Podcast • April 5, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3) Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Podcast • March 29, 2010

This "Year of India" (6): What’s Wrong with our Afghan War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3) The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush war. The dirty little sequel is that our friends in India don’t think the Obama – McChrystal war in Afghanistan can succeed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s “national newspaper,” speaks plainly (and fast!) about Pakistan’s double game in the Afghan war and about India’s dissent in the American war. Short form: the US is still going “soft on the Pakistani military,” and “hard on Afghan civilians.”

The American military strategy has three “fundamental weaknesses,” Mr. Vardarajan is saying. (1) The long-distance application of force, by air, cannot defeat the Taliban. Civilian casualties are still going up. The promise of a kinder-gentler counterinsurgency campaign has not been delivered. (2) Foreign troops (ours) cannot bear the brunt of a war on the Taliban in a country and culture that reject outsiders. The US and Britain have had almost a decade since 9.11 to train an Afghan army, and have almost nothing to show for it — a big point against our seriousness. (3) The US is outsourcing much of the Afghan problem to Pakistan, which isn’t much interested in a solution. The Palkistani military and intelligence, which run the country, are still nurturing links with the Islamist, anti-Indian Taliban. And all the more because President Obama has already scheduled his American exit, there’s a built-in incentive for the Pakistanis to stay in touch with their jihadis.

Historically the Pakistani miitary has used the jihadis the undermine democracy in Pakistan, to promote Islamism and muddy the waters in the region. The presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a symptom of the problem… You have to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is the nature of the Pakistani military, and there is a reluctance to do that. Just as the Pakistani military doesn’t want to give up 30 years of investment in the Taliban, I think the Pentagon and the State Department don’t want to give up 60 years of investment in the Pakistani military. So you have a tendency to cling on to your strategic assets in the hope that they will somehow do your bidding. But life doesn’t go that way.

Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March, 2010.

Podcast • March 12, 2010

This "Year of India" (5): … and the chronic crisis of Pakistan

Farzana Shaikh is a child of Pakistan who writes about her country now as the daughter of a distressed family. The thread through her pithy analysis, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that Pakistan’s problem is not fundamentally with India, much less with the United States and the world, but with itself and Islam. She begins:

More than six decades after being carved out of British India, Pakistan remains an enigma. Born in 1947 as the first self-professed Muslim state, it rejected theocracy. Vulnerable to the appeal of political Islam, it aspired to Western constitutionalism. Prone to military dictatorship, it hankered after democracy. Unsure of what it stood for, Pakistan has been left clutching at an identity beset by an ambigous relation to Islam…

Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press.

Salman Rushdie’s irresistible prose is one touchstone of our conversation:

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan,’ an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis. A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Balochistan. (No mention of the East West, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so eventually it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists….). So, it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne across or translated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface.

Salman Rushdie, Shame, 1983. p. 87.