Corporate power, women, and resistance in India today

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. Roy is the author of many books including The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, and Walking with the Comrades. She spoke to DAVID BARSAMIAN of Alternative Radio in Chicago on March 17, 2013.

IN YOUR Eqbal Ahmad lecture, which you gave at Hampshire College in 2001, you compared India to “a hammerhead shark with eyes looking in diametrically opposite directions, one India on its way to a glittering destination while the other just melts into the darkness.” What’s happened in the last dozen years since you made those comments?

THE HAMMERHEAD shark has grown up and its eyes are even further apart now. We know these things about India that, on the one hand, the country is called a superpower, with an accelerated growth rate, which is dropping but still, and on the other you have more poor people in India than all of the poorest African countries put together. You have most of the world’s malnourished children living there, you have 700 or 800 million people living on less than 50 cents a day.

What is distressing is that it didn’t take a genius to have figured it out then, and it doesn’t take a genius to be saying the things that I’m saying now. The purposeful way in which this machine continues to work, churning out millionaires on one end and the effluent of the poor that just slough off into the sea on the other, is so deliberate. So, honestly, the crisis is no longer to recognize it, to talk about it, or even to describe it. The point is, what can be done about it?

LAST TIME I was in India I went to the Ambience Mall in the Vasant Kunj area of Delhi. Have you been there?

YES, I have. I’ve seen movies there.

IT’S A stunning parallel universe. The glitziest shops, both foreign and domestic, a gigantic food court. And I remember being very cold there, because the air conditioning was so extreme. A few weeks before visiting Ambience Mall, I was in Jharkhand, in villages there. And the contrast was of another world, like the eyes of that hammerhead shark, one going in one direction, one going in the other.

THAT’S RIGHT. Though I will add perhaps to the idea of this parallel universe, there’s a seam in India where you see both in proximity to one another. From the Ambience Mall you don’t have to go to Jharkhand. No, you just have to drive forty-five minutes out, and you can see an area full of homeless people.

I think what we need to, first of all, stop doing is to see this all within the confines of a national border. Because what we’re seeing in the world today is the secession of the middle and upper classes, especially the upper classes in a country like America, into outer space, where they all become one country. And then they suck the resources out of the rest of the world. Many of the wars that are being fought now, whether they are in Libya or Syria or parts of Africa, are really resource wars, disguised as wars against Islam or wars against despots. India too is now in that race in places like Ethiopia and Sudan. Indian corporations are there. But India is also a country that is shamelessly colonizing itself, kind of consuming itself.

YOU’VE WRITTEN about the “juggernaut of injustices” that exist in India and “the spectacular struggles of popular movements that refuse to lie down and die.” What’s the current status of some of those popular movements and resistances?

EVEN FROM the time that I started being associated and engaging with them and writing from the beginning, when I was writing about the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley, again and again I see people saying, and I also was saying, that if a government does not respect reasoned, nonviolent dissent, by default it privileges violence. And now what’s happened, if you read the news from India, is that the more and more there are—I don’t use the word violence, but let’s say either armed struggle in forests or militant uprisings in other places, violently put down by the state.

But on a more general level, if you look at India, let’s say, in the late 1960s, there was talk after independence of ending what was called the zamindari system, the feudal landlordism, and the redistribution of land. It was a lot of talk, because all the parliamentarians were members of the landed aristocracy at the time, and they did everything to subvert that redistribution. Then in the late 1960s, militant movements like the Naxalite movement, what has today morphed into what is called the Maoist movement, started in a village in West Bengal, Naxalbari. It was just crushed by the government. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Then Jayaprakash Narayan started Sampoorna Kranti, Total Revolution, a Gandhian movement. Those movements were asking for land redistribution. They had a dream of a more equitable society.

Whether it was the anti-dam movement or whether it is the Maoist movement in the forest, or whether it’s the movement against Vedanta in Niyamgiri, the giant aluminum company, the movements against the special economic zones, whatever the major movements are, what is happening is there is a massive corporate land grab. And all these movements are resisting that. But you see a great difference. In the 1960s people were asking for the redistribution of land, and today people are reduced to fighting to be allowed to remain on what little land they have. So there’s a huge regression in terms of even how radical movements see themselves. And also, the landless Dalit movement has been splintered. That whole dream of justice or equality has been reduced to just withstanding this huge push, this huge land grab. So the major corporations in India, that basically own India—Reliance, Tata, Adani—all of them are first and foremost land mafias. They control land with resources on it.

HAVE YOU thought about how terrorism is defined? The conventional ways are: a bus is blown up or there is an attack on a police station or something like that. Chomsky talks about “retail terrorism”—the terrorism of small groups, individuals, and gangs—but that much attention is not paid to “wholesale terrorism,” when terrorism is committed by the state.

IN INDIA now we have to reimagine the state, because the state is being run by these gigantic corporations. If you look at corporations like Reliance or Tata, I think even in the United States you would be hard-pressed to find corporations of that nature. Because they have this tremendous cross-ownership of businesses. So if you look at Reliance, they have petrochemicals, they have natural gas, they have twenty-seven television channels. Tata owns everything from, once again, power projects to vehicles to TV to broadband to salt to publishing to bookshops. So they have a way of kind of maneuvering complete control. And you see increasingly in places like Odisha and Jharkhand that mining companies are running their own mafia. All the police work under their instructions. So what is the state? It’s nothing new. It was what was happening in Latin America when Eduardo Galeano wrote Open Veins of Latin America, except the pace of global capital and corporatization and the arguments about climate change weren’t there at that time. So today a handful of big corporations really run India.

The kind of violence that that subservient state is capable of unleashing on everybody. Initially it was just the fragile village communities and the states of Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland. We’ve been through that. But now you have a situation today where we’ve seen that the Indian army has been deployed against “its own people,” right since 1947. There has never been a year when the army has not been deployed. But now all of it is going to be put to use for the corporate project. In Arunachal they are building something like 260 dams. Dissent will be controlled and crushed by the army, by the security forces.

It would sound as if you’re being careless to call it terrorism, but the situation is that India cannot push through its economic agenda without becoming a military state, without passing laws that are so punitive that people on the one hand think they have a democracy and on the other that democracy is undermined by a plethora of laws, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows noncommissioned officers to kill on suspicion. So those laws were there in Kashmir and Nagaland and Manipur. Now the government wants to deploy the army in Chhattisgarh in central India against the poorest people in the country and in the world. The army won’t go unless it has impunity from the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. They already have special area security acts which criminalize every kind of dissent.

What I think the Indian authorities, which is the government and the corporatized government, are experimenting with is very interesting. How do you maintain this kind of image of this almost circus-like acrobatic democracy that makes such a show of elections and yet legally and in every other way undermines that democracy completely? In India, unlike in China or, until quite recently, in Pakistan, it’s not a question of a government becoming more and more authoritarian. It’s a question of getting a class of people who are so entrenched in the system that that entire class of people colludes in the administration of that militarized state, which includes the media and so on.

AGAIN, ON perhaps widening the definition of terror, what does it mean when more than 270,000 Indian farmers commit suicide because of their financial destitution? Incidentally, that figure is considered conservative. It is probably much more than that. Or the hundreds of thousands of Indian children who, for lack of water and food, die?

THE FARMER suicides. I really think that the establishment rather admires farmers who commit suicide, because, after all, they’re not suicide bombers, they’re just quietly killing themselves. And then their families have to go around begging to be entered in the list of farmers. And the definition of who is a farmer and who isn’t helps you get compensation or not. So 270,000, as you say, is a conservative estimate, because lots of people are just told that they are not farmers. A lot of women, for example, would not be included in that list, even though they are farmers and were trying to keep their families going.

But to understand what’s going on in India, you need to approach it from so many different angles. We are a society that has institutionalized inequality through caste. And I increasingly think that you can’t understand India until you understand caste, when you understand that there are these sealed communities that then don’t necessarily feel sorry for or remorse over something that happens somewhere else. I’m not saying that the farmers that killed themselves are lower caste. They’re not. They’re all mostly small farmers who were really trying to get into the big league and then fell off the truck.

What I’m saying is, why does not something like this cause anguish? Why doesn’t it cause a scandal? It doesn’t. In fact, even today politicians are continuing with irrigation scams and fertilizer scams and every kind of scam in those areas where these suicides are happening. There is a curious hardness that has set in. I’ve been writing about displacement and all of this for so long. Increasingly I hear the middle classes saying, “India is poised to become one of the most powerful countries in the world. Every country that has become powerful has ‘a past.’ We can’t”—when I say “we” now, I am talking about this class of people that has fused itself with the idea of the nation. “We can’t progress unless somebody pays the price. And it can’t be all sort of touchy-feely and human rights and sympathetic. Something has to give.” People openly talk about that, that this is the way it has been in the past and this is the way it has to be now.

So you hear these ugly statements. You hear people on TV trying to provoke war with Pakistan, openly talking about nuclear war, openly talking about the fact that the leading candidate now for the next prime minister in India is Narendra Modi. But the fact that he was the chief minister that presided over the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the most brutal way in Gujarat, they just say, “Forget about it.”

So even people like us, who are political and who are writing politically, need to understand that evoking people’s sympathy, describing horror, describing terrible things, it isn’t necessarily reaching that moral listening space that you imagine exists. Yet, you have to be doing it. You have to keep doing it. You have to keep your foot on the pedal.

But we also have to understand that we are up against something very, very ugly now, which is going to become more and more ugly in this next year as we run up to the next election, because what has happened is that the Indian shining economy, the people who are sitting in the aircraft ready for takeoff, that exhilaration they felt has turned into panic now, because the economy is not moving at the pace they expected it to. And that panic is creating a lot of ugliness. It takes different forms and different ways, but you can see the violence and the anger in those same middle-class people that were so happy a few years ago. That violence, that anger, that impatience the political parties don’t know how to deal with, because it’s new. They are trying to push it back into the old spaces that everybody knows and recognizes—communal strife or a war with Pakistan or some provocation in Kashmir—because they know how to make those moves. Whereas this new middle class is aggressive, it knows that it can get media attention, and it’s attacking the old idea of politics itself.

THERE HAS been a massive migration from the countryside into the megacities—Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore. Pankaj Mishra has written about how many of these migrants, who don’t have skills, are unanchored; they’re kind of stranded in this new urban environment. He sees the potential for an enormous explosion.

WE SHOULD be a little bit careful about this, because Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia have openly said that the dream of the new India is that they want 70 percent of the population to live in cities, which means they dream of moving something like 500 to 600 million people out of villages into cities. That process has begun. People are being pushed out of their villages by development projects, mines, and dams, and they flock to the cities.

But the violence that you’re seeing in cities is not coming from those people. The violence is coming from the new rich, like, say, in Delhi, people who have sold their land to the malls and suddenly have acquired a lot of money because of political status, and a kind of aggression that comes with it. Whereas, for example, when the famous incident of the girl who was gang-raped and murdered in Delhi happened, Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram and all were very quick to say, “We must be very careful of these unanchored poor.”

Basically, that idea of criminalizing the lower classes immediately comes up, that these are the violent people. Whereas actually they are the ones against whom tremendous violence is perpetrated in the cities—by the police and by the building contractors. There are ten million people or more, living on the outskirts of Delhi, working like slave labor in terrible conditions. But they are not the violent people. They have occasionally burst out, in the Honda factory or in the Maruti factory. After a lot of provocation something has happened. But at all times they are really the victims of violence. They are the victims of slowly having the oxygen pressed out of their lungs, of having lower and lower wages, of having to pay more and more because prices are rising so fast. And they literally live in circumstances which I don’t think people could even fathom in America and Europe how workers are living in India.

Every time something happens—and that something, as I keep saying, they are not the ones that are perpetrating the violence, they are the ones that are the victims of that violence—the government uses it as an opportunity. Like in the Delhi situation, where the girl was raped and then killed, it immediately becomes, “We need more police stations, we need more surveillance, we need more cameras.” That whole idea of the citizen as a criminal. When, if you actually were to inquire into any case that happened, I think the chances are much more that behind almost all criminal activity in cities is the police.

CERTAINLY THAT mid-December 2012 incident in Delhi garnered global attention. The BBC in a report said that “the case raised questions about how India treats its women.” What kind of questions were raised in the aftermath of this attack and killing?

THAT’S A very vast subject which troubles me a lot in terms of how to present my anxieties over it. If anyone needs a background, a young girl was gang raped brutally and then murdered on a private bus in Delhi. The rapists were caught, the murderers. But today, if you read the papers, it’s only referred to as a gang rape. You would imagine that girl was not killed. “Delhi’s gang-rape victim” or “Delhi’s gang-rape rapists.” They are not called murderers.

This shows you the kind of twisted social stigma that is attached to rape in India and built up. There were huge and unprecedented protests about it, which was a very good thing, except that it brings about certain anxieties in people like myself. It’s hard to explain quite simply. But in India there are certain ways in which rape is used to maintain the status quo. In Kashmir the army has raped a lot of women, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives them immunity and allows that to happen. So, too, in Manipur and Nagaland. In Chhattisgarh, in Walking with the Comrades I wrote about how many women watched their sisters or mothers or children being raped and murdered. In Gujarat, when the 2002 pogrom against Muslims happened, women were openly gang-raped, pregnant women had their stomachs ripped open, they were burnt alive. There was a horrendous incident in a village called Karalanji in Maharashtra where about 300 upper-caste people surrounded the house of a Dalit family and they raped and murdered a mother and daughter and then killed the whole family. The media took more than a month to even report it, and even later the people were called Maoists.

So you start to wonder which rapes are going to attract the national and international media, and which rapes are we just going to accept as a matter of routine. To be fair, initially, when the protests happened in Delhi, women did begin to raise these issues, and it did expand into a much more political view of what was going on. And then, of course, there was this ordinance that was passed. But you will see that in the ordinance that was passed once again the government just looked at rape as a security issue, which means that in a big city, where there would be issues of marital rape, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, caste, all of these were just pushed out of the picture once again. It was an important moment to ask a lot of questions, which some people asked, but at the same time, you could see them sort of evolving from the anti-corruption protests and so on. Who were the people who were out then?

It also relates to the phenomenon of these massive populations moving to the cities and young girls beginning to work, young girls beginning to leave the home to become financially independent, to begin to break away from traditional behavior, which creates a huge anger amongst traditional men. All of that is going on.

BUT DID it spark a discussion about misogyny and patriarchy? Because if it’s not contextualized, then it’s simply reduced to miscreants, to people carrying out criminal acts.

IT DID, but I think patriarchy was used by people who seemed to have just discovered that word. What did it really mean? I think, unfortunately, an incident of gang rape in a bus is not the best way to begin discussions on patriarchy. I think we have to go back to another question, which is, what is it about the women’s movement in India and in the rest of the world that has in some ways depoliticized it?

So you have sort of feminist organizations in India that are happy to discuss certain issues, important issues, about gender and all that. But let’s say the women that I wrote about, who are in the forests of Dantewada, the 90,000 women who belong to the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan, to me the time I spent with people in forest, that was the most important eye opener for me, what was happening to the women there and how they were organizing. And yet those women, who were fighting for their land, who have been fighting even within their own communities for a different life, for different rights, for different ways of being seen and described and defined, are not considered feminists by professional feminists. Why should that be so? I’ve written about that at length in the essay called Capitalism: A Ghost Story, about how funding has affected it, this kind of NGO-ization of the feminist movement.

THESE WOMEN that you met in the jungle in Chhattisgarh, they have moved from being passive victims to active agents, to doing something about their situation.

THE HISTORY of women in the Naxalite movement, and then in all the various fragments of it, and today in the Maoist movement, is an interesting, fraught, challenging, very often depressing but also very inspiring history, so I can’t say anything simple about it. However, when I went into the forest, in a rather clichéd way I had assumed that any movement that opts to pick up arms is eventually going to do violence to women. I was shocked when I went in and found that more than 40 percent of the liberation guerilla army was women. When I spoke to them and asked them why they had joined—and I’ve spent now quite a lot of time even with women who used to be with the party. I know a lot of stories, and not all of them are good stories. But I think there’s a tussle, a grappling with trying to understand what this battle is about. One thing is that in the forest, that assumption that tribal societies are somehow pristine and treat women equally and all of that is not true. There’s thirty years of political work in that area. Some women joined really to get away from the suffocation of being in their own society, and some joined after the massive attack of the corporate paramilitary and the raping of women and all that that took place.

And if you look at the Narmada movement, Niaymgiri, so many movements, you see that women are so much at the heart of these protests, because they also know that what waits for them in that other life that’s been offered to them, where they’re told to integrate into the mainstream, is a very, very frightening life, where they lose everything. So they are fighting. The feminist movement has had those debates in the past, and other versions of them are being played out now. But there is a big divide between what is now formally considered feminist and what struggles these women are waging. Because anything that actually threatens the overarching economic order is then not considered feminist. Because the feminist movements have become so funded—not all, and even the ones that are funded are sometimes doing important work—that what they miss out on, what they exclude I think constitutes a definition of what your politics are.

DOES THIS participation of women in resistance movements extend to Kashmir?

OF COURSE it does. Kashmir is a place where they like to put out a particular, completely false image of some Taliban type, Wahhabi fundamentalists fighting this democratic state, and women are all living behind burqas and so on. But anyone who spends two days in Kashmir will see that that’s certainly not the case. It’s as diverse a society as any, and the women, again, are at the forefront now. You see them facing down police, facing down the army, physically, in incredibly brave and anguished ways.

IN THIS discussion about violence against women, certainly dowry-related “accidents” in which many women are victims of fires in kitchens, their clothes mysteriously catch fire and they die, there’s that aspect. Then there is also the babies that are aborted once they’re discovered by their parents to be girls because of this obsession with having male offspring.

THE KILLING of girl children I think runs into the millions in India. As I said when you were quoting the BBC question about how does India treat its women, what do you mean by India and what do you mean by women is one’s initial instinct. Because India is a country where I think I’ve seen the most remarkable, the most free women of almost any women I’ve ever seen anywhere; and then, as you said, you have female feticide, and everything in between. So you have such a huge spectrum of what constitutes the world of women there. And you can’t even divide it down to simply—for example, when the pogrom against Muslims was taking place in Gujarat, women were very much part of it, women were very much behind it. So to imagine that women are some peace-loving folks who just would make the world a better place is a bit simple.

THERE SEEMS to have been one scandal after another in India, each one more horrific and larger than the previous one. Jayati Gosh, who teaches at JNU in New Delhi, wrote in The Guardian that “the explosion of revelations about corrupt practices that point to the worst excesses of crony capitalism,” and then she adds, “Government policies generated Wild West-style economic growth.” That kind of circles back to what you were saying earlier about this state-corporate collusion in the extraction of natural resources.

OBVIOUSLY, THE anti-corruption protests in India also had made quite an impact on the debates around India all over the world. For me, corruption is a very, very dicey subject to build a political movement over, because what do you mean by corruption? To me, obviously, there is never going to be a situation where you’re in a corruption-free society. But how do you minimize it? Corruption is a function of a very unequal distribution of power. Unless you address that, you’re just dealing with the symptoms. In India as I mentioned, these massive corporations have full-spectrum domination, from salt to vehicles to textiles to power to funding universities, both in India and abroad, to running these massive trusts, the equivalents of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations—Reliance and Tata have these trusts—they fund the opposition, they can buy what they like.

Unless you put a cap on this kind of cross-ownership of businesses, and unless you put a cap on how much one person, one corporation, can control a country, obviously there’s going to be corruption. You can’t appeal to some sort of moral core. You have to address the problem structurally. Structurally this is the situation: That you might do a sting operation and expose some Dalit politician taking one money from somebody and putting it in his pocket, but when Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister does a little jiggle to excuse Reliance from tens of millions of rupees of income tax, how do you deal with that?

YOU’VE SPENT time in Tihar Jail in New Delhi. It’s one of the biggest prisons in the entire country. There were two deaths in that jail, one in February of 2013 and one in March. They’re kind of like bookends. One involved Afzal Guru, and the other Ram Singh. Let’s start with the case of Afzal Guru, who was hanged.

LET ME try and see how I can explain it as briefly as possible. Basically, after the September 11th attacks in America, at the time, the BJP, the right-wing Hindu party, was in power. This sort of massive Islamophobia that the 9/11 attacks set off segued into the policies of the BJP vis-à-vis the Muslim community. They had already demolished the Babri Masjid, a fourteenth-century mosque. That’s what brought the BJP to power. There was this whole desire to place yourself in the same sphere as the US, as a victim of terrorism. That has been a constant theme in India.

On the 13th of December, 2001, there was this very strange, botched sort of “terrorist” strike on the parliament in Delhi, where five “terrorists”—I’m speaking in quotes—drove into parliament in this highly inept way in a white car with a big poster that said, “India is a very bad country.” There were wires hanging out of the trunk. And then somehow they got stopped, and they jumped out and they killed some policemen and a gardener. And then they were all killed. This became India’s 9/11. They arrested four people: a professor of Arabic from Delhi University called S.A.R. Gilani, and then Afzal Guru, and his cousin Shaukat and Shaukat’s wife, Afshan Guru, who actually was in jail when I was there also. I met her.

There was a huge sort of media circus, where the media just said anything they liked about these four people, how they had been sowing seeds of terrorism from Delhi to London and how they were attacking democracy and so on. Some of us were very disturbed by the entire thing. It just didn’t ring true, neither the way the attack happened, because it was so unprofessional, if you like, and stupid, nor what was being said about these people.

Many people knew this young professor, Gilani, who had been arrested, and found it hard to believe that he really had anything to do with it. So Nandita Haksar, a lawyer, put together this group called the Committee for the Free and Fair Trial of S.A.R. Gilani. I was also part of it. The atmosphere was wicked at the time. The BJP types were saying, “You must try these people also. They are traitors.” Anyway, what happened was that eventually the courts acquitted Gilani. They said they couldn’t find any evidence against him.

But Afzal Guru had a different story. He actually was somebody who had lived in Kashmir. In the early 1990s, when thousands and thousands of young Kashmiris, tired of the rigging of elections and all that, had crossed over to Pakistan and got trained and came back as militants, he was one of them. But as soon as he came back, he surrendered, because he was very disillusioned by what he saw on the other side. But once you surrender in Kashmir, you’re somebody who is preyed upon by the security forces, as Afzal was for many, many years. I find it very hard to describe this in brief, because I’ve done a lot of writing and I’ve followed this case. We’ve even just brought out a book about it.

WHY is it so important? Because of how the Indian state has manipulated the issue?

IT’S IMPORTANT because, look, something like 68,000 Kashmiris have been killed between 1990 and now, but most of them have been killed in this theater of war, in Kashmir, where there is complete impunity and the army and the police have dragged them out of their homes and they’ve been murdered in interrogation centers or in fake encounters or real encounters. Those things have been documented in great detail by many people.

The difference between them and what happened to Afzal Guru was that his trial took place in broad daylight, with all the institutions of India’s “great democracy,” the media, the courts. Everybody played its part. And eventually, basically what happened was Afzal did not have a lawyer at the time of his trial in the lower court, which is where evidence is presented and where witnesses are questioned. He didn’t have a lawyer. The state appointed a lawyer for him. That lawyer said, “I don’t want to appear for him.” But the court said, “You appear.” That lawyer in fact accepted incriminating evidence against his own client at this stage of the trial.

At the end of it, when the Supreme Court finally sentenced Afzal to death, it said two things in a very long judgment. It said that it had no direct evidence, and the only evidence it had was circumstantial. All the evidence that was produced, the witnesses and so on, many of us have written about how the evidence was fabricated, how witnesses lied, how the police lied. And oddly enough, in this strange act of bureaucracy there is a sort of the dualism in the judgment. The court is trying to be lofty and correct, actually write down that this evidence was fabricated, this cannot be on record, the confessions are extracted in custody and therefore do not constitute legal evidence. All of it is down in black and white in the judgment. And then it goes on to say that we don’t have any direct evidence to prove that he belonged to a terrorist group. And then a little bit later it says, but in order to satisfy the collective conscience of society, we are sentencing to him death. It’s such a brazenly shocking thing for someone to say, for a supreme court of a supposedly great democracy to say.

You see how the media behaved. The anti-terrorism cell of the Delhi police actually extracted many versions of the confession from him, some of them on video. The court says you can’t use custodial confessions, but the media television channels, even supposedly secular and liberal channels, are showing this confession without saying it’s in police custody. And you can see the jingoists sending in their comments, saying “Hang him by the balls in Lal Chowk” and “Cut him into pieces and feed him to the dogs.”

So in this kind of amphitheater of this “great democracy,” with every institution playing a part, last month suddenly they just hanged him. That, too, was illegal, as the solicitor general said. In fact, this particular solicitor general was the amicus curiae in a case that was pending before the Supreme Court in which Afzal’s case had been taken up because he had already spent twelve years in solitary confinement. There was a case in the Supreme Court saying, for people who spend inordinately long sentences in jail, the court should rethink the death penalty. This was pending in court; the court had reserved its judgment. And before it could give its judgment, the government just hanged him, denying him the rights it has given to all other prisoners who have faced the death penalty.

So it’s caused a huge underground fury in Kashmir, because what was heroic about Afzal was that he was just an ordinary Kashmiri who had faced what tens of thousands of ordinary Kashmiris have faced, which is brutal torture. In fact, in the book that we’ve brought out there is an interview by Parvaiz Bukhari with Davinder Singh, who was the deputy head of this interrogation of the Special Task Force. And he just openly says, Yes, before the parliament attack, Afzal was regularly picked up and tortured, money was extracted from him, as is done with all such people. And this man says, Yes, I poured petrol in his ass, and, yes, I applied electricity to his genitals. But he didn’t have anything to reveal. And this is months before he is then framed in this.

Just the brazenness of doing this to somebody. He has been portrayed as this Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jesh-e-Muhammad, Islamic fundamentalist who attacked democracy, as they say. But Afzal’s son was called Ghalib. Anybody who knows anything about Ghalib’s poetry knows that Ghalib was not a Muslim fundamentalist of any kind. The point is that you have a man who was tried not even for being the mastermind or anything, just for being a foot soldier, and hanged, while the court says there is no direct evidence; and everyone is saying, “Eleven years after Indian democracy was attacked, justice at last.”

I’m asking, when thousands of Muslims called illegal Bangladeshis were massacred in Nellie in Assam in 1983, wasn’t it an attack on democracy? When 3,000 Sikhs are killed in 1984 under the Congress, after Mrs. Gandhi was killed, wasn’t that an attack on democracy? When in 1993 the Shiv Sena massacred Muslims on the streets of Bombay, wasn’t that an attack on democracy? When Narendra Modi was chief minister and thousands of Muslims are killed and raped and burned and driven from their homes, wasn’t that an attack on democracy? And there’s the Srikrishna report directly indicting the Shiv Sena, so much evidence indicting the BJP machinery in Gujarat, and cases like Ehsan Jafri in which Modi has still not been entirely cleared. So would you ever imagine that the Indian system would imprison Bal Thackeray or Modi for even a week, let alone for eleven years, or let alone sentence them to death? But Bal Thackeray, head of the Shiv Sena, who died recently, who has never, ever held public office, was given a state funeral. And, of course, Modi, as we know, will be probably running for prime minister.

ELECTIONS IN India are to take place next year. Are you concerned about what may be in the offering between what can only be described as a very discredited and rather unpopular Congress party and the so-called alternative, the BJP?

I DON’T know what will happen in the elections. But I think what is most worrying is that the Congress party, discredited as it is, and the BJP in shambles politically because of its infighting, are both trying to regroup. As I said, the fact is that the economy has somewhat frozen; there are millions of this new middle class whose exhilaration has turned into panic. And both the BJP and the Congress are trying to force politics back into the bottle. This new middle class, its aspirations, its acquisitiveness, its aggression, is not wanting to accept politics as it used to be. And this is not necessarily in a progressive way. It’s in a slightly frightening way. Whereas the BJP, Congress now want to uncork the genie of communalism.

Last time the BJP’s election slogan was, “The nation is ashamed because Afzal is still alive.” So now they will have to find another slogan. The Congress was trying to sort of out-BJP the BJP. In trying to do that, the hanging was aimed at Kashmir, knowing full well that it would unleash outrage there, knowing full well that in 2014, when the Americans pull out of Afghanistan, the whole equation in that area is going to change. So everybody—Pakistan, India, Congress, BJP—would be quite happy with a little war. But can you have a little war with two nuclear powers? Everybody would be happy with polarizing the Muslims and Hindus.

One of the things that many of us are very frightened of right now is the fact that one of the aggressive moves by the Indian government is the Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir, where hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims go to this Amarnath Cave in the Kashmiri mountains, and they are protected by the army. It’s a very, very tense and aggressive situation there. One of the worries is that now, as we know, there are these Hindu terror outfits, who explode bombs and do blasts and pretend that they are Muslim groups. So a lot of people are very, very worried about the fact that one of those Hindu organizations will do an attack on the Amarnath Yatra. The fallout of that would be to immediately polarize, and the Hindu vote would then kind of unite behind the BJP.

So a lot of dirty games. Even this parliament attack was a dirty game. We don’t know who attacked parliament, but we know that a lot of lies were told and the wrong people were caught, the wrong man was hanged. And now just in the run-up to elections is the time when India, ironically, is the most violent, the most frightening, the most devious. You are really swimming in murky waters from now until when the elections happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2014, when the American troops move out of Afghanistan, because that equation will also change between India and Pakistan.

RAM SINGH allegedly hanged himself in Tihar Jail. He was the driver of the bus in which the infamous rape and murder took place. That set off all kinds of questions about how could this happen in such a secure facility.

WELL, IT does seem very odd, because I’ve been in that jail and I know the size of the cell. If three people are sleeping, your bodies are touching each other. So if one chap is going to get up in the night, where did he find the rope? They say he unthreaded some rug or something and made the rope and hanged himself. It does seem that somebody wanted him dead.

Again, as I say, the nexus between the police and criminals is so tight, that even in this incident, when first of all, before they caught the girl and raped and killed her, they robbed somebody, the police didn’t follow up that. And after they threw the girl and her friend off the bus—I think she might have been already dead or nearly dead—the police just stood around and didn’t really do anything. They were fighting about which police station had the responsibility. They didn’t want to deal with it. So the nexus is very, very complete.

I just want to say one more thing about this issue. In India, when a girl is raped, because the stigma is so enormous, nobody is allowed to disclose her name. So all the various newspapers and media outlets, in their excitement, kept giving her different names. So someone called her Damini and somebody called her Nirbhaya, which means the fearless one, though I don’t know how they assumed that she was fearless. What a strange thing to do to a young girl who was murdered in that way.

But John Kerry recently wanted to honor her on Women’s Day or something in the United States because he seemed so moved by this story. And that I found so grotesque, because in the last few years the Americans have in terms of what they’ve done to the women of Iraq, what they’ve done to the women of Libya, driven whole countries, millions of women back into purdah, back into the most inequitable lives—women who were poets and writers and doctors and scientists being pushed back against their volition. It’s not that they were women who chose to be like that, but the situation that was created by these wars has pushed them back. And then you pick up a young girl who was raped and honor her, when you’re pushing millions of women backwards and putting the hands of the clock back for millions of women. You come and pick up this one case, which is completely unpolitical. What happened to her was a criminal act. What happens to the women of Libya and the women of Iraq and the women of Afghanistan is political. You’re not committing a criminal act on one person but a criminal act on countries of women.

IT’S EASY to be virtuous about the Delhi rape and murder case as opposed to drone attacks on Pakistan.

YES, IT’S very easy. I remember I was in Sharjah when President Obama won his second term. He came up on stage with his wife and his daughters and was talking about whether they should or should not have another dog. And a man from that bombed area of Pakistan was quoted in the media saying, “I’ve lost my wife and my children and my entire family in a drone attack. So to see the appearance of Obama and his family in this way, what am I supposed to think?”

PEOPLE ALWAYS ask me, ask Arundhati when is she going to write another novel? You did start on one a few years ago. How is that progressing?

RIGHT NOW that’s what I am fully engaged in. It’s difficult to know how long it will take, but I feel as though—whatever I’ve written about and gone through and looked at in these last years, to me now there is no direct way of expressing what I’m thinking and feeling. I need the subversion of fiction, I need the truth of fiction.

CAN YOU hint at what the topics are, what you’re writing about?

TO ME, novels are never about topics. Novels are about the—I won’t even say the human condition, because that would be small. I think novels should be about everything, in a way. It’s not just about some subject, because that’s what I’ve done with my nonfiction writing. But fiction has something so delicate and so beautiful about it. It isn’t topic-driven.

YOUR POLITICAL essays are characterized by a focused rage and crisp writing. Do you have any models who have inspired you?

THERE ARE so many writers that I admire, whether it’s Galeano or Berger or older writers as well. Nowadays I’m reading The Iliad. And I find it’s so absorbing. To me, what is beautiful and real about writing eventually is, does it stand the test of time. Because all of us can easily believe that what’s happening to us now has never happened before and it’s unique. But it is and it isn’t. Especially now, I think India is becoming very much like the United States, so self-absorbed, and the Indian middle class more and more arrogant, more and more insular. To me, it’s very, very important to be able to write something which is true to the place but which also doesn’t recognize those boundaries, which also resonates in the hearts and in the minds of people who are experiencing similar terrors, similar loves, similar fears, similar but not the same. How do you join people up with that? To me, people like Eduardo Galeano and John Berger do that.

But the art of writing is one that’s so artless in some ways, and yet it’s something that takes up a lot of my waking hours. How do I communicate this or how do I explain this? Not to someone in particular. Even the rage, it comes from love. It comes from believing that somebody should know or somebody wants to know what this is about. I have said in the past that there’s not such a great difference between fiction and nonfiction. But there is. When I’m writing now, I know that there is. And the play that you allow yourself in fiction is completely different. You don’t have to be crisp and to the point and focused. You mustn’t be. You must play. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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