Corporate power, women, and resistance in India today
Arundhati Roy interviewed by David Barsamian Part-I
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. Roy is the author of many books including The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, and Walking with the Comrades. She spoke to DAVID BARSAMIAN of Alternative Radio in Chicago on March 17, 2013.
N YOUR Eqbal Ahmad lecture, which you gave at Hampshire College in 2001, you compared India to “a hammerhead shark with eyes looking in diametrically opposite directions, one India on its way to a glittering destination while the other just melts into the darkness.” What’s happened in the last dozen years since you made those comments?
THE HAMMERHEAD shark has grown up and its eyes are even further apart now. We know these things about India that, on the one hand, the country is called a superpower, with an accelerated growth rate, which is dropping but still, and on the other you have more poor people in India than all of the poorest African countries put together. You have most of the world’s malnourished children living there, you have 700 or 800 million people living on less than 50 cents a day.
What is distressing is that it didn’t take a genius to have figured it out then, and it doesn’t take a genius to be saying the things that I’m saying now. The purposeful way in which this machine continues to work, churning out millionaires on one end and the effluent of the poor that just slough off into the sea on the other, is so deliberate. So, honestly, the crisis is no longer to recognize it, to talk about it, or even to describe it. The point is, what can be done about it?
LAST TIME I was in India I went to the Ambience Mall in the Vasant Kunj area of Delhi. Have you been there?
YES, I have. I’ve seen movies there.
IT’S A stunning parallel universe. The glitziest shops, both foreign and domestic, a gigantic food court. And I remember being very cold there, because the air conditioning was so extreme. A few weeks before visiting Ambience Mall, I was in Jharkhand, in villages there. And the contrast was of another world, like the eyes of that hammerhead shark, one going in one direction, one going in the other.
THAT’S RIGHT. Though I will add perhaps to the idea of this parallel universe, there’s a seam in India where you see both in proximity to one another. From the Ambience Mall you don’t have to go to Jharkhand. No, you just have to drive forty-five minutes out, and you can see an area full of homeless people.
I think what we need to, first of all, stop doing is to see this all within the confines of a national border. Because what we’re seeing in the world today is the secession of the middle and upper classes, especially the upper classes in a country like America, into outer space, where they all become one country. And then they suck the resources out of the rest of the world. Many of the wars that are being fought now, whether they are in Libya or Syria or parts of Africa, are really resource wars, disguised as wars against Islam or wars against despots. India too is now in that race in places like Ethiopia and Sudan. Indian corporations are there. But India is also a country that is shamelessly colonizing itself, kind of consuming itself.
YOU’VE WRITTEN about the “juggernaut of injustices” that exist in India and “the spectacular struggles of popular movements that refuse to lie down and die.” What’s the current status of some of those popular movements and resistances?
EVEN FROM the time that I started being associated and engaging with them and writing from the beginning, when I was writing about the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley, again and again I see people saying, and I also was saying, that if a government does not respect reasoned, nonviolent dissent, by default it privileges violence. And now what’s happened, if you read the news from India, is that the more and more there are—I don’t use the word violence, but let’s say either armed struggle in forests or militant uprisings in other places, violently put down by the state.
But on a more general level, if you look at India, let’s say, in the late 1960s, there was talk after independence of ending what was called the zamindari system, the feudal landlordism, and the redistribution of land. It was a lot of talk, because all the parliamentarians were members of the landed aristocracy at the time, and they did everything to subvert that redistribution. Then in the late 1960s, militant movements like the Naxalite movement, what has today morphed into what is called the Maoist movement, started in a village in West Bengal, Naxalbari. It was just crushed by the government. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Then Jayaprakash Narayan started Sampoorna Kranti, Total Revolution, a Gandhian movement. Those movements were asking for land redistribution. They had a dream of a more equitable society.
Whether it was the anti-dam movement or whether it is the Maoist movement in the forest, or whether it’s the movement against Vedanta in Niyamgiri, the giant aluminum company, the movements against the special economic zones, whatever the major movements are, what is happening is there is a massive corporate land grab. And all these movements are resisting that. But you see a great difference. In the 1960s people were asking for the redistribution of land, and today people are reduced to fighting to be allowed to remain on what little land they have. So there’s a huge regression in terms of even how radical movements see themselves. And also, the landless Dalit movement has been splintered. That whole dream of justice or equality has been reduced to just withstanding this huge push, this huge land grab. So the major corporations in India, that basically own India—Reliance, Tata, Adani—all of them are first and foremost land mafias. They control land with resources on it.
HAVE YOU thought about how terrorism is defined? The conventional ways are: a bus is blown up or there is an attack on a police station or something like that. Chomsky talks about “retail terrorism”—the terrorism of small groups, individuals, and gangs—but that much attention is not paid to “wholesale terrorism,” when terrorism is committed by the state.
IN INDIA now we have to reimagine the state, because the state is being run by these gigantic corporations. If you look at corporations like Reliance or Tata, I think even in the United States you would be hard-pressed to find corporations of that nature. Because they have this tremendous cross-ownership of businesses. So if you look at Reliance, they have petrochemicals, they have natural gas, they have twenty-seven television channels. Tata owns everything from, once again, power projects to vehicles to TV to broadband to salt to publishing to bookshops. So they have a way of kind of maneuvering complete control. And you see increasingly in places like Odisha and Jharkhand that mining companies are running their own mafia. All the police work under their instructions. So what is the state? It’s nothing new. It was what was happening in Latin America when Eduardo Galeano wrote Open Veins of Latin America, except the pace of global capital and corporatization and the arguments about climate change weren’t there at that time. So today a handful of big corporations really run India.
The kind of violence that that subservient state is capable of unleashing on everybody. Initially it was just the fragile village communities and the states of Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland. We’ve been through that. But now you have a situation today where we’ve seen that the Indian army has been deployed against “its own people,” right since 1947. There has never been a year when the army has not been deployed. But now all of it is going to be put to use for the corporate project. In Arunachal they are building something like 260 dams. Dissent will be controlled and crushed by the army, by the security forces.
It would sound as if you’re being careless to call it terrorism, but the situation is that India cannot push through its economic agenda without becoming a military state, without passing laws that are so punitive that people on the one hand think they have a democracy and on the other that democracy is undermined by a plethora of laws, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows noncommissioned officers to kill on suspicion. So those laws were there in Kashmir and Nagaland and Manipur. Now the government wants to deploy the army in Chhattisgarh in central India against the poorest people in the country and in the world. The army won’t go unless it has impunity from the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. They already have special area security acts which criminalize every kind of dissent.
What I think the Indian authorities, which is the government and the corporatized government, are experimenting with is very interesting. How do you maintain this kind of image of this almost circus-like acrobatic democracy that makes such a show of elections and yet legally and in every other way undermines that democracy completely? In India, unlike in China or, until quite recently, in Pakistan, it’s not a question of a government becoming more and more authoritarian. It’s a question of getting a class of people who are so entrenched in the system that that entire class of people colludes in the administration of that militarized state, which includes the media and so on.
AGAIN, ON perhaps widening the definition of terror, what does it mean when more than 270,000 Indian farmers commit suicide because of their financial destitution? Incidentally, that figure is considered conservative. It is probably much more than that. Or the hundreds of thousands of Indian children who, for lack of water and food, die?
THE FARMER suicides. I really think that the establishment rather admires farmers who commit suicide, because, after all, they’re not suicide bombers, they’re just quietly killing themselves. And then their families have to go around begging to be entered in the list of farmers. And the definition of who is a farmer and who isn’t helps you get compensation or not. So 270,000, as you say, is a conservative estimate, because lots of people are just told that they are not farmers. A lot of women, for example, would not be included in that list, even though they are farmers and were trying to keep their families going.
But to understand what’s going on in India, you need to approach it from so many different angles. We are a society that has institutionalized inequality through caste. And I increasingly think that you can’t understand India until you understand caste, when you understand that there are these sealed communities that then don’t necessarily feel sorry for or remorse over something that happens somewhere else. I’m not saying that the farmers that killed themselves are lower caste. They’re not. They’re all mostly small farmers who were really trying to get into the big league and then fell off the truck.
What I’m saying is, why does not something like this cause anguish? Why doesn’t it cause a scandal? It doesn’t. In fact, even today politicians are continuing with irrigation scams and fertilizer scams and every kind of scam in those areas where these suicides are happening. There is a curious hardness that has set in. I’ve been writing about displacement and all of this for so long. Increasingly I hear the middle classes saying, “India is poised to become one of the most powerful countries in the world. Every country that has become powerful has ‘a past.’ We can’t”—when I say “we” now, I am talking about this class of people that has fused itself with the idea of the nation. “We can’t progress unless somebody pays the price. And it can’t be all sort of touchy-feely and human rights and sympathetic. Something has to give.” People openly talk about that, that this is the way it has been in the past and this is the way it has to be now.
So you hear these ugly statements. You hear people on TV trying to provoke war with Pakistan, openly talking about nuclear war, openly talking about the fact that the leading candidate now for the next prime minister in India is Narendra Modi. But the fact that he was the chief minister that presided over the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the most brutal way in Gujarat, they just say, “Forget about it.”
So even people like us, who are political and who are writing politically, need to understand that evoking people’s sympathy, describing horror, describing terrible things, it isn’t necessarily reaching that moral listening space that you imagine exists. Yet, you have to be doing it. You have to keep doing it. You have to keep your foot on the pedal.
But we also have to understand that we are up against something very, very ugly now, which is going to become more and more ugly in this next year as we run up to the next election, because what has happened is that the Indian shining economy, the people who are sitting in the aircraft ready for takeoff, that exhilaration they felt has turned into panic now, because the economy is not moving at the pace they expected it to. And that panic is creating a lot of ugliness. It takes different forms and different ways, but you can see the violence and the anger in those same middle-class people that were so happy a few years ago. That violence, that anger, that impatience the political parties don’t know how to deal with, because it’s new. They are trying to push it back into the old spaces that everybody knows and recognizes—communal strife or a war with Pakistan or some provocation in Kashmir—because they know how to make those moves. Whereas this new middle class is aggressive, it knows that it can get media attention, and it’s attacking the old idea of politics itself.
THERE HAS been a massive migration from the countryside into the megacities—Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore. Pankaj Mishra has written about how many of these migrants, who don’t have skills, are unanchored; they’re kind of stranded in this new urban environment. He sees the potential for an enormous explosion.
WE SHOULD be a little bit careful about this, because Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia have openly said that the dream of the new India is that they want 70 percent of the population to live in cities, which means they dream of moving something like 500 to 600 million people out of villages into cities. That process has begun. People are being pushed out of their villages by development projects, mines, and dams, and they flock to the cities.
To be continued…