India: “The World’s Largest Democracy”

Arundhati Roy is the celebrated author of The God of Small Things and winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. The New York Times calls her “India’s most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence.” She is the recipient of the Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom and is the author of many books, including The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, and Walking with the Comrades. David Barsamian is a frequent contributor to ISR and the host of Alternative Radio (

NICE TO see you here in the world’s second largest democracy. You, of course, being part of the world’s largest democracy.

IT’S A race to the bottom.

IN THE title essay of Walking with Comrades you write that the Indian Constitution was adopted by Parliament in 1950. Then you add, “It was a tragic day for tribal people.” Why?

BECAUSE IN the spirit of a good colonial power, India ratified the colonial attitude toward Adivasi people and it brought tribal homelands under the Indian state and it criminalized the Adivasi way of life. It made them squatters on their own land. Today, of course, from criminals they have graduated to being terrorists, because the government says that any Adivasi who remains in their village and doesn’t come out into the police camps will be called a Maoist terrorist. So from being Adivasis, they became criminals, and now they are terrorists.

YOU WRITE that “The country that I live in is becoming more and more repressive, more and more of a police state. India is hardening as a state. It has to continue to give the impression of being a messy, cuddly democracy, but actually what’s going on outside the arc lights is really desperate.” How does a writer like you, an individual citizen, navigate that hardening of the arteries?

JUST BY traveling, I think, and seeing what’s going on. By talking to people, by keeping in touch—not just by having six thousand researchers, but having real friendships with people who do not belong to those in the arc lights, the society of those in the arc lights. It is very frightening to see what’s happening in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and, of course, in Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland. That’s been going on for a long time. But anywhere it’s becoming a sort of surveillance society. Everybody says phones are obviously tapped, e-mails are tapped. They’re trying very hard to control the Internet.

The fact is that these great Memorandums of Understanding that were signed with the major mining corporations in 2005 are not being allowed to be implemented smoothly because of the wide variety of resistance movements, not just the Maoists, but the various groups in Orissa against nuclear plants, against Special Economic Zones. Nothing is proceeding as per plan by the government or by the corporations. One of the very interesting things about the Anna Hazare movement was that you had a situation in which people have begun to realize, like they have begun to realize here, that you have two political parties: both of them are like different kinds of washing powder owned by the same holding company. And the elections are a sort of vaudeville: everybody participates, but you end up with the same situation. So now you need a third node: you need the people. You have political parties. Now you need the people. And you need somebody whom you can control who represents the people. So you had this rather reactionary situation, which is now assuming and taking on the right to represent the people or to speak for the people. It isn’t a coincidence that a number of them are NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that are funded by corporations like Ford. Kiran Bedi’s [a former high-ranking police officer now active in politics] NGO is funded by Lehman Brothers and Coca-Cola.

NGOs have a complicated space in neoliberal politics. They are supposed to mop up the anger. Even when they are doing good work, they are supposed to maintain the status quo. They are the missionaries of the corporate world. And here you have another node, where you could sort of funnel and control the anger that was building in a system that was about to rupture.

I could tell you horror story after horror story of what’s going on in India. But that’s not the point. It’s important for us to understand, structurally, what the game is and see how to navigate that. That’s what I do as a writer. Sometimes it’s not easy, because, for example, when the Anna Hazare movement was happening, it wasn’t easy to say what I said, going against the grain of some of my closest friends who were involved. But I didn’t think that they were seeing the situation very clearly.

WHAT’S REMARKABLE to me about India, when I travel around the country, is the level of pushback and resistance, and it is particularly high among the most disadvantaged. “Incredibly poor” doesn’t begin to describe their economic situation. In Orissa there’s a struggle right now over POSCO, a proposed South Korean steel mill. It’s the largest single foreign investment project in India’s history—over $12 billion. They’re securing their own private port where they can then export directly to East Asia. There has been a tremendous amount of resistance there. Roads have been blocked. People who don’t have the advantages that we have of technology and education and other things have been able to at least slow down and in some instances stop this and that project.

THERE ARE amazing things that are happening in India. But I just want to add a caveat to that. If you look at what was happening in India in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, why did the Naxalite movement—the sort of precursor to today’s Maoist movement—arise? It arose demanding land to the tiller, saying that the Indian government, when it won independence, had promised the end to zamindari, which is huge landlords with serfs tilling the soil for them. That land distribution hadn’t happened. And this movement, this radical armed struggle, began saying, “Land to the tiller.”

It was crushed in the late 1960s. And then you had a more reactionary sort of movement by Jayaprakash Narayan saying sampooran kranti, which means “total revolution,” but was again asking for redistribution. Today, from then to now, look where we’ve come. From demanding land for the landless, we are today fighting just for people who have a little bit of land to be allowed to hold onto it. The masses of displaced people, the masses of people of lower castes who have been rendered landless, who live in the cities in these squalid conditions outside of radical politics today. So we mustn’t ever forget that, that the people who are fighting, who are putting up a resistance, still have some land. The Adivasi community still have their own lands. They are fighting not to allow the corporates to take over. But the idea of saying that there has to be justice, the idea of land to the tiller, the idea of taking back from the expropriators, have more or less disappeared.

So before we feel too good about ourselves, we have to realize that we really have been pushed against the wall in so many ways. I don’t know when that bubble is going to burst, because that will not be political. That will be lumpen and criminal, because it’s very, very difficult to organize the poor in these huge cities, where they live working like slaves—really, like slaves—some of them twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Where is the time for politics? Where is the time for organization? Very difficult.

THE INDIAN state, like other states, seeks to control the message. They want to frame discussion on their terms. This is quite understandable; it’s nothing revelatory. There seems to be, at least in the case of India, an attempt to limit dissent by limiting access to the country—even inside the country, where it is sometimes difficult for Indian nationals themselves to travel. Gautam Navlakha, a journalist and human rights activist, was sent back from Srinagar airport. A US academic, Richard Shapiro, was denied entry into India in November 2010. In September 2011, May Aquino, a human rights activist from the Philippines, was denied entry. On September 23, 2011, I was denied entry—


—AT NEW Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. This has a chilling effect. I shared this information with another journalist and he told me that colleagues told him that the Indian government told them that their visas would be permanently revoked if they reported on Kashmir in the wrong way. If you report in the way the state wants, i.e., the beautiful mountains, paradise on earth, and all of that, no problem. So what’s going on? Is this a new development, where the borders are being controlled in such a way?

I DON’T think it’s new. It’s been a while now that if you’re a businessman, if you want to buy or sell a mine or organize a shipment of iron ore, you don’t need a security clearance. But if you’re an academic or a journalist or a writer or a scholar, then you need security clearance. Obviously, journalists as well as NGOs are there on the sufferance of the Indian government. That has been made clear all the time, that you have to walk this delicate line. You have to keep having to decide how far you can push it, how much truth you can tell and how much you should keep quiet.

I’ve been told by foreign correspondents that their own desks from newspapers outside of India have said, “We want good news. The bad news is boring now.” But you know why—because it’s a finance destination, so there’s no need to disrupt it by talking about all the cruelty that’s going on.

Within India, of course, going to Kashmir it’s almost as if they acknowledge it’s a different country because they stop people from going there. At the airport they deport them, they send them back. You can’t easily go into Chhattisgarh now. It’s dangerous to go there. Police have basically said “We shoot to kill beyond the Indravati,” the river that for the police defines as Maoist territory. So you go at your own risk.

What I find quite interesting is while all this silencing is going on, the noise is building—the kind of noise that the government wouldn like to hear. So you have almost every weekend a literary festival with international publishers and international authors. I don’t think they need security clearance. They come as visitors. They don’t really disturb the grass, and they go from Jaipur to Goa to I don’t know. Every newspaper has a literary festival. Many of these festivals are funded by the very corporations that are underneath the silencing. They even wanted to have a festival in Kashmir, where you were deported because they were frightened you were going to write about the discovery of the mass graves. You can have a literary festival there, but David Barsamian can’t write about the mass graves. What sort of literary festival will it be? What will the Kashmiris be allowed to say? If they say something wrong, will they be taken directly to the army camp or will they be allowed to go home and change? One asks, what sort of visas do they have? So the simultaneous orchestration of noise and silencing is interesting.

IN DECEMBER 2009, the Buried Evidence report was issued by a group of human rights activists. It documented the many graves containing thousands of bodies in Kashmir. That was recently actually verified by a state commission, which felt obliged because of public pressure to conduct its own investigation. So there have been two reports now about these mass graves. What has ensued in terms of investigation? Because anywhere from eight to ten thousand Kashmiris have gone missing since 1989. Could these be some of those people in those unmarked graves?

THEY COULD be. I suppose it’s distressing for those who still hope that those who have been missing are alive for us to just automatically make the connection that, oh, the missing are the dead. One doesn’t know until those DNA tests have been done. The important thing is that these graves that have been found are just in three out of many more districts of Kashmir. So what is happening to the other graves? Are they being desecrated and quickly removed? Is it going to be limited to this? And in this, as we know, in the past they have given fake DNA. Nothing ever happens to any army officer who has committed a crime—either a summary execution, which is known as a “fake encounter” in India, or mass execution or rape. Nothing ever happens, because the army has complete impunity. So what will happen, I don’t know. But it does just go straight into the reins of a building anger.

But even that is something which the government knows how to short-circuit. How do you allow people to vent their anger and calm down? How do you create a collaborator class which has huge stakes in the Indian occupation? How do you divert the debate? I’ll say this for the Indian occupation of Kashmir: It’s a brilliant occupation. The detail in which it operates, the alternating of violence and rewards and cajoling the media, the world should learn from it. If that’s the way the world is going to be, which I think is the way the world is headed, that you have to militarily control societies now if you want to maintain the status quo, if you want to maintain the system of capitalism which in the US allows four hundred people to own half the wealth of the country and in India a hundred people to own assets worth 25 percent of the GDP, then you are going to need to control societies militarily. And if you want a Ph.D. in that, come to India.

I WAS in Kashmir in February 2011. When I was in Kashmir, I asked an activist there, why would the state leave all of these graves scattered about? It’s incriminatory evidence. He said that they did it deliberately to strike fear and terror that this could happen to you.

KASHMIR IS interesting because of the brazenness with which they do things. One of the things which is also interesting, and which we didn’t speak about, is that at the time that the uprising happened in Kashmir in the early 1990s, when thousands of young men, disgusted by the rigging of the elections, went across the border and came back armed, it was an undisciplined uprising because all sorts of people just came back with weapons, and you know what that can do to a movement. But at that point something like three hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits had to flee the Valley. There are conflicting accounts of why they had to flee. Some say it was because of the threat of liquidation by the Islamist militants, but in fact it was Jagmohan, the governor, who organized for them to leave. I’m sure it was a combination of many things. But those Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley lived in miserable conditions in the camps in Jammu. They, of course, the better off amongst them, are in India running a campaign against the Kashmiri freedom movement and celebrating Holocaust Day and Ethnic Cleansing Day and so on.

I SAW [the journalist] Parvaiz Bukhari in Delhi. He had just come from Kashmir, and he said he felt he could not breathe, because the atmosphere is so oppressive and there is such tension in the air. I know when I was there in February, you could cut it with a knife. It was a depressed and depressing place. And that’s a consequence of the occupation. People, at least from my vantage point, do not want to be under Indian rule.

AGAIN, THE idea of living in a situation like that, of studying and growing up and watching your elders being humiliated. . . Much has been written about the fact that women are so vulnerable in Kashmir, not only because, of course, many are widowed because most of the seventy thousand who have been killed are men, so many have lost their husbands or their brothers or their sons and that is such a debilitating thing. But imagine those who are picked up and go missing. The women have to go from camp to camp inquiring. And who is going to go complain about what price is extracted from a woman who goes there looking for somebody? They aren’t even going to talk about it. So you look at that.

But the other thing that is not written about, I think, is what does it mean to a community when the men are humiliated in the ways they have been? One hundred thousand at least have been tortured, and tortured in ways which are overtly sexual sometimes. What happens to a community whose men are broken in those ways? It’s almost unbearable. Sometimes we get inured to the idea of people being killed or shot or tortured. But imagine if I was at a checkpoint and a policeman humiliated my mother. I just don’t know how I could take it. And people have to watch this all the time, watch their fathers being slapped or their sisters or mothers being humiliated. What does it do to you? What does it do to you?

ALSO, WHAT does it do to the oppressor? It flips back.

THIS IS what I keep saying. We talk so much about what India is doing to Kashmir, but look at what Kashmir is doing to India. It’s just making monsters of us all. But the first time I wrote on Kashmir, I said India needs azadi, freedom, from Kashmir more than Kashmir needs azadi from India, because it is doing something terrible to all of us.

WHAT ARE your impressions of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Does it connect at all with the struggles in India?

IT PROBABLY does connect in one sense, in that here you suddenly have a group of people who are feeling excluded from the program, which does not seem to have been the case before. The polarization between the rich and the poor has reached a point where the fracture is happening. So, obviously, when you see the levels of repression that happen in Kashmir or in Chhattisgarh or when you see the uprisings in Orissa, then you come here, and when you see the police breaking it up, perhaps you don’t feel the same kind of shock that people here feel.

But I think it’s a beginning. And I think that what is happening here is that these movements have introduced a new political language into America—the beginning of perhaps a new political imagination. I think the biggest threat to the movement is not the police and the batons and the breaking up of the encampments and the physical violence. I think the biggest threat to the Occupy movement is being co-opted into the election campaign yet again, like we’ve seen happen again and again, being taken in by the theater of electoral politics and then being dropped down in the same position again. That is the biggest threat, to see whether the Occupy movement falls for that or not.

BUT IT is a major breakthrough in terms of creativity.

AND IT is introducing a new political language. Obviously, even the word “occupy.” So far “occupy” means occupy Iraq, occupy Palestine, occupy Afghanistan, occupy Kashmir. And here “occupy” has been turned on its head, though I think sometimes you do need the clarification of “Occupy Wall Street and not Palestine” or whatever.

I WAS looking at your 2002 speech in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I was struck by its almost prophetic character. I don’t know if it’s fresh in your memory.

YOU’RE BEING like those policemen in Kashmir, pulling up my files.

IN SANTA Fe you said, “Corporate capitalism is hemorrhaging.” So you had a sense then that there was something seriously wrong with the US economy and the structures here.

HOW COULD it be otherwise? I’m not an economist, but you don’t have to be an economist to see what’s going on. When I spoke at the Occupy People’s University, I said a few things: This kind of regime that allows individuals and corporations to gather unfettered wealth, what else is it going to result in? If you have a mining corporation, let’s say, for example, that is making billions from the bauxite in the mountains of Orissa, with those billions they can buy judges, they can buy television channels, they can buy universities, they can buy politicians. They can even buy the resistance. They can buy NGOs, they can fund activists, they can have trusts, they can endow chairs in universities. They can run the world.

So initially, before you even begin to think revolutionary thoughts, you have to start by saying this type of cross-ownership of businesses has to stop. You cannot have this level of monopoly capitalism: neither individuals—even if they are bestselling authors—nor corporations. Nobody should have the right to have this kind of unfettered wealth to begin with. The privatization of natural resources, of public infrastructure, of health, of electricity, of education should stop. The children of the rich should not be allowed to inherit their parents’ wealth. These are just a few simple things that seem so obvious.

SO DO you think that that murmur is a little bit louder now, of the goddess saying “Another world is possible”? Does it seem more pronounced now than nine years ago?

I THINK it is. Both sides are saying “Another world is possible.” The other side is saying a world of military rule is possible, a world of complete surveillance is possible, a world of capturing the imagination of people and holding it down is possible. And we are saying that there are too many of us for you to hold down all the time. The recruitment on both sides is going on. The privatization of not just resources, but even the armies, the mercenaries, torture, all of this is also being sourced out to the corporations who run the world now. They are going to be controlling these things in so many ways. So we are up for a lot of turbulence.

POETRY IS often used in South Asia as a form of resistance and solidarity. Two thousand eleven marks the centenary of the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–84). Often at meetings or demonstrations his poems are recited or sung, such as “Bol,” which is about speaking out. Another one is “Hum Dekhenge—we will see the tyrants fall. Talk about the role of poetry and resistance.

“HUM DEKHENGE” is a poem by Faiz famously sung by Iqbal Bano in Zia ul-Haq’s Pakistan. And when I was walking through the forest with the comrades, the police called the areas controlled by the comrades Pakistan. One night we were sitting together and they were singing “Hum Dekhenge.” And I happened to have a recording of Iqbal Bano singing “Hum Dekhenge” and I played it for them. When she finishes singing, there are thousands of people in the audience, you hear them shouting inqilab zindabad, which means “long live the revolution.” And it was such a strange and wonderful joining together of that Pakistan and this Pakistan by Faiz, who people quite often forget was a communist.

So, yes, poetry is used all the time. And especially Urdu poetry. Sometimes it’s almost intimidating how there seems to be a poem for every feeling, for every occasion, for every thought, which is so appropriate that you feel like it’s all been written before, so why not just shut up?


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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