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Pandemic Is a Portal: Arundhati Roy on COVID-19 in India, Imagining Another World & Fighting for It

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Officials in India say six major cities are coronavirus hot spots, including the capital city, New Delhi. We go there to speak with writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who has a new essay on how “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” She says, “You have the sense that you’re sitting on some kind of explosive substance,” and describes how the government of Narendra Modi is using the pandemic to crack down on opponents and dissidents.

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StoryApr 02, 2020“Social Distancing Is a Privilege”: Pandemic Highlights India’s Class Divide as 1.3 Billion Lock Down
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We turn now to India, where officials say six major cities are coronavirus infection hot spots, calling them red zones, including the capital, New Delhi, and the financial center, Mumbai. The country has more than 420 deaths, 12,000 infections, though the number is likely far higher due to lack of testing.

This comes as press freedom and civil liberties groups are sounding the alarm that the government of Narendra Modi is using the coronavirus outbreak to crack down on opponents and dissidents. This month, police arrested a prominent journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, accusing him of spreading “discord” and “rumors,” after he reportedly criticized a Hindu nationalist politician for participating in a religious ceremony with dozens of people during the national lockdown. Elsewhere, activist Anand Teltumbde, who is 69 years old, and journalist Gautam Navlakha, who is 67, were arrested Tuesday over charges they both say were fabricated. Teltumbde wrote an open letter to the people of India on the eve of his arrest, saying, quote, “I do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes,” he said.

Prime Minister Modi has announced India’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, affecting 1.3 billion people — the largest at any time in the world — announced it will be extended until May. In Mumbai, hundreds of migrant workers left homeless and unemployed by the lockdown held a protest Tuesday demanding the government deliver food and assistance.

SHAHBAZ: [translated] We are not getting anything here. The government promised to provide money and other amenities, and nothing has been delivered yet.

SHABANA: [translated] We have nothing to do now. We have small kids, and they are not getting anything to eat. What should we do?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to New Delhi, India, where we’re joined by the award-winning writer, author, activist Arundhati Roy. She has a new essay in the Financial Times headlined “The pandemic is a portal.” It’s drawn from her forthcoming book, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. Her most recent book is My Seditious Heart: Collected Nonfiction. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things.

Arundhati, welcome back to Democracy Now! As you speak to us from New Delhi, if you can talk about what’s happening there and why you see the pandemic as a portal?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, in India, you know, we have a COVID crisis whose contours we don’t know yet. I mean, you mentioned the figures and also the fact that we don’t know if they’re reliable, because there’s not that much testing happening. But on the other hand, just looking around, you know that there isn’t a run on hospitals like there has been in New York, you know? The disease doesn’t seem to have really got its claws into us yet. But we have the COVID crisis. We have a hunger crisis. We have a hatred crisis. And we have a health crisis apart from COVID.

So, as you said, you know, on the 24th of March, with four hours’ notice, which ran between 8:00 at night and 12 midnight, Modi locked down this nation of 1.38 billion people without warning. And the crisis that that has created, the lack of planning, the lack of thinking forward, although like some states like Kerala, which you talked about, have done wonderful work, but from the center, the crisis has been exacerbated into something that might — might really become even more serious than the epidemic that it’s planning for. You have a situation where you have millions of workers and migrant workers under a lockdown, which is supposed to enforce social distancing, but it only enforces physical compression. People are crammed together. People are separated from their families. In many places, they have no food. They have no access to money even. They’ve sold their phones. You have the sense that you’re sitting on some kind of explosive substance.

And yet, at the same time, like you said, arrests have been made, not just the people who you mentioned. Siddharth Varadarajan has not been arrested, the editor of Wire, but he has a case filed against him. Senior lawyers who speak out against Modi have had FIRs filed against them. Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde have been arrested. Young students and people, a lot of Muslims, who are now being accused of being part of the massacre that took place against Muslims in northeast Delhi, are being arrested. You know, the circles are closing in.

And the reason I said that the pandemic is a portal is that all over the world you have a situation now where, on the one hand, the powers that be are going to try and increase surveillance, increase inequality, increase privatization, increase control, and, on the other hand, you have populations of people who will want to increase solidarity and who will want to see and understand the fact that what has happened in the U.S., as well as what has happened in India, is that the pandemic has exposed structural problems of such egregious injustice and inequality. Even the calling of the shutdown with four hours’ notice was a sign of panic from this prime minister, because he knows that this infrastructure of this country, it can’t even deal with normality, forget about a pandemic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati, I want to ask you more about that, about Modi’s declaration of a lockdown with just four hours’ notice. He declared it at 8 p.m., and it went into effect at midnight on March 24th. But the first case, reported case, of COVID-19 was on January 30th, so he had — it’s unclear why he took seven weeks to shut down the country. But you went, when the first — when the country went into lockdown, you used a press pass, and you went and spoke to some of the migrants, the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to flee Delhi once all transportation had already been shut down. You spoke to some of these migrants in Delhi. Can you tell us what they said about their situation?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, as soon as the lockdown was announced, mass transport was stopped. It was the last week of March. People had not been paid their salaries, people who live virtually from day to day. The landlords in these little cramped, medieval tenements, into which five and 10 people are squashed into a room, said that they wanted their rent on time. So people just had to leave. And it was a surreal sight, you know, while there was no traffic on the streets, but suddenly the structural inequality and the horror, the shame of how our societies live, made themselves manifest.

And I just realized that these people have started walking, walking for hundreds of kilometers to their villages. And I went out because I felt like the tectonic plates were shifting. You know, it was crazy. So I went to the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, where I walked with many of them. And I spoke to many of them, including Muslims who had just survived this horrific kind of wannabe pogrom against them, which didn’t turn out that way because people were so prepared that they fought back. But having survived that, now they were walking these hundreds of miles home — you know, carpenters, tailors, construction workers.

And all of them were aware of the virus. All of them were wearing masks. They were doing their best to maintain social distance. It was impossible. There was a rumor that buses might be organized, and suddenly like 100,000 people were there together, pressed together, waiting for buses. And I asked some of them, “So, what do you think of this virus?” They said, “Whatever we think of the virus, right now we have no food, we have no water, we have nowhere to sleep. We have to reach home.” And that was so much more present for them than this.

A lot of them felt that this was a rich people’s illness brought in by planes. “Why didn’t they stop people at the airport instead of kicking us out of our jobs and our homes, you know?” And a lot of people just — one of the people who I wrote about in the Financial Times piece said — he just said to me, ”Shaayad Modiji ko hamaare baare mein pata nahi [phon.],” meaning “Maybe Modi doesn’t know about us,” you know, which was just perhaps true in a way, that the government and everybody else who controls anything in this society has more or less airbrushed the poor out of their imagination — out of films, out of literature, out of everything. You know? Except NGO brochures where the poor feature in order to raise money, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, I wanted to ask you about President Trump’s critical trip to India right at the time the pandemic was exploding, the famous pictures of them shaking hands, the stadium of 100,000 people. When President —

ARUNDHATI ROY: No, a million people. In India, it was a million people. In the U.S., it was 50,000, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as President Trump took off and was flying back to the United States, it was then that he read the comments of a U.S. scientist talking about the effects of the pandemic and what it will mean in the United States. He was so enraged by what she had to say that he canceled a meeting of scientists when he was returning, in retaliation. And then you have this whole relationship with India around hydroxychloroquine, what “Dr. Trump” — and I’m saying that very facetiously — President Trump has been pushing, hydroxychloroquine, because Narendra Modi said he was going to crack down on sales, exports of this drug, until President Trump pressured him. And now one study after another is coming out saying people are dying in the studies around hydroxychloroquine.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Just overall, talk about what Trump has meant for Modi and what Modi means for Trump, this U.S.-India alliance, and what it’s doing in your country.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it is giving such a great amount of legitimacy to a situation which I can’t hardly explain, Amy, on TV, because I’ve been writing about this for so long, you know? And what I said earlier, the crisis of hunger, and then the crisis of hatred. So, the time Modi came to the U.S. and did the “Howdy Modi” show, and then, when Trump came here and it was the “Namaste Trump” and so on, this sort of bizarre dance between these two, I’m sorry to say, but not very intelligent human beings, but very, very powerful people, who are legitimizing the horror of what is happening in the U.S. with immigrants, with racism, with undocumented workers, and the horror of what the BJP regime, the RSS, which is the mothership of the BJP cultural guild to which Modi belongs, which believes that India should be a Hindu nation and that everyone else should be second-class citizens, toward which they have made new citizenship laws and are building detention centers. And all of this is being legitimized by this idea that the most powerful country in the world and the most powerful man in the world loves Modi, you know?

And between them, the — I mean, it’s a tragedy for the world that this particular pandemic has arrived at a time where country after country is controlled by people like this, which is why I said it’s a portal, because, you know, are we going to — are we going to sleepwalk into this fascist surveillance state that everyone has in store for us? I mean, the app, called the Aarogya Setu app, which Modi has asked people to download and became the fastest-downloaded app in the world — we have 50 million downloads now — I mean, every technical expert says it’s just a surveillance app, you know? And all various — so many democratic societies are moving toward this, in this panic and fear that has been created.

And there are so many things about the coronavirus, you know, so many heartwarming things. I was reading in The New York Times today how it’s creating solidarity between people in the U.S. I just saw a wonderful video of people thanking a Pakistani doctor for having invented a mechanism that allows a single ventilator to be shared by many.

But here, you have Muslims being blamed for corona. There’s the whole concept of “corona jihad.” And I’ve been reading of how, in the 1930s, the Nazi state basically blamed Jews for typhus and used it as a way of stigmatizing and ghettoizing Jews. The same thing is happening here with Muslims. You know, you have to hear the language that the mainstream media uses, and people on the street.

So, it’s an extremely dangerous situation, which is being completely legitimized by Trump and by all these powerful people who meet and shake hands and refuse to see how this virus is going to move in and exacerbate inequalities, exacerbate injustice and create a situation where they, too, are frightened, because they know these millions of people, hungry, starving. How are you going to deal with that anger? In India, I’ll tell you how they’re going to deal with it. They are going to try and divert it into an anti-Muslim rage, which is the only thing they do always.

But at some point — you know, already things are exploding. People are burning shelters and so on. And the hunger is so urgent, it has to be addressed now. The granaries are full of food which is not being distributed. You know, people need cash transfers, but they don’t have bank accounts, or they don’t have access to their bank accounts. It’s a crisis which you feel you’re sitting on some kind of explosive substance right now. And, you know, as it deepens, once you distribute that grain, where will the next batch of food come from? Because right now is the harvest season, and, you know, people are — even those who have been able to harvest are not being able to sell. And, you know, the whole cropping pattern of this country has changed into cash crops.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, we have 10 seconds.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah. Tell me.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have — I want to thank you very much for being with us, as we run out of time.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Oh, OK. You’re so welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to link to your piece, “The pandemic is a portal,” that’s in Foreign Policy. Arundhati Roy is — next Thursday, April 23rd, will be joining an online teach-in with Princeton professor Imani Perry and Haymarket Books on “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” And we’ll link to your essays, as well, at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Be safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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“Social Distancing Is a Privilege”: Pandemic Highlights India’s Class Divide as 1.3 Billion Lock Down

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