"India is much more dangerous than it was ten years ago"
In your last novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, you ridiculed the former prime minsters of India: Manmohan Singh you described as a rabbit with a turban. Concerning Modi you referred to his chest volume of 1.42 metres, 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 is happening at the moment is that the fascists, Modi and all the terrible things that are happening in India are being met with humour. It is the first sign that people are beginning to refuse to accept their authority. Such humour 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 was 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?
Who has written about dams, who has written about attacking parliament, who has criticised 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 Majiid, 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: an 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 mediaeval, 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 labour 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 organisation called the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was set up in 1925 along the lines of Mussolini's black shirts. 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 the 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?
Roy: They're well organised. 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 organised, 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 favours. 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 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 the amount of hatred that has built up here, the amount 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
© Qantara.de 2019