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Saturday, October 3, 2009

October 2, 2009.

‘An MoU on every mountain’

In an exclusive and in-depth interview to The Times of India, Arundhati Roy talks about the three elephants in the Indian living room

Nina Martyris

Some call her a cause-monger. Others say her views are unredeemed by optimism. But award-winning writer Arundhati Roy uses polemic in a powerfully non-violent way to talk about injustices that the middle class would rather not hear about. Roy was in Mumbai to launch her latest book of essays, whose pastoral title, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes of Democracy, contains a warning.
In 1915, the year in which the Turks massacred Christian Armenians, swarms of grasshoppers swept into an Armenian village. The elders were worried, they knew this was a bad omen. And sure enough, the end came in a few months. Roy’s essays, some of which have appeared in print, point to the locust of political grasshoppers in our midst, as a warning sign that democracy’s light is failing. Excerpts from an interview

In your essay on the Mumbai terror strike, you cite the emails from the Indian Mujahideen, which said that the attacks were revenge for Kashmir, Babri and Gujarat. "Things we don't want to talk about any more". These are the "elephants in the Indian living room". What in your view are the most troubling, most invisible elephants in our living rooms?

To start with, we have to put on record that most Indians don’t have a living room. That having been said, the three big elephants in the room right now are: One, the military occupation of Kashmir (more than half a million soldiers in that little valley). It’s a very noisy elephant, but it’s a false noise that seeks to hide a deeper silence. The other — and there is no hierarchy of elephants here — is the continuing issue of caste and untouchability and the shamefulness of living in a society that practises this. And the third is the impending war on indigenous people and their land in the name of terrorism.
The government is waging a war against the poor. In the forest areas of our country, poverty is being conflated with terrorism. The poor are being criminalised. Their lands are being handed over to mining companies. Security forces are closing in on Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Lalgarh. In Dantewara district, something like 644 villages have been emptied, several have been burnt to the ground. Most of this has been done by an insane militia, the Salwa Judum (the state-sponsored force to counter Naxalism). Some 300,000 people are off the government radar. People have just gone missing. Anyone not in the Salwa Judum police camps is being called a Maoist.
How do you define a Maoist? I travelled to Orissa a few years ago, when the papers were full of the Maoist threat, but there were no Maoists then. This was what you call psyops…a way of justifying extreme police repression by calling democratic, non-violent protestors Maoist. Any kind of dissent, whether it is intellectual, violent or non-violent, everything is being crushed. It’s the Bush doctrine now. They’re going after everyone. If people are being imprisoned and tortured and called Maoists even when they aren’t, many are going to feel that it’s better to become one and put up a fight…

They haven’t gone after you yet?

It would be making a big international statement, which I don’t think they want right now. But they have gone after Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar’s Gandhian ashram in Dantewara was demolished. They are criminalising democratic space…none of us can be complacent.

The Indian middle class seems quite removed from this war in India's mineral heartland.

Either the middle class doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, that we are heading for a police state. A large part of India already is a police state. Home minister P Chidambaram says that his vision for India is to have 85 per cent of India living in cities. That would mean 500 million people being uprooted...If your country’s growth depends solely on the displacement of millions of people, obviously you are going to have to administer that unrest. Only the police or the army can pull that off. The army seems to be a little uncomfortable about being called out against its ‘own’ people (it is quite another matter that they feel comfortable in Kashmir and the North-East). So, for now para-military forces are doing the job. Like a good colonial power, the government sends Kashmiri CRPF to the North-East and Naga battalions to Chhattisgarh — they had caused havoc there. The British used to do this on a more global scale…Indian soldiers fought in the World Wars for them. The Prime Minister gave an amazing speech a few years ago thanking the British for everything — including democracy, which we have learnt from our colonisers.

The Listening to Grasshoppers essay is the transcript of the speech you gave in Turkey, in which you drew attention to how the Turks had massacred the Armenians, a Christian minority, in 1915. A few years ago when you went to Australia to receive the Sydney Peace Prize, you chose to talk about how the aborigines had been oppressed by the Whites. How did these audiences take to a foreign guest pricking their conscience rather pointedly on matters of national shame?

In the case of Turkey, where you are not even allowed to mention the Armenian genocide, there was a lot of tension in the room. (Roy was in Istanbul to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of a newspaper who was shot dead by “a child-assassin who was wearing a white cap” for writing about the genocide.) But I think what happened in both cases — Turkey and Australia— was that the audience felt that the criticism was evenhanded. (In Turkey, Roy talked about the Gujarat riots, in Australia about India’s caste system.) I didn’t come across as someone who is picking and choosing her injustices.
Having said that, I would like to say that I don’t think you can break things down ‘country-wise’. The elites of the world are joining hands and forming a country of their own somewhere in the sky. After I won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, I was the darling of the Indian middle class. And then, in 1998, the nuclear tests happened. I knew that if I said what I wanted to say it would be considered a huge betrayal by the class that I come from. But I knew that if I didn’t, I would be taking the first step towards constructing a prison around myself, a writer's prison made of cowardice, abandoning my writing, and becoming a politician. After writing on Narmada, I got a lot of flak in India, but in foreign countries I was still thought of as this feisty rebel. Then September 11 happened. I thought for a minute — but only for a minute —- now you’re going to antagonise those millions of readers of The God of Small Things in those countries too. But it didn't work that way. By antagonising the Indian establishment, I had come closer to millions of other people whom I wanted to be close to. A whole world of people fighting the same battle. That happened in other countries too. The Algebra of Infinite Justice — the piece I wrote after Sept 11 — was being read out by independent radio stations in the US. A few years later, when I went there and spoke at the Riverside Church, there were 3,000 people inside and 3,000 outside because they couldn't fit inside. So, of course, there are people who revile me, but there are also those who agree with me. There was a huge hatred for Bush after Sept 11 even within America. You can't equate anti-Americanism with being anti-Bush.

When you refer to the 2002 Gujarat genocide, you are at pains to point out that the word 'genocide' has not been used loosely, even quoting the United Nations' definition. Did you do this because critics say that your language is sometimes shrill?

I chose to cite the definition because people do tend to use the word genocide loosely and arbitrarily. Shrill? That's a common or garden-variety right-wing accusation. Mahmood Mamdani in his book on Darfur talks about how the US establishment has used that word and why (he says genocide is not genocide, but a huge land grab triggered by drought). As for being called shrill — some criticism I wear as a badge of honour.

But it's not always right-wingers who take objection. Even a liberal like Salman Rushdie went so far as to say that your comments after the Mumbai attacks, where you talked about how we could not ignore Kashmir and Gujarat, were “nauseating”.

Nauseating? That's a nice, un-shrill, temperate adjective wouldn't you say? On issues like ‘terrorism’, Salman Rushdie and I have major differences: Is it an insane piece of evil spinning in space or does it have a context? If Salman feels differently from me, that's okay. One of the attackers in Chabad House spoke quite openly and directly about the Babri Masjid, Kashmir and Gujarat. It was broadcast. It was not something I pulled out of my hat. I know Salman used some strong adjectives, but I don’t want to use them back. He’s a very talented writer, it’s just that we have completely different political perspectives.

Perhaps the reactions to your piece were so strong because it came so soon after the attacks, when passions were running high. When terrorists are tearing into your city, people may not be in the mood to hear about how this is payback for what happened in Kashmir and Gujarat, which they feel they had nothing to do with.

What about when the army and the police are tearing into people in other places? What about when women are being raped and people are publicly slaughtered in places like Gujarat and even years later there's no sign of justice? In this world that moves so fast, sometimes you have to say things when it's hardest to say them. Otherwise it's too late. Even before I wrote, there were letters against me. Vinod Mehta (the editor of Outlook) said that I should be careful, the mood was ugly. But that's when you write, when you put your foot in the door.
It was a time when the Indian media was being unbelievably irresponsible, TV channels were goading people to call for a war against Pakistan. Fortunately, the government was more mature. Shortly after the terror strikes, I was in Benares, and happened to hear an impromptu seminar on the banks of the river. A man spoke about India and its religions and cultures, and I thought to myself that from the same space from where vicious communalism can come, there can come a great wisdom.
Sometimes the most rabid people calling for war, calling for Pakistan to be nuked, etc, are those who live far away, who will not have to suffer the consequences of what they're saying. You see it all the time in the Letters columns of magazines and newspapers.

To return to the Maoist issue, the PM has said that the Maoist movement is India's gravest security threat.

It suits the Maoists and the government to inflate the danger. It makes it easier to come down with all the force of your security apparatus. The inflation is mischievous . And it creates a situation in which every other kind of resistance is subsumed into this mad binary and dealt with as such. The most frightening thing is the criminalisation of the democratic space. You're either with us or against us. Bush is back, if he ever went away.

Policemen have been killed.

Policemen are being killed. People are also being killed and that's not being reported . If it is, they just say they are Maoists. You can't extract any easy moralities out of these killings. You have to look at the principle. The debate can't be about whether it is okay to kill policemen or whether it's okay to kill tribals. Obviously, it's not okay to do either. How do you rescue the situation? We have to look at why this is happening. If you are going to say Maoists are as mad as Islamists and should be liquidated, it's not going to help. It would mean liquidating hundreds of thousands.

These are the poorest people of the country - they have no schools, no hospitals, no water, none of the amenities the state is supposed to provide. When the state talks about their well-being and development, it means displacement and mining. Bauxite mining in Orissa is one of the most devastating kinds of mining. To get one tonne of bauxite you have a stripping ratio of 1:13 so you have to mine 13 tonnes. You create radioactive red mud. This is dumped into rivers and belches carbon dioxide into the air. From bauxite you get alumina and then aluminum. For one tonne of aluminum you need 1,300 tonnes of water. All this for the weapons industry. Bauxite mountains are porous and function as natural water tanks that hold water and irrigate the plains. Bauxite mining is devastating a whole ecosystem . This is what the mining company Vedanta is doing. The bauxite in Niyamgiri in Orissa is called Kondolite after the Kond tribals in Orissa.

There's an MoU on every mountain and river. When profits are so huge, the capacity for cruelty is also huge.

In the last decade you have chosen to agitate on behalf of so many causes — anti-nuclear, Narmada, Bush's war against terror, Gujarat, Afzal Guru, terrorism, the tribal war, unlike say a Medha Patkar who is identified with the injustices of displacement.

Well, Medha Patkar is an activist. I am not. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for a writer to spend her whole life writing about one thing — dams, or displacement or privatization of infrastructure? In any case, if you see these things as 'causes', you're already in the wrong space. Looking at these things, trying to understand them, adds up to a way of seeing, a world-view. They are not unconnected. For example, the world spun around on its political axis at a dizzying speed after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and so much of what happened in India in the last twenty years connects with that.
If you are an activist, you have to carry people with you, fulfill their expectations at the very least. As a writer, I sometimes do the opposite. I confound their expectations. I need to travel light, think my thoughts, whether or not people agree with me. I live on the edge of movements and what interests me is how the machine works. Very often, people's movements can be socially conservative but politically radical and those who are politically conservative can be socially radical. We don't have many Queer Gandhians do we? (By which I don't mean that Gandhi was always radical.)

Is your next novel set in Kashmir?
I haven’t worked on it for a while. I can’t talk about my fiction the way I talk about my non-fiction. Not while I’m writing it at least.

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