An Interview with Arundhati Roy by Shoma Chaudhuri (excerpt)
There is an atmosphere of growing violence across the country. How do you read the signs? Do you think it will grow more in the days to come? What are its causes? In what context should all this be read?
You don’t have to be a genius to read the signs. We have a growing middle class, being reared on a diet of radical consumerism and aggressive greed. Unlike industrializing western countries which had colonies from which to plunder resources and generate slave labour to feed this process, we have to colonize ourselves, our own nether parts. We’ve begun to eat our own limbs. The greed that is being generated (and marketed as a value interchangeable with nationalism) can only be sated by grabbing land, water and resources from the vulnerable. What we’re witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in Independent India. The secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It’s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere. They’ve managed to commandeer the resources, the coal, the minerals, the bauxite, the water and electricity. Now they want the land to make more cars, more bombs, more mines – super toys for the new super citizens of the new superpower. So it’s outright war, and people on both sides are choosing their weapons. The government and the corporations reach for Structural Adjustment, the World Bank, the ADB, FDI, friendly court orders, friendly policy makers, help from the ‘friendly’ corporate media and a police force that will ram all this down peoples’ throats. Those who want to resist this process have, until now, reached for dharnas, hunger-strikes, satyagraha, the courts, and what they thought was friendly media. But now, more and more are reaching for guns. Will the violence grow? If the ‘growth rate’ and the sensex are going to be the only barometres the government uses to measure progress and the well-being of people, then of course it will. How do I read the signs? It isn’t hard to read sky-writing. What it says up there, in big letters is this: The shit has hit the fan, folks.
You once remarked that though you may not resort to violence yourself, you think it has become immoral to condemn it, given the circumstances in the country. Can you elaborate on this view?
I’d be a liability as a guerilla! I doubt I used the word ‘immoral’-morality is an elusive business, as changeable as the weather. What I feel is this: Non-violent movements have, for decades knocked on the door of every democratic institution in this country and have been spurned and humiliated. Look at the Bhopal Gas victims, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The NBA for example, had a lot going for it, high profile leadership, media coverage, more resources than any other mass movement. What went wrong? People are bound to want to re-think strategy.
When Sonia Gandhi begins to promote Satyagraha at the World Economic Forum in Davos it’s time for us to sit up and think. For example, is mass civil disobedience possible within the structure of a democratic nation-state? Is it possible in the age of disinformation and corporate-controlled mass media? Are hunger-strikes umblically linked to celebrity politics? Would anybody care if the people of Nangla Machhi or Bhatti mines went on a hunger-strike? Sharmila Irom has been on a hunger strike for six years. That should be a salutary lesson to many of us. I’ve always felt that it’s ironic that hunger-strikes are used as a political weapon in a land where most people go hungry anyway. We are in a different time and place now. Up against a different, more complex adversary.
We’ve entered the era of NGOs – or should I say the era of palthu shers – in which mass action can be a treacherous business. We have demonstrations which are funded, we have sponsored dharnas and social forums which posture militantly but never follow up on what they preach. We have all kinds of ‘virtual’ resistance. Meetings against SEZs sponsored by the biggest promoters of SEZs. Awards and grants for environmental activism and community action given by corporations responsible for devastating whole ecosystems. Vedanta, a company mining bauxite in the forests of Orissa wants to start a university. The Tatas have two charitable trusts that directly and indirectly, fund activists and mass movements across the country. Could that be why Singur has drawn so much less flak than Nandigram, and why they have not targeted, boycotted, gheraoed? Of course, the Tatas and Birlas funded Gandhi too – maybe he was our first NGO. But now we have NGOs who make a lot of noise, write a lot of reports, but who the sarkar is more than comfortable with. How do we make sense of all this? The place is crawling with professional diffusers of real political action. ‘Virtual resistance’ has become something of a liability.
There was a time when mass movements looked to the courts for justice. The courts have rained down a series of judgments that are so unjust, so insulting to the poor in the language they use, they take your breath away. A recent Supreme Court judgment allowing the Vasant Kunj Mall to resume construction though it didn’t have the requisite clearances said in so many words, that the question of Corporations indulging in malpractice does not arise! In the era of corporate globalization, corporate land-grab, in the era of Enron and Monsanto, Halliburton and Bechtel, that’s a loaded thing to say. It exposes the ideological heart of the most powerful institution in this country. The judiciary along with the corporate press, is now seen as the lynchpin of the neo-liberal project.
In a climate like this when people feel that they are being worn down, exhausted by these interminable ‘democratic’ processes, only to be humiliated eventually, what are they supposed to do?