begins to report enthusiastically about a series of uprisings – when they described the Arab uprisings as the Arab ‘spring’ – and when you know how loaded the reporting around the Israeli Occupation of Palestine is, then if you have your wits about you, you have to be on your guard, a little wary of swallowing the reports hook, line and sinker. If you follow what happened over the last three summers in Kashmir, for example, when tens of thousands of unarmed people faced down Indian security forces with as much courage and determination as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, you can’t help but wonder why the Western media switches on the lights to cover some uprisings, and blacks out others. I found it a little disconcerting how enthusiastically the 19-day ‘revolution’ in Tahrir Square was being reported, how excited [New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman was about it – but only a few months ago reports seemed to suggest that Hosni Mubarak was sick and dying... Then you had headlines like ‘Egypt free, army takes charge’ and you know that the army is intricately entwined with the US. I worry that the anger and energy of people who have been repressed for years by puppet dictators is being siphoned off, carefully defused, while the West jockeys to retain the status quo one way or another and replace the old despots with a more streamlined, less obvious form of despotism. The last I heard, people were beginning to gather in Tahrir Square again…
Surges of people power, as in Tunisia and Egypt, and earlier in the Philippines, are capable of forcing climactic moments and sudden change. But the aftermath often sees a return to old systems and old corruptions. Why is human social organization so resistant to the change we yearn for?
While people in these countries lived under repressive regimes and yearned for democracy, perhaps they didn’t know that real democracy has been taken into the workshop and replaced by the market-friendly version, which is a far more sophisticated form of despotism, not easy for beginners to decode. It might take a little time for people to realize they’ve been sold the wrong model. But meanwhile they have fought heroic street battles, faced down tanks, celebrated victory. They’ve been applauded all the way, while they let off steam. For them to build up that head of steam again isn’t easy. It’ll take years. Human society isn’t resistant to change: it wants change; but sometimes it isn’t smart enough to get what it wants.
Another world is possible. What are the ways in which we can make it likely?
To work out the complex ways in which we are being conned and corralled into being ‘good’. To realize we’re on our own. Help won’t come. We have to conserve energy, know how and where and when to deploy it. We have to fight our own battles. Ask the Sri Lankan Tamils what it feels like when the chips are down and the ‘international community’ slinks away while your people are slaughtered and then returns to cluck and commiserate in hollow ways.
Read more on Anna Hazare and India's anti-corruption campaign
More about Arundhati Roy: Arundhati Roy - princess to pariah (New Internationalist issue 436)