Nationalism, media and corruption in India. An interview with Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy ranges broadly over corruption scandals, Wikileaks' excessive desire for the spotlight, Pakistan/India relations, the twinned perils of nationalism and religious fundamentalism ... and how to deal with negative online comments
Syed Hamad Ali
29 August 2011

Syed Hamad Ali: You don’t support the idea of the nation state. Why is that?

Arundhati Roy: Look at what is happening within India. You are allowed to commit as many atrocities as you like within the borders of your own state, that is alright. If India was doing it to Pakistan and Pakistan was doing it to India, it would become a problem. So it’s like you can batter your wife to death in a domestic situation but you can’t do it outside. Actually these are artificial things and you can colonise your own people and you can have as many Abu Ghraibs as you like, you can have as much torture going on as you want, as much starvation, but as long as you are doing it within the idea of a nation state it is alright provided somebody outside doesn’t want your oil or your minerals. And you are not giving it to them, then it becomes a problem. Here in India you are allowed as much violence as you like because you are open to the market. 

I want to talk about the recent nuclear crises that happened in Japan

I was there by the way. 

You were in Japan?

I arrived there the day before the earthquake.

I was in Tokyo and Tokyo began to shake. I mean I think it was the Fukushima meltdown which they have somehow managed to get off the news and say that the answer to Fukushima is more nuclear plants. 

What kind of reaction has this had in India?

Everywhere else people were questioning nuclear plants but in India they were saying ‘but in India nothing can ever happen. It’s going to be fine.’ But there is a huge protest against this nuclear plant in Jaitapur and everywhere. The protest is not necessarily about people who are against nuclear energy but the fact that their lands are being acquired. But there is a lot of resistance.

Have attitudes changed?


You mentioned Jaitapur where they are building the world’s largest nuclear facility. There have been lot of protests going on over there. Have you been involved?

No I am not directly involved, but a lot of people are. It is a huge protest.  

I know it is a mad question to ask, but do you worry about nuclear war between India and Pakistan?

Of course. There are mad people in India and Pakistan. Even recently when this killing of Osama bin Laden happened, if you watched the Indian media, they were all saying why can’t India go and do what America did? And why can’t they go to war? The TV channels are dying for there to be a war. The middle classes, the Hindu right, and equally on the other side. You know crazies on both sides. 

That’s war, but nuclear war?

It’s just an escalation.  

It’s a mad question to ask

Why is it mad?

Just thinking about nuclear war is mad

Why? If they can drop depleted uranium all over Iraq and if the military industrial complex in the world on which the economies of major countries like Israel, America and England depend. The Indian army is willing to spend 45 billion dollars in the next five years on weapons. Now it is important for these countries also to keep these two countries hostile – to sell weapons to them. So it is a game of brinkmanship. And Pakistan as you know is in dire straits, we don’t know what is going to happen. Afghanistan obviously is going to be handed back to the “good” Taleban, whatever that means.

What is the purpose of having nuclear weapons if there is no intention ever of using them?  Obviously at some point in your imagination you have decided that you can use them. However much you say it is about deterrence, the fact is that you have put it into your imagination that you can use them. 

It is becoming impossible for countries like America to actually win wars. It cannot win its war in Iraq. It cannot win its war in Afghanistan. So eventually if you want to take over resources in order to keep capitalist economies going you are going to have to think of ways in which to annihilate the people and keep the resources because you can’t keep on putting boots on the ground. These wars have brought America’s economy crashing down.

I know you are not the biggest fan of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but he said something a few months back which I am going to quote: “If I succeed in normalising relations between India and Pakistan, as they prevail between two normal states, I’ll consider my job well done.” Do you see any chance of peace?

Nobody wants peace. It’s a dhanda you know, the whole thing. But I think that as far as the India Pakistan thing is concerned, the Indian government has reacted with more maturity then it would have had it been a BJP government.

There is a maturity there, but that maturity also comes from being joined at the hip to the United States – doing what you are told you know.

The media, after the Mumbai attack [of 2008], wanted India to go to war. After the Osama bin Laden killing the media wanted India to go to war. So on that the media, which is almost becoming like the shadow government now, is driving it.

If another attack like the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 were to take place, do you think the climate is such it could start a war between India and Pakistan?

No, I don’t think so. Right now anybody who has half of a brain sees that Pakistan is in a state where its being attacked itself. It is having its 26/11 every other week. So for India to try and act like it is the victim of some big Pakistani plot is a bit absurd. You know that whole subcontinent is in disarray now. There are people in India, the right wing and most of the media channels, who will do there best to create that.

Earlier this year The Hindu newspaper ran WikiLeaks revelations exposing corruption in India. As a media critic did you welcome these?

Absolutely. I welcome them. I mean WikiLeaks was big but, I don’t know if you followed that whole 2G scam in India where the telephone conversations of this Niira Radia were published. They exposed a scam of 1.75 lakh crores (billions), and the whole nexus between the media, the corporates, politicians – all of that was exposed in a very precise and direct way. WikiLeaks has lovely things like the BJP basically telling  the Americans esay hum theatre kar raha ha (this is how we are doing theatre.) Don’t worry, we are all agreed on these things. It was great.

Sometimes the analysis, the statements, that Julian Assange made about the WikiLeaks and what they meant in India were completely off the mark. But the leaks themselves were fantastic.

In what way were they off the mark?

You know this thing about somehow, I can’t even remember a thing, but you know about WikiLeaks being responsible for the whole anti-corruption thing that is happening. That really wasn’t the case. It was the 2G tapes and the Niira Radia tapes and all of that. Or the kind of taking credit for the Arab spring you know – whatever. I mean it is all part of something but not the whole of anything. But I am completely supportive of what they did.  

By the way given your own experiences of being targeted in India, do you relate to Julian Assange in the way he has been attacked? Here in the West he has become a very controversial figure – especially for people in corridors of power.

You see I don’t think we should spend much time discussing the individual because it doesn’t matter eventually whether he is a good guy or a bad guy. Or I am a good guy or I am a bad guy. The issue is what are you saying – let’s talk about that.

This idea of making someone as icon, then demonising them, then putting them on a pedestal, then kicking them off. It doesn’t matter whether I bear good moral character or I am a nice human being or I am not. How does it matter? I am certainly not perfect. I am certainly not somebody who everybody needs to stand-up and applaud and throw petals on every time I walk past. Nor am I someone who needs to be beaten up, you know? It doesn’t matter who I am or what I am or how nice I am or not.   

In articles about you online I have seen a lot of negative comments from readers. Who are your supporters?  

You see those things are placed in the world of the vested interests and that is what is interesting. No one else gets that place. There are millions of people who think like that, same thing that I think. After those comments, the deeper the embrace from those who are deliberately unheard.  You come with me to India, I will go with you to Bhubneswar or Jalandar, thousands come for the meetings.

And these people, they belong to the middle classes?

No. In Bhubaneswar it was like 5000 Adivasis who had come from 31 different places, some of whom were arrested and are still in jail. Two of them died.

How do they hear about you?

Because there are so many organisations working. There is a whole world out there that is beyond this media bull shit of internet comments. The sort of Indian diaspora and the internet is like the Israeli diaspora, you know? Sometimes you see it is the same people who write the letters against everybody. It’s a campaign and you can’t just fall for it and think ‘oh this is what people are feeling.’ It’s not.

The Nobel Laureate V.S.Naipaul recently said at the Royal Geographic Society that no woman writer is his equal. Your comment?

He is a barrel of laughs, no?  Like if he goes there, and they want to be provoked, he obliges them.    

Is nationalism a bigger evil or is religious fundamentalism?

Why do we have to be hierarchical thinkers? The nationalism is a form of religious fundamentalism. The kind of hyper-nationalism that you have in India is a kind of religion.     


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData