Indian democracy in a state of emergency: Arundhati Roy
Posted by Admin on October 26, 2009
In her latest series of essays, Arundhati Roy sounds deeply dismissive of the Indian democracy and perhaps supportive of the Maoist struggle. Why does she take these positions? That’s the key issue explore today with Arundhati Roy.
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Kiran Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil’s Advocate. In her latest series of essays, Arundhati Roy sounds deeply dismissive of the Indian democracy and perhaps supportive of the Maoist struggle. Why does she take these positions? That’s the key issue I shall explore today with Arundhati Roy.
Let’s start with your cynical view of Indian democracy. In your essays, you say the ‘Beacon is fading,’ you say it’s being hollowed out and emptied of meaning, you say that Indian democracy no longer can be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we dreamt it would. Why have you come to this conclusion?
Arundhati Roy: It is pretty obvious that in the last 60 years of our democracy what we have is a situation in which the poor are getting poorer and poorer, the rich are getting richer. I am not suggesting by this that we should go back to some older form of discredited despotic or colonial regime. I am trying to analyse what is the problem with democracy now. Why are the institutions of our democracy – the courts, media and Parliament – letting the people down? In a democracy, they are meant to act as checks and balances but actually they are serving as a cover to be as undemocratic as possible.
Karan Thapar: So you are suggesting two important things. Firstly, you are saying that the institutions of democracy have actually failed to act as checks and secondly, you are saying that the poor, who I presume are the vast majority of India, are not benefiting from Indian democracy sufficiently.
Arundhati Roy: Of course they have protection but the fact is that we are now in a situation of emergency. The human developmental index shows that more than 80 per cent of the people of India are living in conditions of extreme poverty. We have the world’s most malnutritioned children. The Dalits and the Adivasis are living in conditions of famine by any world indicators when more than 50 per cent of them are malnutritioned.
Karan Thapar: So the state of India’s dispossessed and poor is proof that Indian democracy has failed?
Arundhati Roy: It’s proving that there is a structural violence. Mahasweta Devi (Magsaysay Award-winner Bengali novelist) said a few years ago in Frankfurt about the Indian democracy as a tapestry with parts of it as silken and parts of it tattered but it all holds together. Now, what has happened is that the silken parts have sequined and the tattered parts are torn and the poor are falling in. And the Indian state is following them with guns, with helicopter gunships. We are in crisis. We have an ecological crisis.
Karan Thapar: Let’s pick up the issue of the poor that they are actually falling through the holes in the tapestry. How do you view the NREGA which was specifically designed to give relief and succour to the very poorest of the poor. Don’t you believe that it has been effective?
Arundhati Roy: It’s important, it’s effectiveness is debatable. It is also working as a honeypot around which corrupt people have flocked and have tried their best to prevent it.
Karan Thapar: Are the failings so great that they undermine the essential core of NREGA?
Arundhati Roy: No, I am not critical of the Employment Guarantee Act but what I am saying is that it was passed in order to mitigate a structural dispossession that was going on. So we shouldn’t confuse that mitigation with the structural problem.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that structurally Indian democracy works to the disadvantage of the poor?
Arundhati Roy: What I have said is that democracy has become fused with free-market capitalism. And it is this that has made a serious erosion and hollowed up these institutions. So if you look at the Supreme Court or if you look at the corporate media or ministers, Parliamentarians and MPs have interests in shares and what is going on, if you look at the massive levels of corruption, what we are looking at is a very structural problem.
Karan Thapar: Would you be happier if instead of fusing with a free market economic system Indian democracy had fused with socialist system? In other words, what I am questioning is that is it the ideology that you bring to this issue that actually determines your conclusion about democracy?
Arundhati Roy: Socialism has had its problems too. I am not a supporter of Stalinism nor am I a person who is totally uncritical of what happened in China or the Soviet Union, so I am not talking about merely ideologically, but certainly socialism has a language of justice that capitalism does not have.
Karan Thapar: Doesn’t capitalism actually produce higher living standards overall for people, doesn’t it guarantee to them the liberties of individuality which gets suppressed, are you not ignoring all of that?
Arundhati Roy: It guarantees a higher living standards for a few at the cost of the many. And that’s the situation we find ourselves in a country where we have more and more billionaires and a large vast portion of people who are dispossessed, who are homeless, who are being cutoff from their resources.
Karan Thapar: Can I ask you a blunt question? Sixty years after Indian democracy came into being, do you believe that India’s poor and dispossessed have benefited?
Arundhati Roy: No, I don’t. I believe that they have some security and some more than others. We in Delhi have democracy where as in the jungles of Dantewada, they don’t have democracy.
Karan Thapar: You are saying that a vast majority of the poor have not benefited?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t think that it is that simple. For example, the Dalit issue. There is a form of representation that is going on yet the people that have fallen through the hole, people I am talking about who do not have representation, the people who are malnutritioned, who are living in conditions of famine and now the Army is being called out against them.
Karan Thapar: I am not sure whether you can say that the Army is being called out against them, but let me quote to you a critic of your essay, Harsh Mander, in particular a critic of your ‘dismissal’ of democracy …
Arundhati Roy: Dismissal, please is not the word.
Karan Thapar: Cynicism?
Arundhati Roy: Neither cynicism.
Karan Thapar: Sort of questioning?
Arundhati Roy: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you. “With all its failings and betrayals, the guarantees contained in India’s secular democratic Constitution have made a significant difference to the lives of its dispossessed people. They would have been even poorer than they are now, more insecure, more oppressed without democracy. Of this, I am convinced.” You are radically disagreeing with someone like Harsh Mander?
Arundhati Roy: I am sorry to say but this is a silly point because it suggests that what I am saying is we shouldn’t have democracy, we should have some other old discredited authoritarian system. It is not.
Karan Thapar: I am not sure if he is suggesting that. He is suggesting that your questioning is unjustified, that you are finding flaws where they don’t exist.
Arundhati Roy: Come on. Look at the human development index and what it is saying. My point is that there are problems in our system and we need to face them.
Karan Thapar: What would have produced a better human index for India?
Arundhati Roy: For example when some keep repeating the word ‘democracy’, they are refusing to see the fact that what I am saying is that the fusion of corporate globalisation and democracy has created this situation. A system in which you don’t have the free-market policies.
Karan Thapar: So what policies would you want, socialist policies?
Arundhati Roy: No, a different policy. Come on! Do you want me to give you a manifesto right here?
Karan Thapar: I suspect that it’s your ideological aversion to the free market that has conditioned your suspicion or your questioning of democracy.
Arundhati Roy: Well, you are right because I do have an ideological aversion to the free market and its fusion with democracy has corrupted what democracy was meant to me. But when you are saying what’s your solution, it is that we have to look. You know it has taken years and years of decision making of corruption, of injustice, refusing to look at the problems saying we would have been much better or we would have been much worse of it if it was somewhere else, so let’s not critique what is going on now. My thing is that everytime something happens, for example, if you just give me two minutes I would like to say it that we call ourselves a democracy but as a society we tolerate the 68,000 dead in Kashmir, we tolerate deeply undemocratic laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, we had the Sikh genocide and what happened in Gujarat, all of these things I question.
Karan Thapar: And the Prime Minister apologised for what happened to the Sikhs, Sonia Gandhi visited the Golden Temple.
Arundhati Roy: Would it be enough for you Karan, if someone killed your parents and raped your wife and the Prime Minister apologises?
Karan Thapar: The Chinese haven’t apologised for the Tiananmen Square.
Arundhati Roy: It doesn’t matter. The point is when we accept these kinds of injustices and absorb them and the Government thinks by apologising or dissimulating it’s over, but they all settle in us like toxins and we become a pretty barbaric society.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that the weight of all that has gone wrong in 60 years is now sinking us?
Arundhati Roy: It is.
Karan Thapar: Is it beyond correction?
Arundhati Roy: Well, it’s not beyond correction, it would not be beyond correction if instead of patting ourselves on the back and saying we are so much better off now, we looked at what’s going wrong and we went out and insisted that we start moving on the paths to justice.
Karan Thapar: So your essays are in a sense a wake up call to the Indian people, you are saying look at the black side of our democracy, stop patting yourself and ignoring?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. I mean look at everything that’s going wrong.
Karan Thapar: So you are not dismissing it, you are actually asking the Indians to open their eyes and see the truth.
Arundhati Roy: Yes, absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Let’s come to how you view the Maoists’ struggle. In your essay, ‘Listening To Grasshoppers’ you write almost with approval that the poor are crossing over quietly while the world is not looking to the side of the arms struggle. Do you even support or perhaps even approve the Maoists’ struggle?
Arundhati Roy: As we have been talking earlier that there has been a massive dispossession, a structural violence against the poor of this country, we are talking about tens of millions dispossessed and malnutritioned. We are talking about 180,000 farmers who have committed suicide but most of all what worries me is this binary that has been put out – the state versus the Maoists. Sometimes even I am guilty of that. But the fact is that for the last 20 years, there have been a whole array of peaceful struggles, a whole array of voices, including mine saying, look you don’t pay attention to this nonviolence resistance by default you condone violence.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that the Maoists have been driven to take up arms because they have been pushed to the perimeters of Indian society?
Arundhati Roy: Look, so now what’s happening is that the poor who are being faced with this violence have taken up arms. I am not sure that all of them are Maoists, I think there is a very big problem about how the State defines Maoists and who they are willing to kill and call a Maoist.
Karan Thapar: Leave the definition of Maoist aside. Are the poor and the dispossessed, who you say have been driven to the perimeters, justified in taking up arms?
Arundhati Roy: If I was a person who has been dispossessed, whose wife has been raped or have been pushed of their lands, and who is being faced with ‘police force’, I would say that I am justified in taking up arms if that’s the only way I have to defend myself.
Karan Thapar: If the Maoists and the poor are justified in taking up arms, then is the State, particularly the state where the government is popularly elected and represented, justified in taking up arms in defence?
Arundhati Roy: I think we should stop thinking about who is justified because we are in a situation now in which what is happening is that there is face-off and there are two armies apart from the fact that there are all these nonviolent resistant movements which are not being listened to, which are not being spoken or written about. You have an army of very poor people being faced down by an army of the rich that are corporate backed and I am sorry but it is like that. So you cannot extract a morality from the heinous acts of violence that each commits against the other. You have to pull back and look at what’s going on and we have to understand that this war the government of India cannot win because the poor don’t have weapons, the poor don’t have money but they are huge numbers. And what you are seeing is a conflation of terrorism and poverty. The poor today are being called terrorists.
Karan Thapar: Not necessarily except in your interpretation, I think there is a distinction that others draw but let me come to the issue of violence because that is critical. Quite understandably and rightly, you condemn what you call ‘state violence’. But do you equally, emphatically, unequivocally condemn the Maoists when they butcher someone like Francis Induwar or when they assume the power to be judge, jury and prosecutor in a multitude of cases, do you condemn them?
Arundhati Roy: I think that this equivalence is a stupid thing and violence is not the issue because I do condemn anybody whether it’s the Maoists or whether it’s the state, anybody who kills a person in custody, I condemn.
Karan Thapar: So do you condemn the killing of Francis Induwar?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely, I condemn it. I do not approve of it. I don’t think anyone in their right senses would. However, as I said what I think or don’t think and these moral positions are not the point. Of course, all of us are very uncomfortable with violence but there it is, it’s happening. The point is why? Why don’t we ask why? Who should the poor go to, which court?
Karan Thapar: The ‘why’ we know because you have explained it earlier as the conflation between democracy and free-market policies which is leading to the subjugation and the repression and the exploitation of the poor. The question is what do you do about it. You have said earlier this week that a military solution to the Maoists’ struggle is not an option. What then is the solution?
Arundhati Roy: I think the solution is to understand that the State needs to regain the faith of the poor. It needs to woo the poor again. And it cannot be done over a weekend.
Karan Thapar: How?
Arundhati Roy: I think the first thing would be to pull back the army and to stop this nonsense about air force will fire in self-defence and all that.
Karan Thapar: No military operations even if it includes just police and paramilitary?
Arundhati Roy: No military operations. I would say that that is going to provoke a situation.
Karan Thapar: What’s the second thing?
Arundhati Roy: Then I would say that you should come out with all the MoUs that you have signed for all the mineral wealth which is really the key issue. I mean just the bauxite in Orissa is worth 4 trillion that’s with 12 zeros.
Karan Thapar: Do you really believe that the dispossessed and poor in Orissa would be concerned about the MoUs signed by the Government of India, they are not aware of them.
Arundhati Roy: Are you joking? They know it better than you or me. This is what I would say – come clean, tell us what the MoUs are and the companies involved.
Karan Thapar: After coming clean, what’s the next stage?
Arundhati Roy: For example, on October 12, there was supposed to be a public hearing in Lohandigura (Madhya Pradesh) where Tata is setting up a steel factory, in the name of operation “Green Hunt”. There were barriers that prevented people from going there and expressing what they had to – their approvals or disapprovals.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying let people express themselves and voice their dissents?
Arundhati Roy: Let them voice their dissent, let them be at these public hearings, make all the MoUs public, remove your army and then let’s see what happens.
Karan Thapar: If the Government were prepared to take your advice, would you in return go to the Maoists and say it now behooves you to also abjure your violence. If the Government is reaching out with one hand, you must return with the other. Will you take that step?
Arundhati Roy: If you are talking about me as an individual, I am nobody but I am sure there are people who would take that step. It has been done before. In the interest of the future of this country, all of us are concerned.
Karan Thapar: What you are saying is that the initiative should come from the Government first.
Arundhati Roy: I think so. There should be unconditional talks.
Karan Thapar: My last question. How do you see the situation developing?
Arundhati Roy: My fear is that because of its economic interest, the Government and the establishment actually needs a war, it needs to militarise and for that it needs an enemy and so in a way what the Muslims were to the BJP, the Maoists are to the Congress and once you have created this enemy that you are going to go after, there is going to be a lot of violence. That’s how mining corporations have worked historically.
Karan Thapar: So you see a greater potential for bloodshed and violence?
Arundhati Roy: Unless we can get together and stop it, which we must. A military solution will destroy us.
Karan Thapar: Arundhati Roy a pleasure talking to you.