Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are in New Delhi today for talks aimed at deepening military and trade ties between India and the United States. India is the largest weapons importer in the world. The trip comes just a week after the Indian government conducted raids across the country targeting prominent human rights activists, lawyers, poets and critics of the the Narendra Modi government. At least five people were arrested. Critics say the arrests are part of a broader attempt by Modi’s government to silence dissidents ahead of next year’s general election. We speak with the prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, “The God of Small Things.” Her most recent book is a novel titled “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are in New Delhi today for talks aimed at deepening military and trade ties between India and the United States. India is the largest weapons importer in the world. Pompeo spoke earlier today in Delhi.
MIKE POMPEO: Our two nations are united by shared values of democracy, respect for individual rights, and a shared commitment to freedom.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pompeo and Mattis’ trip comes just a week after the Indian government conducted raids across the country targeting prominent human rights activists, lawyers, poets and critics of the Narendra Modi government. At least five people were arrested. The Indian government has accused them of inciting violence and having suspected links to Maoist rebels.
AMY GOODMAN: Critics say the arrests are part of a broader attempt by Modi’s government to silence dissidents ahead of next year’s general election. We go right now to New Delhi, India, where we are joined by the prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy to talk about U.S.-Indian ties, last week’s raids and today’s historic judgment by the Indian Supreme Court legalizing gay sex. The court today overturned a 157-year-old colonial-era law known as Section 377.
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things. Her most recent novel is titled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Arundhati, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by talking about top U.S. officials coming to firm up military ties with India just as you and a number of critics have held a news conference after the Modi government raided critics’ homes. Explain what’s taking place in India today.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I guess it is not a contradiction because India is becoming a militarized state, and the militarization is not necessarily just aimed at countries outside like Pakistan; it is aimed at controlling a population, a very diverse population.
The Modi administration, Modi himself as well as many of his ministers, belong to an organization of which I have spoken many times called the RSS, who want India to become what is known as a Hindu nation, which would involve a sort of clampdown on an array of different voices, on minorities, on people who think differently. In a way, India is a country of minorities when you look at caste and ethnicity and religion. So yeah, weapons import would be important to control the home population as well as the outside.
And while Pompeo and Mattis are here, maybe you would like us to keep them for you here, since they claim to be these great evangelical Christians. I mean, we are marking the 10th anniversary of the massacre of Christians in Kandhamal by Hindu vigilante groups. In fact, before he became the prime minister, Modi was banned from coming to the U.S., and technically, the reason was not the attack on Muslims, but the attack on Christians, which goes on unabated. So maybe they would like to talk about that, too, while they are here.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to just point out the scale of the increase of U.S. arms sales to India in the last years. Arms imports from the U.S. to India rose no less than 557 percent between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017. The U.S. is now the number two weapons supplier to India after Russia.
But I want to turn to the concerns that you have raised about these weapons imports, targeting not just Pakistan and others outside India, but what are perceived increasingly—the large numbers of people within India who are perceived as a threat to the Modi government, among them these activists who were arrested last week. Now you have said that the situation in India today following these activists’ arrests constitutes more or less a coup against the Constitution and also that it could potentially be more dangerous than the emergency state that was declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Could you talk about some of your concerns and what you think this means for where India is headed?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well yes, I said that, because while the emergency was a terrible moment in the 1970s for the people of this country and civil rights were suspended and hundreds of people were arrested and put into prison, what you are seeing now is a different scenario. It is a script that was written almost 100 years ago. And you are seeing this administration right now at its most dangerous because polls and analysis have revealed and the voting data showed a sharp dip in its popularity.
The reasons for that are not just the spreading of this manifesto of hatred, but also the fact that Modi’s announcement of demonetization, the delegitimization of 80 percent of the currency in November 2016—today—a few days ago, the Reserve Bank came out with figures which were shocking, which said that 99 percent of the currency has returned to the banking system. The Guardian did a story saying it cost India about 1.5 million jobs, and that the GDP dropped by perhaps a whole percentile. So there is that. There is a massive scandal brewing about the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France, which is a scandal the scale of whose corruption seems to be unimaginable.
There is a lot of disaffection, and at this time, they seek to change the script, you know? So by arresting these very well-known lawyers and activists, people who are vociferous, people who represent the most vulnerable populations both in court as well as in the media and so on, it’s a way of silencing a massive population. It might sound very minor that you’ve just put people under house arrest while the court decides whether or not they can be arrested now—because the matter is in court—but actually, it is a very, very serious thing.
And most significant is that there is a huge unrest–the Muslims have been targeted and more or less erased from electoral mathematics. Now you have—there’s a huge amount of unrest among the Dalit community. Now, these activists who are being accused of being Maoists and sort of fomenting violence in a big rally that took place in January, on the first of January 2018, and a day earlier on the 31st of December. It is a way of targeting Dalits, of insulting sort of Dalit aspiration by imputing, “Oh, it is all created by these Maoists.” These are professors, lawyers, people who are working very openly, and whose beliefs are pretty clear and who have been writing for years about the things they believe in.
So there is a deep mischief afoot, and it is a very, very dangerous situation. Because of course, initially, they accused these five people of being part of fomenting violence at a meeting called the Elgar Parishad on December 31st. Then it turned out that, oh, they were not there at the meeting. Then they claimed they were part of an assassination plot against Modi, which is of course an old theme right from 2005. There have been these claims and people have also been just executed—extrajudicial executions of people who were called terrorists plotting to kill Modi. So in a way, they are lucky that they survived, and are alive.
But now, the script keeps changing. What they’re accused of keeps changing. So right now, we are being told that, “Oh, they are purchasing an immense amount of weapons and planning unrest across the city.” And I don’t know how to explain how ludicrous this is. I actually know most of these people, and to accuse them of this is just corny.
AMY GOODMAN: And Arundhati Roy, it is not only of course as you point out these prominent people, but there of thousands of people being arrested in different states in India. If you could talk about the significance of this and what states are particularly being targeted?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, there are scenarios which are complex and different. One is, as I said at that press conference and in my press release, that today in India to be murdered is a crime. To be lynched is a crime. To be poor is a crime. To speak up for the disadvantaged makes you part of a plot to overthrow the government. So you have on the one hand sort of a whole scenario, a landscape, in which there are vigilante mobs who have beaten people to death, who have axed people to death, who put up these videos on YouTube, who do so with impunity, who have been honored and garlanded by ministers for doing so, when they come out of their very short spells in jail, when they come out on bail.
So you have an administration that gives them—it doesn’t itself involve itself in killing, but it has made it very clear that vigilante mobs, cow protection mobs and so on, are not going to be punished. You can imagine in a country like this with the level of unrest, the level of poverty, the level of frustration—because there are no jobs–you can imagine what this kind of immunity creates. I mean yesterday, there was as—impunity, I’m saying.
Yesterday, there was an article in the newspaper saying that 3,000 PhD students and 28,000 graduates applied for jobs as peons in the police department where the qualification was Class IV, you had to have passed up to Class V and you should know how to ride a bicycle. So I’m just giving you an example of the extent of frustration that can spill over into violence, when you say that you have impunity and if you’re not getting a job, you can just beat a Muslim to death—that sort of situation.
Then you have the displacement that I have written about and spoken about on your show many times. Huge areas of the forest cordoned off while the forests are sought to be cleared. Indigenous people being pushed off their lands. The forests are now isolated; lawyers, journalists, activists have been pushed out, so one doesn’t know what is going on.
And now they are going after what they call “urban Maoists” or “urban Naxalites” so that means everybody who disagrees with them, and they don’t want to name indigenous communities or Dalit communities, because unlike the Muslims, they need this what they call votebank. So now you call them Maoists. You don’t name them for what they are. You don’t even give them the dignity of being people fighting for their own rights or their own aspirations, and then you go after them, so you can row these two boats at one time—on the one hand pretend you’re very sensitive to Ambedkar and to Dalit aspiration, while on the other hand undermine them completely and arrest activists, but not call them Dalits, call them Maoists.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: India’s Supreme Court has overturned a law criminalizing consensual gay sex in a major victory for LGBTQI groups. The ruling voids a portion of the Indian Penal Code written by Britain’s colonial government in the 1860s, which although rarely enforced, made sodomy a crime punishable by up to life in prison. Activists are holding celebrations today across India.
UNKNOWN: But today, anymore, from now onwards, we are not criminal. We can live our life as who we are. We are really happy. Thank you, Supreme Court!
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy is our guest today, activist and author, speaking to us from New Delhi, India, author of The God of Small Things as well as her latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Arundhati, your response today?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, what can I say? How badly we needed this. And I think it is a phenomenal judgment coming at this point of time when things are closing down on people.
So I hope it is the beginning of something wonderful. I couldn’t be happier about this.
I hope it is a sign of—it’s a sign of spine also from the Supreme Court. It is a sign of spine, because this is something that is against the grain of the people who rule us today, and it’s a wonderful thing that has happened. Totally wonderful thing, at a time—of course let’s not forget—where people are being beaten to death for what they call love jihad. When you marry or when you have a relationship with someone who’s not of your same—the same caste as you, you can get beheaded. So these are the love laws, which I wrote about in The God of Small Things. This particular moment is a beautiful moment, but I hope it becomes a moment that changes the nature of the way we look at love.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati Roy, as these thousands of people were protesting, are protesting today, this new Supreme Court ruling—
AMY GOODMAN: Celebrating.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —thousands and thousands of people yesterday were marching—workers and peasants were marching in Central Delhi opposing the Modi government. Could you explain what those protests were about and the counterprotests that are taking place in some states today that have been organized by upper-class people?
AMY GOODMAN: The people today of course celebrating the Supreme Court decision.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, not protesting.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, I’m so sorry. My mistake.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah. Well, yesterday, there was a massive march in Delhi. Yeah, there was a wonderful moment of celebration. But yesterday, yes, you’re right, there was a march in which about 100,000 farmers marched from across the country because of the distress in the agricultural sector, absolute distress. We have more than 200,000 farmers who have been in debt, who have committed suicide. You have a situation in which agriculture is being made almost unviable, so farmers are marching, demanding a minimum support price for their crops.
So you have all of this that is closing down on this government, and all of us await the new fireball that will fall on us to distract people from these very real issues that are affecting them in real time. They don’t need—I mean, however much propaganda the media puts out, however many lies are told on certain sections of the mainstream TV channels, the point is, ultimately, people are experiencing this for themselves. They don’t need news anchors to tell them everything is all right. You know? People don’t have jobs. People who were promised a sum of 15 lakhs—I’m not sure what that is in dollars, but it’s a large amount of money—when Modi and Amit Shah campaigned, they said every Indian will get 15 lakhs in their bank account, and instead, what—
AMY GOODMAN: We have to–
ARUNDHATI ROY: —and instead, what you had was the opposite. With demonetization, they just lost everything.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break right now, but we’re going to go back to part two of our discussion with Arundhati Roy, author and activist based in New Delhi, India. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.