Anj — Tide Or Ivory Snow?

Topic(s): Democracy | Comments Off on Anj — Tide Or Ivory Snow?

Tide Or Ivory Snow?
I’ve been asked to speak about “Public Power in the Age of Empire.” I’m
not used to doing as I’m told, but by happy coincidence, it’s exactly
what I’d like to speak about tonight…
Transcript of full speech by Arundhati Roy in San Francisco, California
on August 16th, 2004.
I’ve been asked to speak about “Public Power in the Age of Empire.”
I’m not used to doing as I’m told, but by happy coincidence,
it’s exactly what I’d like to speak about tonight.
When language has been butchered and bled of meaning, how do we
understand “public power”? When freedom means occupation, when democracy
means neo-liberal capitalism, when reform means repression, when words
like “empowerment” and “peacekeeping” make your blood run cold – why,
then, “public power” could mean whatever you want it to mean. A biceps
building machine, or a Community Power Shower. So, I’ll just have to
define “public power” as I go along, in my own self-serving sort of way.
In India, the word public is now a Hindi word. It means people. In
Hindi, we have sarkar and public, the government and the people.
Inherent in this use is the underlying assumption that the government is
quite separate from “the people.” This distinction has to do with the
fact that India’s freedom struggle, though magnificent, was by no
means revolutionary. The Indian elite stepped easily and elegantly into
the shoes of the British imperialists. A deeply impoverished,
essentially feudal society became a modern, independent nation state.
Even today, fifty seven years on to the day, the truly vanquished still
look upon the government as mai-baap, the parent and provider. The
somewhat more radical, those who still have fire in their bellies, see
it as chor, the thief, the snatcher-away of all things.
Either way, for most Indians, sarkar is very separate from public.
However, as you make your way up India’s social ladder, the
distinction between sarkar and public gets blurred. The Indian elite,
like the elite anywhere in the world, finds it hard to separate itself
from the state. It sees like the state, it thinks like the state, it
speaks like the state.
In the United States, on the other hand, the blurring of the distinction
between sarkar and public has penetrated far deeper into society. This
could be a sign of a robust democracy, but unfortunately, it’s a
little more complicated and less pretty than that. Among other things,
it has to do with the elaborate web of paranoia generated by the U.S.
sarkar and spun out by the corporate media and Hollywood. Ordinary
Americans have been manipulated into imagining they are a people under
siege whose sole refuge and protector is their government. If it
isn’t the Communists, it’s al-Qaeda. If it isn’t Cuba.
it’s Nicaragua. As a result, this, the most powerful nation in the
world – with its unmatchable arsenal of weapons, its history of having
waged and sponsored endless wars, and the only nation in history to have
actually used nuclear bombs – is peopled by a terrified citizenry,
jumping at shadows. A people bonded to the state not by social services,
or public health care, or employment guarantees, but by fear.
This synthetically manufactured fear is used to gain public sanction for
further acts of aggression. And so it goes, building into a spiral of
self-fulfilling hysteria, now formally calibrated by the U.S
government’s Amazing Technicolored Terror Alerts: fuchsia,
turquoise, salmon pink.
To outside observers, this merging of sarkar and public in the United
States sometimes makes it hard to separate the actions of the U.S.
government from the American people. It is this confusion that fuels
anti-Americanism in the world. Anti-Americanism is then seized upon and
amplified by the U.S. government and its faithful media outlets. You
know the routine: “Why do they hate us? They hate our freedoms” . . .
etc.. . . etc. This enhances the sense of isolation among American
people and makes the embrace between sarkar and public even more
intimate. Like Red Riding Hood looking for a cuddle in the wolf’s
Using the threat of an external enemy to rally people behind you is a
tired old horse, which politicians have ridden into power for centuries.
But could it be that ordinary people are fed up of that poor old horse
and are looking for something different? There’s an old Hindi film
song that goes yeh public hai, yeh sab jaanti hai (the public, she knows
it all). Wouldn’t it be lovely if the song were right and the
politicians wrong?
Before Washington’s illegal invasion of Iraq, a Gallup International
poll showed that in no European country was the support for a unilateral
war higher than 11 percent. On February 15, 2003, weeks before the
invasion, more than ten million people marched against the war on
different continents, including North America. And yet the governments
of many supposedly democratic countries still went to war.
The question is: is “democracy” still democratic?
Are democratic governments accountable to the people who elected them?
And, critically, is the public in democratic countries responsible for
the actions of its sarkar?
If you think about it, the logic that underlies the war on terrorism and
the logic that underlies terrorism is exactly the same. Both make
ordinary citizens pay for the actions of their government. Al-Qaeda made
the people of the United States pay with their lives for the actions of
their government in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The
U.S government has made the people of Afghanistan pay in their thousands
for the actions of the Taliban and the people of Iraq pay in their
hundreds of thousands for the actions of Saddam Hussein.
The crucial difference is that nobody really elected al-Qaeda, the
Taliban, or Saddam Hussein. But the president of the United States was
elected (well … in a manner of speaking).
The prime ministers of Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom were
elected. Could it then be argued that citizens of these countries are
more responsible for the actions of their government than Iraqis are for
the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans for the Taliban?
Whose God decides which is a “just war” and which isn’t? George Bush
senior once said: “I will never apologize for the United States. I
don’t care what the facts are.” When the president of the most
powerful country in the world doesn’t need to care what the facts
are, then we can at least be sure we have entered the Age of Empire.
So what does public power mean in the Age of Empire? Does it mean
anything at all? Does it actually exist?
In these allegedly democratic times, conventional political thought
holds that public power is exercised through the ballot. Scores of
countries in the world will go to the polls this year. Most (not all) of
them will get the governments they vote for. But will they get the
governments they want?
In India this year, we voted the Hindu nationalists out of office. But
even as we celebrated, we knew that on nuclear bombs, neo-liberalism,
privatization, censorship, big dams – on every major issue other than
overt Hindu nationalism – the Congress and the BJP have no major
ideological differences. We know that it is the fifty-year legacy of the
Congress Party that prepared the ground culturally and politically for
the far right. It was also the Congress Party that first opened
India’s markets to corporate globalization.
In its election campaign, the Congress Party indicated that it was
prepared to rethink some of its earlier economic policies. Millions of
India’s poorest people came out in strength to vote in the
elections.The spectacle of the great Indian democracy was telecast live
– the poor farmers, the old and infirm, the veiled women with their
beautiful silver jewelry, making quaint journeys to election booths on
elephants and camels and bullock carts. Contrary to the predictions of
all India’s experts and pollsters, Congress won more votes than any
other party. India’s communist parties won the largest share of the
vote in their history. India’s poor had clearly voted against
neo-liberalism’s economic “reforms” and growing fascism. As soon as
the votes were counted, the corporate media dispatched them like badly
paid extras on a film set. Television channels featured split screens.
Half the screen showed the chaos outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the
leader of the Congress Party, as the coalition government was cobbled
together. The other half showed frenzied stockbrokers outside the Bombay
Stock Exchange, panicking at the thought that the Congress Party might
actually honor its promises and implement its electoral mandate. We saw
the Sensex stock index move up and down and sideways. The media, whose
own publicly listed stocks were plummeting, reported the stock market
crash as though Pakistan had launched ICBMs on New Delhi.
Even before the new government was formally sworn in, senior Congress
politicians made public statements reassuring investors and the media
that privatization of public utilities would continue. Meanwhile the
BJP, now in opposition, has cynically, and comically, begun to oppose
foreign direct investment and the further opening of Indian markets.
This is the spurious, evolving dialectic of electoral democracy.
As for the Indian poor, once they’ve provided the votes, they are
expected to bugger off home. Policy will be decided despite them.
And what of the U.S. elections? Do U.S. voters have a real choice?
It’s true that if John Kerry becomes president, some of the oil
tycoons and Christian fundamentalists in the White House will change.
Few will be sorry to see the back of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or
John Ashcroft and their blatant thuggery. But the real concern is that
in the new administration their policies will continue. That we will
have Bushism without Bush.
Those positions of real power – the bankers, the CEOs – are not
vulnerable to the vote (. . . and in any case, they fund both sides).
Unfortunately the importance of the U.S elections has deteriorated into
a sort of personality contest. A squabble over who would do a better job
of overseeing empire. John Kerry believes in the idea of empire as
fervently as George Bush does.
The U.S. political system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no
one who questions the natural goodness of the
military-industrial-corporate power structure will be allowed through
the portals of power.
Given this, it’s no surprise that in this election you have two Yale
University graduates, both members of Skull and Bones, the same secret
society, both millionaires, both playing at soldier-soldier, both
talking up war, and arguing almost childishly about who will lead the
war on terror more effectively.
Like President Bill Clinton before him, Kerry will continue the
expansion of U.S. economic and military penetration into the world. He
says he would have voted to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq even if
he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. He promises
to commit more troops to Iraq. He said recently that he supports
Bush’s policies toward Israel and Ariel Sharon 100 percent. He says
he’ll retain 98% of Bush’s tax cuts.
So, underneath the shrill exchange of insults, there is almost absolute
consensus. It looks as though even if Americans vote for Kerry,
they’ll still get Bush. President John Kerbush or President George
It’s not a real choice. It’s an apparent choice. Like choosing a
brand of detergent. Whether you buy Ivory Snow or Tide, they’re both
owned by Proctor & Gamble.
This doesn’t mean that one takes a position that is without nuance,
that the Congress and the BJP, New Labor and the Tories, the Democrats
and Republicans are the same. Of course, they’re not. Neither are
Tide and Ivory Snow. Tide has oxy-boosting and Ivory Snow is a gentle
In India, there is a difference between an overtly fascist party (the
BJP) and a party that slyly pits one community against another
(Congress), and sows the seeds of communalism that are then so ably
harvested by the BJP.
There are differences in the I.Q.s and levels of ruthlessness between
this year’s U.S. presidential candidates. The anti-war movement in
the United States has done a phenomenal job of exposing the lies and
venality that led to the invasion of Iraq, despite the propaganda and
intimidation it faced. This was a service not just to people here, but
to the whole world. But now, if the anti-war movement openly campaigns
for Kerry, the rest of the world will think that it approves of his
policies of “sensitive” imperialism. Is U.S. imperialism preferable if
it is supported by the United Nations and European countries? Is it
preferable if UN asks Indian and Pakistani soldiers to do the killing
and dying in Iraq instead of U.S. soldiers? Is the only change that
Iraqis can hope for that French, German, and Russian companies will
share in the spoils of the occupation of their country?
Is this actually better or worse for those of us who live in subject
nations? Is it better for the world to have a smarter emperor in power
or a stupider one? Is that our only choice?
I’m sorry, I know that these are uncomfortable, even brutal
questions, but they must be asked.
The fact is that electoral democracy has become a process of cynical
manipulation. It offers us a very reduced political space today. To
believe that this space constitutes real choice would be naïve.
The crisis in modern democracy is a profound one.
On the global stage, beyond the jurisdiction of sovereign governments,
international instruments of trade and finance oversee a complex system
of multilateral laws and agreements that have entrenched a system of
appropriation that puts colonialism to shame. This system allows the
unrestricted entry and exit of massive amounts of speculative capital –
hot money – into and out of third world countries, which then
effectively dictates their economic policy. Using the threat of capital
flight as a lever, international capital insinuates itself deeper and
deeper into these economies. Giant transnational corporations are taking
control of their essential infrastructure and natural resources, their
minerals, their water, their electricity. The World Trade Organization,
the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other financial
institutions like the Asian Development Bank, virtually write economic
policy and parliamentary legislation. With a deadly combination of
arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their sledgehammers to fragile,
interdependent, historically complex societies, and devastate them.
All this goes under the fluttering banner of “reform.”
As a consequence of this reform, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
thousands of small enterprises and industries have closed down, millions
of workers and farmers have lost their jobs and land.
The Spectator newspaper in London assures us that “[w]e live in the
happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human history.”
Billions wonder: who’s “we”? Where does he live? What’s his
Christian name?
The thing to understand is that modern democracy is safely premised on
an almost religious acceptance of the nation state.But corporate
globalization is not. Liquid capital is not. So, even though capital
needs the coercive powers of the nation state to put down revolts in the
servants’ quarters, this set up ensures that no individual nation
can oppose corporate globalization on its own.
Radical change cannot and will not be negotiated by governments; it can
only be enforced by people. By the public. A public who can link hands
across national borders.
So when we speak of “Public Power in the Age of Empire,” I hope it’s
not presumptuous to assume that the only thing that is worth discussing
seriously is the power of a dissenting public. A public which disagrees
with the very concept of empire. A public which has set itself against
incumbent power – international, national, regional, or provincial
governments and institutions that support and service empire.
What are the avenues of protest available to people who wish to resist
empire? By resist I don’t mean only to express dissent, but to
effectively force change.
Empire has a range of calling cards. It uses different weapons to break
open different markets.
For poor people in many countries, Empire does not always appear in the
form of cruise missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or
Vietnam. It appears in their lives in very local avatars – losing their
jobs, being sent unpayable electricity bills, having their water supply
cut, being evicted from their homes and uprooted from their land. All
this overseen by the repressive machinery of the state, the police, the
army, the judiciary. It is a process of relentless impoverishment with
which the poor are historically familiar. What Empire does is to further
entrench and exacerbate already existing inequalities.
Even until quite recently, it was sometimes difficult for people to see
themselves as victims of the conquests of Empire. But now local
struggles have begun to see their role with increasing clarity. However
grand it might sound, the fact is, they are confronting Empire in their
own, very different ways. Differently in Iraq, in South Africa, in
India, in Argentina, and differently, for that matter, on the streets of
Europe and the United States.
Mass resistance movements, individual activists, journalists, artists,
and film makers have come together to strip Empire of its sheen. They
have connected the dots, turned cash-flow charts and boardroom speeches
into real stories about real people and real despair. They have shown
how the neo-liberal project has cost people their homes, their land,
their jobs, their liberty, their dignity. They have made the intangible
tangible. The once seemingly incorporeal enemy is now corporeal.
This is a huge victory. It was forged by the coming together of
disparate political groups, with a variety of strategies. But they all
recognized that the target of their anger, their activism, and their
doggedness is the same. This was the beginning of real globalization.
The globalization of dissent.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of mass resistance movements in
third world countries today. The landless peoples’ movement in
Brazil, the anti-dam movement in India, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the
Anti-Privatization Forum in South Africa, and hundreds of others, are
fighting their own sovereign governments, which have become agents of
the neo-liberal project. Most of these are radical struggles, fighting
to change the structure and chosen model of “development” of their own
Then there are those fighting formal and brutal neocolonial occupations
in contested territories whose boundaries and fault lines were often
arbitrarily drawn last century by the imperialist powers. In Palestine,
Tibet, Chechnya, Kashmir, and several states in India’s northeast
provinces, people are waging struggles for self-determination.
Several of these struggles might have been radical, even revolutionary
when they began, but often the brutality of the repression they face
pushes them into conservative, even retrogressive spaces in which they
use the same violent strategies and the same language of religious and
cultural nationalism used by the states they seek to replace.
Many of the foot soldiers in these struggles will find, like those who
fought apartheid in South Africa, that once they overcome overt
occupation, they will be left with another battle on their hands – a
battle against covert economic colonialism.
Meanwhile, as the rift between rich and poor is being driven deeper and
the battle to control the world’s resources intensifies. Economic
colonialism through formal military aggression is staging a comeback.
Iraq today is a tragic illustration of this process. An illegal
invasion. A brutal occupation in the name of liberation. The rewriting
of laws that allow the shameless appropriation of the country’s
wealth and resources by corporations allied to the occupation, and now
the charade of a local “Iraqi government.”
For these reasons, it is absurd to condemn the resistance to the U.S.
occupation in Iraq, as being masterminded by terrorists or insurgents or
supporters of Saddam Hussein. After all if the United States were
invaded and occupied, would everybody who fought to liberate it be a
terrorist or an insurgent or a Bushite?
The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against
Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.
Like most resistance movements, it combines a motley range of assorted
factions. Former Baathists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up
collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with
opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are
only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be
worthy of our purity.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever criticize resistance
movements. Many of them suffer from a lack of democracy, from the
iconization of their “leaders,” a lack of transparency, a lack of vision
and direction. But most of all they suffer from vilification,
repression, and lack of resources.
Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their
secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our
end of the resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allies government to
withdraw from Iraq.
The first militant confrontation in the United States between the global
justice movement and the neo-liberal junta took place famously at the
WTO conference in Seattle in December 1999. To many mass movements in
developing countries that had long been fighting lonely, isolated
battles, Seattle was the first delightful sign that their anger and
their vision of another kind of world was shared by people in the
imperialist countries.
In January 2001, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 20,000 activists, students,
film makers – some of the best minds in the world – came together to
share their experiences and exchange ideas about confronting Empire.
That was the birth of the now historic World Social Forum. It was the
first, formal coming together of an exciting, anarchic, unindoctrinated,
energetic, new kind of “Public Power.” The rallying cry of the WSF is
“Another World is Possible.” It has become a platform where hundreds of
conversations, debates, and seminars have helped to hone and refine a
vision of what kind of world it should be. By January 2004, when the
fourth WSF was held in Mumbai, India, it attracted 200,000 delegates. I
have never been part of a more electrifying gathering. It was a sign of
the social forum’s success that the mainstream media in India
ignored it completely. But now, the WSF is threatened by its own
success.The safe, open, festive atmosphere of the forum has allowed
politicians and nongovernmental organizations that are imbricated in the
political and economic systems that the forum opposes to participate and
make themselves heard.
Another danger is that the WSF, which has played such a vital role in
the movement for global justice, runs the risk of becoming an end unto
itself. Just organizing it every year consumes the energies of some of
the best activists. If conversations about resistance replace real civil
disobedience, then the WSF could become an asset to those whom it was
created to oppose. The forum must be held and must grow, but we have to
find ways to channel our conversations there back into concrete action.
As resistance movements have begun to reach out across national borders
and pose a real threat, governments have developed their own strategies
of how to deal with them. They range from cooptation to repression.
I’m going to speak about three of the contemporary dangers that
confront resistance movements: the difficult meeting point between mass
movements and the mass media, the hazards of the NGO-ization of
resistance, and the confrontation between resistance movements and
increasingly repressive states.
The place in which the mass media meets mass movements is a complicated
Governments have learned that a crisis-driven media cannot afford to
hang about in the same place for too long. Like business houses need a
cash turnover, the media need crises turnover. Whole countries become
old news. They cease to exist, and the darkness becomes deeper than
before the light was briefly shone on them. We saw it happen in
Afghanistan when the Soviets withdrew. And now, after Operation Enduring
Freedom put the CIA’s Hamid Karzai in place, Afghanistan has been
thrown to its warlords once more.
Another CIA operative, Iyad Allawi, has been installed in Iraq, so
perhaps it’s time for the media to move on from there, too.
While governments hone the art of waiting out crisis, resistance
movements are increasingly being ensnared in a vortex of crisis
production, seeking to find ways of manufacturing them in easily
consumable, spectator-friendly formats.
Every self-respecting peoples’ movement, every “issue” is expected
to have its own hot air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and
For this reason, starvation deaths are more effective advertisements for
impoverishment than millions of malnourished people, who don’t quite
make the cut. Dams are not newsworthy until the devastation they wreak
makes good television. (And by then, it’s too late).
Standing in the rising water of a reservoir for days on end, watching
your home and belongings float away to protest against a big dam used to
be an effective strategy, but isn’t any more. The media is dead
bored of that one. So the hundreds of thousands of people being
displaced by dams are expected to either conjure new tricks or give up
the struggle.
Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not
powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers
refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and
aircrafts, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are
strung across the globe.
If we want to reclaim the space for civil disobedience, we will have to
liberate ourselves from the tyranny of crisis reportage and its fear of
the mundane. We have to use our experience, our imagination, and our art
to interrogate the instruments of that state that ensure that
“normality” remains what it is: cruel, unjust, unacceptable. We have to
expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things – food,
water, shelter and dignity – such a distant dream for ordinary
people.Real pre-emptive strike is to understand that wars are the end
result of flawed and unjust peace.
As far as mass resistance movements are concerned, the fact is that no
amount of media coverage can make up for mass strength on the ground.
There is no option, really, to old-fashioned, back-breaking political
mobilization. Corporate globalization has increased the distance between
those who make decisions and those who have to suffer the effects of
those decisions. Forums like the WSF enable local resistance movements
to reduce that distance and to link up with their counterparts in rich
countries. That alliance is an important and formidable one. For
example, when India’s first private dam, the Maheshwar Dam, was
being built, alliances between the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA), the
German organization Urgewald, the Berne Declaration in Switzerland, and
the International Rivers Network in Berkeley worked together to push a
series of international banks and corporations out of the project. This
would not have been possible had there not been a rock solid resistance
movement on the ground. The voice of that local movement was amplified
by supporters on the global stage, embarrassing and forcing investors to
An infinite number of similar, alliances, targeting specific projects
and specific corporations would help to make another world possible. We
should begin with the corporations who did business with Saddam Hussein
and now profit from the devastation and occupation of Iraq.
A second hazard facing mass movements is the NGO-ization of resistance.
It will be easy to twist what I’m about to say into an indictment of
all NGOs. That would be a falsehood. In the murky waters of fake NGOs
set up or to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges (in states like
Bihar, they are given as dowry), of course there are NGOs doing valuable
work. But it’s important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader
political context.
In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and
1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to
neo-liberalism. At the time, the Indian state, in keeping with the
requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from
rural development, agriculture, energy, transport, and public health. As
the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these
very areas. The difference, of course, is that the funds available to
them are a minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending. Most
large funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development
agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World
Bank, the UN, and some multinational corporations. Though they may not
be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose,
political formation that oversees the neo-liberal project and demands
the slash in government spending in the first place.
Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned
missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that.
NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a
retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way.
Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out
as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the
public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the
edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the
sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the
arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.
In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the
people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an
indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation
caused by neo-liberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.Nothing
illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S.
preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in
and clean up the devastation.
In order make sure their funding is not jeopardized and that the
governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function,
NGOs have to present their work in a shallow framework more or less
shorn of a political or historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient
historical or political context.
Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress
reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark)
people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another
malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee
camp, another maimed Sudanese . . . in need of the white man’s help.
They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the
achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of
Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern
Eventually – on a smaller scale but more insidiously – the capital
available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the
speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor
countries. It begins to dictate the agenda.
It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticizes resistance. It
interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally
been self-reliant. NGOs have funds that can employ local people who
might otherwise be activists in resistance movements, but now can feel
they are doing some immediate, creative good (and earning a living while
they’re at it). Real political resistance offers no such short cuts.
The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a
well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown
Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.
This brings us to a third danger I want to speak about tonight: the
deadly nature of the actual confrontation between resistance movements
and increasingly repressive states. Between public power and the agents
of Empire.
Whenever civil resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from
symbolic action into anything remotely threatening, the crack down is
merciless. We’ve seen what happened in the demonstrations in
Seattle, in Miami, in Göthenberg, in Genoa.
In the United States, you have the USA PATRIOT Act, which has become a
blueprint for antiterrorism laws passed by governments across the world.
Freedoms are being curbed in the name of protecting freedom. And once we
surrender our freedoms, to win them back will take a revolution.
Some governments have vast experience in the business of curbing
freedoms and still smelling sweet. The government of India, an old hand
at the game, lights the path.
Over the years the Indian government has passed a plethora of laws that
allow it to call almost anyone a terrorist, an insurgent, a militant. We
have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Public Security Act, the
Special Areas Security Act, the Gangster Act, the Terrorist and
Disruptive Areas Act (which has formally lapsed but under which people
are still facing trial), and, most recently, POTA (the Prevention of
Terrorism Act), the broad-spectrum antibiotic for the disease of
There are other steps that are being taken, such as court judgments that
in effect curtail free speech, the right of government workers to go on
strike, the right to life and livelihood. Courts have begun to
micro-manage our lives in India. And criticizing the courts is a
criminal offense.
But coming back to the counter-terrorism initiatives, over the last
decade, the number of people who have been killed by the police and
security forces runs into the tens of thousands.In the state of Andhra
Pradesh (the pin-up girl of corporate globalization in India), an
average of about 200 “extremists” are killed in what are called
“encounters” every year. The Bombay police boast of how many “gangsters”
they have killed in “shoot outs.” In Kashmir, in a situation that almost
amounts to war, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989.
Thousands have simply “disappeared.” In the northeastern provinces, the
situation is similar.
In recent years, the Indian police have opened fire on unarmed people,
mostly Dalit and Adivasi. Their preferred method is to kill them and
then call them terrorists. India is not alone, though. We have seen
similar thing happen in countries such Bolivia, Chile, and South Africa.
In the era of neo-liberalism, poverty is a crime and protesting against
it is more and more being defined as terrorism.
In India, POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act) is often called the
Production of Terrorism Act. It’s a versatile, hold-all law that
could apply to anyone from an al-Qaeda operative to a disgruntled bus
conductor. As with all anti-terrorism laws, the genius of POTA is that
it can be whatever the government wants. After the 2002 state-assisted
pogrom in Gujarat, in which an estimated 2,000 Muslims were savagely
killed by Hindu mobs and 150,000 driven from their homes, 287 people
have been accused under POTA. Of these, 286 are Muslim and one is a
POTA allows confessions extracted in police custody to be admitted as
judicial evidence. In effect, torture tends to replace investigation.
The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center reports that India has
the highest number of torture and custodial deaths in the world.
Government records show that there were 1,307 deaths in judicial custody
in 2002 alone.
A few months ago, I was a member of a peoples’ tribunal on POTA.
Over a period of two days, we listened to harrowing testimonies of what
is happening in our wonderful democracy. It’s everything – from
people being forced to drink urine, to being stripped, humiliated, given
electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts, having iron rods put up
their anuses, to being beaten and kicked to death.
The new government has promised to repeal POTA. I’d be surprised if
that happens before similar legislation under a different name is put in
When every avenue of non-violent dissent is closed down, and everyone
who protests against the violation of their human rights is called a
terrorist, should we really be surprised if vast parts of the country
are overrun by those who believe in armed struggle and are more or less
beyond the control of the state: in Kashmir, the north eastern
provinces, large parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and
Andhra Pradesh. Ordinary people in these regions are trapped between the
violence of the militants and the state.
In Kashmir, the Indian army estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 militants are
operating at any given time. To control them, the Indian government
deploys about 500,000 soldiers. Clearly, it isn’t just the militants
the army seeks to control, but a whole population of humiliated, unhappy
people who see the Indian army as an occupation force.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows not just officers, but even
junior commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers of the army,
to use force and even kill any person on suspicion of disturbing public
order. It was first imposed on a few districts in the state of Manipur
in 1958. Today, it applies to virtually all of the north east and
Kashmir. The documentation of instances of torture, disappearances,
custodial deaths, rape, and summary execution by security forces is
enough to turn your stomach
In Andhra Pradesh, in India’s heartland, the militant
Marxist-Leninist Peoples’ War Group – which for years been engaged
in a violent armed struggle and has been the principal target of many of
the Andhra police’s fake “encounters” – held its first public
meeting in years on July 28, 2004, in the town of Warangal.
It was attended by about hundreds of thousands of people. Under POTA,
all of them are considered terrorists. Are they all going to be
detained in some Indian equivalent of Guantánamo Bay?
The whole of the north east and the Kashmir valley is in ferment. What
will the government do with these millions of people?
There is no discussion taking place in the world today that is more
crucial than the debate about strategies of resistance. And the choice
of strategy is not entirely in the hands of the public. It is also in
the hands of sarkar.
After all, when the U.S. invades and occupies Iraq in the way it has
done, with such overwhelming military force, can the resistance be
expected to be a conventional military one? (Of course, even if it were
conventional, it would still be called terrorist.) In a strange sense,
the U.S. government’s arsenal of weapons and unrivalled air and fire
power makes terrorism an all-but-inescapable response. What people lack
in wealth and power, they will make up with stealth and strategy.
In this restive, despairing time, if governments do not do all they can
to honor nonviolent resistance, then by default they privilege those who
turn to violence. No government’s condemnation of terrorism is
credible if it cannot show itself to be open to change by to nonviolent
dissent. But instead nonviolent resistance movements are being crushed.
Any kind of mass political mobilization or organization is being bought
off, or broken, or simply ignored.
Meanwhile, governments and the corporate media, and let’s not forget
the film industry, lavish their time, attention, technology, research,
and admiration on war and terrorism. Violence has been deified.
The message this sends is disturbing and dangerous: If you seek to air a
public grievance, violence is more effective than nonviolence.
As the rift between the rich and poor grows, as the need to appropriate
and control the world’s resources to feed the great capitalist
machine becomes more urgent, the unrest will only escalate.
For those of us who are on the wrong side of Empire, the humiliation is
becoming unbearable.
Each of the Iraqi children killed by the United States was our child.
Each of the prisoners tortured in Abu Ghraib was our comrade. Each of
their screams was ours. When they were humiliated, we were humiliated.
The U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq – mostly volunteers in a poverty
draft from small towns and poor urban neighborhoods – are victims just
as much as the Iraqis of the same horrendous process, which asks them to
die for a victory that will never be theirs.
The mandarins of the corporate world, the CEOs, the bankers, the
politicians, the judges and generals look down on us from on high and
shake their heads sternly. “There’s no Alternative,” they say. And
let slip the dogs of war.
Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and
Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine and the mountains of
Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Colombia and the forests of Andhra
Pradesh and Assam comes the chilling reply: “There’s no alternative
but terrorism.” Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you
Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators, as
well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the
privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are
people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the
legitimate use of violence.
Human society is journeying to a terrible place.
Of course, there is an alternative to terrorism. It’s called
It’s time to recognize that no amount of nuclear weapons or
full-spectrum dominance or daisy cutters or spurious governing councils
and loya jirgas can buy peace at the cost of justice.
The urge for hegemony and preponderance by some will be matched with
greater intensity by the longing for dignity and justice by others.
Exactly what form that battle takes, whether its beautiful or
bloodthirsty, depends on us.
Copyright 2004 Arundhati Roy.
web | Sep 15, 2004
I’m Not At All Playing For Sainthood’
All one does is to continue to write and say what one writes and says.
Then the rest of it is a fallout that you have to deal with and realize
and that the option is to shut up and go away. Is that what I want to
do? I don’t know.
“[W]hen you live in the United States, with the roar of the free market,
the roar of this huge military power, the roar of being at the heart of
empire, it’s hard to hear the whispering of the rest of the world. And I
think many U.S. citizens want to.”
– Arundhati Roy,
The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile
with David Barsamian.
Arundhati Roy was catapulted to fame in 1997 when she won the Booker
Prize for her first novel, The God of Small Things. She is trained as
an architect, worked as a production designer and has written the
screenplays for two films. Since then she has also become known
internationally for her lyrical political writing in books like Power
Politics, War Talk, and her latest, about to be released: An Ordinary
Person’s Guide to Empire. Arundhati Roy was recently in the United
States to publicize her book The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile,
which is a series of interviews with journalist David Barsamian.
KPFK’s host of Uprising. Sonali Kolhatkar, interviewed Roy in San
Francisco on August 16th , 2004 and this interview appears here courtesy
Sonali Kolhatkar: The last time I saw you, you were in Mumbai, India.
You were on a very big stage and you were speaking to tens of thousands
of people at the World Social Forum and you were one of the few people
who made a specific suggestion about boycotting a couple of American
companies that were profiting from the war in Iraq and you got a lot of
applause for it because that was sort of a rare thing – there were
mostly platitudes at the WSF. Has anything come of that suggestion?
Arundhati Roy: Well I don’t know that anything has come of it
concretely but I think people are working on that idea. How exactly it
should be done is a difficult issue. But I would just like to repeat the
fact that it’s really dangerous for us to limit our protests to
purely symbolic spectacle and that we have to begin to inflict real
damage and we have to be able to signal to these absolutely heartless
multinational companies that they cannot function like this. And if we
don’t do that, then we’re going to take a very big hit.
We’re just going to be a comical movement of people who like to feel
good about ourselves.
Sonali Kolhatkar: But you’re also very much a believer in
non-violent struggle. How does one hit the empire without using a little
violence – and can boycotts be effective?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t also want to go around being the Barbie doll
of non-violent struggle. To confuse non-violence with passivity is one
of the things that’s dangerous. And the fact is that neither am I a
person who feels that I have the right, or I am in a place where I
should be dictating to people how they should conduct their movements.
Personally I’m not prepared to pick up arms now. But maybe I can
afford not to, at whatever place I am in now. I think violence really
marginalizes and brutalizes women. It depoliticizes things. It’s
undemocratic in so many ways. But at the same time, when you look at the
massive amount of violence that America is perpetrating in Iraq, I
don’t know that I’m in a position to tell Iraqis that you must
fight a pristine, feminist, democratic, secular, non-violent war. I
can’t say. I just feel that that resistance in Iraq is our battle
too and we have to support it. And we can’t be looking for pristine
struggles in which to invest our purity.
But I feel that for those of us who are prepared to resist
non-violently, the economic outposts of empire are vulnerable.These same
companies that first did business with Saddam Hussein, then were on the
Defense Policy Board advising America to go to war, now are getting huge
contracts from the destruction of Iraq, are also the same companies that
are privatizing water and privatizing power and so on, in Latin America,
in Africa, in India. Therefore we do have a foothold and we can shut
them down if we wanted to.
Sonali Kolhatkar: I want to touch on what you said about not demanding
that a particular movement be pristine. Women are on the forefront of
the struggle against globalization. At the same time, they are fighting
a slightly different battle from men – they are against the
misogynist traditions of their community, as well as against the
“modernity of the global economy” as you call it. How do you explain the
dynamics then between men and women – the men who on the one hand
fight the same fight against globalization but may want to retain, even
harder, the structures of misogynist traditions?
Arundhati Roy: Well, look, people like me, and I’m sure you, are in
this dilemma full time, right? I spent the first part of my life just
fighting tradition, just refusing to be the woman that the community
that I come from wants me to be. And you escape that and you come
slap-bang up against some that, it’s hard to say which is worse. But
I think that’s beautiful in a way, to pick your way through that
fight. And though the experiences of women are different, the fact is
that the fight is not being fought separately by women and men. There
are plenty of men who see that side and there are plenty of women who
don’t. The battle lines are not drawn between women and men. They
are drawn between particular world views.
What is disturbing, I think, is that there are two kinds of struggles
going on in the world today — I mean resistance movements-wise. And
they are almost like in two different eras even though they are both
contemporary. One is the struggle of movements like the Zapatistas, or
the anti-dam movement in the Narmada, or the anti-privatization forum,
or the landless peasant movements, those movements which are fighting
their own states and are radically wanting to restructure their society.
And then there are those movements which are fighting neo-colonial
occupations whether it’s Tibet, or Palestine, or Kashmir, or in the
Northeast [of India]. And there the repression is so extreme that those
movements, even if they were more radical when they started, or more
progressive, are being pushed into retrogressive positions, where they
are misogynist, or they are fundamentalist and in many ways, using the
same language and the techniques as the states they seek to replace.
And then you have the cycle turning full circle and coming back to Iraq
where you’re re-colonizing a place and appropriating its resources
and so on. I think that the fact is that those movements that are
fighting liberation struggles have to start asking themselves now, what
kind of state are they fighting for. And especially the women have to
ask that question now. They can’t be saying once it happens, then
we’ll be okay, because they won’t be.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Speaking of women as well, the situation in the
United States is interesting on the left. It’s very refreshing for
me to see a South Asian woman, a woman who looks like me, be the new
superstar of the left. And you may reject that term, “superstar” but
unfortunately, or fortunately, whether you like it or not, when you walk
into a room today, you command an audience. And it’s the Noam
Chomsky effect – when he walks into a room, he gets a standing
ovation before he even says a few words. So on the one hand I’m
ecstatic that it’s not just another straight white male with a fancy
education. How do you deal with that and is it healthy for the left?
Arundhati Roy: I think it’s very unhealthy. This process of
iconization is also a political one. That it is a way of making real
political resistance very brittle. Because it’s okay to say oh
Arundhati Roy, she’s a superstar. And then tomorrow say, but
actually you know, she’s this and she’s that and it’s over.
But it’s not about me and what a nice human being I am because
I’m not a nice human being. I’m not at all playing for
saint-hood here. So I think it’s a very dangerous process. It’s
hard to know what to do about it. Because all one does is to continue to
write and say what one writes and says. Then the rest of it is a fallout
that you have to deal with and realize and that the option is to shut up
and go away. Is that what I want to do? I don’t know.
But it is dangerous because it does make the whole movement very
brittle. Obviously it’s not just me, there are others. But
individuals who are picked out – we are very fragile things. I could
be … how easy is it for the propaganda machine to try to discredit me
Sonali Kolhatkar: You’ve talked about, in the book, [The Checkbook
and the Cruise Missile] with David [Barsamian] the way in which ordinary
people are different from powerful people who can be ruthless, cold,
calculating. Does ruthlessness and coldness just come from power? Unless
people have power we can’t solve the problems of the world. What are
your ideas on distributing power?
Arundhati Roy: Tonight, the subject of my talk is “Public Power in the
Age of Empire”. I think it’s probably a subject that occupies many
of my waking hours and what does that mean in today’s age? What does
it mean in an election year? Does it mean just going out and voting?
What does it mean? I think that it’s very very important for us to
also accept a certain amount of culpability for what is happening to the
world and what we have allowed to happen. So how do we as people who are
not walking the path to public office or government, how do we shorten
the leash on power because that’s the only way.
Like I keep saying that basically the pre-neo-liberal era, already in
countries like India, the distance between people who made decisions and
people who suffered those decisions was big enough. Corporate
globalization has just increased it and we have to minimize that
distance. And sometimes in order to minimize it, we have to reach across
national boundaries and borders. If you see in a very simple way,
democracies are premised on an almost religious acceptance of the
nation-state. Neo-liberalism is simply not. Capital moves across these
boundaries in the way that it does. And so while that project needs the
coercive powers of the nation state to quell the revolt at the servant
quarters, it also ensures that no individual nation can stand up to the
project of corporate globalization.
So whether it’s Lula or whether it’s Nelson Mandela, whoever
they are, they’ve crumbled in the face of that. The only way the
public can ensure that…. Like in India what is called now when
people are arrested and called terrorists and put in jail in the
thousands under this new POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act, the
counterpart to the USA PATRIOT Act in India] act? You know what it’s
called? Creating a good investment climate. So we’ve got to create a
bad investment climate.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Speaking of elections and of what’s happening in
India – the election here in the United States is seeing a face off
between Democrats and the Republicans and some of the left is very much
rooted in the “Anybody But Bush” strategy. I wonder if you see a
comparison between what happened in India and what could happen in the
US –the Congress versus the BJP similar to the Democrats versus the
Republicans – it’s good to have the Democrats but still lots of
work to be done.
Arundhati Roy: Well, yes and no. There is a parallel. And yet, we have
to admit that whether it’s the Congress or the BJP that came into
power in India it doesn’t affect the rest of the world as much as
the outcome of the American election, in theory. I’ve been here for
just a few days and one thing that bothers me is that the whole thing
has been reduced to some personality contest – like some squabble
between two boys who belong to Yale, and were in the “Skull and
Crossbones” club or whatever.
Let’s say — as a subject of empire I speak — Kerry says that even
if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, he would
still have gone to war. He says that he wants to send another 40,000
troops more to Iraq. He wants to send Indians and Pakistanis or other
people there to kill and die instead. He’ll get UN cover. For the
Iraqis what does it mean? That the French and the Germans and the
Russians can also partake of the spoils of the occupation? These are
very difficult questions.
But the fact is that if the antiwar movement in the left openly
campaigns for Kerry then people in the rest of the world will ask, do
you support “soft imperialism” a la Kerry or not? In terms of the fact
that people like me and many of us have gone out of our way to make a
huge distinction between American government and the American people.
But now you have to accept that people in democracies are more
responsible for the actions of their governments than the Iraqis are for
the actions of Saddam Hussein or the Afghans were for the actions of the
So then if you are responsible, then you have to take responsibility.
It’s a complicated and dangerous situation right now. And what you
say is very important. Can you openly support this man?
Sonali Kolhatkar: We deal with a lot of these issues on KPFK. We
don’t hear much discourse on corporate globalization and free trade
in the United States. But during this election we are hearing a
conversation that’s focused on the outsourcing of jobs which is very
much related to India with hi-tech and other jobs going to India. Some
people on the left think that they should embrace this as a positive
benefit of globalization [with jobs going to a third world country] but
others end up falling into the nationalistic trap and denounce the
losing of jobs to India. What is your approach and how does one walk the
line and how does one treat the issue of outsourcing jobs in India?
Arundhati Roy: The middle and upper classes in India who completely
support the neo-liberal corporate globalization project now say, look,
we have call centers, isn’t that wonderful? Not seeing that part of
the project of India having many thousands of people working for call
centers, but who are they? They are also the English speaking, middle
class or upper middle class people, at the cost of what? Of millions
losing their lands and their jobs and the rest of the corporate
globalization project, because of the privatization of electricity and
water and removal of subsidies and so on. So once again, for a few
people who are comparatively better off getting jobs there, millions are
losing jobs there. And over here, what is happening is that the poor are
losing jobs. So you have to see it as a complete process of what is
happening. It’s not just that you say, oh look, some people are
losing jobs here and they’re getting jobs there. It’s just a
little part of a much larger project.
Sonali Kolhatkar: A distraction if you will?
Arundhati Roy: It’s not a distraction because in India it’s the
main issue.
Sonali Kolhatkar: … I mean here in the United States in election
Arundhati Roy: … It’s a kind of jingoism. I think that what
actually globalization has done here is more than people losing jobs in
call centers.If you look at the fact that America and Europe are trying
to force a country like India to remove subsidies for farmers and poor
people while they pay 1 billion dollars a day in subsidies to their
farmers, but not to their poor farmers, but to the corporate farmers. So
within America too, that project … you see it’s really important
for people to understand that it isn’t just a divide between rich
countries and poor countries – it’s a divide between rich people
and poor people. And that affects the Indian poor as well as the
American poor.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Some people, liberal economists for example, like the
New York Times’ Paul Krugman who will take a pretty decent position
on the issue on war, will disagree with the anti-globalization movement
saying that we should embrace the issue of globalization, it’s good
for the world. But then you have movements represented by the World
Social Forum who are wholly rejecting it. In your opinion, is there
anything good about globalization, or what would “your” globalization
look like? Or is there just no space for globalization? Should
everything turn back to localism?
Arundhati Roy: I suppose it’s one of the most loosely used words in
history. Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are
pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should
retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and
messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not.
And of course I think when you look at it, we are the people who are
saying we should have global treaties on nuclear weapons, on
international justice, on environmental issues and how can there not be
that kind of globalization?
And then there’s that issue of whether organizations like the WTO
and the IMF and the World Bank can be reformed. And even within the
global justice movement there are two schools of thought. One says,
scrap them and other says, no no, you can reform them. To me, it
doesn’t matter. If you can reform them, then reform them. But the
fact is of course it would be good to have financial institutions that
are just institutions, fair institutions. But it’s much worse to
have an entrenched, unfair international agreement. You know what I
mean. You can’t entrench injustice and institutionalize it in the
way that these institutions are doing. It isn’t a vague debate about
globalization is good or bad. You’ve got to understand what it
And it keeps changing and warping. Five years ago the World Bank was
funding big dams. Not five years ago, in 1993 they were driven out of
the Narmada Valley. Now they are back. But how? They are not directly
funding them. But they are trying to fund them through organizations
like the NHPC which is the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation,
they are trying to come in through the back door now. They are trying to
hold hands with the government. Because in any case, these private
projects have to have government support. You can’t privatize power
without government support. You can’t privatize a dam without using
the coercive powers of the state. So it keeps warping and changing. You
can’t just have clichéd reactions to it, also keep understanding
what is happening.
Sonali Kolhatkar: The issue of globalization from the perspective of
activists who want justice, is an interesting one because it brings up
ideas and challenges that I noticed – in the World Social Forum
there was one topic that kept coming up was the issue of language. You
had all these people coming together – most of them didn’t speak
one common language. And Nawal el Saadawi [famed Egyptian feminist] was
talking about rejecting the use of the colonial language, English. Even
though the “God of Small Things” [Roy’s first novel] has been
translated into many languages, your primary language that you write in
is English.Do you think that language, colonial or not, is an issue that
activists should be trying to solve?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t think it’s an issue about what is
imperialist or not. Because Arabic is also imperialist at some point. So
is Hindi, Sanskrit. So on what basis are you going to say what is
imperialist and what is not? I think it is true that language is a very
complicated issue in India, say. Because I often feel why am I supposed
to speak in Hindi? I am not from the north. I speak Malayalam, I write
Malayalam. But I can’t go into a meeting in Delhi and speak
Malayalam. But I can speak English. I can also speak Hindi but the point
is that it’s complicated. Because of course, in some ways, English
is the language that is common all over India.
As a writer, as a writer of fiction, as a writer of literature, I have
to say that I suppose I have a sort of upside down notion of language
which is that I don’t feel that I am the slave of language. But that
the language is the slave of me and it’s my art to make it say what
I think or make it do what I want. But that is the privilege of a
writer. Often people are enslaved by language. Like if you think how
frightening is it for somebody in the Narmada valley to have to go
through a Supreme Court affidavit in English? How would we feel if our
lives were governed by a language we feel we have no access to. But at
the same time, I think the solution to that is that there has to be a
way of facilitating translations in ways. It can’t be that you use
one language at the cost of someone else.
Sonali Kolhatkar: So communication in the end is the main issue…?
Arundhati Roy: Yes.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Writers like yourself who are from South Asia and who
write in English have become popular in the West in say the last 10, 20
years. One of the first was Salman Rushdie who became very popular in
the West and who also ended up turning to political writing. I saw he
has lavished some praise on you on the back of the book (The Checkbook
and the Cruise Missile). But he takes a different position on the issue
of war. He’s a liberal hawk, lining himself more with the
Christopher Hitchens-crowd. Any thoughts on Salman Rushdie?
Arundhati Roy: I must say that of all the writers, the Indian writers
who write in English, I think at least his earlier work has certainly
been the most inventive and exciting in terms of the way he uses
language. But obviously I do have a different position on all these
issues, from them. But still I feel that, the fact is, writers have
become playthings now. You’re actually seriously asked the question
as to why don’t you just go back to writing fiction and why are you
doing this? I mean, now not so much but I used to be asked this. As if
writers are just sort of court eunuchs or entertainers of the master. So
somehow even the fact that he does engage with the world is a good
Sonali Kolhatkar: Looking back at your early political writing, I
remember reading the essay, The Great Indian Rape Trick, years ago,
right after I watched The Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur. That was a
very scathing critique of the film, I’m sure well deserved, and from
what I read, it certainly was. Did you get into trouble for writing that
and did Shekhar Kapur ever respond to you?
Arundhati Roy: Oh big time trouble, big time trouble! Because what
happened was that at the time that this film came out, I had just
finished making a film for Channel Four, which was the same company that
produced this. And then they had commissioned me to write another film.
And while I was doing that I saw this film and I was really furious. I
wrote to them and said look, this is not a conversation I’m prepared
to have over some private meal or something and I’m going to write
about it because I think it’s outrageous. And I wrote. And of course
that led to a lot of trouble between me and them and so on.
And of course the usual thing – it was incredible how the Indian
middle class and the press was so happy with that film and so furious
with Phoolan Devi herse