Arundhati Roy (excerpts from an interview with David Barsamian)

From Malayalanatu: Revolts and Rebellions

The summer of 2010 was one of the bloodiest in Indian-administered Kashmir. It was the summer of the stones and the stone throwers. You’ve been going to Kashmir and writing about it. What are those stones saying and who are the stone throwers?

I guess we should qualify the bloodiest, because obviously it’s been a very bloody time since the early 1990s for the people of Kashmir. We know that something like 68,000 have been killed. But this summer the difference, I think, was that having somehow strangled the militant uprising of the early 1990s and convinced itself that under the boot of this military occupation what the Indian government likes to call normalcy had returned, and that it had somehow managed to co-opt the groovy young people into coffee shops and radio stations and TV shows. As usual, powerful states and powerful people like to believe their own publicity. And they believed that, that they had somehow managed to break the spine of this movement. Then suddenly, for three summers in a row, there was this kind of street uprising.  In a way what happened over the last three summers was similar to Tahrir Square in Egypt over and over again, but without a neutral army, with a security force that was actually not showing restraint and was shooting into the crowds and so on. So what we saw is a sentiment for freedom, which keeps expressing itself in different ways.

This way was difficult, I think, for an establishment that has over the last 20 years entrenched itself and geared itself to deal with militancy and some sort of armed struggle, and was now faced with young people, armed only with stones. And with all this weaponry that the Indian government has poured in there, they didn’t know what to do with those stones.

Couple this with the fact that one of the other great weapons of the Indian occupation has been the manipulation of the Indian media. That was like a big, noisy dam of misinformation. That was breached with the new techniques of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. So the stories were coming out. These were the two new things that the Indian government was faced with.

Kashmir is criss-crossed with a grid of army camps, interrogation centers, prisons, guard posts, bunkers, watchtowers. It has now earned the dubious distinction of being the most militarized zone in the world. People like you and me are somewhat privileged. We go there for a while and come out. But what is living under occupation like for Kashmiris?

I think a good thing is that Kashmiris have begun to write and speak about that themselves, so I don’t think it needs someone like me to really tell that story. Because, like you said, we don’t know that story from personal experience. You and I are not the people who would be stopped and humiliated at a check post. I keep wondering about the fact that, of course, the human rights reports and the newspaper stories are about deaths or false arrests or torture, but not about the quality of the air there. I keep wondering how you would feel if you were just stopped at a check post and your mother or father was slapped or beaten up or your husband was just humiliated, just casually—not necessarily your husband — anybody who you were with. That kind of thing happens in prisons. It’s like a kind of prison memoir—you could write about that sort of daily humiliation— where you’re told, “This is the hierarchy and this is who you will bow your head to, regardless of what you think or don’t think.” They (the security forces)  think nothing of putting out a news item saying, “This boy was shot because he didn’t stop when we asked him to stop.”

I just want to say that that the Indian government has waged wars on the edges of this country—in Kashmir, in Manipur, in Nagaland, in Mizoram, in Assam—ever since India was independent. Kashmir is not the only place where there are check posts and bunkers and killings and humiliation. But war has now spread to the heart of this country. The Indian state doesn’t want to consider or address the conversations that are coming out of Kashmir, or read the messages on those stones. but the rest of India is becoming Kashmir in some ways. The militarization, the repression, all of that is spreading to the whole country.

Why isn’t Kashmir getting more international attention?

Good question. When the uprisings happened in Egypt, and when people moved into Tahrir Square, I, being somebody who has sort of followed the ways in which the international media reports things, began to wonder. Why does it choose some uprisings and not others? Because the bravery of people, whether it’s in Egypt or whether it’s in Kashmir or whether it’s in the Congo, wherever it’s going on, one is not questioning that. But why will the international, Western media, in particular, pick up one and switch the lights off on the other? That’s really the question.

As we saw in Egypt, you had this kind of breathless reporting about this move for democracy, and then the headlines actually said “Egypt is Free, Military Rule.” Why will they not talk about Kashmir and talk about Egypt? It’s just your politics, isn’t it? Egypt is so important for the Americans and the Western establishment to control, because without Egypt the siege of Gaza doesn’t exist. And you know that Hosni Mubarak, if you read the papers from a few months ago, was ill, was dying. There had to be a replacement. There was going to be a real problem during the handover of power. I don’t think that it will necessarily succeed, but I think the attempt was to kind of use and direct peoples’ energy in a sort of controlled-fission experiment. But so far as Kashmir goes, right now the Afghanistan, Pakistan, India equation vaults over Kashmir.

It’s not something that the international world—the world of corporations, the world of markets, the world of even strategic geopolitics—sees as something that’s going to change the status quo. There are deals being made. The West needs Pakistan very badly. It cannot do anything with Afghanistan unless Pakistan is on board. And yet it needs India badly for two reasons: one is the great, huge, big market; and the other is as a very willing fallback for a presence in South Asia, given the rise of China. So it is seen as a stable and willing ally right now that should not be ignored. So to annoy India on Kashmir is not something that strategically suits the Western powers right now.

A week before candidate Obama was elected in 2008, he announced that Kashmir would be among his “critical tasks.” How was that comment received in Delhi? And what has Obama done since then to follow up? He was in India in November of 2010.

That comment was treated with absolute and righteous outrage by the Indian establishment. And I think it was made very clear to him, or to anybody who says anything about Kashmir internationally, that the Indian establishment will use everything in its power to make sure that people back down. And Obama backed down. He came here at a time when the streets of Kashmir were full of young people calling for azadi, when already many people had been killed. And he said nothing.

Azadi is freedom. Talk a bit about post-colonial states, not just India. For example, Frantz Fanon, who was active in the resistance in Algeria to oust the French, wrote, We don’t want to change white policemen for brown or black ones. He was talking about fundamental changes in the structures of power. Algeria, after independence, evolved into a tyrannical state, not the state that the revolution was dreaming of.

That’s the thing. You’re not allowed to use that word “revolution” anymore. It’s sort of passé, and they will tell you that you’re an old socialist with dead dreams. That word has passed out of the political lexicon in some ways. I began to think about this when I was actually in the forest with the comrades. People accused Maoists in India of believing in what they call protracted war. And they do believe in it. But I was thinking about what is protracted war. And the fact that from the moment India became independent, it began a protracted war. That war has been fought since 1947 in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Telangana, of course later the Punjab. They announced Operation Green Hunt last year. There is a situation of war in the heart of India. Who are these people who have had war declared on them again and again and again? If you look at it, they are, the people of Manipur, Nagaland, and Mizoram, largely tribal, many of them Christians. In Kashmir it’s been a Muslim population that has borne the brunt of it. In Telangana it was largely tribal. Against the Naxalites in the 1967 uprising, also it was largely tribal, poor, Dalit. In Hyderabad it was Muslims. In Goa it was Christians. So you see somehow a pattern of an upper-caste Hindu state waging war continuously on the other. When there is a problem, like there was, let’s say, in Bombay in 1993 or in Gujarat in 2002, when the agressors are Hindus, then the security forces are on the side of the people who are doing the killing.

So what does this say about post-colonial states? I’ve said this again and again, I don’t know any longer what you mean when you say India this or India that. You see a situation where the middle and upper classes have seceded into outer space, and the global elites are acting together against an increasingly disempowered mass of people in the world. And you see how cleverly things are twisted. Constantly people will say to me, “Oh, you are very unpopular in India,” because the elite and the establishment appropriates the definition of India They are India. And then the games. Like, for example, in Kashmir this summer what was the slogan? It was “Go, India, go.” That slogan has been appropriated for the World Cup for cricket, “Go, India, go.” It’s just been totally leached of meaning and become the opposite of what people meant it as. So the post-colonial state, even the name of the country, has been taken over by the elite.

I’ll say this: That I think that the struggle in Kashmir, with the people in Kashmir, the fight that’s going on there, one of the attempts has been to isolate them, to put them into a ghetto and make them live in an intellectual and political ghetto, where anybody with any ideas, any vision, any sense of leadership is shot and jailed and disappeared. That’s, obviously, the technique which all repressive regimes use. But that struggle has to get out of its ghetto and make alliances with what’s going on, not just in India but in the rest of the world. That will lead to a kind of political maturity, where you yourself don’t fall into the trap of falling into the conventional understanding of a nation state.

One of the characteristics of post-colonial states is the manipulation of oppressed minorities. For example, Kashmiris are sent to police and patrol in Chhattisgarh, and people from the northeast are sent to Kashmir to do the exact same thing.

That’s also something that I’ve written about, that India acts just like a colonial state, just like Indians were sent to Iraq and all over the place to fight Britain’s wars for it. And you see the sort of unknown Indian soldier buried all over the world, fighting for empire. And even within India, if you look at it historically, look at 1857—some call it a mutiny, some call it the first freedom struggle—you will see that’s exactly what happened. How many British soldiers were there in India? Not that many. But, for instance, in 1857 the Sikhs fought on the side of the British in the ransacking of Delhi. But today India does that. It sends Nagas to Chhattisgarh, it sends Chhattisgarhis to Kashmir, it sends Kashmiris to Orissa.

And constantly, even in today’s papers, you will see on the front page—look at all these Kashmiris, they actually want to join the army, they actually want to join the police. There is a sort of humiliation. Yesterday’s papers had the fact that the Valley’s people quietly accept compensation. So what happens, somebody is killed by the security forces, then even to take compensation for that killing is wrong. If you were to take help from, let’s say the resistance—not that that help is forthcoming—that would be wrong too. That’s a limitation of the movement in Kashmir, that they have not supported each other in dealing with the deaths, the repression. But if they did, that would have been wrong, too. So everything is wrong. It’s not a double bind; it’s a triple bind or a quadruple bind. And everything is used to humiliate you, not just torture or killing but psychologically, in every sort of way.

The constant refrain from the Indian government is that Kashmir is an integral part of India, atut ang, is the phrase in Hindi. And the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who was finance minister in the early 1990s, when so-called neoliberal reforms were introduced in India, acknowledged that there has been “some turbulence” in Kashmir but things were now “under control.” And then he went on to say that there would be no replication of the Middle East events. Why? He said, “Because India is a functioning democracy.” There are a lot of formulaic expressions, obviously, when politicians talk, but there is also something deeply revealed about the justification that the state puts out to remain in Kashmir. 

If you look at it with this idea of India being a functioning democracy and that the events of the Middle East will not be replicated, much of it is just based on falsehoods and on an assertion rather than any kind of real analysis. To begin with, why the head of a functioning democracy has never won an election in his life, is a good question. From there we can start. From the history of what Kashmir’s relationship is to India politically and geographically and all of that. See, these are not the reasons why there may or may not be a replication of that situation.

The reason that there may not be a replication of that situation in Kashmir next summer is that there is a huge crackdown going on, hundreds of young people are being caught and put into jail. There is talk of shutting down Facebook. There are police just going around intimidating people, burning things, breaking windowpanes in people’s homes. In a place where the temperature can be -30C, you can imagine what that means. So if there isn’t a replication, it’s not because it’s a functioning democracy but because it’s a functioning military occupation. To say that India is a functioning democracy, I would say that there are certainly parts of India, take areas of Delhi like Greater Kailash or Vasant Vihar or Jor Bagh or Green Park, which is a functioning democracy. But it’s not a functioning democracy in Dantewada, it’s not a functioning democracy in Kashmir, nor in Manipur, nor in Orissa, nor in Jharkhand, nor in Chhattisgarh.

In fact, I would ask the prime minister of ours one question: If an ordinary person, let’s say an ordinary tribal person in a village in Chhattisgarh, had been treated unjustly—by unjustly we just mean if a few of his family members had been killed or his daughter had been raped by a security force—which institution in this country can a poor person appeal to in order for us to call it a democracy? Which institution? There is not one left now.

Given the level of opposition to its rule in Kashmir, what keeps India there? 

A whole lot of things. One is that both India and Pakistan have a great vested interest now in keeping Kashmir on the boil, a vested interest that ranges from political to actual material. To have 700,000 soldiers there, you can imagine the amount of money that’s poured into that occupation and what’s going on with that money—property, concertina wire, petrol, vehicles. Power. The power to control a population like that. The business deals with the collaborators and the local elites. It’s like running a little country. Why would anybody want to give that up? That’s one thing.

The other thing is that, oddly enough, it’s just become such a question of the national ego that to rethink that position when you’re so far down into the tunnel would require a great amount of vision. Then you have a situation where political parties, let’s say, in India, are vying with each other. Like if the Congress, that’s in power now, would do anything that remotely resembled something progressive, the Bhartiya Janata Party would immediately try and capitalize on it. So this democracy doesn’t have any space to maneuver in that sense, because it’s a democracy, and the other party is just waiting to capitalize on the poisonous publicity that you’ve already used to keep this machine going.

So there are a lot of reasons why. And yet today I think that one of the really big problems that the state faces is that after very many years there are fissures in the consensus amongst Indians, and those fissures have come because people have seen this sort of undeniably mass democratic unarmed protest day after day, year after year in Kashmir. And people are affected by it. They’re not easily able to say, “Oh, these are militants, these are Islamists, these are Taliban.” So there has been a fracturing of the old consensus. And in the case of the war in Chhattisgarh and Orissa and Jharkhand and in the case of places like Kashmir, and even Manipur to some extent, the fact is that the state is very well aware that that massive consensus is a bit shaky. There are cracks, and serious ones.

A journalist in Kashmir told me that over the last several years top Israeli military and intelligence officials have been visiting Kashmir. What are they doing there?

I think that the U.S. is aware of the fact that Pakistan is on very shaky ground. We know it’s a nuclear power. We know that the whole adventure in Afghanistan is on the skids. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get out. They want to get out, I think, but they don’t know how to get out, even, now. You have the rise of China. You have a huge, huge, huge stake in the gas fields of Central Asia. And you have Pakistan, an old, old ally, that’s also on the skids, partly because of the US’s history of intervention or, I would say, almost wholly because of that. Pakistan was never allowed to administer its own affairs, ever since it became a country. That country has not been allowed to develop democratic institutions. At least India was allowed to, and now its kind of hollowing them out, but Pakistan was never allowed to. In this battle the U.S. needs to step back on to surer ground. It needs a new frontier because the Pakistan frontier is collapsing. And I think that’s what’s going on. How do they now build a retreat in Ladakh, in Kashmir, in these areas where it’s a fallback plan?

And the Israeli involvement?

That’s the same as the American involvement. There is no difference between them. The Israelis and the Indians are now thick.

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2 comments

  1. Never knew Arundati Roy was such a joker…Her views and comments made me laugh as they are always off track and did not address the real core reasons of a situation. It looks to me that she is living in a fancy dream, where she sees herself as a messiah to the opressed and non-Hindu religions. I can easily poke a thousand holes in each of her views if I am given a chance to.
    I am a Christian and don’t agree with any of her comments. I feel much happier person today, as I feel my own views are much clearer and factual than a person who somehow won the Booker’s prize. So much for her clout!

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