An interview with Arundhati Roy

October 31, 2004

By: Sandip Roy

With presidential politics in the air, it’s no surprise that lines formed around the block this year when Arundhati Roy came to speak in San Francisco and promote her new collections of essays and interviews, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.

Though Roy will cast no vote on November 2, many Americans look to her to articulate their anger and protest. These are excerpts from an interview with her in San Francisco.

At the World Social Forum in 2003 you famously said, “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. On a quiet day if I listen very carefully I can hear her breathing.” One war later do you still feel that way?

At the last World Social Forum in India I said while we were saying another world is possible, George Bush and his gang were saying the same thing but they were radically different views about what that world should be. It’s hard to see a little further than the present, because the present is so dark and violent.

But only a few years ago when I would come here, I’d feel America was very unpolitical. Today it’s charged and people really want to know what’s going on in the world and what their role in it has been. I do think that just the realization is a huge part of the battle and that’s being won.

The mammoth global anti-war protests might have been a spectacular display of public morality. But does one not need to win to keep going?

Absolutely. One of the things happening to the movement for global justice and the movement against war is that its symbolic component has somehow unmoored itself from genuine civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is not theatre alone, though theatre is an essential part of it. When Gandhi did the Salt March in 1931, that was a fantastic piece of political theatre. But when thousands, maybe millions of Indians started making their own salt, it was a direct strike at the economic underpinnings of the British empire.

The march against the war on February 15, 2003 was spectacular, but we also have to understand that a weekend march is not enough. No one even had to miss a day of work. Governments have learned to wait this out. We have to learn to translate this incredible energy into real political action.

Why is there such a gap between how much of the world understands the war in Iraq and how much of America perceives it?

Partly it’s the incredible corporatization of media. That six major corporations own practically all of American media is incredible. People on the outside can’t imagine those levels of indoctrination.

If you go to the Narmada Valley, you’d be surprised at the sophisticated understanding of what globalization is.

People are bearing the brunt of it not just as a little dip in their salaries. Hundreds of farmers are killing themselves because there is no market for their produce and they can’t pay for the pesticide.

In Hindi we have the old song—yeh public hai, yeh sab jaanti hai (this is the public; she knows everything). When you come here you feel Americans don’t know.

I am accused of being anti-American. But the American government and corporate media exploit fear and broadcast fear.

Before Iraq and Afghanistan it was Granada and Nicaragua and Cuba, all tiny little countries that were posing a great threat.

People say you are not just anti-American, you are also anti-Indian. You complain about Muslims being killed in Gujarat but are mum on Hindu Pandits being killed in Kashmir.

This is the standard Hindutva line: “You don’t condemn the burning of the train in Godhra where Hindus died.” But when I am a citizen of a democracy, I have to take responsibility for what the state I voted for does.

And there is a very big difference between a state-assisted pogrom against a people in a country and something that militants have done.

You are very careful about distinguishing between American people and the American government. Now, as Americans elect a new president in November, can the distinction be preserved?

You have to ask the question: are people in a democracy more responsible for the acts of their elected government? After all, the people of Iraq did not elect Saddam and nobody elected the Taliban.

Look at the logic that underlies an act of terror and look at the logic behind the war on terror—it’s the same. Terrorists hold ordinary people responsible for the actions of their government and the United States has held ordinary Iraqis and Afghans responsible for the actions of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Look at the clash between Bush and Kerry. It’s not about whether you buy this detergent or that when both are owned by Procter and Gamble in the end.

Kerry has said he would support the war even if he knew WMDs were not to be found, Kerry just wants UN cover. Which means Indians and Pakistanis will go to Iraq and die instead. And French and Germans and Russians can share in the spoils.

This is a difficult question the anti-war movement has to ask itself. If it openly campaigns for Kerry, is it openly supporting soft imperialism—killing me softly?

We had a similar question in India when the Congress and BJP were up for election. We know the Congress is responsible for carnage, if not genocide. Can you campaign for it? Real public power has to come from outside, from a dissenting public that says, I am sorry but I don’t accept this choice.

What does the dissenting public replace the system with?

The role of being a member of civil society does not mean making the journey from citizen to a politician holding office. It’s about how do you keep power on a short leash, how do you refuse to relinquish your freedoms.

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