Brave New India

ARUNDHATI ROY is the celebrated author of The God of Small Things, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. The New York Times calls her “India’s most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence.” She is the winner of the 2002 Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom. Her latest books are The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, with David Barsamian, and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. DAVID BARSAMIAN interviewed her in New Delhi on December 29, 2007. David Barsamian is the producer of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado.


ALL NATIONS have ideas about themselves that are repeated without much scrutiny or examination: the United States—a beacon of freedom and liberty; India—the world’s largest democracy, dedicated to secularism.


INDIA HAS done a better job than the United States in recent years. The myth about the U.S. being a beacon of liberty has been more or less discredited amongst people who are even vaguely informed. India, on the other hand, has managed to pull off almost a miraculous public relations coup. It really is the flavor of the decade, I think. It’s the sort of dream destination for world capital. All this done in the name of “India is not Afghanistan,” “India is not Pakistan,” “India is a secular democracy,” and so on.


India has among the highest number of custodial deaths in the world. It’s a country where 25 percent of its territory is out of control of the government. But the thing is that these areas are so dark, whether it’s Kashmir, whether it’s the northeastern states, whether it’s Chhattisgarh, whether it’s parts of Andhra Pradesh. There is so much going on here, but it’s just a diverse and varied place. So while there are killings going on, say, in Chhattisgarh, there’s a festival in Tamil Nadu or a cricket match between India and Australia in Adelaide. Where the light is shone is where the Sensex stock market is jumping and investments are coming in. And where the lights are switched off are the states where farmers are committing suicide—I think the figure is now 136,000—and the killing, in say, Kashmir, which is 68,000 to 80,000. We have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows even noncommissioned officers to shoot on suspicion.


It’s quite interesting what’s going on right now, because we are at the cusp where the definition of terrorism is being expanded. Under the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party—that’s the radical Hindu government previously in power—much of the emphasis was on Islamic terrorism. But now Islamic terrorism is not enough to net those that the government wants to net, because the minimum qualification is that you have to be a Muslim. Now, with these huge development projects and these Special Economic Zones that are being created and the massive displacement, the people that are protesting those have to be called terrorists, too. And they can’t be Islamic terrorists, so now we have the Maoists. The fact is that both in the case of militancy in Kashmir as well as the expansion of the Maoist cadres, they are both realities—it’s not that they are not—but they are realities that both sides benefit from exaggerating. So when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says it’s the greatest internal security threat, it allows various state governments to pass all kinds of laws that could call anybody a terrorist. Say, tomorrow, they came into my house here. Just the books that I have would make me qualify as a terrorist. In Chhattisgarh, if I had these books and if I weren’t Arundhati Roy, I could be put into jail. Human rights activists, like, say, a very well-known doctor, Binayak Sen, has just been put into jail on charges of being a Maoist. He’s being made an example of to discourage people from having any association with those who are resisting this kind of absolutely lawless takeover of land now. Thousands and thousands of acres are being handed over to corporates. So now we’re sort of, as I said, on the cusp of expanding the definition of terrorist so that a lot of people who disagree with this mode of development can be actually imprisoned and are being imprisoned.


Until recently, even post-1990s, when the sort of neoliberal model was imported into India, we were still talking about the privatization of water, the privatization of electricity, the devastation of the rivers. But when you look at privatization of water and electricity, still these corporate companies had to find their markets here, even if it was for the Indian elite, even if it was just making water and electricity too expensive for local people. But with the opening up of the mineral sector and the discovery of huge deposits of bauxite and iron ore in states like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, we are watching these places turn into what it was like in Africa, what it is like in the Middle East, where you don’t have to find a local market. You just take the whole mountain of bauxite and you store it in the desert in Australia and you trade bauxite on the futures market. So the corporates are here, and their guns are trained on these minerals.


If you look at a geographical map of India, you will see that the only areas where there are forests are where Adivasis, tribals, live, and under the forests are the minerals. It is these ecologically and socially most vulnerable parts of India that are now in the crosshairs of these big guns. So you have absolute devastation happening in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Chhattisgarh is like Colombia. The Tatas, who until just a few years ago were trying to be the sort of good-uncle corporation, have now decided to go aggressive and enter the world market big time. So, for example, they signed an MOU, memorandum of understanding, with the Chhattisgarh government for the mining of iron ore. And within days, not by coincidence I’m sure, was the announcement of what’s known as the Salva Judum, a people’s militia, which purportedly is a spontaneous movement that sprang up to fight the menace of the Maoists. Salva Judum is armed by the government. Something like four hundred villages have been evacuated and moved into police camps. Chhattisgarh is in a situation of sort of civil war, which is exactly what happened in Colombia. And while our eyes are on this supposed civil war, obviously the mining, the minerals, everything can be just taken away.


If you look at what’s going on in Orissa, the situation is similar. Orissa has bauxite mountains, which are beautiful and densely forested, with flat tops, like air fields. They are porous mountains, which are actually water tanks that store water for the fields in the plains. And whole mountains have just been taken away by private corporations, and, of course, destroying the forests, displacing the tribals, and devastating the land.


It’s really interesting, what’s going on in India today. It’s hard to know what to say or how to think about it anymore. We are all well versed in Noam Chomsky’s thesis of the manufacture of consent, but actually what’s going on now here is we’re living in the era of the manufacture of dissent, where you have these corporations who are making so much money. For example, the way the bauxite business works is that the corporates just pay the Orissa government a royalty, a small percentage, and they are making billions. And with those billions they can set up an NGO. Somebody says they’re going to set up Vedanta University in Orissa. They will mop up all the intellectuals and environmentalists. Alcan has given a million-dollar environmental award to one of the leading environmental activists in India. The Tatas have the Jamsetji Tata Trust and the Dorabji Tata Trust, which they use to fund activists, to stage cultural events and so on, to the point where these people are funding the dissent as well as the devastation. The dissent is on a leash; it’s only apparent. It’s a manufactured situation in which everyone is playing out this kind of theater. It’s completely crazy.


CLEARLY, THE state must be enabling these kinds of situations to occur and to continue.


THIS IS the genius of the Indian state. It’s an extremely sophisticated state. It has a lot to teach the Americans about occupation, it has a lot to teach the world about how you manage dissent. You just wear people down, you just wait things out. When they want to mow people down, when they want to kill and imprison, it does that, too. Who doesn’t believe that this is a spiritual country where everybody just thinks that if it’s not okay in this life it will be okay in the next life? Yet it is one of the most devastatingly cruel societies. Which other culture could dream up the caste system? Even the Taliban can’t come up with the way Indian civilization has created Dalits.


EXPLAIN WHO Dalits are.


DALITS ARE the “untouchables” of India.

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