Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arundhati Roy vs. New India

Booker prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy’s book launch in India was disrupted by protestors recently. But in Britain recently she walked into a packed lecture theatre at the University of London to rapturous applause.

The 49-year-old, who has been accused of hating her homeland, arrived at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London several days ago with no star fanfare, dressed in a simple green sari. She mingled freely with guests queuing up to see her, before taking her seat at her first ever public lecture at the British university.

The controversial novelist-turned political activist was in the UK on a whirlwind publicity tour to promote the Adivasi resistance movement in India and her book, Broken Republic: Three Essays, published by Hamish Hamilton.
Arundhati Roy giving the lecture at SOAS in London recently
The previous week, she had appeared on Newsnight, a BBC current affairs programme watched by millions, in which she had informed the British public that the Indian economic success story was a “lie” because 80 million people in India were living on less than Rs 20 a day, there were more poor people living in India than in Africa, and that India’s growth rate was “built on taking land from the poor” and “vandalising India’s Constitution.”

As guests eagerly queued up for her free public forum, titled ‘Burning Ground: Mining, Adivasis and India's Civil War’, at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS on Sunday, two young people handed out leaflets advertising another UK lecture Roy had lined up in London later in the week – organised by a group that calls itself the International Campaign Against War on People of India. The A4 leaflet was titled ‘Stop the genocidal war against the tribal people of India.’ On its website the group claims it aims to “expose the Indian government's war on the people in India” and their attempts to “grab land and minerals” from areas where tribal people live.

 “Before stepping up on to the stage I was asked whether I was nervous when I had to speak in front of large numbers of people. But now there is more fury in me and the nervousness went away a long time ago,” Roy bellowed to the SOAS lecture hall.

“I want you all to know that the Indian Government is going to deploy the army, spending US$45bn in central India to fight the poorest people in the world. This is what is about to happen,” she continued in a serious voice, pausing intermittently to lend her words even more power. 

She then shifted into a sarcastic tone. “So, whenever you start thinking that India is such a bubbly, cuddly modern democracy, then please pay attention to this,” she said to the audience of predominantly postgraduates, students, NGO workers and academics.
The audience packed The Brunei Gallery

“This is a very old story, the old story of mining,” she said simplifying a complex matter into a few words. “The story of mining and environmental destruction,” she went on. “And of indigenous people.” Thus in sparse words she had evoked parallels with the California Gold Rush, the impact of mining on the Aborigines way of life in Australia and all the former colonial powers’ exploitation of resources.

Roy is furious about the decades-old Maoist insurgency in central and eastern India in which more than 6,000 people have lost their lives. Whilst it is an uprising that the prime minister of India has declared as “the single greatest threat to India’s internal security”, suggesting it is a greater threat to India than that of Jihadist terrorists from Pakistan,  Roy has an entirely different perspective. She sees it as an unjust war against simple, poor Adivasis who are merely and rightfully resisting being displaced by large corporations for mining projects.

A video link was set up to stream her talk into another lecture theatre simultaneously as so many people had come to London listen to the famous novelist.

John Hollingsworth, Brunei Gallery Exhibitions Manager, had organised the public forum, with funding from a variety of organisations including The Gandhi Foundation. Despite being free, tickets had had to be reserved in advance and it was overbooked two weeks in advance. He said: “Initial interest was so high we could have filled the 300 seat Brunei Gallery three times over. It did not need much publicity as word of mouth spread very quickly.”

As for a reaction from the Indian Government to all the allegations, he said: “The Indian Government was invited to the opening of the exhibition and our first seminar to put their own point forward, but as far as we are aware, no representative was able to attend.”

Roy has been on a tirade against the Indian Government ever since she took up social causes such as opposing such as the Narmada Dam and supporting Kashmir’s independence, following the success of her first novel The God of Small Things, which won the Man Booker prize in 1997. In recent months her controversial campaign to garner support for the Maoists has intensified, a viewpoint that has led to fierce criticism in India, where she irks some of the burgeoning middle class. She was denounced by a few protesters as a ‘Murdabad’ at her latest book launch at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi recently.

She began her speech at SOAS talking about climate change, the state of the planet and declared the world was in crisis. “Just look at the plastic in the ocean and the state of the forests,” she said.
Arundhati Roy remained passionate throughout her speech
But before long she was attacking her homeland claiming India’s democracy was sham.
“India’s USP is that it is a democracy but unlike western nations, who when they were industrialising, were developing laws and codes of civil rights, India started colonising itself,” she said.

She then posed the question: “Are Maoists really Maoists since 95 per cent are Adivasi?”

Reading extracts from Broken Republic, she spoke about Adivasis being killed in what were “merely described as encounters by the Indian media” and that the atrocities being committed were blatantly “ignored by the Indian media.” According to her, more than 200 MOUs have been signed by the Indian government giving tribal land to corporations for industrial projects. She said more than 400,000 people were displaced and Rs700 billion spent to make way for The Commonwealth Games, which a lot of athletes and the Queen did not attend “to celebrate the British Empire.” She also spoke about protests by pavement dwellers and those displaced by Special Economic Zones that were ignored by the media. They have now become gangs of slaves moving from city to city building new India, which has no relevance to them, she declared.

Roy, who has even spent time with the Maoist guerrillas in the forest, said “I asked the women why they joined the guerrilla army and they said they had watched their sisters and mothers get raped. It’s not just about mining corporations, it’s about feudalism and casteism. They wanted to escape even the patriarchy of their own society,” she said, in a rare moment of criticism of patriarchal tribal societies. “India has some of the most extraordinary women in the world yet people commit female foeticide” she said. “This is a struggle for the whole world, it’s everyone’s struggle, not just India’s.

Now we have the rich who look down on the poor thinking what are they doing drinking the water in our rivers and living in our forests?”

As for the legitimacy and morality of armed resistance, she was intransigent. “I have been accused of being a terrorist and a Marxist but someone has got to stop the violence. If you live in a forest village in a tribal area and 800 people come and burn down your village , what are you supposed to do? Declare a hunger strike? The politics of the non-violent struggle is an effective form of theatre but only if there is an audience. There is no audience in the forest. The hungry can’t go on a hunger strike. These people have nothing and it is not reported so they have no choice. What is happening in India is genocide and people have the right to resist by whatever means possible,” she said.

She fell short of commenting on the atrocities committed by Maoists in the so-called red corridor of central and eastern India where they are fighting the Indian army or of expressing any sympathy for victims of Maoist attacks, a subjective stance that continues to draws fierce criticism within some quarters in India.

Indeed, while the main target of the Maoist insurgents has been the police and the army, civilians have also been killed in the violent uprising that has seen trains hijacked, buses bombed, landmine attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and executions.

Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, authors of Out of This Earth: East Indian Adivasis and The Aluminium Cartel (2010), were also speakers. 
On the far right is Felix Padel, a descendant of Charles Darwin
They have written a book that explores how the mining of bauxite to make aluminium is linked to corruption, international banks, the London Metal Exchange, multinational companies and the destruction of Adivasis communities.

Padel, a freelance British anthropologist, and great great grandson of Charles Darwin, has lived in India 30 years. He said that the Indian Government had “invented the Maoist as a bogeyman” to get public support behind attacks on Adivasis. “I see the war on Maoists as a war against tribal people,” he said, echoing Roy. 

He spoke about how large well-known Indian corporate houses controlled the media and so when their steel or mining arms forcibly displaced Adivasis to start steel plants and mines in virgin forests, the media did not cover it. He even claimed major international bodies like The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the UK Department for International Development, were tied up in the racket by giving loans for building roads and mine infrastructure and that  “squeaky clean offices in London”  were linked to the corruption.

“Many people do not know that a civil war is happening in India. This is the worst war that has ever taken place in India, especially because it’s directed against villagers who have been there for hundreds of years,” added Padel, who is married to an Adivasi woman and lives in a remote village in Orissa.

“Chattisgarh has become a hell on earth. The tribes are civilised in terms of law, the position of women and children. There is only one war in India that is similar to this and that is the Kalinga War when Emperor Ashoka attacked the state of Kalinga.”

The atmosphere changed when a member of the audience  of Indian origin, grabbed the mike and read a question from a crumpled up piece of file paper, asking Roy why she was so negative about India and requesting her to list three things she liked about India.
The first man to ask a question attacked Arundhati Roy

As his lengthy criticism of Roy continued, a large number of the audience started booing and hissing him, but he continued unperturbed, dogged that he was on the right course.   After listening patiently, Roy retorted that she was  proud of “the resistance movement in India” and then talked about the “spirit and imagination of India” she was trying to protect. The next question was from another young man of Indian origin. He also was critical of Roy and wanted evidence the media was controlled by corporates and questioned Roy’s intractable stance India was a Hindu state. Roy replied that 95 per cent of profits of mainstream papers in India came from corporate adverts and that they would pull adverts if stories appeared that they did not like. All the wars 
Arundhati Roy was unperturbed by criticism
against Adivasis were being waged in non-Hindu states, she claimed.

 “India is a democracy but a democracy for a few people” she continued. “The day the Indian Constitution came into being was a dark day for Adivasis. Yet tribal people were there before India existed.”

The discussion then moved on to press censorship and the corruption of  well-known international NGOs, ending with loud applause with most of the audience seemingly agreeing with Roy’s take on India’s civil war.

Outside the lecture hall guests looked around a two floor photo exhibition called A Disappearing World: Ancient Traditions Under Threat in Tribal India by Robert Wallis an American independent photojournalist based in the UK. Wallis had travelled to Jharkhand, one of the richest states in India in terms of minerals, and photographed Adivasi who he said were being displaced by large mining corporations that were moving into their forest homelands to extract coal and minerals such as coal, copper, iron ore and bauxalite.

The walls were filled with pictures of Adivasis first in their traditional mud or leaf homes, then in urban slums and resettlement camps, where he said they had been forcibly removed and rehoused to make way for open-cast mining of coal, iron ore and bauxite. In some pictures they were scavengers on the peripheries of mines. The captions sated they had been dispossessed of their homes and heritage and without work, ended up scavenging or working at salve labour rates amid  dire conditions left them with respiratory diseases and tuberculosis. One  picture showed a couple from the Birhar tribes with their hunting nets. A caption stated they were returning home having caught nothing as wildlife was disappearing and there were no animals to hunt owing to the destruction of the forest habitat.

Nearby people queued up for Broken Republic costing £18 (Rs1,400) a copy, while outside the Gallery, one of the young Indian origin men who had criticised Roy was smoking a cigarette continuing the  debate outside with a friend.  “It’s because of things like this,” he said pointing at his expensive blackberry and mobile phone, “that my generation is excited. New India is bringing us opportunities and things we never had before. She is seen as a joke in India. Very few people take her seriously.” He paused and dragged on his cigarette. “It’s just governance that is the problem.”