On February 12, Karan Thapar interviewed Arundhati Roy, activist and author of The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, for The Wire. They talked about the state of the country under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the fascist underpinnings of the Hindu nationalism propagated by the RSS, the BJP and their cohorts, and the suppression of the narrative of Kashmir in India.
Roy notes that the ruling party’s agenda of creating a Hindu nation can be detrimental to the diverse cultures in the India and could even threaten to ‘Balkanise’ the country, however, she feels that through the several mass protests the country witnessed over the past few years, the people have shown that they will not let that happen. Further, Roy talks about the fascist resonances in India’s recent politics as well as the restrictions being placed on Kashmir and the suppression of the Kashmiri narrative.
Below is the full transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for style and clarity. Watch it here.
Amidst the confusion, chaos and cacophony of Indian Politics, there is a question that is rarely asked and even when it is, it is often not honestly answered: What sort of country are we becoming? That’s the key issue that I shall explore today, and my guest is the Booker Prize winning author and essayists, and someone many consider a ‘voice of conscience’ – Arundhati Roy.
Arundhati Roy, I want to start with a question you first raised in an essay you wrote in 2009, but the truth is, if anything, it is even more pertinent today. You ask, “What have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens when it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous?” Would you answer your question with reference to Modi’s India?
2009 is 13 years ago. So, clearly, some of us were worrying about this before Modi came to power. Right now, what can I say? There has been a revolution. Narendra Modi’s favourite industrialist has overtaken his second most favourite industrialist as the richest man in India. I think Adani’s wealth is $88 billion and Ambani’s is only $87 billion.
51 billion of Adani’s 88 billion dollars came in the last year, when most of India was falling into poverty and hunger and joblessness. So – I am giving a slightly elaborate answer to your question – these rails which are inevitably to diverge were set in place before Modi came to power.
At the time I wrote that essay, you already had around 100 individuals who owned 25% of the GDP. Modi came and pressed the accelerator for big business. Way back in 2009, after the Gujarat Massacre; after Muslims were slaughtered on the streets of Gujarat, you had Ratan Tata and Ambani endorsing Narendra Modi as a future Prime Minister.
Now what has happened – we have read the Oxfam reports on inequality – is that it has become absolutely obscene. I think a farmer in Uttar Pradesh recently put it perfectly. He said, “Desh ko char log chalate hain. Do bechete hain, do kharidte hain. Char logo Gujrat se hain (Four people run the country. Two of them sell it, two of them buy it. All four are from Gujarat.)”
You have these people who own ports, mines, petrochemicals, the media and internet. That kind of monopoly capital, I don’t think even capitalist countries practice. In Parliament recently, you had Rahul Gandhi talking about ‘ameer Hindustan’ and ‘gareeb Hindustan’ (‘rich India’ and ‘poor India’); you had Asaduddin Owaisi talking about ‘mohhabat ke Hindustan’ (‘India of love’) and ‘nafarat ke Hindustan’ (‘India of Hate’). It was as if these were antagonistic things but actually, they have been dancing together for a long time because the corporate class underwrites Hindu nationalism. It is the bank guarantee.
Now they have come together on the ‘chappan inch ka chhathi’ (56 inch chest) of Modi. If the institutions of democracy were being eroded even at a time when United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power; eroded by massive influx of corporate capital; you had a situation where we were heading towards, let’s say, the ‘best democracy that money can buy’ or ‘democracy for people who can afford it’.
But now we have these institutions of democracy; whether it’s the press, the courts, the intelligence services; worryingly even the army and educational institutions, penetrated, overtaken or at least compromised by this Hindu nationalist ideology.
You have Parliament turned into ‘man ki baat’, – I mean it in the Hindi sense of the word – where you have clearly unconstitutional laws like the abrogation of Article 370 (of the constitution) or the farm laws and, of course, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); laws that totally devastate the lives of millions of people and you have the Supreme Court still pondering over whether it is constitutional or not.
Then you have the office of the Prime Minister, being abused by the Prime Minister, coming out and making these announcements of demonetisation, which devastated the economy; the announcement of the lockdown with four hours notice, the announcement of withdrawal of the farm laws which was as insulting as the promulgation of farm laws. It’s toying with the idea of what a democracy is meant to be.
Finally, what I feel has happened is that the BJP and its leader has now begun to confuse itself with the nation and the state; if the BJP is rich, then the nation is rich; if you criticise the BJP you are anti-national. This is very dangerous thing.
Are you saying that democracy has ceased to exist, that it has been diminished or that it has eroded? Which of the three?
I am saying that is has been seriously eroded and shells of these institutions have been kept in place, but we are in danger of just becoming ‘the show-window of democracy’.
So India’s claim to be the biggest democracy in the world is seriously questionable?
I want very much to touch on some of the aspects of the sort of country we have become. First, in December in Haridwar, there were bloodcurdling calls for the genocide of Muslims for ethnic cleansing and there was a deafening silence from the government. Not the Prime Minister; not a single minister; not a single MP in the BJP had anything to say. In your eyes, is that a sign that India is moving away from its constitutional commitment to secularism and instead becoming a majoritarian Hindu country?
Those Dharma Sansads – there have been several of them – they were literally calling for genocide; calling for Hindus to arm themselves. We have also had hundreds of attacks on Christians; on churches; the burning of statues of Jesus. Now, the person who was one of the main movers and one of the main speakers – Yati Narsinghanand, has just been given bail by the courts.
So it’s not just the government but the courts and the state machinery which are a part of this. While professors, activists, poets and lawyers are in jail, a man who calls openly for genocide has got bail.
You have other instances, like the hijab controversy in Karnataka. Again, the courts have come out, temporarily maybe, but in favour of Hindu majoritarianism, as we call it, which is a problematic term but we will come to that. But if it’s not alright for Muslim girls to wear hijabs in classrooms, – debatable – how is it alright for the Prime Minister and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh to prance around in saffron robes in their positions, holding office?
What we have is a system where we are a country with a pretty sophisticated jurisprudence, pretty sophisticated laws, but how those laws are applied depends on your caste, your religion, your gender, your ethnicity; and this is like having a huge spreading tree resting on a bed of sand.
On whether we are becoming a majoritarian state; this is the stated position of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Mohan Bhagwat said it was non-negotiable that India is a Hindu state. Narendra Modi is a member of the RSS, of course he is rowing us in that direction.
So we have stopped being secular?
No, the problem is that this idea of a Hindu majority is problematic because since the 19th century, they have been trying to construct this political Hindu majority, starting with the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (literally, society for the breaking up of caste) and Arya Samaj. Later on, the RSS came.
Hindus are a very diverse community; a community divided into castes which are often antagonistic to each other. The process of trying to create this so-called majority is a very violent one and it will fail. It has to fail.
You are not answering my question. Are we becoming a Hindu majoritarian state?
Yes. We are.
Have we ceased to be secular?
Well, this government is rowing us in that direction; that’s where it wants to go.
This government doesn’t want India to be secular, it wants it to be Hindu state
Obviously, it’s not a secret, they keep announcing that.
In your Jonathan Shell Memorial lecture, you wrote, and I quote, “The conceit of secularism, hypocritical though it may be, is the only shard of coherence that makes India possible. That hypocrisy was the best thing we had; without it, India will end.” What do you mean by the phrase, “India will end”?
I mean that in the sense Yugoslavia ended; I mean that in the sense the Soviet Union ended.
You mean break up?
Yes, because India is a social contract between a number of religions, castes, ethnicities; the speakers of 780 languages. It’s a social contract. Now, this vision of a Hindu Nation; one language, one religion, one country, is like trying to distil an ocean and fit it into a ‘Bisleri’ bottle. It is a process of extreme violence.
What Narendra Modi and his men are doing right now is literally like going around the country and laying a fuse attached to strips of dynamite. It will all blow up if they continue this pressure. Everything that is beautiful about this country is being turned into acid.
Just so the audience is clear, you are saying India is an ocean that comprises many different aspects, people, cultures, religions, ethnicities and to try to pour it all into a Bisleri bottle is what the attempt to make India a Hindu country is like? You are converting an ocean into a Bisleri bottle which is why the country will break up?
Yes, eventually, in time.
You really are predicting the Balkanisation of India?
I have been reading about the Balkans and it gives me the shivers because you are seeing the process of violence that is being laid out. You are seeing something huge and diverse being shrunk and hardened. It will blow apart.
How soon? Do you have a timeline for that?
I don’t know but already you heard what Yogi Adityanath said: “Ki Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Bengal aur Kashmir banega” (Uttar Pradesh will become like Kerala, Bengal and Kashmir). ‘Let’s just keep you in this terrible ditch of no healthcare, no education, no money, no job. We will throw a few scraps at you but don’t become like Kerala.’ It has got hospitals, it has got schools, it has got literacy. It’s a very very dangerous situation.
Another aspect of the sort of country we are becoming is the way we treat Muslims and the way we treat Dalits. In your Pen Arthur Miller Freedom to Right lecture, you say, and I am quoting you, “Over the last five years, India has distinguished itself as a lynching nation. Muslims and Dalits have been publicly flogged and beaten to death by vigilante Hindu mobs in broad daylight and the lynch videos are gleefully uploaded to Youtube.”
Are we becoming a brutal country, or maybe more accurately, I should ask, are we being brutalised by our government?
We have always been a brutal country. We are not ‘becoming’ one. There has not been a day since Independence that the Indian Army has not been “deployed” against its own people, whether it is in the northeast, Kashmir or Hyderabad. Also, any country that practises caste in the way we do is a brutal country because that is a brutal hierarchy that can only be kept in place by the permanent threat of violence and its frequent demonstration; social, sexual, psychological. You have seen it in Hathras; in Khairlanji; day after day after day.
That violence is a social violence that is happening even though political parties are actually trying to woo the Dalit vote. But when it comes to Muslims; to Christians, the rapes, the massacres, the lynchings, the killings; if you are involved in it, there is a good chance you will be inducted the BJP, you will be garlanded; you will be made a minister. God knows, one day you will make it to Prime Minister to Home Ministers, anything could happen.
Inside this communal polarisation, Karan. I think one very important thing we have to remember is, – like when Amit Shah went to Kairana and made that comment about, “Hum log toh sau saal se Mughals se lade rahe hain (We have been fighting Mughals for the past 100 years)” and using Mughals as a euphemism for Muslims – this continues the portrayal of Muslims as the descendants of conquerors, of Christians as some agents of the West.
The fact is that caste is wrapped up in this. Millions of Indians converted to Islam, Christianity or Sikhism to escapes the oppression of caste. These are victims of the Hindu caste system who are now being portrayed as the conquerors.
What is the point you are making?
The point I am making is that the brutality, the polarisation; all of it is wrapped up in the social structure of this country and it is not just the government creating a situation. It is also society that has practiced brutality and the point I am making is that the Hindu—
But is the government encouraging the brutal side of our historical character?
Of course it is. It is not just encouraging, it is igniting, it is exploiting, it working the faultlines—
The government is also brutalising us?
Of course it is. I mean, that is not even a question.
Against this background, I want to come to what I suppose is a key issue that I want to ask you. Has India become a fascist state? In the introduction to your book Azadi, you write, and again I am quoting you, “The infrastructure of fascism is staring us in the face and yet we hesitate to call it by its name.” What are the signs of fascism that you see around us? What are the signs that are staring us in the face that we won’t recognise and call it by their name?
I was expecting the fascism question to come. What I have done is I have written down a list of what are accepted to be signs of fascism, not just in India but generally. I am going to read it aloud and you are going to tick the box or our audience is going to tick the box and see if you recognise any of these signs because fascism has become a loose word; people throw it around. So I did this little bit of homework because I predicted this question.
One, ‘A deep social crisis that is seen as a threat to existing social hierarchies.’ That is the beginning. We had the Mandal commission report come out; we had the fear of reservations for OBCs coming; we had the anti-Mandal protests and we had the rise of the new caste parties: Mayawati’s party (the Bahujan Samaj Party), Lalu Yadav’s (the Rashtriya Janata Dal), Mulam Yadav’s (the Samajwadi Party).
Second; ‘a longing for some mythic, national past; fantasising about a super pure, racial superman and the restoration of national vitality.’ Recognise it? A society that believes Brahmins are Bhudevas (literally, a god on Earth) just has to make a lateral shuffle.
Third; ‘a mass movement with the support of some sectors of the national ruling class,’ – Advani’s rath yatra comes up; the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid. Simultaneously, the Indian markets open and privatisation comes in, which is going to now mitigate the whole business of reservation which has now become a huge issue in the UP Elections.
Fourth; ‘the emergence of a single dominant authoritarian party.’
Fifth; ‘the fabrication of external and internal threat to the nation, often racial, religious or ethnic in form.’
Sixth; ‘an attack by an authoritarian state on the working class and an attempt to suppress any challenge to capitalism from below.’
Seventh; ‘the foreclosure of democratic or autonomous means of expression.’
Eighth; ‘the existence of street fighting elements or militias to intimidate, terrorise and, in some cases, murder oppositional forces.’ Read: RSS Milita, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Ninth; ‘a militarised rhetoric of masculinity, anti-feminism, casteism, – racism in the cases of Europe and America – and Xenophobia
Tenth; ‘paranoia’. Pegasus.
Can I put something to you? The audience listening to you – at least some of them – will say that is just a list of nonsense. I will tell you what they will say. They will say that there are many countries that hark back to a glorious past; Britain does that all the time. There are many countries that have a dominant, single-party governance and a weak opposition; that happens in several countries and democracies. You have just put together a list of things and claimed it’s fascism.
No, come on. I am not talking about a glorious historical past. I am talking about a glorious mythical past; I am talking about the idea of the ‘superman” like the ‘Super Race’; like the German Nazis had Aryans. I am talking about militias. Does Britain have a Bajrang Dal and RSS militia? Are they massacring people on the streets? Are they organising Muzaffarnagar and Gujarat?
I will tell you why it is hard to believe why we have become a fascist state: because we have a government that buckles under pressure from farmers; we have a press that is sharply critical – at least from some quarters – of the government; we have elections where the government is defeated; Narendra Modi may win regularly at the national level but often, at the state level, he loses; we have a courts and judges that often check the government; what they have done over Pegasus is one example. Is it really fascism?
I am not saying that we have a fascist state. I am saying that the people in power are intrinsically fascist and leading us in that direction.
Narendra Modi is intrinsically fascist?
Yes and so is the RSS.
And the BJP as a whole?
Yes. The RSS ideologues have openly, as well know, admired Mussolini; admired Hitler; called Muslims the equivalent of the Jews of Germany. We know all that. We know the declaration of the idea that they want to declare India a Hindu nation. We know the experiments with eugenics. I believe they are losing their grip. I don’t believe that they will be able to succeed but I believe that this is a tunnel that we have to go through and eventually the people of this country will make it a failed experiment.
Let me just understand for the audience. You are not saying we have become a fascist state. Are you saying we are in the process of becoming one?
We are in the process of becoming one and I would say, even two years ago, we were very much in danger of that experiment being more successful than it appears to be now.
Huge protests, the farmer’s protests. If you look at what is going on in Uttar Pradesh now.
So India is fighting back? The people are fighting back?
Yes, the people are fighting back. Not political parties.
Just to be clear, you are saying two slightly contradictory things: we’re in the process of becoming a fascist state; two years ago it looked like we were more likely to become one than it does today. What’s changed today is that the people – the farmers in particular – are fighting back?
Also the people who rose up against the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
But that was two years ago.
But this piece that I wrote was before that; before those protests began.
What is the situation today? Is India, today, on its way to become a fascist state?
I would say that that ideology has somehow saturated.
What does that mean?
If you look at what is happening in places like Uttar Pradesh and the farmers protest, they have realised, somehow. that they were being played.
But now you are saying that the threat of becoming a fascist state is very much receding. So, the situation is improving?
I think so, I would say so.
So what you wrote in the Jonathan Shell Lecture isn’t quite as true today as it was when you wrote it, a year-and-a-half ago.
I think the part of it is that people, writers, protestors, activists, journalists–
–are responding to this?
They have recognised it, spoke about it. People listened, people thought about what had happened.
Just to sum for the audience; what is the nature of the danger we face today? Are we still in danger of becoming a fascist state?
I think what is dangerous is that we have an election machinery that is sort of compromised; we have a very scattered and disparate opposition because, I think in one way, federalism is coming up–
But you are not answering my question. Are we in danger of becoming fascist state?
Hang on, I’m answering. What I am saying is that the ‘Hinduvta’ card has played itself out now. The danger is, let’s say in a place like Uttar Pradesh, I don’t know what is going to happen in the elections. But let’s say the BJP loses the election, I think there will be great danger then because, unless you have–
You think the BJP’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh will resurrect the danger of fascism?
No, I am saying if the BJP loses the elections in Uttar Pradesh, it will go back to the business of trying to engineer violence along communal lines and unless you have a government that can actually control that strongly, you might–
But hang on a second, the BJP lost in Rajasthan, they didn’t do that; they lost in Madhya Pradesh, they didn’t do that; they lost in Chhattisgarh, they didn’t do it. They have lost a lot of state elections under Narendra Modi.
But Uttar Pradesh is very important for them.
You are saying the prospect of a BJP defeat is more worrying for you than the prospect of a BJP victory–
–No, it’s not more worrying. I am just saying that whoever comes to power next, in case they (the BJP) lose, will have to be very vigilant to make sure that polarisation is not allowed to happen and people–
But I don’t understand the confusion that has emerged suddenly when I asked you, “Are we in danger of becoming a fascist state?” You said two years ago, the danger was greater. Since then, people are fighting back. You said that the danger has receded but now you are saying a BJP defeat, which would actually, most people say, “bury the danger”, will actually resurrect it ?
It won’t resurrect the danger but I think there will be a huge attempt to resurrect it and people have to be on guard.
A defeated India is more dangerous for India than a victorious BJP?
No. But a defeated BJP in Uttar Pradesh could try and create the kind of turbulence that it created–
That’s what I am saying.
Karan, cool off. What I am saying is that a defeated BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 will see two years to the 2024 election; two years in which it does not have the responsibility of government and is free to create chaos and, therefore, whatever government comes and the people involved will have to be very vigilant to not let that happen.
That’s when the danger of fascism becomes stronger.
Yes, because it is not like you can throw a switch and it is over. Woh to khoon mein uttar gaya (Now it’s in their blood).
In your Trinity College, Cambridge, Clark lecture, you raised two particular concerns about fascism. I want to put them to you one by one. First you said, “As India embraces majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is a polite term for fascism, many liberals and even communists continue to be squeamish about using that term.” Are you saying that liberals and communists who, traditionally and ideally, should be standing up and fighting back, are actually in denial?
Communists, yes. They should have been standing up and fighting back. Liberals have historically been wishy-washy on many things. But, yes, I would say ‘denial’ is a polite word.
What is a more appropriate word?
Well, ‘collaboration’ or ‘collusion’. There were many ‘liberals’ who are intelligent and good people who, even after they knew what happened in, let’s say Gujarat – the daylight massacres, the killings, the use of state machinery, the rhetoric – when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, yet there was a sort of euphoria. He was welcomed. But now, a lot of them have taken very brave positions at costs to themselves and I admire that.
They are no longer squeamish?
Lots of them are not squeamish now.
So again, this is an opinion that is slightly different to the point when you wrote it? Although you only wrote it only about 18-19 months ago.
Yeah, but there was a sort of red carpet rolled out; it was kind of hard for people like me to understand then.
But today you believe that liberals are actually standing up?
Some are, yes.
So the denial is not so strong today, as it was 18-19 months ago?
No. And I am talking about a denial that led to a situation in which Narendra Modi could come to power and be applauded and celebrated.
The second concern you raised – and in some senses it may be a more important concern cause it may chime with the audience more greatly – is the question: ‘when does fascism become fascism?’
You wrote, and I quote, “The division in opinions in the use of the term comes down to whether you believe that fascism became fascism only after a continent was destroyed and millions of people were exterminated in gas chambers,” – you are referring to what happened in Germany – “or whether you believe that fascism is an ideology that led to those crimes; that can led to those crimes and those who subscribe to it are fascists.”
In other words, what you are saying there is that the ideology that leads to fascism already exists in India, and you are also hinting, aren’t you, that if we don’t act fast, those horrible crimes that happened in Germany could inexorably happen in India too?
I think the crimes have begun, in some ways. Not like the crimes of Germany but the ‘demonisation’ and ‘otherisation’ of the Muslim community. You saw that sort of genocidal language used during the coronavirus lockdown when Tablighi Jamaat was blamed for spreading typhus – sorry, for spreading corona, just like the Nazis blamed the Jews for spreading typhus; then you had something like the NRC and CAA where, again like the Nuremberg laws of 1935, citizens were expected to produce legacy papers which would be approved by the state and then grant you citizenship.
Like Hannah Arendt said, “Citizenship is the right to have rights”. When you shake that ground under people’s feet, it’s a terrible thing to do, regardless of who is on the list and who is off the list. You have detention centres already being built in places like Assam and many other places –of course, the millions of people who are already off the NRC cannot be accommodated in those detention camps but it is the idea in the national psyche that, ‘This is where you belong’. But I don’t believe that the kind of massacres and killings that happened in Europe can happen in India. Because I believe that, given the history of this country, how the RSS came to be–
Haven’t you contradicted yourself? You began your answer by saying those crimes are already happening and then you listed some of them and now you are saying the opposite; that you don’t think they can happen.
I am saying that that won’t happen on the scale that it happened in Europe.
Because I believe that, given the history of Hindu nationalism in India, which started long ago, we did have to go through this tunnel. But we will come out of it. The country will pay a price for it, but fascism will be a failed experiment.
How do you know? Is this something you are certain of or something you are hoping will happen?
This is something I feel as a person who lives in this country, who travels; who speaks to people; who has their eyes and ears open. If you go and listen to what people are saying in villages and towns in places like Uttar Pradesh, where in the last elections you had this huge blinding saffron wave–
Can I interrupt? What you are saying is that you know the Indian people are not communal; they will not turn upon brothers, regardless of the fact those brothers are Muslims, Christians and so on; and at the end of the day, the attempt by the governments or RSS or whoever to try and communalise; to try and make this fascist state, will be resisted by the fact that the Indian people are not like that?
I believe there will always be a rump of people who are like that but I don’t think they will ultimately prevail in creating the kind of mayhem that happened in Europe.
I have to say now – and I think it may be true of the audience too – but I am a little confused. Is there a real danger of India becoming a fascist state under the RSS, BJP and Narendra Modi or is that going to be failed attempt and, therefore, not a real danger because the Indian people are not going to be victims; they are not going to fall into that trap. They are going to fight back. Because, if the latter is true, that the Indian people are not communal, then the danger is not a big danger; it will be a failed attempt.
Things change Karan, things change. You are looking at things as if they are always fixed. Things change, a river flows. We have been through something terrible. My own feeling is that we are not out of danger because we do not have a very robust opposition. But I feel that people are coming to understand that somehow, they fell into this way of thinking, but now they are falling out of it because they have suffered greatly.
So they are still in the hole but they are climbing out of it?
I think it is a slippery slope; it is still dangerous, but I do think Narendra Modi’s star is falling. It may not be this election, it may not be the next election, but I don’t think that this country is going to go down the way Europe did.
There is one more point about fascism that you make in your Clark lecture which I think is very relevant to the situation in India today: the relationship between fascism, fake news and falsified history. You write, and I quote, “Fake news is the skeletal structure; the scaffolding over which the specious wrath that fuels fascism drapes itself. The foundation on which that scaffolding rests is fake history, possible the oldest form of fake news.” In other words, fake news and fake history are integral to the emergence and the growth of fascism?
Well, that’s not some new theory of mine, people know that about fascism. But history today is like current affairs. What you have is mythology being turned into history; history being turned into mythology, disseminated by ‘WhatsApp University’, TV serials, movies; like some cheap course that is intravenously administered. But the more important thing is that the absurdity of that history hides another more problematic story; a story more sophisticated and told about the history of India, but a history that elides the stories of women; stories of other genders and stories of other sexualities; the stories of caste; the stories of B.R. Ambedkar, Phule, Savitribai Phule, Birsa Munde, Ayyankali–
What’s the point? There’s loads of examples, what’s the point?
My point is that there is a sort of master narrative that is intersecting with all these other narratives. In the story of history as current affairs, caste is an engine that runs our society. Today, the Uttar Pradesh Elections are happening, everyone is a scholar on caste; on the minute caste vote bank, but otherwise, we don’t talk about it.
I am slightly lost, what’s the point?
The point is that there are other kinds of fake news; not just the Hindutva fake news. For example, you have a society where you may talk about Dalits; who make up entire sanitation workforce; who are dying in manholes. But caste is not just about oppression–
Let’s not get into caste
Hold on, why not?
The point you are answering is the relationship between fake news, false history and fascism. That is what I want you to explain. Is that a particular danger at the moment–
Fake news is not just about fake facts. Fake news is about a fake narrative. Like you don’t want to talk about caste; I want to talk about it.
Look at the politicians, let’s look at Modi. He hates dynastic politics, but aren’t the big industrialists dynasts? Why don’t you ask about the caste of the judges in this country? Why don’t we ask what is the caste of these hundred people who own half the wealth in this country. They all come from a particular background–
But that is not the question I am asking.
It is. It is important to understand that the elite media does not want to ask these questions.
No but the question that I asked was the relationship between fake news, fascism and false history and how that is particularly a pertinent point to make about India today where we have an awful amount of fake news.
This is a kind of fake news, Karan. That you are eliding the kind of entitlement of a society that is almost like Apartheid. We can laugh about the mythology and fake news of the Hindu right but there is another, more sophisticated narrative which is equally problematic.
In other words, a lot of what we believe is news; a lot of what we want to talk about, is actually fake. Either it is just a lie or it is a refusal to recognise.
It is a project of ‘un-seeing’; a refusal to recognise, which is a sort of fake news in itself.
That’s what I said. Either it is an outright lie or it is a refusal to recognise and see.
There is one last aspect of Narendra Modi’s India that I want to raise with you and it is, by no means, unconnected to the fascism that you are talking about. It’s Kashmir. In your Jonathan Shell Memorial lecture, you say of the Kashmiri people, and I quote, “Why should they want to be part of India? For what earthly reason? If freedom is what they want, freedom is what they should have.” Can you explain that for us?
Kashmir is a valley covered in graveyards. First of all, we can’t lay the horrors of what has happened over the last 30 years in Kashmir at Narendra Modi’s door; it started way before he was there. Now, with the abrogation of Article 370, it has entered another sphere. But the story of Kashmir; the story of those mass disappearances; the story of the summary executions; the story of the horrors that have been visited upon those people, has been kept from the Indian public because the story of Kashmir has been mediated through a very bigoted nationalist media.
I actually believe that if many Indians really knew what was going on, they would think differently, but that is why Kashmir is the ‘valley from which no news must come’; that is why Kashmiri journalists have been silenced, are being arrested, are being threatened. That is why Khurram Parvez, one of the most wonderful, bright human beings that I know; whose organisation has documented, in chilling detail, what has happened, is in jail now.
This thing that you quote, I wrote after the abrogation of Article 370 when tens of thousands of Kashmiris were in jail – including, by the way, ‘pro-India’ chief ministers, because now you can’t just be pro-India; you have to be pro BJP – including journalists, activists; thousands were in jail. The internet was cut, the phones were down, the valley sewn up in barbed wire. From that vast prison, they are looking at what India is doing with Muslims here, while their land is occupied, their history is being erased. If you were in their position, what would you think of? What would you want? What would you dream of? What would you desire?
You are saying they dream of freedom?
And you are saying that if they should want it, they should, have it?
Do you think the separation of Kashmir from the rest of India is the best thing for them?
I think that it is not my place, in truth, to say what Kashmiris wants. But I think there should be a mechanism where it is not just about what India wants or Pakistan wants, but what Kashmiris want, and I think there can be new imagination if you want to solve the problem. But you don’t, you want to retain the problem.
That new imagination emerges from the acceptance that they want freedom and they have a right to it, so let them have it.
We don’t need to put words into their mouths. Instead of silencing them, we should let them speak.
And hear what they are saying and grant what they want?
And that’s freedom?
Again, let them say it. Why don’t you ask them? Why should you and me be deciding what they want?
You also make a very disturbing comment about the relationship between Kashmir and the rest of India. You write, “Kashmir may not defeat India, but it will consume India.” One of the characters from your book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Musa Yeswi says something very similar. He says, “One day, Kashmir will make India self-destruct in the same way,” – I presume, in the same way that India is making Kashmir self-destruct – “You are not just destroying us,” he says, “you are constructing us. It’s yourselves that you are destroying.” In other words, the bell that tolls in Kashmir is actually tolling for the rest of India.
So Musa is one of the characters in my novel and here he is talking to Biplab Dasgupta, who is a very brilliant but jaded intelligence officer. He is saying that when you steal oxygen from the air, you are left with carbon dioxide – a sort of different kind of carbon footprint if you like. He is talking about the moral corrosion of digesting what is being done in our names in Kashmir.
There is also a kind of institutional corrosion. For example, there are half-a-million soldiers I think, in Kashmir manning, patrolling a place where, by their own admission, a handful of militants. So the really enemy is the people. As (National Security Advisor Ajit) Doval said, “Civil society is the new frontier.” Just like Amit Shah said when he was changing the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), that individuals, writers and people like that are more dangerous than terrorists. Now you have the fighting army converted into a bloated administrative force, almost doing police work, which is very dangerous and destructive for an army.
After that, you have a situation, like we spoke of, of the press being silenced in Kashmir. It was in the papers yesterday that Indian journalists are going to lose their accreditation if they are anti-national, which means anti-BJP. Now look at the army. After those irresponsible remarks that Amit Shah made in Parliament, poking the Chinese dragon in the eye, you have a situation where the army is strung across two frontiers. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have to operate at high altitudes; at temperatures of -30, -40 degrees. They might not be fighting China, but they are already fighting a war against the elements.
Just to keep the Army in place, even if there is no war, in a country which is falling into poverty, into hunger; that is a very stupid way of triggering a stretching of resources.
If I understand correctly, what you are saying is that the way in which we are compromising our constitutional commitments, values, principles and our democracy in the treatment of Kashmir which, as you say goes back 30 years, well before Narendra Modi came to power, will soon begin to affect the same values in the ‘mainland’; it will soon affect the way we behave; the way we treat ourselves; the way we treat our democracy, our journalists, our activists, our freedom fighters in the rest of India?
You are seeing it very clearly already.
This is what you mean when you say, “Kashmir may not defeat India but it will consume India”
It is consuming India, corroding us.
This is what you mean when you say, “You are not destroying us, you are constructing us,” because we are making them bold and strong to demand their freedom, but on the other hand, you are destroying yourself.
That is what Musa is saying–
Musa, I take it, is voicing a thought that the author shares.
Well, that is another huge debate of literature.
No, because it echoes what you wrote in the Jonathan Shell lecture. “Kashmir may not defeat India, but it may consume India.” Musa is saying the same thing.
Yes. But when you read what Biplab Dasgupta says, then you will also say that is what the author thinks–
Let me end very quickly because we have been over a whole gamut of issues and the audience will want a little bit of clarity. Are you worried about the future of India or do you see signs (of improvement). Because you agreed that we are in a hole, but we are climbing out of it. When you are climbing out of a whole the picture is getting better. So is it getting better, is it improving? Or is it deeply depressing and worrying?
I think it depends upon what view you take.
What view do you take? What is your view?
No, what I’m saying is, right now, when you think about it from day to day, week to week; when you are watching people you know being arrested, silenced and beaten up, it is extremely depressing, but I do feel, when I climb a tree and look out, that it will end.
The present is bad, but the future will be better.
The people will end it. That is the only way it will end. One or two people, one politician, some great leader won’t end it; the people will end it.
So, your faith is actually in the Indian people.
The Indian people will continue their commitment to secularism, fraternity; to treating each other properly, to living amicably. No matter how much they are tempted or led astray by the government of the day.
You have put a lot of words in my mouth, I am not saying all that. I don’t think Indian people are all beautiful, wonderful people who love each other and hug each other. They will continue to have these problems. Indian people also did fall into fascism; they also did behave in terrible ways, but I think they are realising now that is at their own cost.
So they are self-correcting?
I think they will self-correct. We still have lots of things that we will have to self-correct about.
Arundhati Roy, thank you very much for this comprehensive answer to the question I began with, “What sort of country are we becoming?
It’s a bleak picture that you paint of the present but there is that little bit of redeeming light because you say that we are beginning the process of climbing out. The Indian people will save us. Thank you very much.