We are trying to institutionalise injustice: Arundhati Roy

Pankaj Srivastava | April 15, 2015

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Writer Arundhati Roy stirred another controversy when she called Mahatma Gandhi the “first corporate-sponsored NGO of the country”. She made this remark at the 10th annual Cinema of Resistance film festival in Gorakhpur. Despite protests across the city for her statement, Roy stayed on and participated in the festival. Between screenings and on the sidelines, Pankaj Srivastava discussed several issues with her. Here are the excerpts from the interactions:

You are attending this film festival for the second time. Cinema of Resistance has completed 10 years in Gorakhpur, a city known for the Gorakhnath temple whose heads have been right-wing politicians too. How do you see that context?

No. I have participated thrice, including the occasion when the venue of the festival was Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. Cinema of Resistance is an important event, which is not and ought not to be just confined to Gorakhpur. The fact that it is not funded by corporates or NGOs makes it very important. Otherwise, even resistance has become a brand, a product, a marketable commodity. Whether it is in the US or India, almost everywhere the effort is on creating a brand consolidating resistance and keeping it within the system. After I wrote ‘The End of Imagination’, several brands, including those of a few jeans companies, contacted me for endorsements.

This is a very old game but it has taken on new proportions. Big foundations, both here in India and abroad, are busy co-opting artists, writers and filmmakers, who are seen as radical. The idea is to fund them, control them and then sandpaper the edges off them and make them safe. The oldest in this game are organisations like Ford Foundation. In the US, they fund civil rights organisations, academic courses; they have even funded ‘Citizenfour’, the film on the CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the documents about the US government spying on the whole world. Ford Foundation invested money in it.

“Good days have definitely come for the rich”

On banning ‘India’s Daughter’
However bad a film or a piece of writing might be, however much I disagree with it, however much I am appalled by the hatred or communal feeling it might spread, I would never vote for censorship.

On Modi’s ‘Achhe Din’
Good days have definitely come for the rich. The land bill is one example.

On the charge that you speak in the tone of RSS while criticising Gandhi
The RSS criticises Gandhi from the communal angle. It is itself a fascist organisation inspired by Hitler and Mussolini. I criticise Gandhi for his thinking that has harmed dalits and labourers in the country.

On the AAP government in Delhi
I was happy when the results were declared in Delhi, because it really failed Modi’s fascist campaign. However, it would be too early to comment on the work of the government. It is not just about corruption but it’s time to see what stand it takes on several other important issues.

On current writing
I am working on a novel right now. It will not be another ‘The God of Small Things’. I am writing something different.

In India, the character of the crowd gathering at Jantar Mantar has changed. Several NGOs, taking money from Ford Foundation and similar organisations, are engaged in sponsoring resistance. Against this backdrop, celebrating Cinema of Resistance in a city like this, which is ruled by the RSS and VHP, is extremely important. Yesterday somebody was complaining that the festival hasn’t changed anything. I think it has. Things would be worse if we did not have events like this that refuse to toe the line and die away – that insist on showing people things they would rather forget about.

Looking at the contemporary political scenario, where do you think we as a nation are heading to?

When the Lok Sabha election results were declared, even I, along with several others, could not believe the verdict of the nation that brought Narendra Modi to power. But if we see it from a historical point of view, it was destined to happen. Programmes like ‘ghar wapasi’ were started by the end of 19th century and hence we had to see this phase today. What matters is how long this is going to continue, because these days things are changing very fast. Modi has already lost a great deal of credibility because he simply cannot deliver on the absurd election promises he made. Also, I think people feel a little embarrassed by the level of idiocy that has entered public discourse. When a prime minister announces that Ganesha’s elephant head was an example of plastic surgery in ancient India it really is embarrassing. How long will even people who long for fascism tolerate such foolishness? As for that '10 lakh suit with his name woven on to it… It was a suit, but it did the opposite of what clothes are meant to do – it stripped him and exposed him.

But what this country is going through now is a culmination of what began a long time ago. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, two locks were opened, the lock of the Babri Masjid and the lock that regulated India’s markets and its economy. With this, two types of fanaticism were unleashed: Hindutva fundamentalism and economic fundamentalism. These two manufactured their own “terrorists” – the “Islamic terrorists” and the “Maoist terrorists”. This then gave the state the excuse to militarise rapidly. The Congress and BJP both did the same. Both know that the new free-market policies cannot be implemented without it. So, now we live in a police/military state which calls itself a democracy but has laws like AFSPA and UAPA which are totally undemocratic. Tens of thousands of people are in prison. In places like Kashmir and the states of the northeast the army works like a police force, in places like Chhattisgarh the police is being trained to become like an army.

Do you see any hope or endeavour in the direction that might bring about a change?

The idea of resistance, or revolution, has suffered a great setback over the few decades. In the 1960s the Naxalites and even the JP movement were demanding Land to the Tiller, a redistribution of wealth. Today, even the most radical political outfits – even Maoists – are fighting displacement. Which means they are fighting to prevent land being snatched away from people who have land. The Narmada movement demands that there should be no displacement. Which means one should not snatch something from the one who possesses it. The landless, the issue of caste, the urban poor – these are more or less out of the political discourse.

The idea of ‘justice’ has been replaced by the idea of human rights. This is a big and clever change in language. Talking only of human rights violations allows the media and NGOs and everyone else to make a great equivalence between, say, for example, Maoists and the government. Of course, they are both violaters of human rights, but this allows the political context, the idea of justice to be left out of the conversation.

All in all, it’s an attack on the imagination. We are being taught that revolution is nothing but a utopian idea and it is foolishness. Small questions are becoming big while the big questions are missing from the list.

Can we say that in this battle of imagination, the power of resistance has surrendered?

It has not surrendered but we are in a great deal of trouble. Every institution in this democracy seems to see its role as being to control people, not to work for them. We do not seem to be a society that is striving towards justice, but quite the opposite. We are trying to institutionalise injustice. Justice is a thing which is just out of the imagination. In the 28-year-old legal battle in the Hashimpura massacre, the trial court has acquitted all accused. Twenty-eight years it took them to say there was not enough evidence? If this is true, then the real killers have had 28 years to cover their tracks. Who is responsible for this?

During the inauguration of the festival you said that Gandhi was the first corporate-sponsored NGO. What is the basis of your comment?

Since 1915, when he came back from South Africa, until he was murdered, Gandhi was sponsored by the Birlas, and also by Bajaj and the Tatas. There has been a concerted and extremely successful effort by the establishment and several scholars to falsify the reality of Gandhi. But Gandhi himself was pretty frank about most things. All you have to do is to read ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ to give yourself a shock. We have all been taught that Gandhi started his struggle against racism in South Africa after he was thrown out of a whites-only compartment of a train. This is factually wrong. Gandhi was not against racism. He was against Indians being treated on a par with black Africans. His first political victory was having a third door opened in the Durban post office so that Indians would not have to share an entrance with black people. He supported the British during the Boer war and during the Bambatha rebellion. It’s all down in black and white. In his own words.

You are giving a new dimension to the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate. Your essay, ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, also drew enough controversy.

I wish people would read the essay.  Once again, we have all been taught that Gandhi was against the caste system. This is not true. He was against the practice of untouchability, but he believed that varnashram dharm was Hinduism’s greatest gift to civilisation. He believed that caste should exist, that everybody should carry on with their hierarchical occupations but everybody should be treated equally. Once again, it’s not my interpretation – all I have done is to reproduce his writings from 1901 to 1946. Gandhi’s fast to death against Ambedkar’s demands that led to the signing of the Poona Pact still has its effects on the country. There is so much ridiculous falsehood being spread around. Ambedkar was the one who had the courage to question Gandhi at the height of Gandhi’s fame and power. Yet, in the movie ‘Gandhi’ by Richard Attenborough, made in cooperation with the Indian government, Ambedkar does not even appear – he has been airbrushed out of history. If, after so many years, we cannot deal with the truth then we are intellectual cowards. As long as we do not address caste we are condemned to being a sick society.

Gandhi had his critics, for example, Bhagat Singh and his associates, but then even they said that not giving credit to him for awakening the nation would be sheer thanklessness.

It’s high time we go beyond thankfulness and thanklessness. To critique Gandhi does not mean we condemn every single thing he stood for. He was prophetic in his vision of the seeds of cataclysm in modern western industrial society. As a reaction to this, he worshipped traditional village life in India, utterly blind to its dehumanising cruelty that Ambedkar experienced and wrote about so brilliantly.

You call upon dalits to fight casteism and capitalism simultaneously. But some dalit intellectuals want to produce dalit capitalists, and they are also in favour of maintaining caste identities. Caste is being converted into vote banks. How do you see this trend?

This is natural. We live in a capitalist society in which dalits have been excluded. Now they want to be included, and people begin to lecture them on the vices of capitalism. That’s not right. Because all of us, even those who do not believe in it are by default forced into living as capitalists do – big or small. It’s another matter that capitalism, as figures show, is only entrenching caste further. The big corporations are all, for the most part, owned and run by those who are banias and marwaris. In this new economy most dalits continue to be landless and continue to work in their hereditary occupations. There are great exceptions, of course, but on the whole caste and capitalism have merged into a toxic alloy.

Do you see any hope anywhere?

The contemporary situation is not the result of a single decision. It is the result of a series of thousands of decisions taken earlier. Therefore, to change things will not be one great battle with one great victory. The small battles are important. The  battles being fought in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bastar are important. The fight against big dams is necessary. And winning these fights is equally necessary.

There is a segment of population which has still not given up its dreams. The segment that still believes in the imagination of change.



(The interview appears in the April 16-30, 2015, issue)



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