Hello and welcome to Devil’s Advocate. At the end of a week when the Maoists have been on the front pages practically every day, we present a completely different perspective to that of the government’s. My guest today is an author, essayist and Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy.
Karan Thapar: I want to talk to you about how you view the Maoists and how you think the government should respond, but first, how do you view the recent hostage taking in Bihar where four policemen were kidnapped and kept kidnapped for eight days, and one of them – Lukas Tete – murdered?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t think there is anything revolutionary about killing a person that is in custody. I have made a statement where I said it was as bad as the police killing Azad, as they did, in a fake encounter in Andhra. But, I actually shy away from this atrocity-based analysis that’s coming out of our TV screens these days because a part of it is meant for you to lose the big picture about what is this war about, who wants the war? Who needs the war?
Karan Thapar: I want very much to talk about the big picture. But, before I come to that, let me point out something else. In the last one year, the Maoists have beheaded Francis Induwar and Sanjoy Ghosh; they have killed Lokus Tete. They have kidnapped other policemen. There have been devastating attacks in Dantewada, there has been the sabotage of the Gyaneshwari Express. In your eyes, does it amount to legitimate strategy or tactics, or does it detract from the Maoist cause?
Arundhati Roy: You can’t bundle them all together. For example the train accident. I don’t think anybody knows who did it yet.
Karan Thapar: Everyone’s convinced that the Maoists…
Arundhati Roy: Everyone can be convinced. But it is not enough to be convinced. You got to have facts and the facts are unravelling every day.
Karan Thapar: What about the Dantewada, the beheadings, the kidnappings?
Arundhati Roy: This thing is that now what’s happening is that there is a situation of conflict, of war. So, you have set out a litany of the terrible acts of violence that have taken place inflicted by one side and left out the picture of what’s going on the other side, which is that you have two hundred thousand paramilitary forces closing in on these poorest villages, evicting people, burning people. Of course, all violence is terrible but if you want to get into what actually is going on, we will have to discuss it in slightly more detail.
Karan Thapar: So what you are suggesting is that we have a spiral of violence where what one side does to the other justifies the response and, in a sense, you don’t want to blame one or the other. You see them both as equally guilty?
Arundhati Roy: No I don’t. I don’t see both as equally guilty and I don’t want to justify anything. I see a government breaking every sort of law in the Constitution that it has about tribal people and assault on the homelands of millions of people and some, there is a resistance force that is resisting that. Now, that situation is becoming violent, becoming ugly. And if you start trying to extract morality out of it, you are going to be in a mess.
Karan Thapar: But one thing that is crystal clear from what you said is you see the government as the first person, the first party, at fault. The bigger fault, the first fault, is the government’s, you see the Maoists as just responding.
Arundhati Roy: I see the government absolutely, as the major aggressor. As far as the Maoists are concerned, of course, their ideology is an ideology of overthrowing the Indian state with violence. However, I don’t believe that if the Indian state was a just state, if ordinary people had some minor hope for justice, the Maoists would just be a marginal group of militants with no popular appeal.
Karan Thapar: So the Maoists get support and strength from the fact that you don’t believe that the Indian state is just.
Arundhati Roy: Let me tell you, forget the Maoists. Every resistance movement, armed or unarmed, and the Maoists today are fighting to implement the Constitution, and the government is vandalising it.
Karan Thapar: So the real constitutionalists are the Maoists and the real breakers of the Constitution is the government?
Arundhati Roy: Not only the Maoists, all resistance groups.
Karan Thapar: Let’s focus for the moment on the Maoists because they are the ones that have been in the news all this week. The prime minister sees the Maoists as the single biggest security threat to the country. I take it that your perception of them is completely different. How do you perceive the Maoists?
Arundhati Roy: I perceive them as a group of people who have at a most militant end in the bandwidth of resistance movements that exist in the cities, in the planes and in the forests.
Karan Thapar: But what are they seeking to do? What is their justification?
Arundhati Roy: Well, their ultimate goal, as they say quite clearly, is to overthrow the Indian state and institute the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is their ultimate goal but…
Karan Thapar: Do you, Arundhati Roy, support that goal?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t support that goal in the sense that I don’t believe the solution to the problem the world is in right now will come from an imagination either communist or capitalist because…
Karan Thapar: That I understand but do you support any attempt to overthrow the Indian state?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I can’t say I do because they will lead me from here, in chains.
Karan Thapar: That technicality apart, it sounds as if you do.
Arundhati Roy: However, I believe that the Indian state has abdicated its responsibility to the people. I believe that. I believe that when a state is no longer bound, neither legally nor morally by the Indian Constitution, either we should rephrase the preamble of the Indian Constitution which says…
Karan Thapar: Or?
Arundhati Roy: Which says we are a sovereign, democratic, secular republic. We should rephrase it and say we are a corporate, Hindu, satellite state.
Karan Thapar: Or?
Arundhati Roy: Or we have to have a government which respects the Constitution or we change the Constitution.
Karan Thapar: Let me be blunt. It sounds very much to the audience as if you are trying to find a clever, subtle way of saying that you do support the Maoists commitment to overthrow the state but you are scared to say it upfront because you are scared that you would be whisked away to jail.
Arundhati Roy: If I say that I support the Maoists’ desire to overthrow the Indian State, I would be saying that I am a Maoist. But I am not a Maoist.
Karan Thapar: But you sympathise with them.
Arundhati Roy: I do sympathise with all the movements. I am on this side of the line with a group of people who are saying that here is a State that is willing to bring out the Army against the poorest people not just in the country but in the world. I cannot support that.
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you. You sympathise with the Maoist cause, but what about the tactics that the Maoists use? The problem is that the Maoists want to trade a new democratic order not by persuading people, not by winning legitimate elections but by armed liberation struggle. To many, that is tantamount to civil war. Do you go that far with them?
Arundhati Roy: There is already a civil war. I don’t believe that a resistance movement that believes only in violence will lead to a new democracy. I don’t believe that. Neither do I believe that if you doctrinally say you must only be non-violent, I believe that is a twisted way of supporting the status quo. I believe that has to be a bandwidth of resistance and I certainly believe that when your village is surrounded by 800 CRPF men who are raping and burning and looting, you can’t say I am going on a hunger strike. Then, I support people’s right to resist that.
Karan Thapar: But put this to me. If you support, no matter what qualifications you add, the right of the Maoists to resist with violence: whether you call it armed liberation struggle or whatever.
Arundhati Roy: You keep on going to these Maoists.
Karan Thapar: If you support that, no matter with what qualification, how then can you deny the State the right to resort to arms to defend itself?
Arundhati Roy: The State doesn’t have to defend itself. The State is supposed to represent the people and defend the people.
Karan Thapar: But if the State is under attack, it is the people that are under attack and…
Arundhati Roy: It is not under attack. The State is perpetrating the attack. That is what I am trying to say. The State is going in violation of its own Constitution and perpetrating an attack. If you look at the recent report, the censured chapter in a recent report by the Panchayati Raj, it says so clearly: the State is being completely illegal in its actions. What do you suggest people should do when an army, a police, a paramilitary, an air force is going to start making war on the poor? Do you suggest that they should leave and live in camps and allow the rich and the corporates and the mining sector to take over?
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that the Maoists and all the other resistance fighters are left with no option but to fight back?
Arundhati Roy: What I am saying is that if a State respects non-violent resistance as has been the case in years, but if you ignore non-violence, by default you privilege violence.
Karan Thapar: But are the Maoists actually pursuing their goal, which you share, non-violently, or are they pursuing it with violence? That’s the problem. There is a real issue here that the end seems to justify the means. The question is: do they?
Arundhati Roy: You are not listening to me. I am saying that there is a juggernaut of injustice that has been moving forward, displacing millions of people. Why do we have 836 million people living in on less than Rs 20 a day? Why do we have 60 million displaced people? Because the government refuses. For the last 25 years, it has refused to listen to non-violence.
Karan Thapar: So you see the Maoists as victims?
Arundhati Roy: I see the people as victims of something. If you look at the ideology of the Maoists, they don’t think of themselves as victims. But that ideology is getting purchased among people, in the popular imagination because of the incredible injustice that is being perpetrated by the Indian State.
Karan Thapar: In short, the fault is almost entirely on the government’s side?
Arundhati Roy: It is.
Karan Thapar: You say that boldly and bluntly?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: I want very much to talk about the prospects of talks but first, let me ask you about Azad. In May, it emerged that the home minister had asked Swami Agnivesh to facilitate talks with the Maoist leadership, and in turn he established contacts with the Maoists leader Azad. But in July, in an unexplained police encounter, Azad suddenly died. Do you believe that was a deliberate ploy to bring Azad into the open and then murder him?
Arundhati Roy: Yes I do.
Karan Thapar: You really mean that? The government laid a trap to murder Azad?
Arundhati Roy: That’s what, from all the facts that are emerging, that’s what it seems to point to.
Karan Thapar: Why did they do this? Why would they kill the one man with whom they have rational expectations of talks?
Arundhati Roy: I have been saying this for few months now that you have to understand that the government needs this war. It needs this war to clear the land, to hand over, to actualise these MoUs that have been signed. If you read the business papers, they are very clear about that.
Karan Thapar: If the government wants war, how do you interpret the government’s attempt to have talks? One is contradictory to the other.
Arundhati Roy: Yeah. It needs the war but it needs to keep this smiling benign mask of democracy. So, it offers talks on the one hand and undermines it on the other.
Karan Thapar: But even if you accept this strange theory that the government is Janus-faced, two-faced, why would it destroy that mask by killing Azad? Why would it destroy itself?
Arundhati Roy: Because if you look at what was happening, Azad was beginning to sound dangerously reasonable.
Karan Thapar: To whom?
Arundhati Roy: To all of us.
Karan Thapar: On the basis of one interview to The Hindu, you have come to the conclusion about Azad sounding reasonable?
Arundhati Roy: Come on Karan, we all know about Azad. He has been around for years. He has written a lot.
Karan Thapar: You may but people surely don’t. To them, Azad is a mystery.
Arundhati Roy: No, not at all. For example, the piece that he wrote in Outlook, it was published after his death but it was sent around before.
Karan Thapar: But even if one accepts your theory that the government killed Azad because he was beginning to sound and look reasonable, that would only have made him a credible interlocutor and fit in better into their mask. Surely, that in a sense makes it even more ridiculously contradictory to kill him.
Arundhati Roy: Why would it be. Let’s say there are two sides at war, there are more than two but everyone wants to make it binary so, for the sake of argument, accept it. When one side sends an envoy and the other side kills them, what does it mean? That one side does not want peace. That’s what it means. That’s a reasonable assumption.
Karan Thapar: So this is a duplicitous government?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: In which case, let me come to the critical issue which I want to discuss. What are the prospects of talks? The government has repeatedly said that it would be willing to talk provided the Maoists abjure violence, not even asking the Maoists to lay down arms, and many people believe that that’s a reasonable and perhaps, even a generous offer. How do you view the government’s position on talks?
Arundhati Roy: I think that if you were to go down to those forests and see what’s going on, when you have these two hundred thousand paramilitaries patrolling the tribal villages, the cordon and search operations are on, the killings are on, the siege is on, what do you mean to abjure violence? If you say that there should be a ceasefire, mutual ceasefire, which is I think the most reasonable thing, then we can be talking. But if you say you should abjure violence, what does that mean?
Karan Thapar: So one sided abjuring of violence is not what you think will be acceptable, but a mutual ceasefire on both sides?
Arundhati Roy: I think it’s absolutely urgent that there should be a ceasefire on both sides.
Karan Thapar: Simultaneous?
Arundhati Roy: Yes. The government reports have said that these MoUs should be re-examined. Chidambaram himself promised in an interview that he would freeze them. Why doesn’t he do that?
Karan Thapar: He is probably waiting for a sign from the Maoists that they will respond. He doesn’t want to do it unilaterally.
Arundhati Roy: They responded in writing now; Azad responded in writing.
Karan Thapar: Azad is no more. Let me put this to you. You are beginning to suggest in this interview steps, which if they were taken simultaneously by both sides, will actually in some way facilitate talks. Would you be prepared, since you know the Maoists and trusted by the Maoists, to act as a mediator?
Arundhati Roy: Look, if you studied the peace-talks process in Andhra, you see that this business of picking one person and announcing it on the media, both sides have done it. Chidambaram has picked arbitrarily Swami Agnivesh. Maoists arbitrarily announced on the radio that we want this one or that one. That’s not how it works. In Andhra, it took almost a year for this committee of citizens to form themselves as responsible people. It should not be one person.
Karan Thapar: Swami Agnivesh, who you say was arbitrarily picked, almost succeeded in bringing Azad to some talking point, except for the fact that as you say, he was killed. But he almost succeeded. So I come back, since you are trusted by the Maoists and since you speak a language, that at least in English, the government can understand, would you be prepared to act as a mediator?
Arundhati Roy: Look Karan, I don’t think it should be one person. I think there should be a group of people who are used to taking decisions collectively.
Karan Thapar: Will a committee?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. That’s what happened in Andhra. There was a committee of persons.
Karan Thapar: Isn’t that a mess?
Arundhati Roy: No, it is absolutely vital.
Karan Thapar: Would you be a part of it?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t think I am good at it. I am a maverick.
Karan Thapar: Would you be prepared to be one of that committee?
Arundhati Roy: Not really. I would not like to be because I don’t think I have those skills. But I think there are people who would be very good at it.
Karan Thapar: In June, writing in The Hindu, Justice Krishna Aiyar publicly called on the Maoists to unconditionally come forward for talks. Would you make a similar statement?
Arundhati Roy: No. Not when there are two hundred thousand paramilitary forces closing in on the villages. I say unconditionally both sides should say there should be a ceasefire. Then you can see.
Karan Thapar: But you are not prepared to facilitate that being a mediator or, even part of the committee.
Arundhati Roy: I’ll try.
Karan Thapar: Try! So suddenly you are changing your position.
Arundhati Roy: I don’t know how to think about this.
Karan Thapar: If pushed and persuaded, you could accept.
Arundhati Roy: Look, you talk to me like you talk to politicians – will you stand for elections?
Karan Thapar: No, I am simply trying to get you to give me a clear answer. What I sense is that you are tempted but you are uncertain.
Arundhati Roy: I feel that all of us should do what we can but certainly, I don’t feel that I’ll be very good at it. But, I think there should be a committee of people with experience in negotiating, with experienced people like BD Sharma, who has such a long experience.
Karan Thapar: Let’s come to a different issue. The government, particularly the home minister, often look upon people who are sympathetic to Maoists’ cause as collaborators, sections of the press even call them traitors. Number one in that category is bound to be Arundhati Roy. How do you respond to such branding?
Arundhati Roy: Well, this is an old game.
Karan Thapar: But it continues forcefully every time.
Arundhati Roy: I think the reason they were also unnerved, the government as well as most of the press, which is clearly on one side in this, is that from being people who are marooned in the jungle in one sense, when operation Green Hunt happened, a number of activists, a number of intellectuals came forward and said look, it is not acceptable to us. And that undermined the position of this open and shut case that was going on all this time.
Karan Thapar: So the certainty of the government’s position was weakened and undermined by the intellectuals who supported the government which is why the government branded them collaborators?
Arundhati Roy: Again you are saying the Maoists.
Karan Thapar: But that’s why the government called them collaborators?
Arundhati Roy: What has happened is that the government has expanded the definition of Maoists to mean everyone who is disagreeing with it. What people like myself have done is to complicate the scenario. Say it’s not that simple. Of course it doesn’t upset me because I like to say what I think very clearly. I am not worried about being called names.
Karan Thapar: And in a sense the government calling you a collaborator is proof that you actually made the government uncomfortable.
Arundhati Roy: I am proud if I made the government uncomfortable because it should be bloody uncomfortable with what it’s doing.
Karan Thapar: A pleasure talking to you.