Celebrated Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, best known for works such as “The God of Small Things” and “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, has also made a name for herself as an essayist and critic of the political situation in India. Dominik Muller spoke to her in New Delhi about changes in India over the last decade
In your last novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, you ridiculed the former prime ministers of India: Manmohan Singh you described as a rabbit with a turban. Concerning Modi, you referred to his chest volume of 1.42 meters, which he referred to in almost every speech during the last election campaign as an expression of his masculinity and strength. Are you still able to laugh about the political leaders of this country?
Arundhati Roy: Characters in a novel are characters in a novel, so there are many who are composite and so on. Laughter in literature or in life, however, has nothing to do with light-heartedness. In fact, one of the best things that are happening at the moment is that the fascists, Modi and all the terrible things that are happening in India are being met with humor. It is the first sign that people are beginning to refuse to accept their authority. Such humor has nothing to do with not taking the situation seriously. Laughter can be very political.
Many Indian writers prefer to live in the USA or Great Britain, while you have lived in Delhi for decades. You ended your last novel, however, in a kind of temporary exile in London. Why was that?
Roy: Yes, it’s true. I did experience a momentary panic, but I returned ten days later because I couldn’t be the person who left. There had been a massive attack on universities, students, teachers, professors, and on the curriculum as a whole. At that point, one university after another was being attacked. Student leaders were being attacked and thrown into jail. When they appeared in court, they were being beaten up. Then, on one of the trashy TV channels which were popular at the time, the presenter said, you know, it’s fine, these are students and they are doing all these terrible things, but who is the inspiration?
Modiʹs BJP is just the tip of the ice-berg: the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was set up in 1925 along the lines of Mussolini’s blackshirts, holds the real power. Their aim is to change the constitution and declare India a Hindu nation. Modi is a member, almost all BJP ministers and deputies are members. Every institution has been penetrated by RSS, whether army, universities, courts or intelligence services
Who has written about dams, who has written about attacking parliament, who has criticized nuclear testing, who has written about Kashmir? It’s this woman. Why is she not behind bars. I felt they were selling me down the river. More or less. I mean it had happened to me before and it has happened to me since, but at that point, I was literally weeks away from finishing this book, which I had been working on for 10 years and I was very vulnerable. I didnʹt want to end up somewhere where I couldn’t finish it. So I just lost my nerve and left. But then, after I left, I felt so desolate I had to come back.
For a long time, you have been pointing to the fusion of neo-liberal and right-wing extremist politics in your country. This phenomenon is unfortunately not one that is confined to India. Yet there it seems very advanced. How did this come about?
Roy: I’ve been writing about all this for some 20 years. Basically, during the late 80s and early 90s, the Congress government opened two locks. One was the lock of the Babri Masjid, the mosque in Ayodhya, which some people claim is actually the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The second was the introduction of a free-market economy. Opening these two locks unleashed two kinds of totalitarianism: economic neoliberal market fundamentalism and Hindutva – religious, Hindu-chauvinist nationalism. These two types of fundamentalism have entered into something of a dance with each other, sometimes appearing to be antagonistic – the one medieval, the other modern – and yet they are actually lovers.
During the last major pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, Narendra Modi, Indiaʹs incumbent prime minister, was prime minister of the state. More than 1000 people were killed, predominantly Muslims. To this day, many human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists accuse Modi of having allowed and subsequently justified the bloodbath. How can it be that major Indian and international corporations like Ambanis, Tatas, Mittals, Adanis and even Goldman Sachs endorsed his campaign to become the future prime minister of India?
Roy: These new economic policies needed a strong man, they needed ruthlessness in displacing people, in taking over lands, in changing the labor laws and so on. When he campaigned for the post of prime minister in 2014 he shed his saffron (symbol of the Hindutva faction) and donned a business suit. And sadly even many liberal intellectuals celebrated his arrival as prime minister in a way I thought was shameful. They tried to erase the Gujarat massacre, to pretend that Hindutva – the Hindu right-wing agenda – was a thing of the past.
The BJP is the political wing of a much larger structure. What is its ideological background?
Roy: The BJP is not the power in India, it is this organization called the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was set up in 1925 along the lines of Mussolini’s blackshirts. They openly talk about declaring India a Hindu nation and have always said that the constitution must be changed. Modi is a member, almost all BJP ministers and deputies are members. The RSS holds real power. Every institution, be it the army, universities, courts or intelligence services, has been penetrated by the RSS.
Islamophobia is a core element of the Hindutva ideology. Apart from the violence against the minority community, how does this affect the 150 million Muslims in India? Do their organisations raise their voice against discrimination and government politics publicly?
The oppressed minorities: university students in Delhi were still able to exercise their democratic right to freedom of speech, as the Indian government tried to quash dissent within the countryʹs higher education system. But what about Indiaʹs Muslims? “As soon as they voice criticism in public, they isolate themselves still more. The space in which they move is narrow and filled with fear. Honestly, it is like pre-Nazi Germany,” says Roy
Roy:They’re well organized. But they are afraid. As soon as they voice criticism in public, they isolate themselves still more. Because people then say, oh, look at them, they are organized, they are dangerous. The space in which they move is narrow and filled with fear. Honestly, it is like pre-Nazi Germany. It would have been inconceivable for the Jews to march on the streets. They would not have done themselves any favors. This narrowness is also reflected in the current election campaign: the Congress Party does not talk about Muslims. Because it knows that it would immediately be called a “Muslim” party. So now the Congress Party must also show how “Hindu” it is.
How would you describe the role of the international community?
Roy: The USA refused a visa to Modi after the Gujarat pogrom. But since he became prime minister, he has been there many times and has embraced all the presidents. The West is an opportunist. India is a huge market and must, therefore, be presented as a wonderful investment opportunity. Hence the whitewashing of Modi. Morality is like a recipe book. It depends on the ingredients that are available and the vagaries of the stock market.
The last time we met was in 2009, shortly before the then general elections. Do you have any expectations about the outcome of the current Lok Sabha?
Roy: India is a different place today, it is much more dangerous than it was ten years ago. Because of the amount of hatred that has built up here, the number of lies, fake messages, changing curricula. You canʹt just make it all disappear. It’s there and it is waiting to explode. Regardless of what happens in the elections.
Interview conducted by Dominik Muller: Head of Research Group at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Islam/Southeast Asia) Fellow at Harvard’s Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World.