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Arundhati Roy on Hindu Nationalism, the Deadly Kerala Floods & the Lifting of India’s Gay Sex Ban

Web ExclusiveSeptember 07, 2018
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Web bonus interview with the Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, “The God of Small Things.” Her most recent book is a novel titled “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our discussion with the great writer Arundhati Roy, speaking to us from New Delhi, India, at a time when India’s Supreme Court has just overturned a law criminalizing consensual gay sex, in a major victory for LGBTQI groups. The ruling voids a portion of the Indian Penal Code written by Britain’s colonial government in the 1860s, which, although rarely enforced, made sodomy a crime punishable by up to life in prison.

We go now to Arundhati Roy in India. She is an activist and author, won the Booker Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things. She’s the author of the recent novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where there were many in your book, Arundhati, who were certainly gender-fluid. Talk about the significance of this historic decision of the Supreme Court overturning 150 years of law.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, firstly, you know, I’d like to say that the interesting thing is that before the British came and made this law, there was, oddly enough, in Indian society—you know, if you read even the memoirs of, say, Babur, one of the first Mughal rulers of India—you know, there was a completely different attitude towards homosexual love and sex. And the British came and, you know, brought their prudishness and made those laws. And today, that has been overturned.

And, you know, while it’s true that maybe it was not a law that was implemented in ways, but actually to live knowing that you could be a criminal makes you vulnerable. And it’s maybe not the elite and the upper caste and the rich people, but certainly it makes—it allows policemen and other people to prey on the poor, on the vulnerable, in ways which were terrifying, you know? So, I think the fact that it’s been decriminalized is going to have effects which we may not be completely aware of, because I don’t think everyone was completely aware of how vulnerable those communities have been. So that’s really a wonderful thing.

I just hope that this, coming at this time, when, in fact, what we are living through is a convulsion of a kind of manifesto of hatred that’s been spread around—you know, there’s a sort of slow-drip feed of venom. There is an attempt to pit community against community, caste against caste, which is so dangerous, because of course the predominant enemies of the Hindu right are Muslims, Christians and communists. But when you start preaching hatred in a society as complex as this, you can’t control those fires, and they may burn for a thousand years, because everyone is some kind of a minority, you know?

So, while I’m so happy about this law, I also think about how vigilante groups have this thing called “love jihad.” You know, wherever they find a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, they are targets. They are able—you know, many are killed. Equally—I mean, you don’t even need vigilante groups; families do this to their own. When a marriage or a liaison happens across caste barriers, you have the most terrible kinds of violence that is unleashed.

So, I wish this enlightened judgment leads to something gentler in this very complicated land of ours, you know, something gentler, something more enlightened, something which understands love to be something beautiful wherever you find it, and something so important and rare. So, it’s a wonderful moment, and I hope it’s the beginning of something.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Arundhati Roy, you mentioned in the first part of our interview, in talking about this decision, what it says about judicial independence, the independence of the Supreme Court. Do you have any hopes that the Supreme Court will be able to do something about, or have they done things, made decisions, pertaining to what you’ve called this convulsion of hatred against minorities in India?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, the thing is that let’s not forget that it was just a few months ago that four senior judges of the Supreme Court came out of the court, unprecedented in Indian history, and held a press conference saying democracy is in danger. They were basically reacting to several things. One is what was implied to be the fixing of benches in courts by the government or by collusion between judges and governments. That was the implication.

The immediate provocation was that at that time a magazine called Caravan had done a story—very, very shocking—about one of the people who had been basically arrested off a bus in Gujarat—I think it was in 2006—called Sohrabuddin, and his wife Kauser Bi. They were both killed, accused of being terrorists who were going to kill Modi. And the investigation of that led to courts saying that these people were killed in cold blood. There was an inquiry, a fast-track inquiry in a local court in Bombay, and the judge who summoned Amit Shah, that is the—who is currently the president of the BJP, suddenly died in very mysterious circumstances. And then his family began to talk about how they believed that he had been murdered, and that investigation has just been quashed by the Supreme Court.

So the court, too, came under scrutiny, and I hope that we are looking at a moment when it is beginning to assert its independence again. But it was a very troubling time. And every institution of this democracy is shaking under this manifesto that I keep talking about. So what we are looking at is people demanding that the Constitution be respected, people demanding that India—the Constitution’s first lines are that this is a secular socialist republic, you know, and to have people in power who have openly said, since 1925, that they disrespect this Constitution, that they want India to be a Hindu nation, is something very worrying. You know, that is why I’m saying it’s not the same as the emergency. It’s a more dangerous situation than the emergency. And certainly if they get another shot at power for five years, we’re, all of us, going to be in a lot of trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Trump and Modi. But right now you have James Mattis, the defense secretary of the United States, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in New Delhi, where you are, to firm up military relations with India as they cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Pakistan next door. You have them as emissaries of President Trump, who has called the press the enemy of the people in the United States, the enemy of the American people. Can you talk about the murder of Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Bangalore weekly, in the context that you’re talking about, of the attacks that are going on around the country? But this is specifically related to media. Can you talk about the publisher and editor Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Bangalore weekly, in the context of the growing attacks on the press—I mean, you have them here in the United States, you have them in India—and what she was trying to expose, the right-wing Hindu movement? In the United States, we’re seeing this rise of white supremacy—and how that compares to Hindu supremacy in India?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, there’s been a lot of comings and goings between organizations like the “alt-right” and many Zionist groups and the Hindu right here. There’s a slight difference in terms of the situation with the press versus Trump, and the press, the mainstream press here, and Modi, because in the United States, even the mainstream press is now aggressive towards Trump, whereas here you have the opposite scenario.

You have—you know, first of all, you have big corporations, like Reliance and so on, who own 27 news channels or something like that. You have mining corporations who own news channels. There’s a massive conflict of interest. And you have a situation where, for example, just—I think it was in 2016, when you had the big student uprisings, let’s say, in an institution like JNU—you had many TV channels taking video footage of student unrest. And, I mean, the TV channels didn’t do it themselves—I don’t know who did it—but it was proved that they put on a different soundtrack and then broadcast it, leading to such terrifying situations for young students. A young student called Umar Khalid, of course, because he was a Muslim, was called a terrorist. He was accused of being trained by ISIS. And recently someone tried to assassinate him, based on this completely fake footage broadcast by mainstream TV channels.

So we actually have a situation today where the media, for the most part, has been very, very supportive of Modi—very, very supportive, you know, so even major opposition parties like the Congress don’t get coverage. So, when Rahul Gandhi wanted to speak about this French fighter pilot deal, he actually spoke in the House of Parliament, and therefore the media had to cover it, because no one reports this, no one at all, you know? It’s a very different situation.

So, Gauri Lankesh was one of those small independent activist magazines, and even that was sought to be shut up. So, the investigations into her murder have led to the finding out of many, many shadowy Hindu right-wing groups that have planned—you know, that have weapons, that have safe houses, that have hit lists, and some of them have been exposed. There are many we don’t know about. And, you know, people are just open and openly threatening, openly asking for people to be killed or eliminated. So the situation is different vis-à-vis the press here and there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Arundhati Roy, you mentioned Rahul Gandhi, who is, of course, the president of the Congress Party, and on this question of the comparison or the possible similarities between Trump and Modi, he said that the one similarity there is, is that the supporters of Modi and Trump share a lot in common, similar grievances. They are largely drawn from marginalized and poor members of the majority population, who are increasingly unemployed and frustrated by measures taken by successive governments in both countries to accommodate minority communities. Do you agree with that?

ARUNDHATI ROY: No, I don’t agree entirely, because I don’t think that the supporters are mostly from completely marginalized and poor communities. Yes, they are from—I wouldn’t say that they’re from the lowest, from the Dalits or from the Adivasi community, although in the previous election there was some support. But what you’re actually—I mean, if you actually look at it quite carefully, you have to understand the mechanics and the way in which caste works in Indian society. It’s hard for me to explain.

But certainly the supporters of the BJP would not be from the poorest community. Yes, from people who are frustrated by the lack of jobs and the lack of opportunity now, but those people were hit really, really hard by demonetization and by this new goods and services tax, which has marginalized small businessmen. Demonetization just took the stuffing out of people, while major corporations friendly to this regime increased their wealth manifold, while big businessmen like Vijay Mallya, the beer magnate, and Nirav Modi ran off with thousands of crores, while the government watched, you know, and while the BJP itself has become monumentally wealthy, wealthier than all the other political parties put together. So, I wouldn’t say—I wouldn’t agree that the support comes from the poorest of the poor.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, I wanted to ask you about the floods, the worst flooding in a century, in the place that you come from, in Kerala. You grew up partly there. It’s the setting of your first book, The God of Small Things. Can you talk about what’s happening there and the connection between this flooding, first—you know, unprecedented, at least in a century, and climate change and how it threatens India today?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, the thing is that you did have heavy rainfall, but one of the things that’s happened in Kerala is that Kerala is a strip of coastline between the mountains and the sea. So, when you look at climate change, you know that it’s a place like that which is most vulnerable. It hasn’t helped that this kind of massive profit-driven development has meant deforestation, has meant, you know, there were huge landslides. But most of all, and the most dangerous thing is that, the dams in Kerala, which were filled with water, and then there was a break in the monsoon, and they were not—the water was not released. So when the second rain came, 25 dams were opened and added immensely to the situation of distress.

So you had a situation where the Central Water Committee doesn’t communicate that there is going to be a problem, and you have all the natural drainage blocked. And you had a situation of rain which has not been there for so, so many years. You had a complete inundation. And then, of course, on top of it, you had—the Kerala government at the moment is a Marxist government, and the central government tried very hard to create a lot of trouble about it. And if you read the social media and the conversations about, “Oh, don’t give relief to this community; only give it to that community”—you know, to use that situation of distress to further this kind of hatred, which somehow has not penetrated into Kerala so far. But there was a huge effort to do that.

So there was climate change, there was the calamity of dams, which one has been writing about for a long time, and add to it—add to the mix this communal hatred, and you had all the issues of our times flowing into that flood. But you also had the most incredible display of communities coming to help each other, fishermen doing these spectacular rescues—in fact, a society that showed this regime what it means to really respect each other and do something that is not just driven by hatred, you know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back to an issue that you raised earlier, which has to do with the Modi government’s attack on educational institutions in India. You’ve said, “We are witnessing the re-Brahminization of education, this time fitted out in corporate clothes.” Could you talk about what has been happening in universities in India, and in particular at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is of course one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the country?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, first of all, you know, to be fair, this process of privatization of education was kicked off by the Congress Party before the Modi government came, so it isn’t just something that the BJP started. And the privatization of education, the reason I say it’s the re-Brahminization is because, of course, as we know, there was a time when education and knowledge was solely the preserve of the Brahmin.

And, you know, the system of reservation, or what you call affirmative action, over the last 60 or 70 years has really allowed very vulnerable communities a foot in the door, you know? So, an institution like JNU, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is a wonderful example of a university where people from the most underprivileged places came in, received a fine education and have really changed the debate in India in terms of equality, egalitarianism, all of that.

And now you have privatization, where once again the doors are going to be closed to the poor, to the vulnerable, to the disadvantaged, because they can’t afford the fees. So that’s what I meant by the re-Brahminization, because, once again, you’ll have a situation where, obviously, those who have social capital, those who have been privileged for generations, for centuries, are now going to find it much easier to be able to pay those fees, and the rest are going to be pushed out. So, that’s what I meant.

And in JNU—you know, obviously, JNU is a very, very special university. And much of the–much of the argument, the debate, the militancy against this way of thinking, JNU is seen to be a hub of. Hyderabad Central University, where the Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide, another place that they tried to shut down, they have just created terror there. So police have entered campuses. Now in JNU, there’s a tank, there’s a flag. People are—the minister—I think it was the education minister, said, “Now we want students to worship the flag, to worship the country.”

The whole—I mean, Ph.D. students applying for professor jobs, they are being asked, “Have you ever looked after a cow? What are your views on cow urine?” You know, it’s just—the cretinization is more dangerous than fascism. I don’t use this word “fascism” loosely, even though we haven’t come anywhere close to what happened in Europe, but we’re just talking about what is the mindset. You know how quickly it can unleash itself once it gets a grip. And this organization, the RSS, has never been shy of saying how its ideologues were influenced by Hitler, by Mussolini and so on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask about something that happened earlier this year in the northeastern state of Assam, where 4 million people were excluded from a citizenship register. That is, 4 million citizens were effectively stripped of their citizenship. The justification for this register was to single out migrants from Bangladesh who reportedly entered the country illegally. Could you talk about the significance of this and whether anything like this has happened in India ever?

ARUNDHATI ROY: See, that national register of citizens is again something that’s been coming for many, many years, you know? So, it’s a very complicated subject to speak about, because it’s not just a question of Hindus and Muslims, India and Bangladesh. There’s huge indigenous populations in those areas in the northeast who have actually been—you know, have borne the brunt of immigrant populations coming in. But now what has happened is this national register of citizens, which of course is up for revision and so on, is going to be used, surely, by this government. It’s going to be taken out of Assam, where, surely, people need to look at how other people can also bear the cost of such a huge immigrant population. It can’t be just put onto the most vulnerable, you know? But now it’s going to easily turn into something where—you know, they’ve already started saying, “What about having a national register for citizens in Delhi or Rajasthan or Gujarat or Punjab?” And it will become a tool that is used to very, very ugly purpose, you know? So, it’s just the beginning of mischief.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, we only have 30 seconds. But you’re an—

ARUNDHATI ROY: But it cannot be reacted to just in—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an outspoken critic of the Modi government, which is cracking down on dissent right now. Are you afraid for your own safety?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, everybody should be worried, you know, so I don’t want to put myself in some special category. I think it’s silly not to be worried, but at the same time I don’t think we all should disable ourselves with worry. This is the time to speak our minds.

AMY GOODMAN: I thank you so much for being with us, Arundhati Roy, activist, author, speaking to us from New Delhi, India. She is the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, based in part in Kerala, partly where she grew up, and also her most recent book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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