Democracy Now!, March 23, 2010
We speak with acclaimed Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy on
President Obama, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, India and Kashmir
and much more. Roy also talks about her journey deep into the forests
of central India to report on the Maoist insurgency. [includes rush
Arundhati Roy, award-winning Indian writer and renowned global justice activist. Her latest book is Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. Her most recent article is published in the Indian magazine Outlook called Walking with the Comrades
ANJALI KAMAT: We spend the rest of the hour with
acclaimed Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy on the dark
underbelly of India, a country that prides itself on being known as the
world’s largest democracy.
Earlier this month, when Forbes
published its annual list of the world’s billionaires, the Indian press
reported with some delight that two of their countrymen had made it to
the coveted list of the ten richest individuals in the world.
of Indian paramilitary troops and police are fighting a war against
some of its poorest inhabitants living deep in the country’s so-called
tribal belt. Indian officials say more than a third of the country,
mostly mineral-rich forest land, is partially or completely under the
control of Maoist rebels, also known as Naxalites. India’s prime
minister has called the Maoists the country’s "gravest internal
security threat." According to official figures, nearly 6,000 people
have died in the past seven years of fighting, more than half of them
civilians. The government’s new paramilitary offensive against the
Maoists has been dubbed Operation Green Hunt.
Well, earlier this
month, the leader of the Maoist insurgency, Koteswar Rao, or Kishenji,
invited the Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy to mediate in
peace talks with the government. Soon after, India’s Home Secretary,
G.K. Pillai, criticized Roy and others who have publicly called state
violence against Maoists, quote, "genocidal."
G.K. PILLAI: If
the Maoists are murderers, please call the Maoists murderers. Why is it
that if Maoists murders in West Midnapore last year from June to
December 159 innocent civilians, I don’t see any criticism of that? I
can call it—159, if government have done it, a lot of people would have
gone and said it’s genocide. Why is that not genocide by the Maoists?
AMY GOODMAN: Well,
Arundhati Roy recently had a rare journalistic encounter with the armed
guerrillas in the forests of central India. She spent a few weeks
traveling with the insurgency deep in India’s Maoist heartland and
wrote about their struggle in a 20,000-word essay published this weekend in the Indian magazine Outlook. It’s called "Walking with the Comrades."
We’re joined now here
in New York by the world-renowned author and global justice activist.
She won the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Prize in 2002 and is the
author of a number of books, including the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things. Her latest collection of essays, published by Haymarket, is Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.
Arundhati Roy, welcome to Democracy Now!
ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Before
we go into the very interesting journey you took, you arrive here on
the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. You were extremely
outspoken on the war and have continued to be. I remember seeing you at
Riverside Church with the great Howard Zinn, giving a speech against
the war. What are your thoughts now, seven years in? And how it’s
affected your continent, how it’s affected India?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well,
I think the—you know, the saddest thing is that when the American
elections happened and you had all the rhetoric of, you know, change
you can believe in, and even the most cynical of us watched Obama win
the elections and did feel moved, you know, watching how happy people
were, especially people who had lived through the civil rights movement
and so on, and, you know, in fact what has happened is that he has come
in and expanded the war. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and took an
opportunity to justify the war. It was as though those tears of the
black people who watched, you know, a black man come to power were now
cut and paste into the eyes of the world’s elite watching him justify
And from where I come
from, it’s almost—you know, you think that they probably don’t even
understand what they’re doing, the American government. They don’t
understand what kind of ground they stand on. When you say things like
"We have to wipe out the Taliban," what does that mean? The Taliban is
not a fixed number of people. The Taliban is an ideology that has
sprung out of a history that, you know, America created anyway.
Iraq, the war is
going on. Afghanistan, obviously, is rising up in revolt. It’s spilled
into Pakistan, and from Pakistan into Kashmir and into India. So we’re
seeing this superpower, in a way, caught in quicksand with a conceptual
inability to understand what it’s doing, how to get out or how to stay
in. It’s going to take this country down with it, for sure, you know,
and I think it’s a real pity that, in a way, at least George Bush was
so almost obscene in his stupidity about it, whereas here it’s smoke
and mirrors, and people find it more difficult to decipher what’s going
on. But, in fact, the war has expanded.
ANJALI KAMAT: And
Arundhati, how would you explain India’s role in the expanding US war
in Afghanistan and Pakistan? This is a climate of very good relations
between India and the United States.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well,
India’s role is—India’s role is one of, at the moment, trying to
position itself, as it keeps saying, as the natural ally of Israel and
the US. And India is trying very hard to maneuver itself into a
position of influence in Afghanistan. And personally, I believe that
the American government would be very happy to see Indian troops in
Afghanistan. It cannot be done openly, because it would just explode,
you know, so there are all kinds of ways in which they are trying to
create a sphere of influence there. So the Indian government is deep
into the great game, you know, there, and of course the result is, you
know, attacks in Kashmir and in Mumbai, not directly related to
Afghanistan, but of course there’s a whole history of this kind of
maneuvering that’s going on.
AMY GOODMAN: For
an American audience, and perhaps for an audience just outside of the
region, if you could really talk to us about an area you’ve been
focusing a great deal on, of course, and that is Kashmir. Most people
here know it as a sweater. That’s what they think of when they hear
ARUNDHATI ROY: OK, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: So, starting there, if you can tell us what is going on there—even place it for us geographically.
ARUNDHATI ROY: OK.
Well, Kashmir, as they say in India, you know, is the unfinished
business in the partition of India and Pakistan. So, as usual, it was a
gift of British colonialism. You know, they threw it at us as they
walked—I mean, as they withdrew. So Kashmir used to be an independent
kingdom with a Muslim majority ruled by a Hindu king. And during—at the
time of partition in 1947, as there was—you know, as you know, almost a
million people lost their lives, because this line that was drawn
between India and Pakistan passed through villages and passed through
communities, and as Hindus fled from Pakistan and Muslims fled from
India, there was massacre on both sides.
And at that time,
oddly enough, Kashmir was peaceful. But then, when all the independent
princedoms in India and Pakistan were asked to actually accede either
to India or Pakistan, but Kashmir, the king was undecided, and that
indecision resulted in, you know, Pakistani troops and non-official
combatants coming in. And the king fled to Jamu, and then he acceded to
India. But he was—you know, there was already a movement for democracy
within Kashmir at that time. Anyway, that’s the history.
there’s always been a struggle for independence or self-determination
there, which in 1989 became an armed uprising and was put down
militarily by India. And today, the simplest way of explaining the
scale of what’s going on is that the US has 165,000 troops in Iraq, but
the Indian government has 700,000 troops in the Kashmir valley—I mean,
in Kashmir, security forces, you know, holding down a place with
military might. And so, it’s a military occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re
going to break and then come back to your travels in Kashmir, Arundhati
Roy, award-winning Indian writer, renowned global justice activist. Her
new book is a book of essays; it’s called Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. She’s here in the United States for just a little while. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: "Hum Dekhen Ge" by Iqbal Bano. This is Democracy Now!,
democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with
Anjali Kamat. Our guest for the rest of the hour, Arundhati Roy, the
award-winning Indian writer, renowned global justice activist. Her
latest book, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.
You recognize that music, Anjali?
ANJALI KAMAT: Yes, "Hum Dekhen Ge" by Iqbal Bano. Arundhati Roy, your latest article in Outlook,
"Walking with the Comrades," you end the piece by talking about this
song that so many people rose up in Pakistan listening to this song,
and you place it in a completely different context. Start by talking
about what’s happening in the forests of India. What is this war that
India is waging against some of the poorest people, people known as
tribals, indigenous people, Adivasis? Who are the Maoists? What’s
happening there? And how did you get there?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well,
it’s been going on for a while, but basically, you know, I mean, there
is a connection. If you look at Afghanistan, Waziristan, you know, the
northeast states of India and this whole mineral belt that goes from
West Bengal through Jharkhand through Orissa to Chhattisgarh, what’s
called the Red Corridor in India, you know, it’s interesting that the
entire thing is a tribal uprising. In Afghanistan, obviously, it’s
taken the form of a radical Islamist uprising. And here, it’s a radical
left uprising. But the attack is the same. It’s a corporate attack, you
know, on these people. The resistance has taken different forms.
But in India, this
thing known as the Red Corridor, if you look at a map of India, the
tribal people, the forests, the minerals and the Maoists are all
stacked on top of each other. You know, so—and in the last five years,
the governments of these various states have signed MOUs with mining
corporations worth billions of dollars.
ANJALI KAMAT: Memoranda of understanding.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Memorandums
of understanding. So as we say, it’s equally an MOU-ist corridor as it
is a Maoist corridor, you know? And it was interesting that a lot of
these MOUs were signed in 2005. And at that time, it was just after
this Congress government had come to power, and the Prime Minister,
Manmohan Singh, announced that the Maoists are India’s "gravest
internal security threat." And it was very odd that he should have said
that then, because the Maoists had actually just been decimated in the
state of Andhra Pradesh. I think they had killed something like 1,600
of them. But the minute he said this, the shares in the mining
companies went up, because obviously it was a signal that the
government was prepared to do something about this, and then started
this assault on them, which ended up as Operation Green Hunt, which is
where now tens of thousands of paramilitary troops are moving in to
these tribal areas.
But before Operation
Green Hunt, they tried another thing, which was that they armed a sort
of tribal militia and backed by police in a state like Chhattisgarh,
where I was traveling recently, they just went into the forest. This
militia burned village after village after village, like something like
640 villages were, more or less, emptied. And it was—the plan was
what’s known as strategic hamletting, which the Americans tried in
Vietnam, which was first devised by the British in Malaya, where you
try and force people to move into police wayside camps so that you can
control them, and the villages are emptied so that the forests are open
for the corporates to go.
And what happened
actually was that out of the—in this area, in Chhattisgarh, out of,
say, 350,000 people, about 50,000 people moved into the camps. Some
were forced, some went voluntarily. And the rest just went off the
government radar. Many of them went to other states to work as migrant
labor, but many of them just continued to hide in the forests, unable
to come back to their homes, but not wanting to leave. But the fact is
that in this entire area, the Maoists have been there for thirty years,
you know, working with people and so on. So it’s a very—it’s not a
resistance that has risen up against mining. It preceded that a long
time—you know, by a long time. So it’s very entrenched. And Operation
Green Hunt has been announced because this militia, called the Salwa
Judum, failed, so now they are upping the ante, because these MOUs are
waiting. And the mining corporations are not used to being made to
wait. You know, so there’s a lot of money waiting.
And, I mean, what I
want to say is that we are not using this word "genocidal war" lightly
or rhetorically. But I traveled in that area, and what you see is the
poorest people of this country, who have been outside the purview of
the state. There’s no hospital. There’s no clinic. There’s no
education. There’s nothing, you know? And now, there’s a kind of siege,
where people can’t go out of their villages to the market to buy
anything, because the markets are full of informers who are pointing
out, you know, this person is with the resistance and so on. There’s no
doctors. There’s no medical help. People are suffering from extreme
hunger, malnutrition. So it’s not just killing. You know, it’s not just
going out there and burning and killing, but it’s also laying siege to
a very vulnerable population, cutting them off from their resources and
putting them under grievous threat. And this is a democracy, you know,
so how do you do—how do you clear the land for corporates in a
democracy? You can’t actually go and murder people, but you create a
situation in which they either have to leave or they starve to death.
ANJALI KAMAT: In
your piece, you describe the people you traveled with, the armed
guerrillas, as Gandhians with guns. Can you talk about what you mean by
that and how—what you think of the violence perpetrated by the Maoists?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well,
you know, this is a very sharp debate in India about—I mean, you know,
even the sort of mainstream left and the liberal intellectuals are
very, very suspicious of Maoists. And everybody should be suspicious of
Maoists, because, you know, they do—they have had a very—a very
difficult past, and there are a lot of things that their ideologues say
which do put a chill down your spine.
But when I went
there, I have to say, I was shocked at what I saw, you know, because in
the last thirty years I think something has radically changed among
them. And the one thing is that in India, people try and make this
difference. They say there’s the Maoists, and then there’s the tribals.
Actually, the Maoists are tribals, you know, and the tribals themselves
have had a history of resistance and rebellion that predates Mao by
centuries, you know? And so, I think it’s just a name, in a way. It’s
just a name. And yet, without that organization, the tribal people
could not have put up this resistance. You know, so it is complicated.
But when I went in, I
lived with them for, you know, and I walked with them for a long time,
and it’s an army that is more Gandhian than any Gandhian, that leaves a
lighter footprint than any climate change evangelist. You know, and as
I said, even their sabotage techniques are Gandhian. You know, they
waste nothing. They live on nothing. And to the outside world—first of
all, the media has been lying about them for a long time. A lot of the
incidents of violence did not happen, you know, which I figured out. A
lot of them did happen, and there was a reason for why they happened.
And what I actually
wanted to ask people was, when you talk about nonviolent resistance—I
myself have spoken about that. I myself have said that women will be
the victims of an armed struggle. And when I went in, I found the
opposite to be true. I found that 50 percent of the armed cadre were
women. And a lot of the reason they joined was because for thirty years
the Maoists had been working with women there. The women’s
organization, which has 90,000 members, which is probably the biggest
feminist organization in India, now all 90,000 of those women are
surely Maoists, and the government has given itself the right to shoot
on sight. So, are they going to shoot these 90,000 people?
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati
Roy, the leader of the Maoists has asked you to be the negotiator, the
mediator between them and the Indian government. What is your response?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Look,
I wouldn’t be a good mediator. You know, that’s not my—those are not my
skills. I think that somebody should do it, but I don’t think that it
should be me, because I just have no idea how to mediate, you know? And
I don’t think that we should be jumping into things that we don’t know
much about. And I certainly—I did say that. You know, I mean, it’s—I
don’t know why they mentioned my name, but I think there are people in
India who have those skills and who could do it, because it’s very,
very urgent that this Operation Green Hunt be called off. Very, very
urgent, you know, but it would be silly for someone like me to enter
that, because I think I’m too impatient. I’m too much of a maverick.
You know, I don’t have those skills.
AMY GOODMAN: I
remember, back to Kashmir, when President Obama was running for
president, Senator Obama, in an interview, talked about Kashmir, and he
talked about it as a kind of flashpoint, said that we have to resolve
the situation between India—between India and Pakistan around Kashmir
so that Pakistan can focus on the militants. Can you talk about it as
being a flashpoint and what you think needs to be done there?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well,
I think, you know, unfortunately, the thing about Kashmir is that India
and Pakistan act as though Kashmir is a problem. But really for them
both, Kashmir is a solution. You know, Kashmir is where they play their
dirty games. And they don’t want to solve it, because whenever they
have, you know, internal problems, they can always pull up—pull this
bunny out of the hat. So it’s really—I really think that these two
countries are not going to solve it, you know?
And what is happening
is that there is a population of people who have been suffering untold
misery for so many years, you know, and once again so many lies have
been told about it. The Indian media is just—the falsification that
it’s involved with about Kashmir is unbelievable. Like two years ago—or
was it last year? Two years ago, there was a massive uprising in
Kashmir. I happened to be there at the time. I’ve never seen anything
like this. You know, there were millions of people on the street all
the time. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And they were rising up for?
ARUNDHATI ROY: They
were rising up for independence. You know, they were rising up for
independence. And then, that uprising was—you know, when they rose up
with arms, that was wrong. When they rose up without arms, that was
And the way it was
defused was with an election. An election was called. And then
everybody was shocked, because there was a huge turnout at the
elections. And all the—you know, we have many election experts in India
who spend all their time in television studios analyzing the swing and
this and that, but nobody said that all the leaders of the resistance
were arrested. Nobody asked, what does it mean to have elections when
there are 700,000 soldiers supervising every five meters, all the time,
all year round? They don’t have to push people on the end of a bayonet
to the voting booth, you know? Nobody talked about the fact that there
was a lockdown in every constituency. Nobody wondered what does it mean
to people who are under that kind of occupation. The fact that they
need somebody to go to, you know, when someone disappears—or, you know,
they need some representative.
So now, once again,
the violence has started. You know? It’s a permanent sort of cycle
where, obviously in the interest of geopolitical jockeying, any sense
of morality is missing. And of course it’s very fashionable to say
that, you know, there isn’t any morality involved in international
diplomacy, but suddenly, when it comes to Maoists killing, morality
just comes riding down on your head. You know, so people use it when
they want to.
ANJALI KAMAT: And
Arundhati, in both India and the United States, as these wars expand,
as the military occupations, as you delineated, in Kashmir, in Iraq, in
Afghanistan, as they expand, what is your message to antiwar activists,
to peace activists around the world, here and in India? What do you
think people need to be doing?
ARUNDHATI ROY: See,
I think I just want to say one thing more, which is that in Kashmir,
you have, as I said, 700,000 soldiers who have been turned into an
administrative police force. In India, where they don’t want to openly
declare war against the Adivasis, you have a paramilitary police, which
is being trained to be an army. So the police are turning into the
army. The army is turning into the police. But to push through this
growth rate, you know, you have basically this whole country is turning
into a police state.
And I just want to
say one thing about democracy. You know, in India, the elections—the
elections were—they cost more than the American elections. Much more.
This poor country costs much more. The most enthusiastic were the
corporates. The members of parliament are—a majority of them are
millionaires. If you look at the statistics, actually this big majority
it has ten percent of the vote. The BBC had a campaign where they had
posters of a dollar bill—$500 bill sort of molting into an Indian 500
rupee note with Ben Franklin on one end and Gandhi on the other. And it
said, "Kya India ka vote bachayega duniya ka note?" meaning "Will the Indian vote save the market?" You know? So voters become consumers. It’s a kind of scam that’s going on.
So the first message
I would have to peace activists is—I don’t know what that means,
anyway. What does "peace" mean? You know, we may not need peace in this
unjust society, because that’s a way of accepting injustice, you know?
So what you need is people who are prepared to resist, but not just on
a weekend, not peace but not just on the weekend. In countries like
India, now just saying, "OK, we’ll march on Saturday, and maybe they’ll
stop the war in Iraq." But in countries like India, now people are
really paying with their lives, with their freedom, with everything. I
mean, it’s resistance with consequences now. You know, it cannot be—it
cannot be something that has no consequences. You know? It may not
have, but you’ve got to understand that in order to change something,
you’ve got to take some risks now. You’ve got to come out and lay those
dreams on the line now, because things have come to a very, very bad
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Her latest book is called Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. I look forward to being with you and Noam Chomsky in Cambridge in a week.