Rush transcript of the Democracy Now! programme
Amy Goodman: Today, we spend the hour with acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997. It’s sold over six million copies, has been translated in over 20 languages around the world. Since then, Roy has devoted herself to political writing and activism. In India, she is involved in the movement opposing hydroelectric dam projects that have displaced thousands of people. In 2002, she was convicted of contempt of court in New Delhi for accusing the court of attempting to silence protest against the Narmada Dam project. She received a symbolic one-day prison sentence. She has also been a vocal opponent of the Indian government's nuclear weapons program, as she is of all nuclear programs around the world. Arundhati Roy has also become known across the globe for her powerful political essays in books like Power Politics, War Talk, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, and her latest, An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire. In June of 2005, she served as chair of the Jury of Conscience at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. She joins us today in our Firehouse studio for the hour here in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!
Arundhati Roy: Thank you, Amy.
Amy Goodman: It's good to have you with us. What does it feel to be back in the United States? A different perspective on the world from here.
Arundhati Roy: Well, I think the last time I was here was just before the elections, you know, when we were hoping that Bush wouldn't come back. But the point was that whoever came back seemed to have been supporting the war in Iraq in some way, so there was a crisis of democracy here, as much as anywhere else in the world. It's, I think, you know, when you don't come to the United States often, from the outside, the most important thing is that it's easy to forget. It's easy for us to forget that there is dissent within this country against the system that its government stands for. And it's important and heartening for me to remind myself of that, because outside there is so much anger against America, and obviously, you know, that confusion between people and governments exists, and it was enhanced when Bush was voted back to power. People started saying, "Is there a difference?"
Amy Goodman: Well, of course, the way you see America and Americans outside the United States is through the media, as projected through. Which channels do you access in India? What do you get to see? And what do you think of how the media deals with these issues?
Arundhati Roy: Well, in India, I think you get FOX News and CNN and, of course, the BBC. But also a lot of newspapers in India do publish American columnists, famously Thomas Friedman. And, of course, recently George Bush visited India, which was a humiliating and very funny episode at the same time, you know, what happened to him there and how he came and how the media reacted.
Amy Goodman: I want to get your reaction to that visit, and actually first, though, play a clip of President Bush when he went to India in March. He promised to increase economic integration with the U.S. and signed an agreement to foster nuclear cooperation between the two countries..
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We concluded an historic agreement today on nuclear power. It's not an easy job for the Prime Minister to achieve this agreement. I understand. It's not easy for the American president to achieve this agreement, but it's a necessary agreement. It's one that will help both our peoples.
Amy Goodman: President Bush in India.
Arundhati Roy: Well, the strange thing was that before he came, they wanted him to address a joint house of Parliament, but some members of Parliament said that they would heckle him and that it would be embarrassing for him to come there. So then they thought they would ask him to address a public meeting at the Red Fort, which is in Old Delhi, which is where the Prime Minister of India always gives his independence day speech from, but that was considered unsafe, because Old Delhi is full of Muslims, and you know how they think of all Muslims as terrorists. So then they thought, "Okay, we’ll do it in Vigyan Bhawan, which is a sort of state auditorium, but that was considered too much of a comedown for the U.S. President. So funnily enough, they eventually settled on him speaking in Purana Qila, which is the Old Fort, which houses the Delhi zoo. And it was really from there that -- and, of course, it wasn't a public meeting. It was the caged animals and some caged CEOs that he addressed. And then he went to Hyderabad, and I think he met a buffalo there, some special kind of buffalo, because there is a picture of Bush and the buffalo in all the papers, but the point is that, insulated from the public.
There were massive demonstrations, where hundreds of thousands of people showed up. But it didn't seem to matter either to Bush or to the Indian government, which went ahead and signed, you know, deals where this kind of embrace between a poorer country or a developing country and America. We have such a litany of the history of incineration when you embrace the government of the United States. And that's what happened, that the Indian government, in full servile mode, has entered into this embrace, has negotiated itself into a corner, and now continues to do this deadly sort of dance.
But I must say that while Bush was in Delhi, at the same time on the streets were -- I mean apart from the protests, there were 60 widows that had come from Kerala, which is the south of India, which is where I come from, and they had come to Delhi because they were 60 out of the tens of thousands of widows of farmers who have committed suicide, because they have been encircled by debt. And this is a fact that is simply not reported, partly because there are no official figures, partly because the Indian government quibbles about what constitutes suicide and what is a farmer. If a man commits suicide, but the land is in his old father's name, he doesn't count. If it's a woman, she doesn't count, because women can't be farmers.
Amy Goodman: So she counts as someone who committed suicide, but not as a farmer who committed suicide.
Arundhati Roy: Exactly.
Amy Goodman: Tens of thousands?
Arundhati Roy: Tens of thousands. And then, anyway, so these 60 women were there on the street asking the Indian government to write off the debts of their husbands, right? Across the street from them, in a five-star hotel were Bush's 16 sniffer dogs who were staying in this five-star hotel, and we were all told that you can't call them dogs, because they are actually officers of the American Army, you know. I don't know what the names were. Sergeant Pepper and Corporal Whatever. So, it wasn't even possible to be satirical or write black comedy, because it was all real.
Amy Goodman: Didn't President Bush visit Gandhi's grave?
Arundhati Roy: He visited Gandhi's grave, and first his dogs visited Gandhi’s grave. Then, you know, Gandhians were, like, wanting to purify it. And I said, "Look, I don't mind the dogs. I mind Bush much than the dogs." But Gandhi’s -- you know, obviously one can have all kinds of opinions about Gandhi. It's not universal that everybody adores and loves him, but still he stood for nonviolence, and here it was really the equivalent of a butcher coming and tipping a pot of blood on that memorial and going away. It was -- you know, there was no room left, as I said, for satire or for anything, because it was so vulgar, the whole of it. But I have to say the Indian mainstream media was so servile. You know, you had a newspaper like the Indian Express saying, "He is here, and he has spoken." I'm sure he doesn't get worshipped that much even by the American mainstream press, you know. It was extraordinary.
Amy Goodman: Let me play another clip of President Bush. I think in this one he’s talking about trade in India.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The markets are open, and the poor are given a chance to develop their talents and abilities. They can create a better life for their families. They add to the wealth of the world, and they could begin to afford goods and services from other nations. Free and fair trade is good for India. It’s good for America. And it is good for the world.
In my country, some focus only on one aspect of our trade relationship with India: outsourcing. It's true that some Americans have lost jobs when their companies move operations overseas. It's also important to remember that when someone loses a job, it's an incredibly difficult period for the worker and their families. Some people believe the answer to this problem is to wall off our economy from the world through protectionist policies. I strongly disagree.
Amy Goodman: President Bush speaking in India. Arundhati Roy, your response?
Arundhati Roy: Well, look, let's not forget that this whole call to the free market started in the late 19th century in India. You know, that was what colonialism was all about. They kept using the words "free market." And we know how free the free market is. Today, India has -- I mean, after 15 years of economic liberalization, we have more than half of the world's malnutritioned children. We have an economy where the differences between the rich and the poor, which have always been huge, has increased enormously. We have a feudal society whose feudalism has just been reinforced by all of this.
And, you know, it's amazing. Just in the wake of Bush's visit, you can't imagine what's happening, say, in a city like Delhi. You can't imagine the open aggression of institutions of our democracy. It's really like courts, for instance, who are an old enemy of mine, are rolling up their sleeves and coming after us. You have in Delhi, for example -- I have just come from being on the streets for six weeks, where all kinds of protest are taking place. But you have a city that's been just -- it's just turned into a city of bulldozers and policemen. Overnight, notices go up saying tomorrow or day after tomorrow you're going to be evicted from here. The Supreme Court judges have come out saying things like, "If the poor can't afford to live in the city, why do they come here?"
And basically, behind it all, there are two facades. One is that in 2008, Delhi is going to host the Commonwealth Games. For this, hundreds of thousands of people are being driven out of the city. But the real agenda came in the wake of Bush's visit, which is that the city is being prepared for foreign direct investment in retail, which means Wal-Mart and Kmart and all these people are going to come in, which means that this city of millions of pavement dwellers, hawkers, fruit sellers, people who have -- it's a city that's grown up over centuries and centuries. It's just being cleaned out under the guise of sort of legal action. And at the same time, people from villages are being driven out of their villages, because of the corporatization of agriculture, because of these big development projects.
So you have an institution like -- you know, I mean, how do you subvert democracy? We have a parliament, sure. We have elections, sure. But we have a supreme court now that micromanages our lives. It takes every decision: What should be in history books? Should this lamb be cured? Should this road be widened? What gas should we use? Every single decision is now taken by a court. You can't criticize the court. If you do, you will go to jail, like I did. So, you have judges who are -- you have to read those judgments to believe it, you know? Public interest litigation has become a weapon that judges use against us.
So, for example, a former chief justice of India, he gave a decision allowing the Narmada Dam to be built, where 400,000 people will be displaced. The same judge gave a judgment saying slum dwellers are pickpockets of urban land. So you displace people from the villages; they come into the cities; you call them pickpockets. He gave a judgment shutting down all kinds of informal industry in Delhi. Than he gave a judgment asking for all India's rivers to be linked, which is a Stalinist scheme beyond imagination, where millions of people will be displaced. And when he retired, he joined Coca-Cola. You know, it's incredible.
Amy Goodman: Arundhati Roy is our guest for the hour. We’ll be back with her in a minute.
Amy Goodman: Our guest today for the hour is Arundhati Roy. She just recently flew in from New Delhi, India. She is the author of a number of books, her Booker Prize award-winning book, The God of Small Things, and then her books of essays, The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile among them. Arundhati, you were just talking about what is happening in India. Thomas Friedman, the well-known, much-read New York Times columnist and author, talks about the call center being a perfect symbol of globalization in a very positive sense.
Arundhati Roy: Yes, it is the perfect symbol, I think, in many ways. I wish Friedman would spend some time working in one. But I think it's a very interesting issue, the call center, because, you know, let's not get into the psychosis that takes place inside a call center, the fact that you have people working, you know, according to a different body clock and all that and the languages and the fact that you have to de-identify yourself.
Amy Goodman: And just for people who aren't familiar with what we're talking about, the call center being places where, well, you might make a call to information or to some corporation, you actually are making that call to India, and someone in a call center is picking it up.
Arundhati Roy: But, you know, the thing is that it's a good example of what's going on. The call center is surely creating jobs for a whole lot of people in India. But it comes as part of a package, and that package, while it gives sort of an English-speaking middle or lower middle class young person a job for a while, they can never last, because it's such a hard job. It actually is also part of the corporate culture, which is taking away land and resources and water from millions of rural people. But you're giving the more vocal and the better off anyway -- the people who speak even a little bit of English are the better off among the millions of people in India. So, to give these people jobs, you're taking away the livelihoods of millions of others, and this is what globalization does.
It creates -- obviously it creates a very vocal constituency that supports it, among the elite of poor countries. And so you have in India an elite, an upper caste, upper class wealthy elite who are fiercely loyal to the neoliberal program. And that's exactly, obviously, what colonialism has always done, and it's exactly what happened in countries in Latin America. But now it's happening in India, and the rhetoric of democracies in place, because they have learned how to hollow out democracy and make it lose meaning. All it means, it seems, is elections, where whoever you vote for, they are going to do the same thing.
Amy Goodman: You mentioned the dams, and a judge just in the last week has ruled that one of the major dam projects is allowed to continue. Just physically on the ground, what does it mean, and who are the people who are resisting, and what do they do?
Arundhati Roy: I mean, that actually is something that reached fever pitch in the last few weeks in India, because, you know, the movement against dams is actually a very beautiful political argument, because it combines environmental issues, issues of water, of resources and of displacement, with a political vision for a new kind of society. No political ideology, classic political ideology has really done that properly. Either it's only environmental or it's only about people. Here somehow, that's why I got so drawn into it. But this struggle was against the notion of big dams, and it's been a nonviolent struggle for 25 years.
But now, the dams are still being built, and the argument has been reduced merely to displacement. And even there, the courts are now saying you build a dam and just give people cash and send them off. But the fact is that these are indigenous people. You know, you can't just give -- lots of them are indigenous people. The others are farmers. But you can't -- the levels of displacement are so huge. This dam, the Sardar Sarovar dam displaces 400,000, but just in the Narmada Valley you're talking about millions of people. All over India, you’re talking about many millions who are being displaced. So where are they going to go? Well, the court came out with a judgment with marked a different era in India, where they even stopped pretending that they were interested in resettlement or rehabilitation. They just said, "Build the dam." So it's very interesting that people were watching this nonviolent movement unfold its weapons on the streets, which is the activists who went on indefinite hunger strike. People paid attention, but then they got kicked in the teeth.
Meanwhile, across India, from West Bengal to Orissa, to Jharkhand, to Chhattisgarh, to Andhra Pradesh, the Maoist movement has become very, very strong. It's an armed struggle. It's taking over district after district. The administration cannot get in there. And the government's response to that is to do what was done in Peru with the Shining Path, which is to set up armed defense committees, which is really creating a situation of civil war. You know, hundreds of villages are being emptied by the government, and the people are being moved into police camps. People are being armed. The Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh says, "You’re either with the Maoists and Naxalites or you’re with the Salva Judum," which is this government-sponsored resistance, and there’s no third choice.