Arundhati Roy Talks Media, Authoritarianism in India and Challenging US Wars
We go to New Delhi, India, to speak with acclaimed Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy about the pandemic, U.S. militarism and the state of journalism. Roy first appeared on Democracy Now! after receiving widespread backlash for speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, her emphatic antiwar stance clashed with the rising tides of patriotism and calls for war after 9/11. “Now the same media is saying what we were saying 20 years ago,” says Roy. “But the trouble is, it’s too late.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the acclaimed writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I just interviewed Arundhati from her home in New Delhi.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, it’s so amazing for Nermeen and I to be talking to you, coming really into your home in New Delhi. We see the spiral bookshelves behind you. It’s like that’s what you ascend, your books, as you, I guess, travel the world at home right now through the pandemic. But you were on Democracy Now! for the first time like 20 years ago, two decades ago, and then, from then on, all the landmark moments. I think of the Iraq War and you coming to the United States and your speaking around the world against it. Can you just talk about — well, first of all, hello. And, Nermeen, join in. Hello.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, hello.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hello, Arundhati, and welcome back to the show.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Hi, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We really wish you were here in studio with us. Well, I really wish I were in the studio, to begin with.
ARUNDHATI ROY: I wish you were at home with me. That would have been nicer. It’s so strange, isn’t it? So intimate in one’s home, and yet so disembodied. It’s such a peculiar time.
But what are two decades, you know? And really, this shouldn’t be about me. It should be about you and what amazing work you’ve done for so many years, you know, for 25 years, how to hold the line. It’s, you know, at a time when media is in such crisis, not just structurally but conceptually, I think. We really need to worry about how we are going to continue, because I think it’s probably the biggest thing that’s under assault right now in all kinds of ways that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have dreamt of, right?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati, explain what you mean by that. What do you mean that media, independent media, is under threat in many different ways, including conceptually?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, what I mean by that is, of course, independent media has always been swimming against the current. But now, in a way, we have a media that’s independent of independent media, right? You have this atomization of how news and fake news and stories are being sort of pipelined across the world, and how does — and social media, which is ushering people into echo chambers from which they cannot — they’re then sealed into a kind of, you know, microideologies, and you can’t speak across those barriers. And so, somehow, those of us who do what we do are in the middle of this. You know, on the one hand, the giant corporate media, and the other hand, this corporatized, atomized social media, which has a very malign algorithms that are now creating a problem and creating so much information that the human brain can’t really process. So, how do we navigate our little boat through the storm?
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, when you first came on Democracy Now! 20 years ago, it was October 19, 2001. Think about that moment. It was, you know, a month after the September 11th attacks, and you had just written a piece in The Guardian titled “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” in which you said, “America is at war against people it doesn’t know, because they don’t appear much on TV. Before it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the U.S. government has, in a rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an ‘international coalition against terror,’ mobilised its army, its air force, its navy and its media, and committed them to battle. The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one.” Twenty years ago, right after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
ARUNDHATI ROY: And look. I mean, look at the narrative symmetry of what we saw just a few months ago when it withdrew, after — in such a shameful way. I don’t know what to say, you know, right now, because I remember — I remember so clearly the time when I wrote that essay, you know, being told by everybody, “Don’t do it,” because anger was at such a height in the U.S., nationalism was at such a peak. You know, every car was flying four flags. And “Don’t do it,” you know? And I just couldn’t not write it.
But then I learned something, because when I came there, I learned never to confuse, you know, all people with their government, right? So, it opened up so many friendships and conversations and relationships that have lasted for so many years.
And today, I find — one of the things I find most unnerving is that you’ll have media, which 20 years ago, when I wrote this, was just — I remember being at a war tribunal in Iraq and somebody reading out something from a right-wing magazine in India — in the U.S., where they said, “I’ll be on the side of anyone who takes a bunker buster to Arundhati Roy.” And I said, you know, this is what I mean about the disproportionate use of force: Why a bunker buster when a bullet would do? But now the same media is saying what we were saying 20 years ago. You know, now it’s become something that you’re allowed to talk about in those spaces. But the trouble is it’s too late. You know? So, I just watch people who derided people like myself, who said she should be taken to a psychiatrist, she’s hysterical, she’s crazy, now saying exactly the same thing, you know? And just a sort of deep silence settles on me sometimes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back, Arundhati, to the point that you were making earlier about the threat to independent media. In an interview in the collection of interviews with you called The Shape of the Beast, you said, quote, “One of the things that needs to be done is for the alternative media to reach a stage where the corporate media becomes irrelevant.” Now, you mentioned earlier the fact of this atomizing effect of the social media, of social media, which in a way is more pernicious simply because it’s accessed by many more people all across the world. So, could you talk about this, the importance, the significance of independent media when it faces these almost twin threats?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, because that social media, which appears independent and appears to say that we amplify the voices of the unheard and so on, is actually more corporate than the corporate — the traditional corporate media. Right? So we are now in a situation where we are between — like I was saying, between these two axes.
And, you know, you take India. You have — with, you know, the media, the mainstream media, the television media, the print media, the hundreds of 24-hour news channels, all run basically with corporate money, and then the scandals that are coming out now about Facebook and WhatsApp and their predilection to support the BJP and the right, so you have — you know, you’re swimming in such a toxic soup, a 24-hour drip of venom. And there are very, very few, mostly online and one or two print media magazines, which you can turn to to know what’s really going on, all of them sort of bravely trying to stay the course while they are attacked from every direction. So, that’s the same with Democracy Now! in the U.S., you know?
So, you have a situation which I think we don’t know how to conceptually even handle, because, you know, the amount of falsehood that’s being put out, the amount of venom, the amount of poison, it’s just fracturing a country like India. And right now the one language, one nation, one religion thing is going to tear this country apart, because it is a social fabric built from many communities, many languages, many ethnicities, many religions, and whatever you want to call it, secularism, liberalism, whatever it is, that is the contract that makes this even possible. And if you’re going to undermine that by using this media, it’s just a question of time before it falls apart like the Soviet Union did or like Yugoslavia did, you know? Just fractures into little bits. And even the people who work in these companies, whether it’s Facebook or whatever, they know that. They know that they are driving us into a cyclone from which there’s no exit, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, if you can talk about these 20 years since we first talked to you after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan? It didn’t just change American society or Afghanistan, of course. In India, you have this radical anti-Muslim movement also really growing after the 9/11 attacks. Talk about how it’s shaped India, far larger than the United States, and what you see today as the media covers the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was a very important moment, that time when you had, you know, obviously, at first, the U.S. funding and stirring up a kind of radical Islam, funding what eventually became the Taliban, funding the mujahideen, let’s say. These Taliban, of course, came much later. And that had a sort of ripple effect in this region, because, obviously, at the same time, you had in India in ’89 the destruction of Babri Masjid. You had, then, in 1999, the right wing come to power, conduct these nuclear tests, and the polarization had begun.
And very, very interestingly to me, September 11th, 2001, when the 9/11 attacks happened and sort of international Islamophobia was given a free pass, the fascist sort of organization called the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose ideologues have openly written admiringly of Hitler, who have referred to the Muslims of India as being like the Jews of Germany, who have consistently asked India to be declared a Hindu nation — and Modi, the current prime minister, obviously has been a member of that group since he was a teenager, I think. And then, when 9/11 happened, the RSS saw its moment. And interestingly enough, just within a few weeks, Modi was sort of parachuted into the position of chief minister of the state of Gujarat, in October. And the next February, after the burning of a train in which a number of Hindu pilgrims were cruelly burned to death — and we still today don’t know who did that — there was this massacre in Gujarat of Muslims by Hindu right-wing groups. It was like, you know, thousands of people, a hundred thousand people driven from their homes, thousands killed, women raped, people burned alive. And after that, somehow Modi, who never really came out and apologized for it, was called Hindu Hriday Samrat, you know, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts, and since then hasn’t lost an election. So, the wind — they rode the wind. You know?
And today, we are in a position where I don’t know on what grounds India can be called democracy, you know, because just having elections does not make a democracy. And we have an economy that’s floundering. We have hundreds of people in jail — activists, scholars, students, lawyers. Anybody who raises their voice is being put into jail. You may wonder why I am out. I keep thinking I’m like the inversion of the canary in the coal mine, you know, like, “Well, she’s saying what she likes, so we must be a democracy.” But, you know, comrades of, friends of mine are all in prison.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Arundhati, could you explain the way in which the corporate mainstream media in India has covered these years of the Modi government? As you say, he has not lost an election since he came into power, despite all the issues that you highlight, including, you know, an economic collapse, even if people aren’t so concerned about the number of political prisoners. What role has the media played in either downplaying or simply not covering the egregious policies that the Modi government has pursued? You have spoken earlier, as well, and in your other writing in support of some of the few independent media in India, including Caravan magazine, among others, that have tried to make up, to compensate for what the mainstream media and many aspects of social media have not addressed. So, if you could elaborate on that? What are the things that have dominated the headlines in the mainstream media, including these massive 24-hour channels?
ARUNDHATI ROY: So, let me just start by saying that there are some online portals, like The Wire, like a print magazine like Caravan, like Scroll, like Newslaundry, Hindi portals like Janchowk, which have, you know, just done amazing work — and I do want to salute them — with very little means and money, but a lot of courage and a lot of intelligence.
Now, for the rest of the media, I’ll just say this, that Modi himself, to my mind, is a very mediocre person, you know? But with the kind of media support he gets, anybody — you could pick up anybody and make them seem like a genius. And that is what has happened, you know? All the cruelty, all of the massive failures of policy, the ambushing of the Indian people as if we’re the enemy, with suddenly announcing demonetization in the middle of the night, suddenly announcing a massive lockdown for corona without having any idea where the millions of people who live in the cities without — where will they go without food, without work, without money? They’ll walk a thousand miles home. You know, it’s as if he doesn’t even know what country he’s the prime minister of. But all of this is papered over.
I wouldn’t say that the news is not reported or downplayed. I would say that many of the mainstream media, especially television news anchors, have worked like the captains and commanders of lynch mobs. You know, they have put out false news that has got young students arrested. They have done things which someday, I hope, they will be called to account for, because without them, this situation in India would not have arisen.
Today, everyone functions out of fear, including people within the BJP. Nobody can say anything, including people, major politicians in the opposition, because all of them fear being jailed, you know, being framed, having their past deeds dug up. And, you know, they are all compromised in some way. So, we really are like a one-party system now. And the BJP now, today, is, I think, perhaps the richest political party in the world, and it has controlled all the levers of power. And all the institutions are penetrated by members of the RSS.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, I wanted to ask you about this pandemic that we are still in around the world. You wrote a piece for the Financial Times last year called “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” that was just quoted everywhere. In it, you said, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” So, talk about what that journey would look like. And do you think anywhere you’re seeing that? Were you able to accomplish that through this pandemic? What do you want to see at the other end?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, no, I wasn’t. And I have to say that, you know, I didn’t — I don’t see any attempt, except obviously by individuals and idealistic people. But other than that, I just see, you know, imaginations that are just weighed down by their own limitations, their inability to think outside what we’ve been — what people have been conditioned to believe is what the human spirit needs or wants, conditioned to believe what you think of as happiness in the ads you see on TV. So, no, I don’t see that. Whereas one has written for years and years about how there are communities and people who ought to be supported and fought for, who do have a different imagination, but they are just being leveled, still, you know? Even when you look at the whole debate on climate change, you just see people able to say something in a seminar room or in a conference or on an international podium for effect, and that same person comes back, and you see nothing changed. You see no single thing, no single project, no single idea put to rest, because, oh, it’s going to mean deforestation, or it’s going to mean the death of this river, or it’s going to mean this landscape, this mountainous landscape, is going to be destroyed. No, it’s going to go ahead.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arundhati, one of the most distressing responses to the pandemic has been the extraordinary inequity in access to vaccines. Could you speak about that in the context of not only India, but the developing world, in general?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, isn’t it just so sad? You know, you see that in countries like the U.S. or in many countries in Europe, people are — you know, people who don’t want the vaccine are protesting, and there’s so much vaccine just lying around. And in poor countries, that vaccine is just not available.
In India, you have a very peculiar situation where almost all the vaccine manufacturing has been entrusted to just one company. And I think India is sort of committed to making vaccines for 92 countries, while here, of course, in June, while people even in the city I live in were dying on the streets, were being cremated on the pavement, where there were burial grounds and the rivers were full of dead bodies, and people, of course, had not been vaccinated. There wasn’t any vaccine. Now a third, only a third, of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated. But we have huge hoardings. In fact, quite soon after the horrible apocalyptic summer that we had, where people were dying in their homes, people were desperate for oxygen, people who asked for it on Twitter were getting arrested for, you know, showing the nation in a bad light. And just as the fires had barely died in the cremation grounds, when the huge hoardings went up saying, “Thank you Modiji for free vaccine,” but, in fact, we had a tiered system of pricing for vaccinations. So, some are free, some are not. And while the government has committed to supplying these other countries with billions of doses, in India, still the poor are waiting.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Arundhati, you know, we just have a couple of minutes. We know you just have a couple of minutes.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And we wanted to ask about — this is the 25th anniversary of Democracy Now! You’ve obviously appeared on the show many, many times. Could you say what Democracy Now! has meant to you?
ARUNDHATI ROY: It’s meant a place to breathe, an oxygen cylinder in the world, which is sort of metaphorically dying of COVID for many years. It’s been a place where you can be sure that you will be met with facts, with intelligence and with courage.
AMY GOODMAN: The great writer Arundhati Roy, speaking to us from her home in New Delhi, India.
On Thursday, we’ll spend the hour with Noam Chomsky, and on Friday, we’ll look back at 25 years of Democracy Now! To see our interview with Ed Snowden, go to democracynow.org. Be safe in this new year. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you.