Arundhati Roy: They call it progress

Arundhati Roy; credit Sanjay Kak

Arundhati Roy; credit Sanjay Kak

I’ll start in the early 1990s, not long after capitalism won its war against Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. The Indian government, which was for many years one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement, suddenly became a completely aligned country and began to call itself the natural ally of the U.S. and Israel. It opened up its protected markets to global capital. Most people [at this conference] have been speaking about environmental battles, but in the real world it’s quite hard to separate environmental battles from everything else: the war on terror, for example; the depleted uranium; the missiles; the fact that it was the military-industrial complex that actually pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression, and since then the economies of places like America, many countries in Europe, and certainly Israel, have had stakes in the manufacture of weapons. Weapons are absolutely essential; it’s not just for oil or natural resources, but for the military-industrial complex itself to keep going that we need weapons.

Today, as we speak, the U.S., and perhaps China and India, are involved in a battle for control of the resources of Africa. Thousands of U.S. troops, as well as death squads, are being sent into Africa. The “Yes We Can” president has expanded the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There are drone attacks killing children on a regular basis there.

In the 1990s, when the markets of India opened, when all of the laws that protected labor were dismantled, when natural resources were privatized, when that whole process was set into motion, the Indian government opened two locks: one was the lock of the markets; the other was the lock of an old fourteenth-century mosque, which was a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus believed that it was the birthplace of Ram, and the Muslims, of course, use it as a mosque. By opening that lock, India set into motion a kind of conflict between the majority community and the minority community, a way of constantly dividing people. Finding ways to divide people is the main practice of anybody that is in power.

The opening of these two locks unleashed two kinds of totalitarianism in India: one was economic totalitarianism, and the other was Hindu fundamentalism. These processes manufactured what the government calls “terrorism.” You had Islamist terrorists and you had what today the government calls “Maoists,” which means anybody who is resisting the project of civilization, of progress, of development; anybody who is resisting the takeover of their lands or the destruction of rivers and forests, is today a Maoist. Maoists are the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements, with Gandhians at the other end of the spectrum. The kind of strategy people adopt to resist the onslaught of global capital is quite often not an ideological choice, but a tactical choice dependent on the landscape in which those battles are being fought.

Since 1947, ever since India became a sovereign republic, it has deployed its army against what it calls its own people. Now, gradually, those states where the troops were deployed are states of people who are fighting for self-determination. They are states that the decolonized Indian state immediately colonized. Now, those troops are actually defending the government’s rights to build big dams, to build power projects, to carry out the processes of privatization. In the last fifty years, more than thirty million people have been displaced by big dams alone in India. Of course, most of those are indigenous people or people who live off the land.

The result of 20 years of this kind of free market, and this bogey of terrorism, is in the hollowing out of democracy. I notice a lot of people using the word democracy as a good word, but actually, if you think of it, democracy today is not what democracy used to be. There was a time when the American government was toppling democracies in Latin America and all over the place. Today, it’s waging wars to install democracy. It has taken democracy into the workshop and hollowed it out.

In India, every institution, whether it’s the courts, or the parliament, or the press—has been hollowed out and harnessed to the free market. There are empty rituals to mask what actually happens, which is that India continues to militarize, it continues to become a police state. In the last 20 years, after we embraced the free market, 250,000 farmers have committed suicide, because they have been driven into debt. This has never happened in human history before. Yet, obviously when the establishment has a choice between suicide farmers and suicide bombers, you know which ones they are going to encourage. They don’t mind that statistic, because it helps them; they feel sorry, they make a few noises, but they keep doing what they are doing.

Today, India has more people than all the poorest countries of Africa put together. It has 80 percent of its population living on less than twenty rupees—which is less than fifty cents—a day. That is the atmosphere in which the resistance movements are operating.

Of course, India has news media—I don’t know any other country with so many news channels, all of them sponsored or directly owned by corporations, including mining corporations and infrastructure corporations. The vast majority of all news is funded by corporate advertising, so you can imagine the results.

In 2005, which was the first term of the present government, the Indian government signed hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding, or MOUs, with mining companies, infrastructure companies, and so on, to develop a huge swath of forestland in Central India. India has up to an estimated one hundred million indigenous people, and if you look at a map of India, the minerals, the forests, and the indigenous people are all stacked up, one on top of the other.

Many of these MOUs were signed with these mining companies in 2005. At the time, in the state of Chhattisgarh, which is where this great civil war is unfolding now, the government raised a tribal militia, which was funded by these corporations, to basically go through the forest to try and clear it of people so that the MOUs could be actualized. The media started to call this whole swath of forest the “Maoist Corridor.” Some of us used to call it the “MOUist Corridor.” Around that time, they announced a war called “Operation Green Hunt.” Two hundred thousand paramilitary began to move into the forests, along with the tribal militia, to clear it of what the government called Maoists.

The Maoist movement, in various avatars, has existed in India since 1967, which was the first time there was an uprising. It took place in a village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, so the Maoists are sometimes called Naxalites. Of course it’s an underground, banned party, which now has a People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Thousands of people have been killed in this conflict. Today, there are thousands of people in prison, and all of them are called Maoists, though not all of them are really Maoists, because as I said, anybody who resists “progress” is called a terrorist. Poverty and terrorism have been conflated. In the Northeastern states of India we have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows soldiers to kill on suspicion. In all of India we have the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which basically makes even thinking an anti- government thought a criminal offense, for which you can be jailed for up to seven years.

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More than 10 years ago, I wrote about perhaps the biggest nonviolent, Gandhian, anti-dam movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. As I said, dams alone have displaced more than

30 million people, and with today’s neoliberal economic policies, the biggest issue that is causing unrest across the country is displacement and the take-over of people’s lands. In the Narmada movement, people would stand in their homes while the river rose to protest in that way, but it just didn’t matter, and the dams kept going up. Today, they are building about one hundred dams in the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh, which is a very thinly populated area.

When mining companies want to take over your land, you can defend your land if you’re organized. But if it’s a question of a dam, it’s harder. The biggest dam of the Narmada project, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, is being built in Gujarat, which is a completely fascist state, but the submergence, the reservoir, is in the other states. It’s not as though people are coming to take over your land; the thing you love the most, your river, is rising to take over the land. You can’t

shoot the river; you can’t blow up the river. How do you fight a dam? You can fight it if you prevent it from being built in the first place, but if it’s being built, the site can be secured militarily, as are the sites in the Northeast.

If you look at the history of the struggle for land in India, what is really sad is that after India became independent, land reform was one of the biggest things on the agenda of the new government. This was of course subverted by the politicians, who were upper-class people, landowners. They put so many caveats in the legal system that absolutely no redistribution happened. Then, in the 1970s, shortly after the Naxalite movement started, when the first people rose up, it was about the redistribution of land. The movement was saying “land to the tiller,” but the movement was crushed; the army was called out. The Indian government, which calls itself democratic, never hesitates to call out the army.

Today, people have completely forgotten the idea of redistribution. Now, they are fighting just to hold on to what little they have. We call that “progress.” The home minister allegedly says he wants 70 percent of Indians to live in cities, meaning he wants five to six hundred million people to move. How do you make that happen, unless you become a military state? How do you do that, unless you build big dams and big thermal projects and have nuclear power?

In so many ways, we have regressed. Even the most radical politics are practiced by people privileged enough to have land. There are millions and millions of people who don’t have land, who now just live as pools of underpaid wage labor on the edges of these huge megalopolises that make up India now. The politics of land in one way is radical, but in another way it has left out the poorest people, because they are out of the equation. We don’t talk about justice anymore. None of us do; we just talk about human rights or survival. We don’t talk about redistribution. In America, four hundred people own more wealth than half of the American population. We should not be saying tax the rich, but instead we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.

I want justice. We can’t just isolate the environmental battles. At the keystone of the arch has to be the idea of justice, because all of these issues—poverty, democracy, human rights, environmental degradation—eventually do coincide. In fact, these wars—like the one that I’m talking about—are ones in which people are also part of the ecosystem.

Today, one of the biggest battles being fought in India is over the extraction of bauxite, the ore that makes aluminum, which is at the center of the military-industrial complex. There’s something like four trillion dollars’ worth of bauxite in the mountains of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Bauxite mountains are beautiful; they are flat-top mountains. Bauxite is a porous rock, and when it rains the mountains absorb the water; they are like water tanks. They let the water out through their toes, and they irrigate the plains. Mining companies, who have bought the bauxite for a small royalty to the Indian government, have already traded it on the futures market. For local people, the bauxite in the mountain is the source of their life and their future, their religion and everything. For the aluminum company, the mountain is just a cheap storage facility. They’ve already sold it, so the bauxite has to come out, either peacefully or violently.

Now, the Indian government—the largest democracy in the world—is planning to call out the army in Central India, to fight the poorest people in the world. Gandhian satyagraha—nonviolent struggle—is  a kind of political theater. In order for it to be effective, it needs a sympathetic audience, which villagers deep in the forest don’t have. When a posse of 100 policemen lay a cordon around a forest village at night and begin to burn houses and shoot people, will a hunger strike help? Can starving people go on a hunger strike? And, do hunger strikes work when they’re not on TV?”

If people from the middle class were to support the fight—which is an oxymoron; they won’t—then I can understand saying we should all go on a hunger strike. But, if you’re going to distance yourself from that village that has been surrounded by 100 policemen and is being burned, then it’s immoral to try and lecture to those people how they should protect themselves.

These are life debates in India; not just among the government, or academics, but between resistance movements, too. There is very real tension, because sometimes an armed guerrilla action can be extremely irresponsible. It can do something that invites repression from the state, or even from the fascist Hindu militias also operating on behalf of the state. A lot of the Indian government’s violence and repression is outsourced to the mob; it’s not always acting as a state.

Often, people describe me as brave. It gives me a rash, because I think it’s really important to be scared. It’s really important to know what you’re up against. And, it’s really important to not have a martyr complex; it’s important not to want to go to jail and not to want to die, and yet, to do what you have to do to be effective, and to know what you’re good at doing. I grew up in a small village in South India. When I recently spent time in the forest with the comrades,

it was lovely to be in the forest and to have only whatever it was I carried on my back. I asked them, “Shall I just stay here?” They said, “No.” Because you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and you’ve got to do what you’re effective at doing. I think of it as a kind of waltz; you’ve got to know when to step forward and when to step back, and when to wait and when to move—and, to enjoy it.

Quite often, when you see what is being done to people, it creates rage in you and humiliation if you keep quiet. People ask me why I write, and I say it’s in order to not be humiliated. I don’t write for anything else except to not be humiliated. Every time I write, I keep telling myself that I won’t do it again, but it’s like I can’t contain it inside my body; I write, and it’s a relief.  I won’t say that I’m not scared, but I suspect that I’m more scared of keeping quiet, because as a writer, if you know something and then you keep quiet, it’s like dying. Between the various choices of fear, I still choose to write rather than not write.

Middle-class people have the choice between hope and despair, just like they have the choice between shampoo for dry hair and oily hair; they have the choice between doing politics and interior design. People who are fighting don’t have a choice; they are fighting and they are focused and they know what they are doing and why.

Copyright Arundhati Roy, excerpted from her chapter in the book Earth At Risk: Building A Resistance Movement To Save the Planet, edited by Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, PM Press; from a speech at the Earth at Risk Conference on the misuses of democracy and the war against indigenous people. .


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