Today we spend the hour with acclaimed Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. Her first novel, "The God of Small Things," was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997. It has sold over six millions copies and has been translated into over 20 languages worldwide.
Since then, Arundhati Roy has devoted herself to political writing and activism. In India, she’s involved in the movement opposing hydroelectric dam projects that have displaced thousands of people. In 2002, she was convicted of contempt of court in New Delhi for accusing the court of attempting to silence protests against the Narmada Dam project. She received a symbolic one-day prison sentence. She has also been a vocal opponent of the Indian government’s nuclear weapons program as she is of all nuclear programs worldwide. [includes rush transcript]
Arundhati Roy has also become known across the globe for her powerful political essays in books like "Power Politics," "War Talk," "The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile" and her latest, "An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire."
In June of 2005, she served as a Chair of Jury of Conscience at the World Tribunal on Iraq. She joins us today in the firehouse studio for the hour. Welcome to Democracy Now!
- Arundhati Roy, author and activist.
In June 2005, a World Tribunal on Iraq was held in Istanbul, Turkey. A 17-member Jury of Conscience at the Tribunal heard testimonies from a panel of advocates and witnesses who came from across the world. You were selected as the chair of the jury. This is an excerpt of your address.
- Arundhati Roy, speaking at the World Tribunal on Iraq. (Courtesy: Deep Dish TV from the DVD "The World Tribunal on Iraq: The Final Session")
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. It’s sold over six million copies, has been translated in over 20 languages around the world. Since then, Roy has devoted herself to political writing and activism. In India, she is involved in the movement opposing hydroelectric dam projects that have displaced thousands of people. In 2002, she was convicted of contempt of court in New Delhi for accusing the court of attempting to silence protest against the Narmada Dam project. She received a symbolic one-day prison sentence. 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 books like Power Politics, War Talk, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, and her latest, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. In June of 2005, she served as chair of the Jury of Conscience at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. She joins us today in our Firehouse studio for the hour here in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. What does it feel to be back in the United States? A different perspective on the world from here.
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 United States often, from the outside, the most important thing is that it’s easy to forget. It’s easy for us to forget that there is dissent within this country against the system that its government stands for. And it’s important and heartening for me to remind myself of that, because outside there is so much anger against America, and obviously, you know, that confusion between people and governments exists, and it was enhanced when Bush was voted back to power. People started saying, "Is there a difference?"
AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, the way you see America and Americans outside the United States is through the media, as projected through. Which channels do you access in India? What do you get to see? And what do you think of how the media deals with these issues?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, in India, I think you get FOX News and CNN and, of course, the BBC. But also a lot of newspapers in India do publish American columnists, famously Thomas Friedman. And, of course, recently George Bush visited India, which was a humiliating and very funny episode at the same time, you know, what happened to him there and how he came and how the media reacted.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to get your reaction to that visit, and actually first, though, play a clip of President Bush when he went to India in March. He promised to increase economic integration with the U.S. and signed an agreement to foster nuclear cooperation between the two countries.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush in India.
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 Delhi zoo. And it was really from there that — and, of course, it wasn’t a public meeting. It was the caged animals and some caged CEOs that he addressed. And then he went to Hyderabad, and I think he met a buffalo there, some special kind of buffalo, because there is a picture of Bush and the buffalo in all the papers, but the point is that, insulated from the public.
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 America. We have such a litany of the history of incineration when you embrace the government of the United States. And that’s what happened, that the Indian government, in full servile mode, has entered into this embrace, has negotiated itself into a corner, and now continues to do this deadly sort of dance.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: So she counts as someone who committed suicide, but not as a farmer who committed suicide.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t President Bush visit Gandhi’s grave?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play another clip of President Bush. I think in this one he’s talking about trade in India.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The markets are open, and the poor are given a chance to develop their talents and abilities. They can create a better life for their families. They add to the wealth of the world, and they could begin to afford goods and services from other nations. Free and fair trade is good for India. It’s good for America. And it is good for the world.
In my country, some focus only on one aspect of our trade relationship with India: outsourcing. It’s true that some Americans have lost jobs when their companies move operations overseas. It’s also important to remember that when someone loses a job, it’s an incredibly difficult period for the worker and their families. Some people believe the answer to this problem is to wall off our economy from the world through protectionist policies. I strongly disagree.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush speaking in India. Arundhati Roy, your response?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, look, let’s not forget that this whole call to the free market started in the late 19th century in India. You know, that was what colonialism was all about. They kept using the words "free market." And we know how free the free market is. Today, India has — I mean, after 15 years of economic liberalization, we have more than half of the world’s malnutritioned children. We have an economy where the differences between the rich and the poor, which have always been huge, has increased enormously. We have a feudal society whose feudalism has just been reinforced by all of this.
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 Delhi. You can’t imagine the open aggression of institutions of our democracy. It’s really like courts, for instance, who are an old enemy of mine, are rolling up their sleeves and coming after us. You have in Delhi, for example — I have just come from being on the streets for six weeks, where all kinds of protest are taking place. But you have a city that’s been just — it’s just turned into a city of bulldozers and policemen. Overnight, notices go up saying tomorrow or day after tomorrow you’re going to be evicted from here. The Supreme Court judges have come out saying things like, "If the poor can’t afford to live in the city, why do they come here?"
And basically, behind it all, there are two facades. One is that in 2008, Delhi is going to host the Commonwealth Games. For this, hundreds of thousands of people are being driven out of the city. But the real agenda came in the wake of Bush’s visit, which is that the city is being prepared for foreign direct investment in retail, which means Wal-Mart and Kmart and all these people are going to come in, which means that this city of millions of pavement dwellers, hawkers, fruit sellers, people who have — it’s a city that’s grown up over centuries and centuries. It’s just being cleaned out under the guise of sort of legal action. And at the same time, people from villages are being driven out of their villages, because of the corporatization of agriculture, because of these big development projects.
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 India, he gave a decision allowing the Narmada Dam to be built, where 400,000 people will be displaced. The same judge gave a judgment saying slum dwellers are pickpockets of urban land. So you displace people from the villages; they come into the cities; you call them pickpockets. He gave a judgment shutting down all kinds of informal industry in Delhi. Than he gave a judgment asking for all India’s rivers to be linked, which is a Stalinist scheme beyond imagination, where millions of people will be displaced. And when he retired, he joined Coca-Cola. You know, it’s incredible.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy is our guest for the hour. We’ll be back with her in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today for the hour is Arundhati Roy. She just recently flew in from New Delhi, India. She is the author of a number of books, her Booker Prize award-winning book, The God of Small Things, and then her books of essays, The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile among them. Arundhati, you were just talking about what is happening in India. 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.
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 India, and someone in a call center is picking it up.
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India. But it comes as part of a package, and that package, while it gives sort of an English-speaking middle or lower middle class young person a job for a while, they can never last, because it’s such a hard job. It actually is also part of the corporate culture, which is taking away land and resources and water from millions of rural people. But you’re giving the more vocal and the better off anyway — the people who speak even a little bit of English are the better off among the millions of people in India. So, to give these people jobs, you’re taking away the livelihoods of millions of others, and this is what globalization does.
It creates — obviously it creates a very vocal constituency that supports it, among the elite of poor countries. And so you have in India an elite, an upper caste, upper class wealthy elite who are fiercely loyal to the neoliberal program. And that’s exactly, obviously, what colonialism has always done, and it’s exactly what happened in countries in Latin America. But now it’s happening in India, and the rhetoric of democracies in place, because they have learned how to hollow out democracy and make it lose meaning. All it means, it seems, is elections, where whoever you vote for, they are going to do the same thing.
AMY GOODMAN: 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?
ARUNDHATI ROY: I mean, that actually is something that reached fever pitch in the last few weeks in India, because, you know, the movement against dams is actually a very beautiful political argument, because it combines environmental issues, issues of water, of resources and of displacement, with a political vision for a new kind of society. No political ideology, classic political ideology has really done that properly. Either it’s only environmental or it’s only about people. Here somehow, that’s why I got so drawn into it. But this struggle was against the notion of big dams, and it’s been a nonviolent struggle for 25 years.
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 Narmada Valley you’re talking about millions of people. All over India, you’re talking about many millions who are being displaced. So where are they going to go? Well, the court came out with a judgment with marked a different era in India, where they even stopped pretending that they were interested in resettlement or rehabilitation. They just said, "Build the dam." So it’s very interesting that people were watching this nonviolent movement unfold its weapons on the streets, which is the activists who went on indefinite hunger strike. People paid attention, but then they got kicked in the teeth.
Meanwhile, across India, from West Bengal to Orissa, to Jharkhand, to Chhattisgarh, to Andhra Pradesh, the Maoist movement has become very, very strong. It’s an armed struggle. It’s taking over district after district. The administration cannot get in there. And the government’s response to that is to do what was done in Peru with the Shining Path, which is to set up armed defense committees, which is really creating a situation of civil war. 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 India, in January — I don’t know if you’ve read about it, but it was a terrible thing that happened — in Orissa, which is a state where all these corporations have their greedy eyes fixed, because they have just discovered huge deposits of bauxite, which you need to make aluminum, which you need to make weapons and planes.
AMY GOODMAN: And where is Orissa in India?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India. But it’s been happening everywhere, and they are all called terrorists. You know, people with bows and arrows are called terrorists.
So, in India, the poor are the terrorists, and even states like Andhra Pradesh, we have thousands of people being held as political prisoners, called Maoists, held as political prisoners in unknown places without charges or with false charges. We have the highest number of custodial deaths in the world. And we have Thomas Friedman going on and on about how this is an idealistic — ideal society, a tolerant society. Hundreds — I mean, tens of thousands of people killed in Kashmir. All over the northeast, you have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, where a junior noncommissioned officer can shoot at sight. And that is the democracy in which we live.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Maoists, what are their demands?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Iraq, let me play a clip of President Bush in Chicago Monday, where he addressed a gathering organized by the National Restaurant Association. In his remarks, the President talked about Iraq, which has just formed a new unity government.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. 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 Iraq will be an inspiration. Iraqis have done more than form a government. They have proved that the desire for liberty in the heart of the Middle East is for real. They have shown diverse people can come together and work out their differences and find a way forward, and they have demonstrated that democracy is the hope of the Middle East and the destiny of all mankind.
The triumph of liberty in Iraq is part of a long and familiar story. The great biographer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote, "Freedom is ordinarily born in the midst of storms. It is established painfully among civil discords, and only when it is old can one know its benefits." Years from now, people will look back on the formation of a unity government in Iraq as a decisive moment in the story of liberty, a moment when freedom gained a firm foothold in the Middle East and the forces of terror began their long retreat.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush in Chicago. Arundhati Roy from India here in New York, your response?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 Palestine, where you had a democratic government, now Palestine is being starved because they have a democracy, under siege because they have a democracy. But in Iraq, this fake business is called democracy. Forget about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.
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 Iraq?
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen in Iraq?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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, America, Israel and India, and China in Tibet, are now becoming experts in occupation, and India is one of the leading experts. It’s not that the American army in its training exercise is teaching the Indian army. The Indians are teaching the Americans, too, how to occupy a place. What do you do with the media? How do you deal with it? The occupation of Kashmir has taken place over years. And I keep saying that in Iraq, you have 125,000 or so American troops in a situation of war, controlling 25 million Iraqis. In Kashmir, you have 700,000 Indian troops fully armed there — you know? — and creating a situation, making it worse and worse and worse. So the first thing that has to happen is that the army has to come out, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Arundhati Roy, who has spent time in Kashmir, lives in Delhi, the acclaimed author and activist. We’ll continue with her after this break.
AMY GOODMAN: In June of 2005, World Tribunal on Iraq was held in Istanbul, Turkey. A 17-member Jury of Conscience at the tribunal heard testimonies from a panel of advocates and witnesses who came from across the world. Arundhati Roy was selected as the chair of that jury. She is in our studio today. But let’s watch her in Istanbul. Hear what she has to say.
ARUNDHATI ROY: To ask us why we are doing this, you know, why is there a World Tribunal on Iraq, is like asking, you know, someone who stops at the site of an accident where people are dying on the road, "Why did you stop? Why didn’t you keep walking like everybody else?"
While I listened to the testimonies yesterday, especially, I must say that I didn’t know — I mean, not that one has to choose, but still, you know, I didn’t know what was more chilling, you know, the testimonies of those who came from Iraq with the stories of the blood and the destruction and the brutality and the darkness of what was happening there or the stories of that cold, calculated world where the business contracts are being made, where the laws are being rewritten, where a country occupies another with no idea of how it’s going to provide protection to people, but with such a sophisticated idea of how it’s going to loot it of its resources. You know, the brutality or the contrast of those two things was so chilling.
There were times when I felt, I wish I wasn’t on the jury, because I want to say things. You know? I mean, I think that is the nature of this tribunal, that, in a way, one wants to be everything. You want to be on the jury, you want to be on the other side, you want to say things. And I particularly wanted to talk a lot about — which I won’t do now, so don’t worry, but I wanted to talk a lot about my own, you know, now several years of experience with issues of resistance, strategies of resistance, the fact that we actually tend to reach for easy justifications of violence and non-violence, easy and not really very accurate historical examples. These are things we should worry about.
But at the end of it, today we do seem to live in a world where the United States of America has defined an enemy combatant, someone whom they can kidnap from any country, from anyplace in the world and take for trial to America. An enemy combatant seems to be anybody who harbors thoughts of resistance. Well, if this is the definition, then I, for one, am an enemy combatant.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy speaking at the World Tribunal on Iraq, head of the jury there, the Jury of Conscience in June of 2005. Your thoughts almost a year later right now, Arundhati Roy, as enemy combatant?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, I guess, you know, I think one of the things that I worry about is that there is a way in which, say, somebody like me can also be used by the other side. You know, I know — I’m very aware of the fact that in India, you know, they kind of leak the political meaning out of things, and they say, "Oh, we have this great batsman, cricket batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, and we have Miss Universe, Aishwarya Rai, and we have this writer Arundhati Roy." And, you know, everything is telescoped as a kind of "Look at all the things that we have on display," and "We are a democracy, so we allow her to say these things, you know, and go on with it." And yet these democracies have learned to just stare things down, you know? So even in America, eventually all of us who are protesting or writing or whatever, we can be commodified. You know, it can just turn into something that we’re doing, and yet they carry on what they’re doing. We carry on doing what we’re doing. But ultimately, people are being displaced. Countries are being occupied. People are being killed. Laws are being changed. And the status quo is on their side, not on our side. You know, so I worry about that a lot, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: 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?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India should have nuclear weapons?" So I said, "I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the U.S. should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think anyone should have nuclear weapons. It’s something that I have written a lot about." He said, "I asked you whether India should have nuclear weapons." So I said, "Well, I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the U.S. should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons." Then he said, "Will you answer my question? Should India have nuclear weapons?" So I said, "I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the U.S. should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons." 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Has he invited you back on in this new trip that you have had?
ARUNDHATI ROY: No more, no, no. I don’t think.
AMY GOODMAN: 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?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India. I was at a meeting in Delhi a few months ago, the Association of Parents for Disappeared People. Now, women had come down from Kashmir. There are 10,000 or so disappeared people in Kashmir, which nobody talks about in the mainstream media at all. Here were these women whose mothers or brothers or sons or husbands had — I’m sorry, not mothers, but whatever — all these people who were speaking of their personal experiences, and there were other speakers, and there was me. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, I’m just looking at a KMS newswire story — that’s Kashmir Media Service — May 23, just after you spoke here in New York. It says, "A human rights activist and prominent Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, has said India is not a democratic state. The 1997 Booker winner, Arundhati Roy, addressing a book-reading function in New York, said India is not a democratic society." Can you talk about that idea?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India, we were reeling from five years of rightwing communal BJP politics, the rightwing Hindu party.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you make any parallels to political parties in the United States?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Very, very much so. I mean, it was very similar to the Republicans versus the Democrats, and in fact —
AMY GOODMAN: The Congress Party being the Democrats.
ARUNDHATI ROY: The Congress Party being the Democrats, and the Republicans being the rightwing Hindu BJP. And, of course, in a country — like in America, their politics, apart from affecting Americans to a great deal, also affects the rest of the world. But in India, India not being a world power, however much it wants to claim it is, turns those energies on its own people. So in Gujarat, you had in 2002 this mass killing of Muslims on the streets, a bloodbath where people were burnt alive, women were raped on the streets, dismembered, killed in full public view.
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 Gujarat. Nothing has happened. It’s a Nazi type of society, where hundreds of thousands of people are still economically boycotted Muslims, something like 100,000 driven from their homes. Police won’t register cases. One or two important cases are looked at by the Supreme Court, but the mass of it is still completely unresolved. That’s the situation, anyway, and while you’re orchestrating this communal killing, you’re also selling off to Enron and to all these private companies, and so on the one hand you’re talking about Indian-ness and all this, and this nationalism in this absurd way, and on the other, you’re just selling it off in bulk.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask in our last 30 seconds: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?
ARUNDHATI ROY: 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 India, I’m not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists, you know? It’s all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think artists should do?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, as well as a number of books of political essays, like An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.