Arundhati Roy symbolises to me a thinking person, thinking woman, a socialist. Here is an interview with her.
Arundhati Roy: Back In the
By , Democracy Now!
Posted on May 25, 2006, Printed on July 13, 2006
Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of an interview with Arundhati Roy, from Amy Goodman's syndicated radio show, Democracy Now!
Amy Goodman: Today, we spend the hour with acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997. Since then,
She has also been a vocal opponent of the Indian government's nuclear weapons program, as she is of all nuclear programs around the world. Arundhati Roy has also become known across the globe for her powerful political essays. In June of 2005, she served as chair of the Jury of Conscience at the World Tribunal on
AG:What does it feel to be back in the
AR: Well, I think the last time I was here was just before the elections, you know, when we were hoping that Bush wouldn't come back. But the point was that whoever came back seemed to have been supporting the war in Iraq in some way, so there was a crisis of democracy here, as much as anywhere else in the world. It's, I think, you know, when you don't come to the
AG: Well, of course, the way you see
AR: Well, in
AG: I want to get your reaction to that visit, and actually play a clip of President Bush when he went to
President George W. Bush: We concluded an historic agreement today on nuclear power. It's not an easy job for the Prime Minister to achieve this agreement. I understand. It's not easy for the American president to achieve this agreement, but it's a necessary agreement. It's one that will help both our peoples.
AR: Well, the strange thing was that before he came, they wanted him to address a joint house of Parliament, but some members of Parliament said that they would heckle him and that it would be embarrassing for him to come there. So then they thought they would ask him to address a public meeting at the Red Fort, which is in Old Delhi, which is where the Prime Minister of India always gives his independence day speech from, but that was considered unsafe, because Old Delhi is full of Muslims, and you know how they think of all Muslims as terrorists.
So then they thought, "Okay, we'll do it in Vigyan Bhawan, which is a sort of state auditorium, but that was considered too much of a comedown for the U.S. President. So funnily enough, they eventually settled on him speaking in Purana Qila, which is the Old Fort, which houses the
There were massive demonstrations, where hundreds of thousands of people showed up. But it didn't seem to matter either to Bush or to the Indian government, which went ahead and signed, you know, deals where this kind of embrace between a poorer country or a developing country and
But I must say that while Bush was in Delhi, at the same time on the streets were -- I mean apart from the protests, there were 60 widows that had come from Kerala, which is the south of India, which is where I come from, and they had come to Delhi because they were 60 out of the tens of thousands of widows of farmers who have committed suicide, because they have been encircled by debt. And this is a fact that is simply not reported, partly because there are no official figures, partly because the Indian government quibbles about what constitutes suicide and what is a farmer. If a man commits suicide, but the land is in his old father's name, he doesn't count. If it's a woman, she doesn't count, because women can't be farmers.
AG: So she counts as someone who committed suicide, but not as a farmer who committed suicide.
AG: Tens of thousands?
AR: Tens of thousands. And then, anyway, so these 60 women were there on the street asking the Indian government to write off the debts of their husbands, right? Across the street from them, in a five-star hotel were Bush's 16 sniffer dogs who were staying in this five-star hotel, and we were all told that you can't call them dogs, because they are actually officers of the American Army, you know. I don't know what the names were. Sergeant Pepper and Corporal Whatever. So, it wasn't even possible to be satirical or write black comedy, because it was all real.
AG: Didn't President Bush visit Gandhi's grave?
AR: He visited Gandhi's grave, and first his dogs visited Gandhi's grave. Then, you know, Gandhians were, like, wanting to purify it. And I said, "Look, I don't mind the dogs. I mind Bush much [more] than the dogs."
But Gandhi's -- you know, obviously one can have all kinds of opinions about Gandhi. It's not universal that everybody adores and loves him, but still he stood for nonviolence, and here it was really the equivalent of a butcher coming and tipping a pot of blood on that memorial and going away. It was -- you know, there was no room left, as I said, for satire or for anything, because it was so vulgar, the whole of it. But I have to say the Indian mainstream media was so servile. You know, you had a newspaper like the Indian Express saying, "He is here, and he has spoken." I'm sure he doesn't get worshipped that much even by the American mainstream press, you know. It was extraordinary.
AG: Let me play another clip of President Bush. I think in this one he's talking about trade in
AG: President Bush speaking in
AR: Well, look, let's not forget that this whole call to the free market started in the late 19th century in
And, you know, it's amazing. Just in the wake of Bush's visit, you can't imagine what's happening, say, in a city like
And basically, behind it all, there are two facades. One is that in 2008,
So you have an institution like -- you know, I mean, how do you subvert democracy? We have a parliament, sure. We have elections, sure. But we have a supreme court now that micromanages our lives. It takes every decision: What should be in history books? Should this lamb be cured? Should this road be widened? What gas should we use? Every single decision is now taken by a court. You can't criticize the court. If you do, you will go to jail, like I did. So, you have judges who are -- you have to read those judgments to believe it, you know? Public interest litigation has become a weapon that judges use against us.
So, for example, a former chief justice of
AG:Thomas Friedman, the well-known, much-read New York Times columnist and author, talks about the call center being a perfect symbol of globalization in a very positive sense.
AR: Yes, it is the perfect symbol, I think, in many ways. I wish Friedman would spend some time working in one. But I think it's a very interesting issue, the call center, because, you know, let's not get into the psychosis that takes place inside a call center, the fact that you have people working, you know, according to a different body clock and all that and the languages and the fact that you have to de-identify yourself.
AG: And just for people who aren't familiar with what we're talking about, the call center being places where, well, you might make a call to information or to some corporation, you actually are making that call to
AR: But, you know, the thing is that it's a good example of what's going on. The call center is surely creating jobs for a whole lot of people in
It creates -- obviously it creates a very vocal constituency that supports it, among the elite of poor countries. And so you have in
AG: You mentioned the dams, and a judge just in the last week has ruled that one of the major dam projects is allowed to continue. Just physically on the ground, what does it mean, and who are the people who are resisting, and what do they do?
AR: I mean, that actually is something that reached fever pitch in the last few weeks in
But now, the dams are still being built, and the argument has been reduced merely to displacement. And even there, the courts are now saying you build a dam and just give people cash and send them off. But the fact is that these are indigenous people. You know, you can't just give -- lots of them are indigenous people. The others are farmers. But you can't -- the levels of displacement are so huge. This dam, the Sardar Sarovar dam displaces 400,000, but just in the
Well, the court came out with a judgment with marked a different era in
You know, hundreds of villages are being emptied by the government, and the people are being moved into police camps. People are being armed. The Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh says, "You're either with the Maoists and Naxalites or you're with the Salva Judum," which is this government-sponsored resistance, and there's no third choice. So it's you're with us or against us.
And what has happened, which is something I have been saying for a long time, that this whole war on terror and the legislation that has come up around it is going to conflate terrorists with poor people. And that's what's happened. In
AG: And where is Orissa in
AR: Orissa is sort of east, southeast. And it's got a huge indigenous population. If you go there, it's like a police state. You know, the police have surrounded villages. You can't move from one -- villagers are not allowed to move from one village to another to organize, because, of course, there's a lot of resistance. The Maoists have come in. And in Orissa in a place called Kalinganagar, where the Tata, which used to be a sort of respected industrialist, but now I can't say, are setting up a steel factory. So they, the government, took over the lands of indigenous people. The trick is that you only say about 20% of them are project-affected. The rest are all encroachers. Even these 20% are given -- their land is taken from them at, say, 35,000 rupees an acre, given to the Tatas for three-and-a-half lakhs, you know, which is ten times that amount. And the actual market price is four times that amount. So you steal from the poor; you subsidize the rich; then you call it the "free market."
And when they protested, there was dynamite, you know, in the ground. Some of them were blown up, killed. Six of them, I think, were injured, taken to hospital, and their bodies were returned with their hands and breasts and things cut off. And those people have been blocking the highway now for six months, the indigenous people, because it became a big issue in
AG: And the Maoists, what are their demands?
AR: Well, the Maoists are fighting on two fronts. One is that they are fighting a feudal society, their feudal landlords. You have, you know, the whole caste system which is arranged against the indigenous people and the Dalits, who are the untouchable caste. And they are fighting against this whole corporatization. But they are also very poor people, you know, barefoot with old rusty weapons. And, you know, what we -- say someone like myself, watching what is happening in Kashmir, where -- or in the northeast, where exactly what America is doing in Iraq, you know, where you're fostering a kind of civil war and then saying, "Oh, if we pull out, these people just will massacre each other."
But the longer you stay, the more you're enforcing these tribal differences and creating a resistance, which obviously, on the one hand, someone like me does support; on the other hand, you support the resistance, but you may not support the vision that they are fighting for. And I keep saying, you know, I'm doomed to fight on the side of people that have no space for me in their social imagination, and I would probably be the first person that was strung up if they won. But the point is that they are the ones that are resisting on the ground, and they have to be supported, because what is happening is unbelievable.
AG: Speaking of
President Bush: For most Iraqis, a free democratic and constitutional government will be a new experience. For the people across the broader Middle East, a free
The triumph of liberty in
AG: President Bush in
AR: Well, you know, how can one respond? I just keep wishing there would be a laugh track, you know, on the side of these speeches. But obviously, you know, the elections in
So it's just -- you know, I think the issue is that people like President Bush and his advisors, or what's happening in India, the Indian government, they have understood that you can use the media to say anything from minute to minute. It doesn't matter what's really going on. It doesn't matter what happened in the past. There are a few people who make the connections and fall about laughing at the nonsense that is being spoken. But for everybody else, I think the media itself, this mass media has become a means of telling the most unbelievable lies or making the most unbelievable statements. And everybody sort of just imbibes it. It's like a drug, you know, that you put straight into your veins. It doesn't matter. And it keeps going. But what can you say? What kind of democracy is this in
AG: What do you think has to happen in
AR: I think that the first thing that has to happen is that the American army should leave. That has to happen. I have no doubt about that. Similarly, I mean, I keep saying this, but, you know,
And I keep saying that in
AG: I remember when you were last here, you were headed off to an interview with Charlie Rose. And so I looked to see you on Charlie Rose, and I waited and I waited, and I never saw you. What happened?
AR: Oh, it was interesting. He -- well, when the interview began, I realized that the plan was to do this really aggressive interview with me, and so the first question he asked was, "Tell me, Arundhati, do you think that
So I said, "Well, I don't think
And I asked him, I said, "What is this about? Why are you being so aggressive? I have answered the question, you know, clearly. And I think I made my position extremely clear. I'm not some strategic thinker. I'm telling you what I believe." So after that it just sort of collapsed into vague questions about world poverty and so on, and it was never shown. I mean, I wouldn't have shown it if I were him either, but -- because it was, you know, I don't know, treating me like I'm some kind of politician or something.
AG: Has he invited you back on in this new trip that you have had?
AR: No more, no, no. I don't think.
AG: Have you found that through your celebrity, through your writing, that you're invited into forums, into various places where when you talk about what you think, you're then shut down?
AR: No. I think what happens is that -- well, I don't come to, you know, the U.S. that often, and like, for instance, this time I came to do an event with Eduardo Galeano, but I really wasn't -- I didn't want to do any -- except for this, I made it clear that I didn't want to be working on this trip, because I want to think about some things. But I think it's the opposite problem that I have. I think that there are many ways of shutting people down, and one is to increase the burners on this celebrity thing until you become so celebrity that all you are is celebrity.
For example, I'll give you a wonderful example of how it works, say, in
And the next day in this more-or-less rightwing paper called Indian Express, there was a big picture of me, really close so that you couldn't see the context. You couldn't see who had organized the meeting or what it was about, nothing. And underneath it said, "Arundhati Roy at the International Day of the Disappeared." So, you have the news, but it says nothing, you know? That's the kind of thing that can happen.
Actually, I'm somebody who is invited to mainstream forums, and I'm not shunned out. You know, I can say what I have to say. But the point is, Amy, that there is a delicate line between just being so far -- you know, just being so isolated that you become the spokesperson for everything, and this kind of person that it suits them to have one person who's saying something and listen to it and ignore what is being said, and I don't want to move so far away from everybody else, that if you want to listen to me, then why don't you listen to so and so? Why don't you speak to so and so? Why don't you get some other voices, because otherwise it sounds like you're this lone brave, amazing person, which is unpolitical.
AG: I'm just looking at a KMS newswire story -- that's Kashmir Media Service -- May 23, just after you spoke here in
AR: Well, I do think that we are really suffering a crisis of democracy, you know? And the simplest way I can explain it is that in 2004, when the general elections took place in
AG: Would you make any parallels to political parties in the
AR: Very, very much so. I mean, it was very similar to the Republicans versus the Democrats, and in fact --
AG: The Congress Party being the Democrats.
AR: The Congress Party being the Democrats, and the Republicans being the rightwing Hindu BJP. And, of course, in a country -- like in
What happened after that, there were elections, and the man who engineered all this won the elections. So you're thinking, "Is it better to have a fascist dictator or a fascist Democrat who has the approbation of all these people?" Continues to be in power in
But during the elections, all of us were waiting with bated breath to see what would happen. And when the Congress came to power, supported by the left parties from the outside, obviously we allowed ourselves a huge gasp of relief, you know, walked on our hands in front of the TV for a bit. But the Congress campaigned against the neoliberal policies that it had brought in, actually.
But before even we knew whether Sonia Gandhi was going to be the prime minister or what was going to happen, there was an orchestrated drop in the stock market. The media's own stocks began to drop. The cameras that had been in all these villages, saying look at this wonderful democracy, and the camels and the bullock carts and everyone that's coming to vote was outside the stock market now. And before the government was formed, both from the left and from the Congress, spokesmen had to come out and say, "We will not dismantle this neoliberal regime." And today we have a prime minister who has not been elected. He is a technocrat who has been nominated. He is part of the Washington Consensus.
AG: I want to ask in our last 30 seconds: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?
AR: Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, you know, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight, you know? But in a country like
AG: And what do you think artists should do?
AR: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it, you know?