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Author Arundhati Roy on the Human Costs of India’s Economic Growth, the View of Obama from New Delhi, and Escalating US Attacks in Af-Pak

StorySeptember 28, 2009
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We’re joined from the Indian capital of New Delhi by the Booker Prize-winning novelist, political essayist and global justice activist Arundhati Roy. Her books include the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things and her latest essay collection, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. We speak to Roy about India’s conflict with Maoist rebels, the occupation of Kashmir, ongoing Indian-Pakistani tensions, Obama’s war in “Af-Pak,” and more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a woman the New York Times calls India’s most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence, Arundhati Roy, world-renowned Indian author and global justice activist. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize in 1997. She has a new book; it’s called Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. An adapted introduction to the book is posted at, called “What Have We Done to Democracy?” Arundhati Roy joins us now from New Delhi, India, on the country’s biggest national holiday of the year.

Arundhati, we welcome you to Democracy Now! And as you listen to this report from the streets of G-20 by our producer Steve Martinez, talk about globalization and what has happened to democracy.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s a huge subject, Amy. And I think my book — in my book, I discuss it in some detail in terms of what’s happening to India. But as we know now, because of the way the global economy is linked, countries are not — you know, the political systems in countries are also linked, so democracies are linked to dictatorships and military occupations and so on. We know that. We now that some of the main military occupations in the world today are actually administered by democracies: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir.

But what I think is beginning to be very clear now is that we see now that democracy is sort of fused to the free market, or to the idea of the free market. And so, its imagination has been limited to the idea of profit. And democracy, a few years ago, maybe, you know, even twenty-five years ago, was something that, let’s say, a country like America feared, which was why democracies were being toppled all over the place, like in Chile and so on. But now wars are being waged to restore — to place democracy, because democracy serves the free market, and each of the institutions in democracy, like you look at India, you know, whether it’s the Supreme — whether it’s the courts or whether it’s the media or whether it’s all the other institutions of democracy, they’ve been sort of hollowed out, and just their shells have been replaced, and we play out this charade. And it’s much more complicated for people to understand what’s going on, because there’s so much shadow play.

But really we are facing a crisis. And that’s what I ask. You know, is there life after democracy? And what kind of life will it be? Because democracy has been hollowed out and made meaningless. And when I say “democracy,” I’m not talking about the ideal. You know, I’m not saying that countries that live in dictatorships and under military occupation should not fight for democracy, because the early years of democracy are important and heady. And then we see a strange metastasis taking over.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Arundhati Roy. She’s joining us from New Delhi, India, the world-renowned author, global justice activist. Her book The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, well known all over the world. Now she has written a new book. Today we will talk about it for the first time in the United States in a national broadcast, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. We’ll be back with her for the rest of the hour in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Arundhati Roy, speaking to us from New Delhi, India, talking about India, war and globalization. I’m here with co-host Anjali Kamat. Anjali?

ANJALI KAMAT: The Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met in New York Sunday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting but failed to agree on a timetable for negotiations. Talks continue to be stalled by the fallout of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 163 people. India blames Pakistani militants for the attack and has emphasized the need for Pakistan to prosecute those responsible. The Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna told reporters he raised these concerns with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

    S.M. KRISHNA: As you are aware, we do have serious and continuing concerns about terrorist and extremist groups in Pakistan, which are — which are a national security risk for us and for our people. Foreign Minister Qureshi conveyed to me the seriousness of his government in bringing to book, through their legal process, those responsible for the terrorist outrage in Mumbai ten months ago.

ANJALI KAMAT: Meanwhile, inside India, the focus has shifted to a different adversary. The stage is set for a major domestic military offensive against an armed group that the Indian prime minister has repeatedly called the country’s, quote, “gravest internal security threat.”

Operation Green Hunt will reportedly send between 75,000 and 100,000 troops to areas seen as Maoist strongholds in central and eastern India. In June, India labeled the Naxalite group, the Communist Party of India — Maoist — a terrorist organization, and earlier this month India’s home minister came to the United States to share counterterror strategies.

The Indian government blames the deaths of nearly 600 people this year on Maoist violence and claims that Maoist rebels are active in twenty out of the twenty-eight states in the country. The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh outlined the threat to a conference of state police chiefs earlier this month.

    PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH: In many ways, the left-wing extremism poses perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces. We have discussed this in the last five years. And I would like to state, frankly, that we have not achieved as much success as we would have liked in containing this menace.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to help make sense of what’s unfolding inside the world’s largest democracy, we continue with the Booker Prize award-winning novelist, political essayist, global justice activist Arundhati Roy. She won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize in 2002. She’s the author of a number of collection of essays and the novel The God of Small Things. Her latest book is called Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Can you make sense, Arundhati, of what is happening inside India for an audience around the world?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, let me just pick up on what Anjali was talking about just now, about the assault that’s planned on the so-called Maoists in central India. You know, when September 11th happened, I think some of us had already said that a time would come when poverty would be sort of collapsed and converge into terrorism. And this is exactly what’s happened. The poorest people in this country today are being called terrorists.

And what you have is a huge swath of forest in eastern and central India, spreading from West Bengal through the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. And in these forests live indigenous people. And also in these forests are the biggest deposits of bauxite and iron ore and so on, which huge multinational companies now want to get their hands on. So there’s an MoU [Memorandum of Understanding] on every mountain, on every forest and river in this area.

And about in 2005, let’s say, in central India, the day after the MoU was signed with the biggest sort of corporation in India, Tatas, the government also announced the formation of the Salwa Judum, which is a sort of people’s militia, which is armed and is meant to fight the Maoists in the forest. But the thing is, all this, the Salwa Judum as well as the Maoists, they’re all indigenous people. And in, let’s say, Chhattisgarh, something like the Salwa Judum has been a very cruel militia, you know, burning villages, raping women, burning food crops. I was there recently. Something like 640 villages have been burned. Out of the 350,000, first about 50,000 people moved into roadside police camps, from where this militia was raised by the government. And the rest are simply missing. You know, some are living in cities, you know, eking out a living. Others are just hiding in the forest, coming out, trying to sow their crops, and yet getting, you know, those crops burnt down, their villages burnt down. So there is a sort of civil war raging.

And now, I remember traveling in Orissa a few years ago, when there were not any Maoists, but there were huge sort of mining companies coming in to mine the bauxite. And yet, they kept — all the newspapers kept saying the Maoists are here, the Maoists are here, because it was a way of allowing the government to do a kind of military-style repression. Of course, now they’re openly saying that they want to call out the paramilitary.

And if you look at — for example, if you look at the trajectory of somebody like Chidambaram, who’s India’s home minister, he — you know, he’s a lawyer from Harvard. He was the lawyer for Enron, which pulled off the biggest scam in the history of — corporate scam in the history of India. We’re still suffering from that deal. After that, he was on the board of governors of what is today the biggest mining corporation in the world, called Vedanta, which is mining in Orissa. The day he became finance minister, he resigned from Vedanta. When he was the finance minister, in an interview he said that he would like 85 percent of India to live in cities, which means moving something like 500 million people. That’s the kind of vision that he has.

And now he’s the home minister, calling out the paramilitary, calling out the police, and really forcibly trying to move people out of their lands and homes. And anyone who resisted, whether they’re a Maoist or not a Maoist, are being labeled Maoist. People are being picked up, tortured. There are some laws that have been passed which should not exist in any democracy, laws which make somebody like me saying what I’m saying now to you a criminal offense, for which I could just be jailed. Even sort of thinking an anti-government thought has become illegal. And we’re talking about, you know, as you said, 75,000 to 100,000 security personnel going to war against people who, since independence, which was more than sixty years ago, have no schools, no hospitals, no running water, nothing. And now, now they’re being — now they’re being killed or imprisoned or just criminalized. You know, it’s like if you’re not in the Salwa Judum camp, then you’re a Maoist, and we can kill you. And they are openly celebrating the Sri Lanka solution to terrorism, to terrorism.

ANJALI KAMAT: Arundhati Roy, can you explain a little bit more about how India has so successfully hidden this side of it, this underbelly of democracy that you bring out in your book — murder, disappearances, torture, rapes, thousands — millions of people displaced, whether it’s for development projects or in the process of fighting wars, tens of thousands disappeared in Kashmir, the insurgency that’s being fought, the military that’s fighting the insurgency in the northeast? How is India, on a global stage, continues to be seen as this successful democracy, a place where investors are flooding to?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, precisely because it is a democracy for some of its citizens, you know? And so, in a way, it has — this whole system has somehow created an elite that is now suddenly enriched in the last, you know, twenty years since the advent of the corporate free market. We have a huge middle class that is hugely invested in this sort of a police — or, you know, a police state that isn’t acknowledged as one. So you have — it’s not just a small sort of coterie of generals, like in Burma, or a kind of military dictatorship that’s supported by the US in America. You have a huge constituency in this country that completely supports this whole enterprise, and you have a free media where 90 percent of the turnover of those media houses comes from corporate advertisements and so on. So they’re also free, but free to also embrace this particular model, in which, you know, a small section of people — well, not a small section; there are millions and millions of people, but they are not the majority of the people of this country. The light shines upon this rising middle class, which is, as I said, such a huge number that it’s a very, very attractive market for the whole world.

So, when India opens its markets, you know, because it has opened its markets, and because it’s — you know, international finance is flooding in, and all of that is so attractive, it is allowed to commit genocide in Gujarat; it’s allowed to commit civil war in the center; it’s allowed to have a military occupation in Kashmir, where you have 700,000 soldiers, you know, patrolling that little valley; it’s allowed to have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the northeast, which allows the army to just kill on suspicion. And yet, it’s celebrated. It’s allowed to displace millions of people, but yet it’s celebrated as this real success story, because it has all these institutions in place, even though they’ve been hollowed out.

So you have, for example, a Supreme Court in which there are very erudite judges, and there are some very erudite judgments, but if you look at how it’s actually functioning, it has hollowed out. To criticize the court is a criminal offense. And yet, you have judgments where a judge openly says something like — you know, that — I’ve forgotten the exact words, but how corporate — you know, a corporate company cannot basically commit anything illegal, cannot commit an illegal act, you know? Or you have a judge in court openly talking about, let’s say, Vedanta, which is mining in Orissa for bauxite. And the Norwegian government had pulled out of that project because of the human rights violations and so on; and, you know, for a whole lot of ethical reasons, they pulled out. And in India, you know, the company was taken to court, and a judge openly, in an open court, says that, “OK, we won’t give this contract to Vedanta. We’ll give it to Sterlite, because Sterlite is a very good company. I have shares in it,” omitting to mention that Sterlite is a subsidiary of Vedanta.

You know, but there’s so much fancy footwork. If it was a military dictator, they have would have just said, “Shut up” and “Vedanta will get the project.” But here, there are affidavits and counter-affidavits and a little bit of delay and everything; everyone thinks it’s democracy. You know, you have the Supreme Court hearing on, let’s say, the Parliament attack, where openly the Supreme Court of the world’s greatest democracy says, you know, on the one hand, “We don’t have evidence to prove that the person who was charged is — belongs to a terrorist group,” and a few paras later says, “but the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if we sentence him to death.” And it’s just said so, blatantly, out there, you know? And you can’t criticize it, because it’s a criminal offense.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, talk about Kashmir. I think it’s something, certainly here in the United States, a conflict people understand very little.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, Kashmir — Kashmir was an independent sort of kingdom in 1947 at the time of independence and partition. And when — I mean, just to cut a very complicated story short, when partition happened, both India and Pakistan fought over it and hived off parts of it, and both now have military presence in this divided Kashmir. But to give you some idea of the military presence, it’s — you know, let’s say the US has 165,000 troops in Iraq. India has 700,000 troops in Kashmir.

Kashmir used to have a Hindu king and a largely Muslim population, which was very, very backward and so on at the time, because at the time, you know, Muslims were discriminated against by that princely — in that princely state.

But now, for — I mean, in 1990, after a whole series of events, which culminated in a sort of fake election, a rigged election in 1987, there was an armed uprising in Kashmir. And really, since then, it’s been convulsed by militancy and military occupation, encounters, disappearances and so on. Last year, there was a — you know, last year, they began to say everything is normal, you know, tourists are going back to the valley. But, of course, that was just wishful thinking, because there was a huge nonviolent uprising in which hundreds of thousands of people, you know, flocked the streets, day and night, demanding independence. It was put down with military force.

And now, once again, you have a situation where you can hardly walk from, you know, twenty meters without someone with an AK-47 in your face. Sometimes in places like Srinagar, which is the capital, it’s well hidden. But it’s a place where every action, every breath that people, you know, breathe in and breathe out, is kind of controlled by military force. And this is how — you know, people are just being asphyxiated; they cannot breathe.

And, of course, there’s a huge publicity machine. You know, I mean, I’d say that the only difference between what’s happening in Palestine and Kashmir is that, so far, India has not used air power on the people of Kashmir, as they are threatening to do, by the way, in Chhattisgarh, you know, to its own poorest. It has not — you know, the people, technically, they are able to move around, unlike the people of Gaza and the West Bank. Kashmiris are able to move around in the rest of India, though it isn’t really safe, because their young get picked up and disappeared and tortured and so on. So, you know, it’s not something that they easily will do. And there has not been this kind of system of settlements, you know, where you’re trying to sort of take over by pushing in people from the mainland. So, other than those three, I think we’re talking about an outright occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with the great writer Arundhati Roy, social justice activist. She’s speaking to us from New Delhi, India. When we come back, we’ll talk about India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the view of President Obama from India. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.



We continue with our exclusive global broadcast with Arundhati Roy in New Delhi, India, the world-renowned author, social justice activist. Her first book, The God of Small Things, translated all over the world, won the Booker Prize in 1997. Her new book, just out: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

I’m Amy Goodman with Anjali Kamat. Anjali?


Arundhati, years ago, under the Bush administration, you called yourself a “subject of empire.” Today, can you talk about what Obama’s America looks like from India, from New Delhi, as the Obama administration expands the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan?


Well, I think, you know, when people would ask me what I thought of Obama, I said I hope that he would land the American empire gently, like the pilot who landed the — who crash-landed the plane in the Hudson.

Yes, he’s expanding the war in Afghanistan. I think, basically, people, including Obama, just don’t know what to do in Afghanistan, and expanding the war is certainly not going to end that war or create any kind of just peace in that region. It’s, in fact, going to exacerbate the situation, draw Pakistan into it, and when Pakistan is drawn into it, so will India, and so on. So it goes.

I think, you know, the real change that has taken place in the last, you know, ten years is also the rise of India and China as kind of imperial powers, you know, playing out their games in Africa and also in parts of Latin America. So it’s a very — and, of course, the rise of Russia.

So, I think the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir is very volatile. And, of course, let’s not forget that these are nuclear powers, even though a scientist recently has announced that India’s nuclear tests were a damp squib and that they were not successful, but I don’t know what that’s about and why he’s coming out with it now.

But I think we are headed for a lot of chaos. And in India, you know, as I said, while the situation in Kashmir — even now, as I speak in the studio, there’s news coming in of what they call “encounter killings,” you know, almost a few every day. So, obviously, given that nonviolent protest has been put down violently, things are going to go back to a previous era of some kind of militant violence there. And, you know, the heart of India being sort of hollowed out by this civil war and this assault on its poor.

I really don’t know what to say or what to expect, except to say that this kind of pressure can never result in an orderly submission, even if people wanted to submit. What’s going to happen and what is happening is that unpredictable kinds of battles and chaos is erupting all over the place, and, you know, the government is constantly firefighting and trying to douse those flames.

But out of this chaos, something new has to come, and will come, because it cannot go on like this. And I don’t know whether that thing will be worse or will be better, but it can’t go on like this. You know, the kind of polythene bag over our heads has to burst open at some point. You know, we have to be allowed to breathe. And this kind of surveillance and drone attacks and all this that’s being planned is not going to be able to hold down millions of people who are just getting impoverished and hungry and homeless.


Arundhati, can you talk about the state of the media in India? You talk about the different institutions of democracy. How would you assess the Indian media, and what is its role in this landscape?


Well, if I had to talk about the — you know, I mean, the mainstream sort of corporate media, and if I were to have to make a kind of crude statement, I’d say that the mainstream media right now here is not a little to the right of Fox News. You know, that’s what’s going on here. There’s a kind of nationalist howl that I find pretty terrifying. Having said that, I think that, you know, now all we’re left with is to try and find some sane sort of bubbles within that. And there are those.

And, of course, the fact that India is a country where — I mean, forget the media; people don’t — you know, people don’t have access to water and food and basic healthcare. The kind of reach and that mesmeric spell that the media casts in, you know, developed countries, the media can’t in India. In fact, I was actually — you know, when I was in this place, Chhattisgarh, Dantewada, where the war is unfolding, a senior policeman told me, “You know, Arundhati, as a policeman, I can tell you that the police are not going to be able to solve the problem of these indigenous, you know, these Adivasi people” — “Adivasi” is the word for tribal people — “and I have told the government that the problem with these people is that they don’t have any greed. So, the way to solve the problem is to put a TV in every house. Then we’ll be able to win this war.”

So, you know, you have a situation where more and more people are just outside the barcode. You know, they are what you would call “illegible.” And we have a very, very serious situation here, where now they are planning, you know, once again, to make a — what do you call it — a electronic ID card. Of course, once again, to people who don’t have water, who don’t have electricity, who don’t have schools, but they will have ID cards, and people who don’t have ID cards are not going to exist.

But, sorry, I moved away from your question, which was a question about the media. I fear the media greatly here. You know, sometimes, like you see after the attacks in Mumbai, the government was more mature than the media. The media was spoiling for war. It was really — you know, the media and the elite and the urban middle class were spoiling for war. They were just pushing for a war with Pakistan. And so, I’d say highly irresponsible, with very little basis in fact. And a lot of my book is really a response to how the media has behaved over the last few years on very, very crucial issues. And it’s very troubling to live in a place where the media has actually no accountability.


Arundhati, can you talk a little bit about encounter deaths? You mentioned this a little earlier in the program. What are police encounters, fake encounters? This is something that’s quite common in India. But can you explain to our audience what you mean by “encounter deaths”?


Well, what happens now is that, you know, one of the ways in which people — the police and the security establishment deals with, you know, dissent, resistance and terrorism, or what they call terrorism, is to just deliver summary justice: kill people and say, oh, they were killed in an encounter, in cross-firing, or so on, and so on. So, in places like Kashmir and in the northeast, in Manipur and Nagaland, it’s an old tradition. In places like Andhra Pradesh, they had, you know, many, many hundreds of encounter deaths.

And, in fact, recently, there was a photo essay of an encounter death in Manipur, where the, you know, security grid just — security forces just surrounded this young boy. And it was a photo essay, you know. He was unarmed. He was a former militant, I think, who had laid down his arms, and he was in the market. And you just saw a policeman pulling out his gun, shooting him, and then they said, oh, he was killed in crossfire, you know.

So, it’s a very — you have people — we have cops here who are given medals for being encounter specialists. You know, so the more people they’ve killed, the more medals they’ll get. And in places like Kashmir, they actually get promotions. So, in fact, it’s something to be proud of, an encounter killing, for, you know, both the army as well as the police and the counterinsurgency forces.


We’re talking to Arundhati Roy. She’s speaking to us from New Delhi, India. She has just published a new book called Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. Arundhati, why “listening to grasshoppers”?


Oh, it was the name of a lecture that I did in Turkey last year on the anniversary after the death of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist who was shot outside his office for daring to talk about the Armenian genocide of 1915, which you’re not supposed to talk about in Turkey. And my lecture was really about the historical links between progress and genocide.

And “listening to grasshoppers” was — referred to the testimony an old lady called Araxie Barsamian, who’s the friend — mother of my friend David Barsamian, who is Armenian and who talked about how, you know, the wheat had ripened in her village in 1915, and suddenly there was this huge swarm of grasshoppers that arrived. And the village elders were very worried about this and said it was a bad omen. And they were right, because a few months later, when the wheat had ripened, the Turks came, and that was the beginning of the Armenian genocide for her.

And so, I talk about — the whole lecture was really about how societies are prepared for genocide and how genocide is, you know, it’s like part of free trade, and how, you know, genocides that are acknowledged, and denied, and prosecuted, all have to — all depend on world trade, and always have done, and about how I worry that a country like India, that is poised on the threshold of progress, could also be poised on the threshold of genocide.

And that essay was written in January of last year. And now, as you see, the troops are closing in on the forest areas where the poorest people live. And they will be sacrificed at the altar of progress, unless we manage to show the world that we have to find a different way of seeing and a different way of going about things.

But here in India, there’s the smell of fascism in the air. Earlier, it was a kind of an anti-Muslim, religious fascism. Now we have a secular government, and it’s a kind of right-wing ruthlessness, where people openly say, you know, every country that has progressed and is developed, whether you look at Europe or America or China or Russia, they have a quote-unquote “past,” you know, they have a cruel past, and it’s time that India stepped up to the plate and realized that there are some people that are holding back this kind of progress and that we need to be ruthless and move in, as Israel did recently in Gaza, as Sri Lanka has recently done with its hundreds of thousands of Tamils in concentration camps. So why not India? You know? Why not just do away with the poor so that we can be a proper superpower, instead of a super-poor superpower?


Arundhati Roy, we just have less than a minute. What gives you hope?


What gives me hope is the fact that this way of thinking is being resisted in a myriad ways in India, you know, from the poorest person in a loincloth in the forest saying, “We’re going to fight,” right up to me, who’s at the other end, you know. And all of us are joined together by the determination that, even if we lose, we’re going to fight, you know? And we’re not going to just let this happen without doing everything we can to stop it. And that gives me a tremendous amount of hope.


Arundhati Roy, we thank you very much for being with us from, well, not far from your home, in New Delhi, India, in this international global exclusive broadcast on the publication of your book, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, published by Haymarket Books.

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