In India, the sixth phase of voting has concluded in a highly anticipated parliamentary election that is widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in office. India is the world’s largest democracy with 900 million eligible voters. The final phase of voting will take place on May 19 and vote counting will begin on May 23. Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. His government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims. We speak with world-renowned, award-winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy. She is the author of The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Her new book My Seditious Heart, a collection of her nonfiction writing, will be out next month.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And I’m Nermeen Shaikh. Welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. In India, the sixth phase of voting has concluded in a highly anticipated parliamentary election that is widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in office.
More than 100 million people were eligible to vote in this penultimate phase. India’s election commission reported voter turnout was just over 63%. The turnout in the first five phases averaged 67%, roughly the same as in the 2014 elections that brought Modi to power. India is the world’s largest democracy with 900 million eligible voters. The final phase of voting will take place on May 19th and vote-counting will begin on the 23rd.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Modi’s main opponent in this election is Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party. Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great grandfather have all served as prime minister of India.
AMY GOODMAN: Modi’s government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims.
To talk more about the elections as well as other issues from Kashmir to capitalism to climate change, we are joined by world-renowned, award-winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel The God of Small Things. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2017. A collection of her nonfiction writing titled My Seditious Heart will be out in June.
Arundhati Roy is in New York for the PEN World Voices Festival. She delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on Sunday night at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Arundhati. It’s great to have you here.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So yesterday as you were giving your speech, you were lamenting that you couldn’t be in India, because your city, New Delhi, was voting. Can you explain the six-week-long Indian elections and how you see them as a referendum on the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the six-week-long election of course has to do with the fact that there are 900 million voters and just the logistics of that, dealing with the logistics of that, is cumbersome and difficult. Although I don’t recall elections being strung over such a long period before, so there is more esoteric stuff in that which I don’t want to get into. But there is also a lot of anxiety in India about the election voting machines, the EVMs and so on.
But yeah, it’s a referendum on Modi in a way, because oddly enough, he seems to have—in his sort of desire to project himself, he has not just burned everybody else, but even his own party. So in many places, there are people who are standing for elections who say—who people don’t even know, because they just say, “Never mind who the local person you are voting for is; it’s a vote for Modi.”
Now what does Modi stand for? Of course the core of him is the far-right, Hindu nationalist core. And that core group will remain with him. But in the 2014 elections, he had added another layer, which was the layer of “I am the development prime minister.” The slogan in Hindi was [inaudible] meaning like “development with everybody and for everybody.” So a lot of people sort of forgot about his somewhat gruesome past and voted in the hope that he was going to move India forward economically. And that never happened. He shot the tires off that moving car with demonetization and this tax that you mentioned.
So likely, he is going to lose that second layer that he had put on, the fur coat that he had put on, the business suit that he had put on for the previous elections. And now he is just campaigning brazenly on Hindu nationalism, on national security, on terrorism and all of that. So he is likely going to rally his base but lose the support that actually brought him into power last time.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain, Arundhati, his main rival, Rahul Gandhi? Last night when you spoke at the Apollo Theater, you said that even though you had previously been very critical of the Congress party, you have been impressed with Rahul Gandhi and his campaigning in this election. So could you explain what he stands for, what the Congress party is proposing, and why you think he may actually beat Narendra Modi?
ARUNDHATI ROY: OK, so this is not true that Rahul Gandhi is the main rival. Rahul Gandhi is surely being—I mean, the Congress party is the only other sort of national party, but in fact what has happened is very interesting because the BJP and the Hindu nationalists have the centrifugal force that’s rallying around Modi, and the force that’s against him is actually dispersing into a kind of federalism.
So what is likely to happen is that the Congress will be the glue that holds together a whole lot of regional political parties, who are the ones—especially in let’s say UP, in the biggest, most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, which sends most members to Parliament, which would be crucial for any party to win, the Congress has no presence—literally no presence in UP. It will be regional political parties which will actually eventually defeat Modi and then there will be a coalition which will be held together by the Congress.
But Rahul Gandhi, of course as you said, he comes from the Gandhi family. And the Congress is a party that I myself have written against, when they were in power. Rahul Gandhi was a very sorry figure in the 2014 elections. But I have been very impressed by how—he didn’t really have power. He was not the secretary of the party at the time. Now he is the secretary of the party. And yes, he comes from a kind of entitled political dynasty, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he comes from.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, he is the grandson of Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. So it is a long line of very—I mean, the founders of modern Indian politics in some ways. They did a lot of right and a lot of wrong. And went down. Rahul Gandhi went down. And he has had to fight his way back. In a way, his legacy has been more of a disadvantage in some ways, you know? So I admire anybody who has been able to come back in that way.
He has been able to actually drag the discourse of Hindu nationalism and this cretinized conversation about—if you look at the kind of things that the BJP are saying in campaigning—the members of Parliament, people who are standing—saying things like, “We will shave all the Muslims and force them to become Hindu.” You know, the level of the discourse there. And he, and especially through this manifesto, which is a—which has sort of rolled back what I see also as a troublesome legacy of the previous Congress party, which initially was really very pro-free market, very very pro-privatization, the privatization of education, the destruction of the environment in ways.
And here this manifesto actually talks about the right to education, the right to public education, the right—I mean, it promises a living wage to the bottom 20% of the population. Which you can argue that it’s not revolutionary. But not revolutionary—it is revolutionary for a centrist party. It surely is—that kind of welfare economics. But when you look at the fact that now you’re talking about people are just not even getting enough nutrition, not getting enough to survive, I think at this point of time, I do agree with the idea of a living wage.
The BJP has sort of crashed the earlier Rural Employment Guarantee program. People who are involved in the right to information have been killed—writers, journalists, activists. So there’s something that is dragging that whole cesspit of—pulling it out of the cesspit and at least bringing the conversation back to a sort of sane place. And so this Rahul Gandhi has done, I think, and I admire him for that.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the climate for these elections? It’s mind-blowing that they go on for six weeks. Most people in the world couldn’t understand something like that. But the climate that has been set by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi? And also describe his background.
ARUNDHATI ROY: His background is interesting in the sense that soon after the 9/11 attacks, Modi was appointed the chief minister of a state called Gujarat. Now, whether it had anything to do with the attacks or something to do with the massive earthquake that had really devastated Gujarat, but actually Modi was not a member of the legislative assembly. He was not elected to office in any way. He was just appointed, dropped in as the chief minister. And within months of that, there was what is now known as the Gujarat pogrom, in which approximately 2,000 people were slaughtered in broad daylight on the streets of Gujarat. Within months of that, he called an election and won hands-down.
So after that, there has been no looking back. And quite soon after the Gujarat massacre, the captains of industry as you call them, the big CEOs of the big corporations, had a big meeting in Gujarat, and said that—endorsed him as their future prime ministerial candidate. That was interesting because they saw a man who they could—I think they saw that authoritarian figure as being somebody who could implement the new neoliberal economic policies which were coming up against a lot of protest. And they thought, “Here is a man who can crush these troublesome people.” Not Muslims, necessarily, but everybody who is now protesting displacement and protesting privatization.
So when he came to power, he had the backing of the sort of crazed far right as well as a lot of corporate money. And of course, after he announced the policy of demonetization in which like overnight he just declared—nobody seemed to know, not even his finance secretary or finance minister. He just appeared on TV one night and declared 80% of India’s currency was no longer legal tender. First of all, regardless of what the economic reasons for doing it were, which turned out to be rubbish, but no one in history has ever done something like that. Like I said, it just shot the wheels off, the tires off the cars. The moving car. A moving car. And mysteriously, it completely devastated all other political parties, but the BJP has enhanced its wealth several times over after that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In fact, you have said the BJP has more money than all the other parties put together. So could you talk about the role of money in the election?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, if you look at—now you have to be a rich person to stand for election. You have to have a lot of money. And of course, the corporate support would mean that there are certain corporations like Reliance, which is the biggest one in India, which owns, let’s say, 27 TV channels. So the combination of money, of a complete control on the media, and what used to be a complete control on the social media, which has now been shaken a little bit.
But if I were to sort of try and predict what is going to happen in the elections—the results, which will be out on the 23rd—I would say that no one is going to win. There is going to be a lot of bargaining to form a coalition government. I think it’s likely to be a non-BJP coalition government. But the fact that no one is going to win—
AMY GOODMAN: You go against the polls on that.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the polls might be older. But I think there’s a—yeah, I do go against the polls if those are the polls. Certainly I don’t think they’re going to win. But I just want to say that I think the fact that no one is going to win is a great victory. A great victory. Because it just looked like this juggernaut would just crash through us and stay there for years and years. So for people, other parties, people who have fought without that kind of money, without that kind of media.
And I really—I don’t know how to explain it on an American TV channel, but I want to say that everything about Indian elections, everything is about caste. Like if you came there, you wouldn’t even understand the words and the language in which the analysis is done. And it’s like in Bihar, they won’t understand Kerala. In Karnataka, they won’t understand Bangalore. Because it is all deeply caste-driven.
So what has actually moved against the Modi government—and this is very important because you too are facing a kind of white supremacist regime—the RSS, which is—so yesterday when I spoke, I said liberals and secular people have consistently played down the link between the BJP and the RSS. The RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is a right-wing proto-fascist “cultural guild” as it calls itself, set up in 1925. And the BJP more or less functions as its parliamentarian department. But the RSS makes all the decisions. The prime minister belongs to the RSS. The secretary of the BJP belongs to the RSS. Most of the ministers belong to the RSS. And as I say, it was set up in 1925. Its enemies are declared Muslims, Christians, Hindus. It has always been against the Indian Constitution. It wants India declared a Hindu Republic.
Now against this RSS, which is basically controlled and run by—I mean, the politburo, if you like, of the RSS are Brahmins, a group of Brahmins. And against this, what is going to defeat them is not Rahul Gandhi. It is a different mobilization of the lower castes or the lower castes in brackets, you know. The Dalits. The what is classified as other backward castes. So it’s actually a pretty revolutionary thing, a movement much deeper than elections. But I won’t go on, because I think people won’t understand here what I’m saying.
AMY GOODMAN: And the internationalizing of what you see, the RSS, what they represent? Narendra Modi’s relationship with President Trump and what you see the comparisons are?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, firstly, let me say that it was not only President Trump. Even Obama came there and embraced Modi. Macron came there and embraced Modi. Trump hasn’t come there and embraced Modi, but Modi has come here and embraced Trump. All of it has got to do with business deals.
But below that, the connection between the RSS and very many “alt-right” groups here, there is an ideological convergence, because at the center of it is the idea of Aryan supremacy. And so they, like the far-right groups here, very much admire the caste system as the ancient arbiter of social hierarchy. So there is a lot of dealings and social connection between all of that. A great admiration for the caste system, a great admiration for the fact that human beings are not equal. They were never meant to be equal. So there is a convergence there.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So Arundhati, you are one of six public intellectuals in India who criticized the arrest of WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange in London last month. In a statement, the signatories of the statement called for his immediate release, writing “The journalism WikiLeaks and its Editor-in-Chief stand for is a journalism of outrage–outrage against the injustices and atrocities that take place round the world–but always with an eye to factuality, substantiation, and precision. If the US had charged Assange and Wikileaks for publishing classified material, the legal case would have been no different from charging The New York Times with publishing the Pentagon Papers,” the statement said.
AMY GOODMAN: In Sweden, prosecutors are now reopening an investigation into sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and are seeking his extradition to face the charges in Sweden. The U.S. is also seeking Assange’s extradition over the publication of leaked documents by Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, which showed evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq.
So this latest news that just broke today—many people feel that Sweden has been under enormous pressure to say they have reopened an investigation on sexual assault and rape charges against Assange so that he will also be called back to Sweden and that ultimately, what he is most concerned about is being extradited to the United States. He has said he doesn’t want to be sent to Guantánamo Bay. Why have you gotten involved in this case? And these latest allegations today, do they concern you?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I met Assange a few years ago at the Ecuadorian embassy. I was and am an admirer of WikiLeaks. The trouble is of course that there is a sort of—these issues of sexual assault are separate, in my mind, from the idea of his extradition to the U.S. Now, I don’t know—I am unable to read what this new demand by Sweden is. Is it really to try him for rape, or is it because the U.S. feels it can get him extradited from Sweden easier than it can from England, from London? I don’t know. I don’t know.
But I think it is absolutely right that if you are going to send Julian Assange to Guantánamo Bay, then you are really attacking people who publish news that the world needs to know. Although the charge against him they are trying to say is that he was trying to help and encourage Chelsea Manning to hack into the Pentagon computers, which I think is a flimsy charge.
AMY GOODMAN: Many journalists are deeply concerned about this, because when they are working with a source and a source says, “How do I get this information to you?” it is very difficult when the government says, “You solicited this,” when a source is trying to be protected and trying to figure out the safest way to get information they feel is critical to understanding, in this case, war, Iraq War, Afghanistan War, State Department memos.
ARUNDHATI ROY: It’s outrageous, basically, because what about all of the documents that Snowden leaked? People have published them. Are they going to be put into prison? What about the people who helped Snowdon to escape? Are they going to be put into prison? Where does this end then? So it’s a very serious step. It’s not about Assange. It’s not about whether he’s a nice man or a not-nice man or whether he raped someone or didn’t. If he did, he should be punished for it. That’s a separate matter from this. And we oughtn’t to get into this mess about oh, would it be—is it OK because you like him or you don’t like him. It’s not about him as a person. I don’t know him personally. And if he has indeed raped somebody, he should be punished for that. But that is not the same thing as the WikiLeaks enterprise. And that enterprise concerns us all. All of us.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati, I would like to now turn to another issue, which you also raised in your lecture last night, and that is climate change. Another award-winning Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, has written about climate change in his most recent book titled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh discusses two key publications on climate change that were written in 2015—the Encyclical on Environment and Climate Change by Pope Francis and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ghosh points out several differences in the two texts, writing that the Encyclical doesn’t hesitate to “criticize the prevalent paradigms of our era. Most of all it is fiercely critical of the idea of infinite or unlimited growth.” He goes on to say, quote, “In the text of the Paris Agreement, by contrast, there is not the slightest acknowledgment that something has gone wrong with our dominant paradigms. The current paradigm of perpetual growth is enshrined at the core of the text of the Paris Agreement,” Ghosh writes.
Now during your lecture last night, you said that those most responsible for creating the problem, the problem of climate change “will see to it that they profit from the solution that they propose.” So could you elaborate on that?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the thing is for me, for so many years, people—let’s say in India—have been fighting this very idea of progress, of infinite growth, of this form of development which has resulted now in what we call jobless growth, what everybody knows to be the case. You have nine individuals who own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 500 million. This is what infinite growth has led to—infinite growth for some people.
So I remember years ago, I wrote an essay which ended by saying, “Can we leave the bauxite in the mountain?” Because I think that’s ultimately the question. Can you look at the mountain and not just calculate its mineral worth? Can you understand that a mountain has much more than just the value of the minerals in it? And there is—it’s a civilizational issue, right? That for people who have lived there, have known that mountain, they know it sustains not just the people. It’s not just a question of who is getting displaced. But how does, for example, that bauxite mountain—which stores water and waters the plains all around it, which grows the food, which sustains a whole population—but it’s meant for a corporation that is given the mining contract. It’s just, how much does that bauxite cost? Can we store it and trade it on the futures market?
So this idea that you will never question your idea of progress, you will never question the comfort of the Global North. And by Global North—now and the elite South, and the downtrodden North, you know? It is like what I said, that the elite of the world have all seceded into outer space, and they have a country up there, and they look down and say, “What is our water doing in their rivers, and what’s our timber doing in their forests?”
So there is a psychotic refusal to understand that the survival of the species is connected to the survival of the planet, you know? Because this sort of progress is a kind of church now. It is not amenable to reason. So it is very difficult to know how any real conversation can happen, which is why I said yesterday that the only real conversation that is happening is a conversation in which the language around climate change is being militarized. Because the U.N., underneath every conflict which appears to be a conflict between a tribe and a tribe, or a country and a country, is increasingly climate change, is increasingly the shrinking of resources and people collecting together to claim them and therefore, the growth of this kind of nationalistic or identity or tribal politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you make a connection between the issue of climate change and the issue of the growing inequality in the world? Certainly, it is massive in the United States. And in India, the growing inequality has increased enormously. You have this Oxfam report that just came out revealing billionaire fortunes in India increased by 35% last year as the poorest remain in debt. But that connection, that link of capitalism, between the two?
ARUNDHATI ROY: The connection is just capitalism, isn’t it? I mean, it’s pretty clear now. That any sort of attempt—I will give you a very good example. Like a month or two ago, the Supreme Court of India, based on a case that a wildlife NGO had filed, said that two million indigenous people should be evicted from their forest homes with immediate effect. Why? Because that forest needs to be preserved as a sanctuary. But when, for the last 25 years, people were fighting against projects which were decimating millions of hectares and acres of forest, nobody cared. And it was the same people that were being displaced. Then it was for progress; now it is for conservation. But it is always the same people who have to pay the price.
And when you are talking about evicting two million of the poorest people, stripping them of everything they ever had, there is little outrage. When the Congress party announced that it is going to have a scheme in which 20% of the poorest people will get a living wage, everyone just exploded. Like, how can you think of doing this? Because it strikes at the core of unregulated capitalism. Any sense of talk of equality or justice seems to just have the same effect that blasphemy has in religious societies. That is what capitalism has become—a form of religion that will brook no questioning.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, “Democracynow.org”:https://www.democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest for the hour, Arundhati Roy, the winner of the Booker Prize for her first novel The God of Small Things. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was long-listed for that same prize in 2017. Now, a collection of her nonfiction writing is coming out called My Seditious Heart. It is over a thousand pages and will be out in June. Last night, you gave an impassioned address at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. The address that you gave was called the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, and you titled it “A Place for Literature.” Can you share a little of it with us?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Sure. As the ice caps melt, as oceans heat up and water tables plunge, as we rip through the delicate web of interdependence that sustains life on earth, as our formidable intelligence leads us to breach the boundaries between humans and machines and our even more formidable hubris undermines our ability to connect the survival of our planet to our survival as a species, as we replace art with algorithms and stare into a future in which most human beings may not be needed to participate in or be remunerated for economic activity, at just such a time we have the steady hands of white supremacists in the White House, new imperialists in China and neo-Nazis once again massing on the streets of Europe, Hindu nationalists in India, and a host of butcher princes and lesser dictators in other countries to guide us into the unknown.
While many of us dreamt that another world is possible, these folks were dreaming, too. And it is their dream, our nightmare, that is perilously close to being realized. Capitalism’s gratuitous wars and sanctioned greed have jeopardized the planet and filled it with refugees. Much of the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the government of the United States. Seventeen years after invading Afghanistan, after bombing it into the Stone Age with the sole aim of toppling the Taliban, the U.S. government is back in talks with the very same Taliban. In the interim, it has destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to war and sanctions. A whole region has descended into chaos, ancient cities pounded into dust.
Amidst the desolation and the rubble, a monstrosity called Daesh, ISIS, has been spawned. It has spread across the world, indiscriminately murdering ordinary people who had absolutely nothing to do with America’s wars. Over these last few years, given the wars it has waged and the international treaties it has arbitrarily reneged on, the U.S. government perfectly fits its own definition of a rogue state. And now resorting to the same old scare tactics, the same tired falsehoods and the same old fake news about nuclear weapons, it is gearing up to bomb Iran. That will be the biggest mistake it has ever made.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you, Arundhati, for reading from your lecture last night at the Apollo. Could you say a little bit more about—I mean, as the writer of two beautiful novels as well as literally hundreds and hundreds of literary nonfiction, what you see as the role of literature in this context? You referred to it, in fact, in that same lecture, this context, as a blitzkrieg of idiocy. And the other point you made about literature being essential, fiction being essential to saying what cannot in any other context be said? And you cited Kashmir.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, yes, I cited Kashmir, and I cited James Baldwin, who says that “and they wouldn’t believe me, precisely because they knew that what I was saying was true.” So basically, I think—to me, the reason—I wonder sometimes, in this age of so much WhatsApp and video and Netflix and movies and living in a country where so many people are either semi-literate or illiterate, why is it that a certain kind of writing, like say my essays and even my books now, they are translated—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Your novels.
ARUNDHATI ROY: —my novels—spontaneously into so many languages. Into 51 languages in the case of The Ministry. Many Indian languages. When I go to speak in places like anywhere in India, literally thousands show up. Why? Not because I am some superstar, but because everybody is looking to understand what is happening at this moment, when really the era that we think we know and understand is coming to an end. And this is the simplest way of saying a complicated thing, you know? Literature is.
And I feel that the radical understanding now has to come from not thinking of climate— “Oh, I’m a specialist in climate change”; “I’m a specialist in river valleys”; “I’m a specialist on Kashmir”; “I’m a specialist—.” You know, this kind of compartmentalization is actually reducing the real problem that we have. Because now you have to understand there’s a connection between caste and climate change and capitalism and nationalism and internationalism. And I think this is where literature and a way of grappling with history as a kind of supple narrative is important.
AMY GOODMAN: Telling truths, as you quote James Baldwin, saying it is easier to often tell those truths in fiction rather than nonfiction. Which is your preferred way of writing? As we move into your next book coming out in June—1,000 pages of your nonfiction essays.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, as I said in my lecture yesterday, people—apart from which is my preferred way, other people have their preferred forms of my writing. But to me, they are both part of my body. They are both part of the way I think. And I would only say that the nonfiction that I have written has always been an urgent intervention. And together, somehow when I looked at it together, the urgency put together over 20 years creates a special kind of narrative, a special kind of history. Because even the nonfiction I see when I read it—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
ARUNDHATI ROY: —I’m always telling stories.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue with part two of our conversation with Arundhati Roy, the award-winning writer. The winner of the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of Small Things. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, you must also read. Now, a collection of her non-fiction writing titled My Seditious Heart will be out in June. Arundhati, I wanted to begin by asking you about Kashmir. It’s not an issue that’s covered very much in the United States at all. I mean, after all, it doesn’t have…
ARUNDHATI ROY: There’s no oil there. [laugh]
AMY GOODMAN: … Trump in the title. And mainly he hasn’t spoken about it very much, so whatever Trump talks about, that has the red carpet rolled out at every network, and you hear it over and over again. But you see Kashmir as a global flashpoint. Explain what’s happening there.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, let’s put it simply–that in April, India and Pakistan became the first nuclear-armed countries ever in history to bomb each other. So that should be enough reason for everybody to sit up and pay attention.
AMY GOODMAN: Quickly explain that, when India and Pakistan got bombed.
ARUNDHATI ROY: So basically Kashmir is a place which was an independent kingdom of its own before Partition and before both Pakistan and India claimed it while the majority of Kashmiris–the Kashmir Valley, anyway–are calling for independence and have been for many years. It’s the most densely occupied military zone in the world. And in February, in fact on the 14th of February, there was a devastating terrorist attack by a local Kashmiri boy on an Indian security forces convoy, following which Modi ordered these surgical strikes, and then the Pakistanis came back and bombed India.
And it was all a bit of posturing on both sides, but the point is these are very, very–and Kashmir is just–as we spoke about earlier, Kashmir is a situation in which anything can happen at any time. It’s like a pressure cooker. More and more young people are joining the militancy. And because of the political situation in India with the rise of Hindu nationalism, it’s constantly being used as a way of getting the Hindu vote together–quote unquote–the Hindu vote together. So it’s a cauldron in which anything can happen, and a very, very vicious media environment in India, where you have these 24-hour news channels just screaming nationalism, who have no sense of what is factual, what is not, and so on. So it needs to be flipped around. Kashmir needs to become a buffer zone between two nuclear powers, not a flashpoint.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the largest number of Kashmiris of course want neither to be part of Pakistan nor to be part of India, though this is rarely the perspective that’s represented in the media in either country. Could you talk a little bit about that? And also about the Pulwama attack. You said it was a local Kashmiri boy. Now, was that local Kashmiri boy part of Jaish-e-Mohammed?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s what the whatever was put out said. One doesn’t know now. I don’t even know what is Jaish-e-Mohammed anymore. Because the situation in Kashmir is that there are real terror groups, there are fake terror groups, there are penetrator terror groups. There was a massive intelligence failure, which even the governor of Kashmir spoke about. And then suddenly everyone went quiet. Modi started campaigning using the pictures of the dead security forces, which was so terrible. And there’s absolutely no talk about the intelligence failure. How could it happen? How could so much RDX be smuggled in when people are just–people are stopped and checked while they’re going to buy milk? How did this happen? The convoy–the route of the convoy is always protected.
There were many, many serious intelligence inputs saying that an attack is expected, and it happened. There’s a clip of the army chief being asked by the media before the attack, saying, “There’s an attack that has been flagged. What do you have to say about it?” And he says [inaudible]–“Let them do it. We’ll see.” And suddenly everyone has disappeared. Any kind of inquiry about what actually happened has been muted. And this has been used as an election campaign.
Also many of us, including me, in writing, in an article published in HuffPost said, months before, that this is something that is going to happen before the elections. So it’s a bit terrifying, the symmetry and the narrative convenience of it all. So yeah, that is–Pulwama is a really big question mark, which we need to understand what actually happened. Because Kashmir, historically, there have been many, many false flag attacks. The killers of the Chittisinghpura massacre were then killed by the army and later they were recognized to be just local people who had been rounded up, put into militant outfits, and then burned. Then their fresh clothes had been put on the burned bodies, and then later it was discovered from DNA tests that they were just local people rounded up and killed. So it’s a very, very deep game. That’s why I say that only fiction can tell the truth about Kashmir.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about nonfiction, and this epic book that is being published at the beginning of June called My Seditious Heart. Why did you call it My Seditious Heart?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, one of the last essays in it was called My Seditious Heart. And really I think if there is a theme running through it, it’s really questioning the idea of the nation. Not just in terms of security, but also in terms of–you know, like the essay on the big dam in the Narmada, it says, “Who owns the rivers, the forests, the fish?” These are huge debates. And also because I’m constantly being accused of sedition, of anti-nationalism and so on. So –
AMY GOODMAN: To correct it My Seditious Heart.
ARUNDHATI ROY: My Seditious Heart. Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And so talk about the essays in this book, that go back decades.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah. Well, actually the first essays are in the appendix, because those essays were written before I became the famous Arundhati Roy. Those essays were two called “The Great Indian Rape-Trick” and they were essays I wrote after watching this film called Bandit Queen which was about Phoolan Devi, the famous female bandit in India, who in the essays I say she was India’s most famous bandit who was turned into history’s most famous victim of rape. Because the whole thing was just this voyeuristic rape saga of this extraordinary woman. But that’s in the appendix.
But the first essay in the book is “The End of Imagination,” which was my response to India’s nuclear tests. My response to the fact–there’s an obsession with language, I think, in my writing, and that is I felt that–I do feel that those nuclear tests changed the public language of India. It changed the way we are allowed to speak in public. That started then. This whole nationalist hyper-nationalist, hyper-virile, hyper-Hindi nationalist rhetoric which happened in some quarters, but suddenly it became sanctioned public speech, started from there.
So I of course just won the Booker, and I was the sort of darling of the media, and I was being placed on the high table as an offering from this aggressive new India. You know, we have Miss World, Miss Universe., Miss Booker Prize, and now we even have nuclear bombs. And I just stepped off the table and wrote that. Which then–it immediately sort of created a strange schism where there was one section of people who just couldn’t believe–I mean, “How dare she do this?” That was the beginning of the view of me as a seditious anti-national person, which I have no problems with. And on the other hand –
AMY GOODMAN: Anti-national became anti-bomb. Anti-nuclear bomb was anti-national.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, now it’s all put together. So then after that, it just began this long journey into the heart of rebellion in India. A long quest for understanding the place that I live in, very deeply. That was what followed. So “The Greater Common Good” about the building of dams, which led to a deep–to me, that was the foundation, really, of my political understanding. That essay, those people that I met and spoke with. And then India was being–everything was being privatized. The new markets were opening. Mining. So the journey from these nonviolent protests deep into the heart of walking with the comrades inside the forest with the Maoist guerrillas, also protesting about the same thing–protecting the forests and so on. And then–well then a lot about 9/11, about the American wars.
But the longest essay in the book, perhaps the most academic and heavily footnoted and one of the deadliest essays, is “The Doctor and the Saint” which is about the debate between the iconic Dalit leader in India, B.R. Ambedkar, who was Gandhi’s greatest antagonist, and it was initially written as an introduction to his iconic essay, called “Annihilation of Caste,” which Gandhi responded to. So I wrote this piece–which is now a book also, but it’s also in My Seditious Heart–called “The Doctor and the Saint” about the debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi. And it sort of connects the whole debate on race–race in South Africa, particularly–and caste in India. And also the inability of the left, both–I mean, it doesn’t deal with the left here that much, but over there–that is true even in The God of Small Things–of the left’s inability to understand what is at the heart–the engine that runs India, which is caste.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati, in the first part of our interview, you talked about the era that we know is coming to an end. So could you explain what you mean by that and the significance of this collection coming out in that moment?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah, well the essay–the book is not coming out because the era that we know is coming to an end. It just happens to be…
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Coinciding with –
ARUNDHATI ROY: … coinciding with–but I do feel that–as we have read now, you’re really rushing towards extinction. Just yesterday, there was a report about more than a million species…
AMY GOODMAN: Going extinct.
ARUNDHATI ROY: … going extinct. That just over the last 30 years, you have had such an accelerated form of mammals disappearing. The understanding of–like I call it the understanding–the connection between insects, mammals, the acidity in the ocean, corals, fish, water in rivers, forests, rain. You can develop artificial intelligence, but you can’t understand these basic things, which are just–you can’t understand the connection between the planet you live on and your place in the web of life.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, as we wrap up, you said in your speech, “Over these last few years, given the wars it has waged, the international treaties it has arbitrarily reneged on, the U.S. government perfectly fits its own definition of a rogue state. And now resorting to the same old tactics, the same tired falsehoods and the same old fake news about nuclear weapons, it’s gearing up to bomb Iran. That will be the biggest mistake it has ever made.” Your thoughts on what’s happening now with Iran? As we speak, Secretary of State Pompeo has cancelled a trip to Russia to go to Brussels to push European leaders on increasing the stranglehold, the isolation of Iran.
ARUNDHATI ROY: It’s just–I have no words to even begin to address the ridiculousness of this. Of course, Iran has been a country that has historically stood against the U.S. Because I mean, in 1953, its democratic government was overthrown by the–in a coup by the CIA. But to destroy one of the last countries which is standing in that region, to accuse it of having nuclear weapons when Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons which no one is supposed to talk about–Iran, the Persians, are just not going to be pushed over in this way. It is going to result in a kind of disaster that I don’t think anybody can even imagine. So I would just say that everybody in the U.S., from the soldiers to the TV stations to the media to people on the street, should just beg their country or force their country or stop work to say–for their own sake; not for Iran’s sake–for their own sake–not for some missionary altruistic reason–“Please don’t do this.”
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