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.