Smiley and West, NPR — December 13, 2013
West: From PRI, Public Radio International in Princeton I’m Cornel West.
Smiley: And in Los Angeles I’m Tavis Smiley.
West: Brother Tavis, we are blessed to have one of the great and courageous intellectuals of our time. She is Arundhati Roy. We call her Sister Roy. Of course she’s the winner of the Booker Prize of her renowned novel The God of Small Things. She is the author of a variety of very powerful prose, non-fiction prose. She is in the process now of finishing a new text called Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
What a blessing to have you, Sister Roy.
Roy: Thank you, Dr. West.
West: Let’s start, before we get to your magnificent political activism, your visionary political activism, let’s go all the way back to your upraising, your training as an architect very much like Thomas Harding, becoming a great writer like Thomas Harding.
How do you connect your childhood with your training as an architect to your becoming a great writer?
Roy: I don’t know if I’m a great writer.
West: I can testify to that.
Roy: I’m a little embarrassed by all the good things you’re saying about me.
I grew up in south India as the child of a divorced mother which was unusual in that area. You know it’s a very parochial community called the Syrian Christians. My mother had married outside the community and then got divorced and come back to the village.
Growing up there in a very traditional space where caste was practiced, where there was all kinds of bigotry hidden and not so hidden, then growing up outside of this great Indian family unit.
I suppose it just made you look at society and wonder why it wasn’t offering you the certainties and the assurances that it offered a lot of other people from my kind of background.
I think that’s what initially made you want to explain it to yourself through writing.
The architecture was actually something that I did because I knew that I had to do something where I could earn a living very quickly so as to not be dependent on anybody because I knew that once that happened I wasn’t going to have even half a chance to write or to think or be anything other than live a very constricted, suffocating life.
West: The text itself, of course, wrestles with the issues that Embeker and so many other earlier intellectuals in India tried to hit head on which is the humanity of our Dalit brothers and sisters, the so-called untouchables.
Could you say something about what it is to wrestle with that issue even in 1997 or in 2013.
Roy: I would say that it is the most horrifying reality of India today. As horrifying in different sort of ways as it was 100 years ago in a different way. For some reason, for a whole host of reasons though the world has discussed apartheid and race and feminism and economic imperialism somehow caste passes under the banner unnoticed mainly because I think other than the fact that the person that everybody naturally chooses to worship is Gandhi. I could talk for about 3 hours about Gandhi and caste.
Other than that also the progressive intellectual left has enlighted the issue of caste. It doesn’t easily fit into class analyses. But you’re familiar with it because I think in that sense it was the same with race.
West: That’s the reason why Embecker is so very important and ought to be as well-known as Gandhi in many ways.
Roy: Gandhi was not of… I’m not a fan of Gandhi. In fact, very soon I think there will be a little book out in which I set out my views on that.
Smiley: Can you topline those views? That’s a pretty strong statement for some listeners, I suspect.
Roy: I’m reluctant to talk about it before what I’m writing is out. It’s something that is such an exclusive subject and it needs to be discussed with care. First it will have to come out and then I’ll be, you know, set out the context in which I can talk about it.
West: Did you want to say a word about Embeker though?
Roy: Embeker, yeah. I think he’s a heroic man.
West: He’s always been a hero of mine.
Roy: I think what he brought to the national movement in India was an intelligence that was much deeper than almost anybody else in that spectrum, you know. He has been ghettoized and his work has been hidden, more or less. He’s hardly available.
Even though he’s a huge hero among the valley population in India who know his work and his life in every very, very minute detail, he was actually the greatest not just intellectual, not just political, but the greatest moral challenge to Gandhi.
West: He has taught at Union Theological Seminary. I teach here. I do agree with you.
But this book that includes a critique of Gandhi does sound quite fascinating, I must say.
Roy: I’m coming to your seminary to talk about it.
West: Coming to your seminary, coming to Union. Wonderful, wonderful.
Smiley: What do you say to people, how to you respond to people, Ms. Roy, who think that text like the one that’s forthcoming about Gandhi and any number of other things that we could list because you’ve been involved with so many issues, how do you respond to people who think, and I’ve read this critique of you, that you’ve gotten to the point now where you are just being deliberately provocative.
Roy: I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be. I will not necessarily take it as an insult.
Obviously they would have to point specifically to what I was being gratuitously provocative about. Deliberately is okay, gratuitously is not okay.
It would have to be a specific charge about a specific point that we could debate but not just an assessment of my character.
West: Malcolm X used to say though that when you’re sitting on a hot stove that your response is going to certainly have something to do with being deliberately provocative. It’s going to be difficult to be polite when you’re sitting on that hot stove and responding to the pain and the hurt as you have done both in India but also in other parts of the world.
Could you say something, though, about the struggle in Kashmir and the attempt to make Kashmir an independent nation?
Roy: Kashmir is one of India’s noisiest yet best kept secrets if that’s possible. A lot of noise is used as a wall to obfuscate what’s actually going on there. What’s actually going on there is that it is the most densely militarized zone in the world. Perhaps soon to be overtaken by or to be matched, at least, by Chatiscle which is central India, the tribal areas where the mining companies are moving in.
Kashmir since 1990 has seen something like 68,000 to 70,000 deaths, 10,000 people disappeared, tens of thousands tortured. Yet India gets to call itself the world’s greatest democracy.
The ways in which the occupation of Kashmir has become so sophisticated on the one hand and so brutal on the other. They can teach people a thing or two about occupying an unwilling people militarily.
Smiley: Since you mentioned India as the world’s greatest democracy, or some refer to it as the world’s biggest democracy, do you consider it to be a democracy these days?
Roy: There was a time when democracy actually threatened the status quo and countries were being bombed by the U.S. because they were democracies.
Now countries are being bombed in order to install democracies. They have seen it as the most viable weapon for the free market. Democracy in fact has come to mean elections, nothing more than elections.
While we live in a country of a billion people where 100 people own wealth equivalent to 25 percent of the GDP. They own everything. We think we are voting for political parties but in fact we’re just voting for whether it should been Dada ascendants or Reliance ascendants or Adoni ascendants.
It’s a hollowing out of what democracy was meant to mean. Yet obviously it’s not a totalitarian system, it’s not Saudi Arabia or something.
I think we have to wrap our heads around what is being done to us.
West: You had the courage to actually put your body on the line. You have been, of course, criminalized. There are prosecutions against you. You’ve gone to jail. You’ve been willing to be on the ground in people’s movements to try to expand the democratic possibilities in the face of the kind of oligarchic rule and plutocratic rule that you describe.
Do you see movement and do you see progress in terms of the grassroots movements presenting a challenge to the oligarchic rule in India?
Roy: First of all, I have to quickly put in a caveat. Whenever I get praised for putting my body on the line and so I feel a bit embarrassed because the places I go to are where people who don’t have the protection that I have put their bodies on the line. I don’t want to mop up the credit for that. I’m not as brave as they are.
I’m not being modest or false modest. I’m really, I’ve just come back from a place called Lorissa. You see what’s happening, how people are getting crushed. There are thousands of Adivasi people in jail. They have no lawyers, they have no means of coming out. We had something like 3000 custodial deaths in India this last year.
The laws have been changed so that every form of protest against displacement is a terrorist activity or anti-national activity or seditious activity. There’s that.
On the other hand what has happened is that in these central states like Chatisco, Lorisage, Harkun, Botsuwestlingal, where the huge mining companies have moved in and followed by the para-military and now the army is being prepared to be deployed against the poorest people in the world.
Those people have since 2004 managed to stop some of the biggest corporations in their tracks. This is a huge victory. But the elections that are coming now, next year, are about the corporations putting their might behind a man who they believe has the military muscle to push through this wall. The Congress Party has sort of been a bit hesitant and not very successful. Now the corporations are saying that’s enough. We want you to move in. We want the army to move in. We want the resistance to be just wiped out.
They are backing Narendra Modi who oversaw the program against Muslims in Grujat in which 2000 were killed and 100,000 were driven from their homes and women were raped. He’s just brazen about it.
Now they’re hoping that brazenness will transfer to this other kind of resistance.
Smiley: Speaking of women, we are told that India has an epidemic of sexual violence and harassment. Here of course in the U.S. we occasionally hear about these sensational cases.
What is it like, since you referenced it a moment ago, what is it like for women to live in India these days? What are the issues?
Roy: Sexual harassment and rape are major issues. There are rape in one conventional sense, the rape that a man commits on a woman. Within that there are different kinds of rape in India.
There is rape in places like Kashmir, Nagaland and Moneypoove where soldiers have impunity. These are military occupied areas and they have impunity. When they rape nothing happens to them so it happens all the time.
Then you have the feudal kind of rape where upper class men think it’s their right, they have a right to the woman’s body. That too not much is done about.
Then you have the new woman, that is women in India, young women changing much faster than men, moving into workplaces, changing the way they look, the way they walk, the way they dress. This is creating a backlash of violence from men.
You have a rape law in which the legal definition of rape has been expanded and the punishment has been cranked up. But you have these highlighted cases, these phenomenal cases. The phenomena itself is not being addressed by these prison sentences and asking for people to be hanged and so on for one or two cases. Whereas the rest of it punishment is not a certainty.
It’s a complicated time, a time of change, I think, and a time where people are not exactly sure what’s going on. The building blocks of how to react are being put in place but they’re very crude right now. Uncalibrated.
West: Just to shift gears a little bit here. You know that 44 years ago the FBI assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago. Of course Assata Shakur, who is in Cuban right now, has a $2 million bounty on her head put forward by the justice department under Eric Holder and Barak Obama.
How do you read from India, you’re in New Delhi right now in the BBC Bureau, how do you read both the Obama administration and the American empire vis-a-vis the kind of causes that you promote?
Roy: I don’t know that I promote causes. I do have a political way of looking at things. In this part of the world, obviously in Pakistan Obama has actually expanded the war and the drone attacks. Maybe he’s not seen as this kind of benign president that he was seen as when he first came to power in the United States.
Otherwise I don’t see Obama as being… I think we’ve gone beyond the point where an individual president is really the pilot of the ship or the captain of the operation.
Just like here, in America, too, you have these huge financial institutions and corporations that are setting the agenda. I don’t think it’s that easy for anyone to head it off in a different direction.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter at all who is the president. But it doesn’t matter as much as we think it matters.
Smiley: I wonder since we referenced it at the top of this conversation whether you might say a word about the new text coming out, Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Given that you didn’t want to say much about the Gandhi book I’m somewhat reticent to ask but I wonder if you could at least topline for us what this book Capitalism: A Ghost Story will be about.
Roy: That is actually something that’s already out in this part of the world. It’s really about in India how capitalism has come to mean these few major corporations and how, I don’t think even in the U.S. you have corporations like this which have this cross-ownership of business which allows them to control everything like the Tata’s or the Reliance Group. They control everything from the media to petrochemicals to makeup to publishing and all of that.
Then how they, just like the Rockefeller Foundation or the Carnegie and Ford, I’m not just talking about India, I also talk about how Ford and Rockefeller started. What is their connection with the CIA, with the setting up of the UN. How Ford, for example, really introduced to America the idea of living on credit. You have a situation where, for example, the big literary festival, the Jaipur Literary Festival to which all the major writers of the world come, they speak about free speech and so on.
The sponsors of the festival are mining companies who are busy shooting people or getting people shot or not allowing public hearings to happen, making sure that there is no such thing as free speech.
How this network of capitalism has become so sophisticated that it controls us in ways that we don’t even realize.
West: And the space is left though for resistance, the space is left for critical reflection, or even the space is left for organizing and mobilizing in India would be what?
Roy: While the media is now controlled by the corporations there are so many little pamphlets, little newspapers, little… really subversive things going on. Very, very difficult to control.
For example, in central India where they are planning to deploy army, even this powerful army is not going to find it easy to go in and just take over because there’s a guerilla war going on there and the terrain is not familiar. We haven’t yet come to the stage of being as vulgar and cruel as the Sri Lankan government that can just go and bomb 40,000 people in 10 days after making them gather in no fire zones.
The fight is on here big time.
Smiley: Arundhati Roy joined us from the BBC Bureau in New Delhi, India. Her forthcoming text actually out in parts of the world already is called Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
Ms. Roy, we enjoyed so much having you on the program and appreciate hearing your profound insights. Thank you for your time.
Roy: Thank you so much. Bye.