September 2011, Week 1


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Sat, 3 Sep 2011 15:44:27 -0400
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Interview with Arundhati Roy

By Dinyar Godrej
New Internationalist
Issue 445

    Arundhati Roy is probably the most `do
    something' public intellectual of our time. In
    her interview with New Internationalist she
    offers her take on market-friendly democracy,
    people power and the wealth that is fed by
    people's lives.


- 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

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

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

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

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.


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