Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket), Arundhati Roy's latest book, describes in impassioned detail the consequences of India's economic and political choices over the past few decades, from which a few Indians have benefited and many, many more suffered. In late March, Roy read from the work to a sold-out hall at the New School. Afterward, she spoke to Siddhartha Deb about India’s wealth divide, the expectations of the country’s “brash new middle class,” the impending elections, and the Naxalite protests in the forest. Roy became famous for her much-admired 1997 novel, The God of Small Things. The nonfiction that she has exclusively published since then has all been explicitly political, as an incomplete survey of the titles reveals: The Cost of Living (1999), Power Politics (2002), War Talk (2003), An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004), Walking with the Comrades (2011). Of her shift away from fiction—and her intention, recently voiced, to shift back—Roy has said that certain things need to be said directly. In fact she is appealingly direct about most things, possessed of a modest authority that is one of her best qualities as a speaker and writer. After her conversation with Deb, she took questions from the audience. “I am very bad at giving advice,” she insisted to more than one questioner, but people kept asking.
Siddhartha Deb: I was struck by a figure you cite in Capitalism: A Ghost Story, that India's hundred richest people own assets equal to one-fourth of the GDP. I suppose, sadly, that we've become used to that kind of concentration of wealth, not just in India, but in China, the United States, increasingly across the world—this is something Indian capitalism has in common with capitalism everywhere. But I'm also struck by another figure that you cite, that "after twenty years of 'growth' sixty percent of India's workforce is self-employed, and ninety percent . . . works in the unorganized sector." Why is it that after twenty years of growth so many are working in the unorganized sector? What does "unorganized sector" mean?
Arundhati Roy: In the late 80s and early 90s, when Soviet communism lost the war in Afghanistan and the world became unipolar, India, which used to be aligned with the Soviet Union, began to see itself as a natural ally of Israel and the US and changed its economic policies. The change involved dismantling protection to workers. They would pass laws, like laws for minimum wages, that everyone understood were never going to be implemented. I've written about the issue of dam building. People displaced in the hundreds of thousands are told, "When this dam is built you'll all get a job." But there are no jobs. Mechanization is taking place. We have what is known as jobless growth. One of the great areas of growth is the IT sector, for example. A small section of people have become very wealthy, but even a small percentage of a population like India's still means that this is a very big market. The rest have fallen outside the radar altogether.
SD: You've followed some of the labor strikes, like at the Maruti factory. What happens to workers, essentially former agriculturists, who are getting jobs in the cities? What kind of struggles do they face? Why aren't they doing better after twenty years of growth?
AR: Because, again, in the Maruti factory a few workers are in the organized sector and the rest are unorganized sector workers: The pressure is on them to work faster, to produce more cars, to have less free time. They are not allowed to have a union. Finally there was a strike, and, according to the workers, some people entered the factory in worker's uniforms who weren't really workers and one management person was killed. The person killed happened to be the one management person who was actually on the side of the workers. And now hundreds have been put into prison, the rest have been sacked. You have workers brought in from elsewhere and paid very low wages, willing to work as virtually slave labor. This is what's happening everywhere. If you go to the outskirts of Delhi what's going on is worse than medieval. And Maruti is supposed to be the sort of pilot of operations of India shining. It's the show window. So the people in the villages are being displaced and losing their livelihoods and their land and now there's trouble in the show window as well.
SD: The growth over the last twenty years hasn't led to much for the people, the 900 million or so; for the majority of the people it's been slowing down. What effect is this having on the elections next month? You've mentioned that since 2004 the Congress party has overseen the expansion of the market, the expansion of the middle class, the expansion of the consumers. Why do people want the Congress out? Why does a section—a very vocal section—of the elites, the middle class, the well-to-do, want the Congress out and the Bharatiya Janata party, the BJP, in?
AR: I'll connect my answer to your earlier question about capitalism. See, in India we're still not an entirely capitalist country. Indian society is to a great extent still feudal, extremely communal, and, fundamentally, casteist. One of the things that has happened in India since the markets opened to international finance is that a hugely Hindu-chauvinist movement has started, led by the BJP obviously. Communalism and corporatism have developed hand in hand. With the slow-down of the world economy, the expectations of this very brash new middle class have turned dangerous. They were sitting in an aircraft hoping to take off and suddenly it's frozen, the expectations have turned to panic. There's a hope that a more aggressive government can push through what they want. The Congress is seen as being—and is, but so is everybody else here—deeply corrupt, deeply rotten. The impatience of the middle class is taking the form of huge protests on different issues, mainly the anti-corruption issue that started with Anna Hazare, which was covered twenty-four-seven by corporate media channels. That was the beginning of the BJP and the various very, very right-wing groups who were backing it at the time. That was the beginning of the end of the Congress, in some ways, because it was portrayed as a weak government that couldn't push through policy.
SD: Why was it seen as weak? Because it wasn't willing to commit itself fully, or not as fully as the BJP, to a kind of Hindu majoritarian identity?
AR: If you go back to the turn of the twentieth century, you had, in the freedom movement, two factions in the Congress known as the Naram dal and the Garam dal, the militant and the moderate. Now they just happen to be two different political parties; they're playing out the same trajectory. The BJP sells Hindu nationalism and the Congress sells secularism, though actually if you look at the wars that the Indian army has fought since 1947, mostly years of Congress rule, they are always fought against the "other"—Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Adivasis. It's an upper-caste Hindu state at war with the "other."
SD: That remains consistent no matter which party?
AR: Yes, it's in both; it's just that one does by day what the other does by night.
SD: But isn't there something marked about this moment where the Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP, Narendra Modi, is so aggressive? He was the chief minister in Gujarat, where an enormous incident of violence took place. The United States denied him a visa partly because of that. But now he's being projected as someone who's a good manager, who has a vision of a corporate India. There's enormous social media support among the Indian elites for him. Even the United States and the UK and the European governments have come around, or they seem to be on the verge of accepting him as the person who is going to lead India. So even though there is no difference in some sense between the Congress and the BJP—one does by day what the other does by night—there seems something particular about this moment.
AR: I think that we are poised in a momentous and slightly dangerous space. In 2002, fifty-eight Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive in a train in Gujarat. We still don't know who burnt them or how it happened. Following that was a sort of genocidal program against Muslims, where more than one thousand people were burnt and lynched and women were gang-raped and so on. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes. And now people are saying, "Oh, why do you have to go on about that? Put it in your past. We need a development chief minister." Of course, now even that idea of Gujarat as being a state at the front of progress and development has been taken apart. Look at the human development index, the levels of malnutrition, it's all there on the Internet for anyone to see. But I think the reason he's been backed is that he shows himself to be a man who is able to be brutal. And the brutality is not going to be against Muslims. It's going to be against those who are resisting "development," those who are branded "Maoists." I learned a lesson when Gujarat happened. I—and many others—wrote about what happened with outrage, and obviously we were appealing to what we thought was common humanity. But some people, a great number of people said, "So what? They deserve it."
SD: And this is from the middle class.
AR: Yes, I mean I won't say there isn't a huge community of Indians who are outraged. Even today there are people who still can't believe that Narendra Modi is a Prime Ministerial candidate—that this is really happening. But now the Establishment—the corporations—are hoping that his ability to be ruthless will be turned against those who are fighting these big corporate projects in the villages, in the forests; this is what the corporations are backing Modi for. All the big corporations are behind him.
SD: There's a kind of colonial process of extraction of resources that you describe, but what are the people's movements? What are the protests, beyond just the Naxalites in the forests? You travel a lot in the country. What do you see when you go to, say, Orissa, or the North East, or Kashmir, or the South? This is something that's completely filtered out of the Indian media and the Western press.
AR: How have countries in the West become industrialized, modernized? It has happened through a history of colonialism, a colonialism where raw materials were used to feed industry. India doesn't have colonies, so it's colonizing itself. You have a middle class, an elite that has seceded into outer space, and they look down and say, "What's our bauxite doing in their mountains? What's our water doing in their rivers?" There's a sense of entitlement. People have told me openly that, look, all the "developed" countries have a history. By that they mean they have a history of committing genocide. "Some people have to pay the price for progress"; this I have been told many times. But I'll say this: The understanding of what is going on is tremendous among people involved in the resistance movements. This is why I always find it surprising when people say I'm an anti-national. I don't think that anybody could be prouder of the wisdom, the courage, the intelligence, the profound questioning with which these battles are being waged. It's not just a battle about "Oh this is my land, I don't want to leave my home." It's a battle about the nature of happiness, the nature of what we call civilization. That profound question is being posed by people whose bodies are on the line. These movements are diverse, and employ a range of different strategies; some are waging an armed struggle, some are militant but unarmed. When I wrote Walking with the Comrades I was criticized, and of course I was called a Maoist— I'm not a Maoist, but, I said, "You tell me, if one thousand border security force surround the village of an Indian, of indigenous people, and start burning it and raping women and chasing them—what are they supposed to do?" Can hungry people go on a hunger strike? Can people who don't have any access to TV or any kind of "audience" be Gandhian? They can't! So while in TV studios and academia people can theoretically discuss "violence" and "non-violence," for people it's not necessarily an ideological choice— it's actually more tactical, strategic. The same person can be a Gandhian on the street and a Maoist in the forest. You just have to do what you can do to fight.
SD: How did the comrades take your book? Did you get feedback? Have you had criticism from them?
AR: The forest is under siege. It's terrible what's going on there. People can't come out, can't get medicines, they're just being killed. There's a part in Walking with Comrades where I'm lying amongst the rocks with these young guerillas, and I say, "Oh, I'm in my private suite in a thousand-star hotel." Six months after the essay was published I got something they call a biscuit, which is this little piece of paper folded ninety-five times and passed from hand to hand to hand to hand to hand, and I open it and it was a letter from there, from the forest. It said, "After you wrote a wave of happiness went through the forest." And it was signed by "the PRO Thousand Star Hotel." (Laughs)
SD: So they do have a sense of humor.
AR: They sure have a sense of humor.
SD: The most recent thing that you've written was the introduction to Ambedkar's The Annihilation of Caste, a piece that was excerpted by Caravan magazine and called "The Doctor and the Saint." Can you talk about what the response has been and what drove you to the project?
AR: Annihilation of Caste is the text of an eighty-year-old speech, never delivered, by Dr. Ambedkar, one of modern India's greatest intellectuals. He received a Ph.D. at Columbia, but he was born into a family who were at that time called untouchables. He published this speech in 1936 soon after declaring that though he was born a Hindu, he wasn't going to die a Hindu. He converted much later to Buddhism. Mahatma Gandhi replied to this provocation of his and it was a debate between the two. Ambedkar challenged Gandhi in every way—politically, intellectually, but mostly morally. The speech has been read and reread and it's available everywhere. A publisher asked me if I would write an introduction to an annotated edition. I took a long time to do it because I was appalled by what I learned about Gandhi while looking at this debate.
SD: You're quite harsh on Gandhi.
AR: Well, I'm not as harsh as I should have been, I think. (Laughs) The argument took me to Gandhi's views on caste, which took me to 1893, when he first arrived in South Africa. We of course know that he was called a Mahatma soon after he came back from South Africa for what he's supposed to have done there. But what he did was extremely disturbing. Anyway, when I wrote the introduction it was pretty long—and it's just come out, just a few days ago. There was a reaction from certain Dalit scholars, who said—I think people in the United States are familiar with these debates too—who said, "No one who's not a Dalit should have the right to write an introduction to Ambedkar." It's not a position that I agree with. I go back a lot to looking at the ways in which we now hermetically seal ourselves into certain kinds of identities—cases in which literature can't exist anymore because nobody can has the right to write about the other.
SD: Books are becoming quite problematic in India. The most recent case was Wendy Doniger's Hindus: An Alternative History being called back by the publisher and pulped by Penguin, who publishes both of us. You wrote to them in protest. It's amazing: It's supposed to be a free market, a democracy, but a book is being withdrawn because a small pressure group says that it's offensive. Do you think this is going to happen more often?
AR: In India what the Urdu and Persian poet Ghalib could say in the 19th century about his relationship with Islam nobody could say today. What Ambedkar could say about Hinduism, or Nehru could say about Kashmir, you can't say now. It's almost unbelievable how little you can say now. On the issue of Wendy Doniger it was really sad, because it wasn't even as if there was a court case or a ban. It was just a right-wing Hindu group that said their sentiments were "hurt" by her book on Hinduism and Penguin pulled back. Penguin has the resources to fight a legal case; other people don't. When I wrote The God of Small Things five lawyers filed a criminal case against me for corrupting public morality. I had to appear in court, by which time I had won the Booker Prize and they wanted to claim me but not claim the book. The judge would appear in court and he would say, "Every time this case comes before me I get chest pains." (Laughs) But it went on for ten years. Then of course there's a threat of sedition; for almost everything you write or say you begin to look for that brown envelope in the post summoning you, or some person filing a case somewhere. It's not like you're living in a dictatorship where the government has terrorized you and it's creating subversive and beautiful literature. What has happened is that the censorship has been outsourced to the mob. So people can trash your house, trash your book launches, which has happened with me several times; people can do anything. There are little vigilante groups who have taken it upon themselves to do it. You could end up becoming someone who censors herself all the time.
SD: But you haven't, clearly.
AR: No, I have to some extent.