We travel to New Delhi, India to talk to Arundhati, an Indian activist and author, about the pandemic, U.S. military intervention, and the state of journalism. Roy first appeared on Democracy Now!After facing widespread backlash, she spoke out against the U.S. invasion. Her strong antiwar stance at the time clashed with rising patriotism and calls to war after 9/11. “Now the same media is saying what we were saying 20 years ago,” says Roy. “But the trouble is, it’s too late.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the acclaimed writer and activist Arundhati Roy. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I just interviewed Arundhati from her home in New Delhi.
AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati, it’s so amazing for Nermeen and I to be talking to you, coming really into your home in New Delhi. We can see the spiral bookshelves in front of you. It’s like that’s what you ascend, your books, as you, I guess, travel the world at home right now through the pandemic. But you were on Democracy Now!It was the first time I saw you, 20 years ago, or two decades ago. Then, there were all the memorable moments. I think about the Iraq War, and you coming to America and your speaking out against it around the globe. Can you just talk about — well, first of all, hello. And, Nermeen, join in. Hello.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, hello.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati, welcome back to the show.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Hi, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:We wish you could be in the studio with us. I wish I was in the studio to begin with.
ARUNDHATI ROY:I wish you could have been at home with us. That would have made it even more enjoyable. It’s so strange, isn’t it? So intimate in one’s home, and yet so disembodied. It’s such a peculiar time.
But what is two decades? And really, this shouldn’t be about me. It should be about you and what amazing work you’ve done for so many years, you know, for 25 years, how to hold the line. It’s, you know, at a time when media is in such crisis, not just structurally but conceptually, I think. We really need to worry about how we are going to continue, because I think it’s probably the biggest thing that’s under assault right now in all kinds of ways that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have dreamt of, right?
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati, please explain what you mean. What does it mean for media, independent media to be under threat in many different ways?
ARUNDHATI ROY:That’s because independent media has always struggled against the current. But now, in a way, we have a media that’s independent of independent media, right? You have this atomization of how news and fake news and stories are being sort of pipelined across the world, and how does — and social media, which is ushering people into echo chambers from which they cannot — they’re then sealed into a kind of, you know, microideologies, and you can’t speak across those barriers. Those of us who do what they do are caught up in this. You know, on the one hand, the giant corporate media, and the other hand, this corporatized, atomized social media, which has a very malign algorithms that are now creating a problem and creating so much information that the human brain can’t really process. How can we navigate our tiny boat through the storm?
AMY GOODMAN:Arundhati, when did you first come on? Democracy Now!It was October 19, 2001, 20 years ago. Now think about that moment. It was a month after September 11th attacks and you had just written a letter. pieceIn The Guardian titled “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” in which you said, “America is at war against people it doesn’t know, because they don’t appear much on TV. Before it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the U.S. government has, in a rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an ‘international coalition against terror,’ mobilised its army, its air force, its navy and its media, and committed them to battle. The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one.” Twenty years ago, right after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
ARUNDHATI ROY:Look at that. I mean, look at the narrative symmetry of what we saw just a few months ago when it withdrew, after — in such a shameful way. I don’t know what to say, you know, right now, because I remember — I remember so clearly the time when I wrote that essay, you know, being told by everybody, “Don’t do it,” because anger was at such a height in the U.S., nationalism was at such a peak. Every car was proudly flying four flags. And “Don’t do it,” you know? And I just couldn’t not write it.
But then, I learned something. I learned that I should not confuse people with their government. It opened up many friendships, conversations, and relationships that have lasted so many years.
And today, I find — one of the things I find most unnerving is that you’ll have media, which 20 years ago, when I wrote this, was just — I remember being at a war tribunal in Iraq and somebody reading out something from a right-wing magazine in India — in the U.S., where they said, “I’ll be on the side of anyone who takes a bunker buster to Arundhati Roy.” And I said, you know, this is what I mean about the disproportionate use of force: Why a bunker buster when a bullet would do? Now, the same media is saying exactly what we were 20 years ago. You know, now it’s become something that you’re allowed to talk about in those spaces. But the trouble is it’s too late. You know? So, I just watch people who derided people like myself, who said she should be taken to a psychiatrist, she’s hysterical, she’s crazy, now saying exactly the same thing, you know? And sometimes, there is a deep silence that settles on me.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati, I want you to go back to the earlier comment about the threat to independent press. Interview in the collection of interviews you did with me called The Beast’s Shape, you said, quote, “One of the things that needs to be done is for the alternative media to reach a stage where the corporate media becomes irrelevant.” Now, you mentioned earlier the fact of this atomizing effect of the social media, of social media, which in a way is more pernicious simply because it’s accessed by many more people all across the world. Could you please talk about this, the importance and the significance of independent media in the face of these almost identical threats?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yes, because that social media, which appears independent and appears to say that we amplify the voices of the unheard and so on, is actually more corporate than the corporate — the traditional corporate media. Right? So we are now in a situation where we are between — like I was saying, between these two axes.
You take India, you know. You have — with, you know, the media, the mainstream media, the television media, the print media, the hundreds of 24-hour news channels, all run basically with corporate money, and then the scandals that are coming out now about Facebook and WhatsApp and their predilection to support the BJP and the right, so you have — you know, you’re swimming in such a toxic soup, a 24-hour drip of venom. And there are very, very few, mostly online and one or two print media magazines, which you can turn to to know what’s really going on, all of them sort of bravely trying to stay the course while they are attacked from every direction. So, that’s the same with Democracy Now!In the U.S., do you know?
So, you have a situation which I think we don’t know how to conceptually even handle, because, you know, the amount of falsehood that’s being put out, the amount of venom, the amount of poison, it’s just fracturing a country like India. This country is being torn apart by one language, one nation, or one religion. It is a social fabric made up of many communities, many languages and many religions. The contract that makes it possible is secularism, liberalism, or whatever you like to call it. And if you’re going to undermine that by using this media, it’s just a question of time before it falls apart like the Soviet Union did or like Yugoslavia did, you know? It just fragments into tiny pieces. And even the people who work in these companies, whether it’s Facebook or whatever, they know that. They know that they are driving us into a cyclone from which there’s no exit, you know?
AMY GOODMAN:Arundhati, can you talk about the 20 years since our first conversation after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001? It didn’t just change American society or Afghanistan, of course. You can also see the radical anti-Muslim movement in India growing after the attacks on September 11. Talk about how it’s shaped India, far larger than the United States, and what you see today as the media covers the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was a very important moment, that time when you had, you know, obviously, at first, the U.S. funding and stirring up a kind of radical Islam, funding what eventually became the Taliban, funding the mujahideen, let’s say. Of course, the Taliban came later. And that had a sort of ripple effect in this region, because, obviously, at the same time, you had in India in ’89 the destruction of Babri Masjid. The right wing had come to power in 1999 and had conducted these nuclear tests. Thus, polarization had begun.
It is very, very interesting to me that September 11, 2001, the day of the 9/11 attacks, and some sort of international Islamophobia, was given a free pass by the fascist organization called The RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose ideologues have openly written admiringly of Hitler, who have referred to the Muslims of India as being like the Jews of Germany, who have consistently asked India to be declared a Hindu nation — and Modi, the current prime minister, obviously has been a member of that group since he was a teenager, I think. Then, 9/11 happened. RSSIt was the right time. Interestingly, Modi was parachuted into the post of chief minister in Gujarat within a matter of weeks. And the next February, after the burning of a train in which a number of Hindu pilgrims were cruelly burned to death — and we still today don’t know who did that — there was this massacre in Gujarat of Muslims by Hindu right-wing groups. It was like thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, hundreds of thousands were killed, women were raped, and people were burned alive. And after that, somehow Modi, who never really came out and apologized for it, was called Hindu Hriday Samrat, you know, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts, and since then hasn’t lost an election. So, the wind — they rode the wind. What do you know?
And today, we are in a position where I don’t know on what grounds India can be called democracy, you know, because just having elections does not make a democracy. And we have an economy that’s floundering. We have hundreds of people in jail — activists, scholars, students, lawyers. Anyone who speaks up is sent to jail. You may be wondering why I am out. I keep thinking I’m like the inversion of the canary in the coal mine, you know, like, “Well, she’s saying what she likes, so we must be a democracy.” But, you know, comrades of, friends of mine are all in prison.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati. Could you please explain how Indian corporate media have covered Modi’s government over the years? As you say, he has not lost an election since he came into power, despite all the issues that you highlight, including, you know, an economic collapse, even if people aren’t so concerned about the number of political prisoners. What role did the media play in downplaying or not covering the egregious actions of the Modi government? You have spoken before, as well as in your other writings in support of some the few independent media in India. CaravanMagazines, among others have tried to make up the difference to address what mainstream media and many aspects on social media haven’t addressed. If you could please elaborate on this? What are the most important headlines in mainstream media, even 24-hour channels?
ARUNDHATI ROY:Let me start by saying that there is an abundance of online portals like The WireLike a print magazine like Caravan, like ScrollLike Newslaundry, Hindi portals like Janchowk, which have, you know, just done amazing work — and I do want to salute them — with very little means and money, but a lot of courage and a lot of intelligence.
Now, for the rest of the media, I’ll just say this, that Modi himself, to my mind, is a very mediocre person, you know? But with the kind of media support he gets, anybody — you could pick up anybody and make them seem like a genius. You know what has happened? All the cruelty, all of the massive failures of policy, the ambushing of the Indian people as if we’re the enemy, with suddenly announcing demonetization in the middle of the night, suddenly announcing a massive lockdown for corona without having any idea where the millions of people who live in the cities without — where will they go without food, without work, without money? They’ll walk a thousand miles home. You know, it’s as if he doesn’t even know what country he’s the prime minister of. But all of that is a figment of his imagination.
I wouldn’t say that the news is not reported or downplayed. Many of the mainstream media, particularly television news anchors have acted like commanders and captains of lynch-mobs. You know what? They have spread false news that has resulted in young students being arrested. They have done things that I hope they will be held accountable for someday. Without them, India would not be in this mess.
Fear is a common fear that affects everyone today, even those within the military. BJP. Everyone can’t say anything, even major politicians in opposition, because they all fear being jailed, being framed and having their past deeds dug out. You know they are all compromised in some manner. We are now a one-party system. And the BJPIt is today, I believe, perhaps the most powerful political party in the world. It has all the levers and power. Members of the gang have gotten into all institutions. RSS.
AMY GOODMAN:Arundhati! I wanted to ask about the pandemic we are still experiencing around the globe. You wrote: pieceFor the Financial Times last year called “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” that was just quoted everywhere. In it, you said, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or, we can walk through it with very little luggage and be ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” So, talk about what that journey would look like. And do you think anywhere you’re seeing that? Was it possible to do that with this pandemic What do you want to see at its other end?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, no, I wasn’t. And I have to say that, you know, I didn’t — I don’t see any attempt, except obviously by individuals and idealistic people. But other than that, I just see, you know, imaginations that are just weighed down by their own limitations, their inability to think outside what we’ve been — what people have been conditioned to believe is what the human spirit needs or wants, conditioned to believe what you think of as happiness in the ads you see on TV. So, no, I don’t see that. While one can write for years and years about the importance of supporting communities and people, and fighting for them, they are still being attacked. You can see that people are able to speak in a conference room or at a conference for effect and then come back and say the same thing again. You see no single thing, no single project, no single idea put to rest, because, oh, it’s going to mean deforestation, or it’s going to mean the death of this river, or it’s going to mean this landscape, this mountainous landscape, is going to be destroyed. No, it’s going to go ahead.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati: One of the most disturbing responses to the pandemic was the extraordinary inequity of access to vaccines. Could you speak about it in the context of India and the developing world in general?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, isn’t it just so sad? You know, you see that in countries like the U.S. or in many countries in Europe, people are — you know, people who don’t want the vaccine are protesting, and there’s so much vaccine just lying around. In poor countries, the vaccine is simply not available.
India is unique in that almost all vaccine manufacturing has been left to one company. I believe India is committed to making vaccines in 92 countries. But, here in June, when people in the city where I live were dying on streets, they were being cremated on the pavement. There were burial grounds and rivers full of dead bodies. People had not been vaccinated. There wasn’t any vaccine. A third, or even a quarter, of Indians have been fully vaccinated. We have massive hoardings. In fact, right after the horrible apocalyptic heat, where people died in their homes, people desperately needed oxygen and were asking for it on Twitter. People were getting arrested for, well, showing the nation a bad light. And just as the fires had barely died in the cremation grounds, when the huge hoardings went up saying, “Thank you Modiji for free vaccine,” but, in fact, we had a tiered system of pricing for vaccinations. Some are free and some are not. While the government has pledged to supply these other countries with billions upon billions of doses, India’s poor remain unsatisfied.
NERMEEN SHAIKH:Arundhati, we only have a few minutes. We know that you only have a few minutes.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And we wanted to ask about — this is the 25th anniversary of Democracy Now! You’ve obviously appeared on the show many, many times. Could you tell us what? Democracy Now!What has it meant to you?
ARUNDHATI ROY: It’s meant a place to breathe, an oxygen cylinder in the world, which is sort of metaphorically dying of COVIDFor many years. It’s been a place where you can be sure that you will be met with facts, with intelligence and with courage.
AMY GOODMAN:Arundhati Roy, a great writer, speaks to us from New Delhi, India.
On Thursday, we’ll spend the hour with Noam Chomsky, and on Friday, we’ll look back at 25 years of Democracy Now!For more information, please visit our interview with Ed Snowden, go to democracynow.org. In the new year, be safe. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you.