We Call This Progress: An Excerpt from Earth at Risk in Guernica
By Arundhati Roy
Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
December 17th, 2012
From a speech at the Earth at Risk conference, Roy on the misuses of democracy and the revolutionary power of exclusion.
I don’t know how far back in history to begin, so I’ll lay the milestone down in the recent past. 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 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. What good are weapons if they aren’t going to be used in wars? 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.
America has taken democracy into the workshop and hollowed it out.
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 Gandhists 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 twenty 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 twenty years, after we embraced the free market, two hundred and fifty thousand 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 a day, which is less than fifty cents a day. That is the atmosphere in which the resistance movements are operating.
Of course, it has a 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 what’s going on with that. The prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, Manmohan Singh, who was more or less installed by the IMF, has never won an election in his life. He stood for one election and lost, but after that he was just placed there. He’s the person who, when he was finance minister, actually dismantled all the laws and allowed global capital into India.
We should not be saying tax the rich, we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.
One time I was at a meeting of iron ore workers, and Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of that time, had been the leader of the opposition in Parliament. A Hindi poet read out a poem called “What is Manmohan Singh doing these days?” The first lines were: “What is Manmohan Singh doing these days? What does poison do after it enters the bloodstream?” They knew that whatever he had to do was done, and now it’s just a question of it taking its course.
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 Memorandums of Understanding 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. It 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 today is called a terrorist. Poverty and terrorism have been conflated. In the Northeastern states 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 than seven years.
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.
To read more, check out the full excerpt on:
Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics