No one individual critic has taken on the Indian State like Arundhati Roy has. In a fight that began with Pokhran, moved to Narmada, and over the years extended to other insurgencies, people’s struggles and the Maoist underground, she has used her pensmanship to challenge India’s government, its elite, corporate giants, and most recently, the entire structure of global finance and capitalism. She was jailed for a day in 2002 for contempt of court, and slapped with sedition charges in November 2010 for an alleged anti-India speech she delivered, along with others, at a seminar in New Delhi on Kashmir, titled ‘Azadi—the only way’. Excerpts from an interview to Panini Anand:
How do you look at laws like sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or those like AFSPA, in what is touted as the largest democracy?
I’m glad you used the word touted. It’s a good word to use in connection with India’s democracy. It certainly is a democracy for the middle class. In places like Kashmir or Manipur or Chhattisgarh, democracy is not available. Not even in the black market. Laws like the UAPA, which is just the UPA government’s version of POTA, and the AFSPA are ridiculously authoritarian—they allow the State to detain and even kill people with complete impunity. They simply ought to have no place in a democracy. But as long as they don’t affect the mainstream middle class, as long as they are used against people in Manipur, Nagaland or Kashmir, or against the poor or against Muslim ‘terrorists’ in the ‘mainland’, nobody seems to mind very much.
“India’s democracy is for the middle class; for Kashmir or Manipur, it’s not available. Not even in the black market."
Are the people waging war against the State or is the State waging war against its people? How do you look at the Emergency of the ’70s, or the minorities who feel targeted, earlier the Sikhs and now the Muslims?
Some people are waging war against the State. The State is waging a war against a majority of its citizens. The Emergency in the ’70s became a problem because Indira Gandhi’s government was foolish enough to target the middle class, foolish enough to lump them with the lower classes and the disenfranchised. Vast parts of the country today are in a much more severe Emergency-like situation. But this contemporary Emergency has gone into the workshop for denting-painting. It’s come out smarter, more streamlined. I’ve said this before: look at the wars the Indian government has waged since India became a sovereign nation; look at the instances when the army has been called out against its ‘own’ people—Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Kashmir, Telangana, Goa, Bengal, Punjab and (soon to come) Chhattisgarh—it is a State that is constantly at war. And always against minorities—tribal people, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, never against the middle class, upper-caste Hindus.
How does one curb the cycle of violence if the State takes no action against ultra-left ‘terrorist groups’? Wouldn’t it jeopardise internal security?
I don’t think anybody is advocating that no action should be taken against terrorist groups, not even the ‘terrorists’ themselves. They are not asking for anti-terror laws to be done away with. They are doing what they do, knowing full well what the consequences will be, legally or otherwise. They are expressing fury and fighting for a change in a system that manufactures injustice and inequality. They don’t see themselves as ‘terrorists’. When you say ‘terrorists’ if you are referring to the CPI (Maoist), though I do not subscribe to Maoist ideology, I certainly do not see them as terrorists. Yes they are militant, they are outlaws. But then anybody who resists the corporate-state juggernaut is now labelled a Maoist—whether or not they belong to or even agree with the Maoist ideology. People like Seema Azad are being sentenced to life imprisonment for possessing banned literature. So what is the definition of ‘terrorist’ now, in 2012? It is actually the economic policies that are causing this massive inequality, this hunger, this displacement that is jeopardising internal security—not the people who are protesting against them. Do we want to address the symptoms or the disease? The disease is not terrorism. It’s egregious injustice. Sure, even if we were a reasonably just society, Maoists would still exist. So would other extremist groups who believe in armed resistance or in terrorist attacks. But they would not have the support they have today. As a country, we should be ashamed of ourselves for tolerating this squalor, this misery and the overt as well as covert ethnic and religious bigotry we see all around us. (Narendra Modi for Prime Minister!! Who in their right mind can even imagine that?) We have stopped even pretending that we have a sense of justice. All we’re doing is genuflecting to major corporations and to that sinking ocean-liner known as the United States of America.
Is the State acting like the Orwellian Big Brother, with its tapping of phones, attacks on social networks?
The government has become so brazen about admitting that it is spying on all of us all the time. If it does not see any protest on the horizon, why shouldn’t it? Controlling people is in the nature of all ruling establishments, is it not? While the whole country becomes more and more religious and obscurantist, visiting shrines and temples and masjids and churches in their millions, praying to one god or another to be delivered from their unhappy lives, we are entering the age of robots, where computer-programmed machines will decide everything, will control us entirely—they’ll decide what is ethical and what is not, what collateral damage is acceptable and what is not. Forget religious texts. Computers will decide what’s right and wrong. There are surveillance devices the size of a sandfly that can record our every move. Not in India yet, but coming soon, I’m sure. The UID is another elaborate form of control and surveillance, but people are falling over themselves to get one. The challenge is how to function, how to continue to resist despite this level of mind-games and surveillance.
Why do you feel there’s no mass reaction in the polity to the plight of undertrials in jails, people booked under sedition or towards encounter killings? Are these a non-issue manufactured by few rights groups?
Of course, they are not non-issues. This is a huge issue. Thousands of people are in jail, charged with sedition or under the UAPA, broadly they are either accused of being Maoists or Muslim ‘terrorists’. Shockingly, there are no official figures. All we have to go on is a sense you get from visiting places, from individual rights activists collating information in their separate areas. Torture has become completely acceptable to the government and police establishment. The nhrc came up with a report that mentioned 3,000 custodial deaths last year alone. You ask why there is no mass reaction? Well, because everybody who reacts is jailed! Or threatened or terrorised. Also, between the coopting and divisiveness of ngos and the reality of State repression and surveillance, I don’t know whether mass movements have a future. Yes, we keep looking to the Arab ‘spring’, but look a little harder and you see how even there, people are being manipulated and ‘played’. I think subversion will take precedence over mass resistance in the years to come. And unfortunately, terrorism is an extreme form of subversion.
Without the State invoking laws, an active police, intelligence, even armed forces, won’t we have anarchy?
We will end up in a state of—not anarchy, but war—if we do not address the causes of people’s rising fury. When you make laws that serve the rich, that helps them hold onto their wealth, to amass more and more, then dissent and unlawful activity becomes honourable, does it not? Eventually I’m not at all sure that you can continue to impoverish millions of people, steal their land, their livelihoods, push them into cities, then demolish the slums they live in and push them out again and expect that you can simply stub out their anger with the help of the army and the police and prison terms. But perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe you can. Starve them, jail them, kill them. And call it Globalisation with a Human Face.