‘The people are being suffocated’

Arundhati RoyCollected

Acclaimed novelist and civil rights activist Arundhati Roy has been writing over the past few decades on the political situation in India. She recently spoke to Prothom Alo in an interview, deliberating on the rise of Hindutva in India and its dangers, the role of BJP, Congress and other political parties, and more.

Q :

You celebrated your 60th birthday a few months ago. When you celebrated your birthday in the past, say in 1991, it was your 30th birthday and in India, the winds of Hindutva has started blowing. The Rath Yatra took place and the next year the Babri Masjid was demolished. Back then did you imagine you would ever in your lifetime see India at its present state?

Most people mistake my age. I am 62, not 60. Anyway, to answer your question, at the time that the BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani began the Rath Yatra which ultimately led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, I was busy shooting for a film in Madhya Pradesh. I recall a frenzy had been generated in Bhopal. For the past two decades I have been writing about the time through which we are now passing. I have written about RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) too. Narendra Modi is a member of that fascist and Hindu nationalist organisation. It is the most powerful political organisation in India with thousands of branches and hundreds of thousands of members.

We must keep in mind that this year marks the 20th anniversary or the Gujarat massacre. Those riots took place when Modi was the chief minister there and it won him the hearts of the extremists. The big business conglomerates of India supported Modi’s ascent to the helm of power. That engine that drove him to power, advanced on the basis of destruction, ‘gunfights’ and killing. I would write about this and became the laughing stock of the India’s so-called secular and liberal commentators. Now they are drowning in their own tears.

Q :

What changes in Indian society is making more or less all political parties take up Hindu mannerisms and conventions?

It took RSS around a century to identity the fault lines in society. Then they attached electric wires to the fault lines to create an explosion and instigate a revival of archaic conventions. They were also successful in generating new rites and conventions. But there are limit to serially spreading hate speech. India is a huge and diverse country and this is beyond their limited imagination. However, we have to pass through this time, through this tunnel. There will be further problems in the months to come. RSS will either destroy India or India will destroy them. The people are now seeing through their plans. These are the poor people, not the elite. These poor people are having to pay a heavy price for RSS.

This is evident in the conversations you hear on the streets and in the villages of Uttar Pradesh. Like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh has become an experimental laboratory for Hindutva. People are putting up resistance there, the political parties too are standing up. One state after the other is breaking free from BJP control. But the problem is at the centre. The solution lies only in federalism like the federal structure of the United States.

Q :

India has never seen such a degree of hatred like this. Take the hijab controversy, for example. What could be the reason behind this deep hatred for a certain community?

It is not that we haven’t seen outbursts of hatred in the past. Interracial, inter-caste, inter-religious hatred has regularly surfaced in a despicable manner. We are an extremely violent society. There was the anti-Sikh massacre in Delhi, then the 1993 killing of Muslims in Mumbai. Christians were killed in Kandhamal, Odisha. Churches were razed to the ground, missionaries were burned to death. But what is scary now is that a ideology is being created behind all this. Those who believe in this ideology take pride in these killings, in beating to death.

The Karnataka High Court has prohibited hijab in schools for the time being and this has facilitated those in power. Due to the religious polarisation in Uttar Pradesh, the matter is being orchestrated from outside the state because the issue of law and order or ‘security’ has become an election issue there.

Meanwhile, the Indian prime minister and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister on official platforms flaunt their saffron robes like Hindu priests. You can assess the situation from that. It is extremely unfortunate that Muslim girls are having to enter their classrooms without hijab.

Q :

Do you think that the parties in power in the past, the governments, particularly Congress, are responsible to a great extent for this state of affairs?

The Congress did a lot of extremely bad things and also a lot of good work. But later they themselves tried to cover up the good things they had done. Congress prepared a field which made it easy for BJP to cultivate. The face and the character of RSS and the tireless efforts of their activists around the country has created a furor. The powerful centre is now a centre of frenzy.

The prime minister’s lack of intelligence can’t be covered up by RSS’ murky ideology. It is futile to attempt to establish a medieval nation in modern day politics. The prime minister has lost control over himself. He no longer wears normal clothes, he only dons dramatic costumes. One day he appears as a spiritual guru, the next day as a soldier. The third day he appears as a Sikh, and on the fourth day maybe as a member of a music band in Goa. It all depends on where he has gone for his election campaign or who he is meeting. This is a matter of concern.

Q :

How is Kashmir being viewed in Indian politics at present?

I do not know what will happen about Kashmir. The people are being suffocated. They are being ground into powder. Even so, they are standing up and resisting. Kashmir’s media is being strangulated to death. The India media is absolutely lying. The doors have been opened so that Indians in massive number can enter and overrun Kashmir.

On the other hand, due to shortsighted decisions, the status quo has been changed to abolish Article 370 and now India troops are being amassed along two borders to tackle China and Pakistan’s forces. It is hugely expensive to keep the army prepared to fight at such a height. Economic problems will be exacerbated and the health of the troops will suffer. Many will die simply due to the natural surroundings.

Q :

Do you have confidence in the institutions like the judiciary, the electoral process or the media?

The mainstream media has no credibility at all. At this juncture of history, the media has played the role of a killer which is unforgivable. The electoral process has been extremely influenced. Alongside secret election bonds, there was the demonetisation. This rendered the political parties poor and made BJP unimaginably rich. You can see the outcome in Uttar Pradesh where the elections are being carried out. BJP has more than enough money to pay their workers, they have people to man the booths, they have a network to gather information, but no one else has all this. It is like a Ferrari in competition with a cycle. So what does the other side have? Let me resort to a metaphor. A Ferrari can’t advance far along the rural roads rife with ruts and potholes so a cycle might win the race there. But that will be a struggle against all odds.

Then there is the judiciary. Over the past few years the judiciary has been alarmingly working in conjunction with the government agenda. So it can be said that I too have a sort of shaky confidence in these shaky institutions.

Q :

Is India still a secular country or has this changed from within? Do the people believe it is secular?

I feel a large part of the Indian people are influenced, impressed and awed by the BJP narrative. The poison has entered our veins. But the problem has reached its climax and a new chapter will begin. But the weaker BJP becomes, the more dangerous it will be. This party came to power through a series of massacres, false alarms and using the social media as a field for their fake news. They will exit from power in the same manner.

The problem is that if a weak party or parties defeat them, then perhaps BJP will return even more powerful. But people have had enough of them. I am also certain that a large number of the people in India do not want to be part of this hatred fest. They will resist and they are doing so.

Q :

How hopeful are you about Congress and the regional parties?

Congress is in shambles. It is like a goldfish fighting a shark. But the regional parties are extremely courageous and have displayed a fighting spirit in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab and Maharashtra. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav is putting up an unimaginable fight in Uttar Pradesh. The people there too are putting up a fight. If you listen to the people in the cities and the villages, or you've seen the huge gatherings of the farmers, you will understand what they want to say. If the leadership at the state level can work with Congress, and if the party uses its farsightedness to establish a unity of states programme with due humility, then it will be possible to defeat BJP. It is not warranted that one individual be the alternative to Modi, to become the leader of the people. It is not an individual but an alternative system that is required.

Q :

Is there any other message you would like to convey?

Yes, we are standing in front of a hate manufacturing machine which prevents us from seeing the actual problems of India. There is a scarcity of water, endemic poverty and hunger, lack to access to medicines and medical care, malnutrition leading to stunted growth of children, suicides of thousands or farmers, mounting unemployment, no end to the problems. India has one of the most inequitable societies in the world today. Each and every one of us should be ashamed of the circumstances of the people in the cities and the villages even today.

Q :

Do you have any plans or a book or writing at this time?

I have a lot of travelling ahead which had been cancelled due to Covid. I am having to plan all over again. I haven’t been writing that much.