In an exclusive interview, writer Arundhati Roy said there are serious concerns about the Jan Lokpal Bill, corporate funding, NGOs and even the role of the media.
Sagarika Ghose: Hello and welcome to the CNN-IBN special. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement has thrown up multiple voices. Many have been supportive of the movement, but there have been some who have been sceptical and raised doubts about the movement as well. One of these sceptical voices is writer Arundhati Roy who now joins us. Thanks very much indeed for joining us. In your article in ‘The Hindu’ published on August 21, entitled ‘I’d rather not be Anna’, you’ve raised many doubts about the Anna Hazare campaign. Now that the movement is over and the crowds have come and we’ve seen the massive size of those crowds, do you continue to be sceptical? And if so, why?
Arundhati Roy: Well, it’s interesting that everybody seems to have gone away happy and everybody is claiming a massive victory. I’m kind of happy too, relieved I would say, mostly because I’m extremely glad that the Jan Lokpal Bill didn’t go through Parliament in its current form. Yes, I continue to be sceptical for a whole number of reasons. Primary among them is the legislation itself, which I think is a pretty dangerous piece of work. So what you had was this very general mobilisation about corruption, using people’s anger, very real and valid anger against the system to push through this very specific legislation or to attempt to push through this very specific piece of legislation which is very, very regressive according to me. But my scepticism ranges through a whole host of issues which has to do with history, politics, culture, symbolism, all of it made me extremely uncomfortable. I also thought that it had the potential to turn from something inclusive of what was being marketed and touted and being inclusive to something very divisive and dangerous. So I’m quite happy that it’s over for now.
Sagarika Ghose: Just to come back to your article. You said that Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia have received $ 400,000 from the Ford foundation. That was one of the reasons that you were sceptical about this movement. Why did you make it a point to put in the fact that Arvind Kejriwal is funded by the Ford foundation.
Arundhati Roy: Just in order to point to the fact, a short article can just indicate the fact that it is in some way an NGO driven movement by Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sisodia, all these people run NGOs. Three of the core members are Magsaysay award winners which are endowed by Ford foundation and Feller. I wanted to point to the fact that what is it about these NGOs funded by World Bank and Bank of Ford, why are they participating in sort of mediating what public policy should be? I actually went to the World Bank site recently and found that the World Bank runs 600 anti-corruption programmes just in places like Africa. Why is the World Bank interested in anti-corruption? I looked at five of the major points they made and I thought it was remarkable if you let me read them out:
1) Increasing political accountability
2) Strengthening civil society participation
3) Creating a competitive private sector
4) Instituting restraints on power
5) Improving public sector management
So, it explained to me why in the World Bank, Ford foundation, these people are all involved in increasing the penetration of international capital and so it explains why at a time when we are also worried about corruption, the major parts of what corruption meant in terms of corporate corruption, in terms of how NGOs and corporations are taking over the traditional functions of the government, but that whole thing was left out, but this is copy book World Bank agenda. They may not have meant it, but that’s what’s going on and it worries me a lot. Certainly Anna Hazare was picked up and propped up a sort of saint of the masses, but he wasn’t driving the movement, he wasn’t the brains behind the movement. I think this is something very pertinent that we really need to worry about.
Sagarika Ghose: So you don’t see this as a genuine people’s movement. You see it as a movement led by rich NGOs, funded by the World Bank to make India more welcoming of international capital?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I mean they are not funded by the World Bank, the Ford foundation is a separate thing. But just that I wouldn’t have been this uncomfortable if I saw it as a movement that took into account the anger from the 2G Scam, from the Bellary mining, from CWG and then said ‘Let’s take a good look at who is corrupt, what are the forces behind it’, but no, this fits in to a certain kind of template altogether and that worries me. It’s not that I’m saying they are corrupt or anything, but I just find it worrying. It’s not the same thing as the Narmada movement, it’s the same thing as a people’s movement that’s risen from the bottom. It’s very much something that, surely lots of people joined it, all of them were not BJP, all of them were not middle-class, many of them came to a sort of reality show that was orchestrated by even a very campaigning media, but what was this bill about? This bill was very, very worrying to me.
Sagarika Ghose: We’ll come to the bill in just a bit but before that I want to bring in another controversial statement in your article which has sparked a great deal of controversy among even your old associates Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan, where you said, ‘Both the Maoists and Jan Lokpal Movement have one thing in common, they both seek the overthrow of the Indian state.’ Why do you believe that the movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill is similar to the Maoist movement in seeking the overthrow of the Indian state?
Arundhati Roy: Well, let’s separate the movement from the bill, as I said that I don’t even believe that most people knew exactly what the provisions of the bill were, those who were part of the movement, very few in the media and on the ground. But if you study that bill carefully, you see the creation of a parallel oligarchy. You see that the Jan Lokpal itself, the ten people, the bench plus the chairman, they are selected by a pool of very elite people and they are elite people, I mean if you look at one of the phases which says the search committee, the committee which is going to shortlist the names of the people who will be chosen for the Jan Lokpal will shortlist from eminent individuals of such class of people whom they deem fit. So you create this panel from this pool, and then you have a bureaucracy which has policing powers, the power to tap your phones, the power to prosecute, the power to transfer, the power to judge, the power to do things which are really, and from the Prime Minister down to the bottom, it’s really like a parallel power, which has lost the accountability, whatever little accountability a representative government might have, but I’m not one of those who is critiquing it from the point of view of say someone like Aruna Roy, who has a less draconian version of the bill, I’m talking about it from a different point of view altogether of firstly, the fact that we need to define what do we mean by corruption, and then what does it mean to those who are disempowered and disenfranchised to get two oligarchies instead of one raiding over them.
Sagarika Ghose: So do you believe that the leaders of this movement were misleading the crowds who came for the protest because they were not there simply as an anti-corruption movement, they were there to campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill and if people knew what the Jan Lokpal Bill was all about, in your opinion, setting up this huge bureaucratic monster, many of those people might well have not come for the movement, so do you feel that the leaders were misleading the people?
Arundhati Roy: I can’t say that they were deliberately misleading people because of course, that bill on the net, if anybody wanted to read it could read it. So I can’t say that. But I think that the anger about corruption became so widespread and generalised that nobody looked at what, there was a sort of dissonance between the specific legislation and the anger that was bringing people there. So, you have a situation in which you have this powerful oligarchy with the powers of prosecution surveillance, policing. In the bill there’s a small section which says budget, and the budget is 0.25 per cent of the Government of India’s revenues, that works out to something like Rs 2000 crore. There’s no break up, nobody is saying how many people will be employed, how are they going to be chosen so that they are not corrupt, you know, it’s a sketch, it’s a pretty terrifying sketch. It’s not even a realised piece of legislation. I think that, in a way the best thing that could have happened has happened that you have the bill and you have other versions of the bill and you have the time to now look at it and see whatever, I just want to keep saying that I’m not, my position in all this is not to say we need policing and better law. I’m a person who’s asking and has asked for many years for fundamental questions about injustice, which is why I keep saying let’s talk about what we mean by corruption.
Sagarika Ghose: And you believe that the reason why this movement is misconceived is because it’s centered around this Jan Lokpal Bill?
Arundhati Roy: Yes, not just that, I think centrally, that I was saying earlier, can we discuss what we mean by corruption. Is it just financial irregularity or is it the currency of social transaction in a very unequal society? So if you can give me 2 minutes, I’ll tell you what I mean. For example, corruption, some people, poor people in villages have to pay bribes to get their ration cards, to get their NREGA dues from very powerful vested interests. Then you a middleclass, you have honest businessmen who cannot run an honest business because of all sorts of reasons, they are out there angry. You have a middleclass which actually bribes to buy itself scarce favours and on the top you have the corporations, the politicians looting millions and mines and so on. But you also have a huge number of people who are outside the legal framework because they don’t have pattas, they live in slums, they don’t have legal housing, they are selling their wares on redis, so they are illegal and in an anti-corruption law, an anti-corruption law is naturally sort of pinned to an accepted legality. So you can talk about the rule of law when all your laws are designed to perpetuate the inequality that exists in Indian society. If you’re not going to question that, I’m really not someone who is that interested in the debate then.
Sagarika Ghose: So fundamentally it’s about service delivery to the poorest of the poor, it’s about ensuring justice to the poorest of the poor, without that a whole bureaucratic infrastructure is meaningless?
Arundhati Roy: Well Yes, but you know as I said in my article, supposing you’re selling your samosas on a ‘rehdi’ (cart) in a city where only malls are legal, then you pay the local policemen, are you going to have to now pay to the Lokpal too? You know corruption is a very complicated issue.
Sagarika Ghose: But what about the provisions for the lower bureaucracy. The lower bureaucracy is going to be brought into the Lokpal, they’re going to have a state level Lokayukta, so there is an attempt within the Lokpal Bill to go right down to the level of the poorest of the poor and then you can police even those functionaries who deal with the very poor. So don’t you have hope that there, at least, it could be regularised because of this bill?
Arundhati Roy: I think that part of the bill will be interesting, I think it’s very complicated because the troubles that are besetting our country today are not going to be solved by policing and by complaint booths alone. But, at the lower level, I think we have to come up with something where you can assure people that you’re not going to set up another bureaucracy which is going to be equally corrupt. When you have one brother in BJP, one brother in Congress, one brother in police, one brother in Lokpal, I would like to see how that’s going to be managed, this law is very sketchy about that.
Sagarika Ghose: But just to come back to the movement again, don’t you think that the political class has become corrupt and has become venal and you have a movement like this it does function as a wake up call?
Arundhati Roy: To some extent yes, but I think by focusing on the political class and leaving out the corporations, the media that they own, the NGOs that are taking over, governmental functions like health, you know corporates are now dealing with what government used to deal with. Why are they left out? So I think a much more comprehensive view would have made me comfortable even though I keep saying that for me the real issue is what is it that has created a society in which 830 million people live on less than Rs 20 a day and you have more people and all of the poor countries of Africa put together.
Sagarika Ghose: So basically what you’re saying is that laws are not the way to tackle corruption and to tackle injustice. It’s not through laws, it’s not through legal means, we have to do it through much more decentralisation of power, much more outreach at the lowest level?
Arundhati Roy: I think first you have to question the structure. You see if there is a structural inequality happening, and you are not questioning that, and you’re in fact fighting for laws that make that structural inequality more official, we have a problem. To give an example, I was just on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border where the refugees from Operation Greenhunt have come out and underneath. So for them the issue is not whether Tata gave a bribe on his mining or Vedanta didn’t give a bribe in his mining. The problem is that there is a huge problem in terms of how the mineral and water and forest wealth of India is being privatised, is being looted, even if it were non corrupt, there is a problem. So that’s why we’re just not coolly talking about Dantewada, there are many a places I mean what’s happening in Posco, in Kalinganagar . So this is not battles against corruption. There’s something very, very serious going on. None of these issues were raised or even alluded to somehow.
Sagarika Ghose: So basically what you’re saying is that it is not the battle against corruption which is the primary battle, it’s the battle for justice that has to be the primary battle in India. Just to come back to the point about the law, many have said that this is a process of pre-legislative consultation, that all over the world now civil society groups, I know you don’t like that word, are co-operating with the government in law making and a movement like this institutionalises that, institutionalises civil society groups coming into the law making process. Doesn’t that make you hopeful about this movement?
Arundhati Roy: In principal, yes, but when a movement like this which has been constructed in the way that it has, you can talk about, sort of calls itself the people or civil society and says that it’s representing all of civil society. I would say there’s a problem there and it depends on the law. So right now I think the good thing that has happened is that the Jan Lokpal Bill which probably has some provisions that will make it into the final law, is one of the many bills that will be debated. So, yes, that’s a good thing. But if it had just gone through in this way, I wouldn’t be saying yes, that’s a good thing.
Sagarika Ghose: Let’s talk about the media. You’ve been very critical about the media and the way the media, particularly broadcast media has covered this movement, do you believe that if the media had not given it this kind of time, this movement simply wouldn’t have taken off? Do you believe that it’s a media manufactured movement?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I’m not going to say that’s entirely media manufactured. I think that was one of the big factors in it. There was also mobilisation from the BJP and the RSS, which they’ve admitted to. I think the media, I don’t know when before campaigned for something in this way where every other kind of news was pushed out and for ten days, you had only this news. In this nation of one billion people, the media didn’t find anything else to report and it campaigned, not everybody, but certainly certain major television channels campaigned and said they were campaigning, they said, ‘We’re the channel through whom Anna speaks to the people and so on. Now firstly to me that’s a form of corruption in the first place where presumably, a broadcast licence as a news channel has to do with reporting news, not campaigning. But even if you are campaigning and the only reason that everybody was reporting it was TRP ratings, then why not just settle for pornography or sadomasochism or whatever gives good TRP ratings. How can news channels just abandon every other piece of news and just concentrate on this for 10 days? You know how much of spot ad costs on TV, what kind of a price would you put on this? Why was it doing this? Per se if media campaigns had to do with social justice, if the media spent 10 days campaigning on why more than a lakh farmers have committed suicide in this country, I’d be glad because I would say okay, this is the job of the media. It is like the old saying – to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Sagarika Ghose: But don’t you think one man taking on the might of the government is a big story and don’t you think that that deserves to be covered?
Arundhati Roy: No, I don’t. For all the sorts of reasons that I’ve said, it was one man trying to push through a regressive piece of legislation.
Sagarika Ghose: Let’s come to the role of the RSS which you have also eluded to. You’ve spoken about the role of aggressive nationalism or Vande Mataram being chanted, of the RSS saying that we’re involved in this particular movement, but then your old associates Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar are in this movement as well. Is it fair to completely dub this movement as an RSS Hindu right wing movement?
Arundhati Roy: I haven’t done that though some people have. But I think it’s an interesting question to talk about symbolism and this movement. For example, what is the history of Vande Mataram? Vande Mataram first occurred in this book by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1882, it became a part of a sort of war cry at the time of partition of Bengal and since then, since in 1937 Tagore said it’s a very unsuitable national anthem, very divisive, it’s got a long communal history. So what does it mean when huge crowds are chanting that? When you take up the national flag, when you’re fighting colonialism, it means one thing. When you’re a supposedly free nation that national flag is always about exclusion and not inclusion. You took up that flag and the state was paralysed. A state which is not scared of slaughtering people in the dark, suddenly was paralysed. You talk about the fact that it was a non violent movement, yes, because the police were disarmed. They just were too scared to do anything. You had Bharat Mata’s photo first and then it was replaced by Gandhi. You had people who were openly part of the Manovadi Krantikari Aandolan there. So you have this cocktail of very dangerous things going on, you had other kinds of symbolism. Imagine Gandhi going to a private hospital after his fast. A private hospital that symbolises the withdrawal of the state from healthcare for the poor. A private hospital where the doctors charge a lakh every time they inhale and exhale. The symbolisms were dangerous and if this movement had not ended in this way, it could have turned extremely dangerous. What you had was a lot of people, I’m not going to say they were only RSS, I’m not going to say they were only middle-class, I’m not going to say they were only urban. But yes, they were largely more well off than most people who have been struggling on the streets and facing bullets in this country for a long time. But in some odd way the victims and the perpetrators of corruption of the recipients of the fruits of modern development, they were all there together. There were contradictions that could not have been held together for much longer without them just tearing apart.
Sagarika Ghose: But weren’t you impressed by the sheer size of the crowd? Weren’t you impressed by the spontaneity of the crowd? The fact that people came out, they voiced their anger, they voiced their protest, surely it can’t just all be boxed into one shade of opinion.
Arundhati Roy: Should I tell you something Sagarika? I have seen much larger crowds in Kashmir. I have seen much larger crowds even in Delhi. Nobody reported them. They were then only called ‘traffic jam bana diya inhone’. I was not impressed by the size of the crowds apart from the fact that I’m not that kind of a person. I’m sure there were larger crowds chanting for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, would that be fine by us? It’s not about numbers.
Sagarika Ghose: Is that how you see this movement? You see it as a kind of Ram Janmabhoomi Part 2?
Arundhati Roy: No, not at all. I’ve said what I feel. That would be stupid for me to say. But I see it as something potentially quite worrying, quite dangerous. So I think we all need to go back and think a lot about what was going on there and not come to easy conclusions and easy condemnations, I think we really need to think about what was going on there, how it was caused, how it happened, what are the good things, what are the bad things, some serious thinking. But certainly I’m not the kind of person who just goes and gets impressed by a crowd regardless of what it’s saying, regardless of what it’s chanting, regardless of what it’s asking for.
Sagarika Ghose: But what about the persona of Anna Hazare? Many would say that he evoked a certain different era, he evoked the era of the freedom struggle, he is a simple Gandhian, he does lead a very austere life, he lives in a small room behind a temple and his persona of what he is evokes a certain moral power perhaps which is needed in an India which is facing a moral crisis.
Arundhati Roy: I think Anna Hazare was a sort of empty vessel in which you could pour whatever meaning you wanted to pour in, unlike someone like Gandhi who was very much his own man on the stage of the world. Anna Hazare certainly is his own man in his village, but here he was not in charge of what was going on. That was very evident. As for who he is and what his affiliations and antecedents have been, again I’m worried.
Sagarika Ghose: Why are you worried?
Arundhati Roy: Some of things that one has read and found out about, his attitude towards Harijans, that every village must have one ‘chamaar’ and one ‘sunaar’ and one ‘kumhaar’, that’s gandhian in some ways, you know Gandhi had this very complicated and very problematic attitude to the caste system, anyone who knows about the debates between Gandhi and Ambedkar will tell you that. But what I’m saying is eventually we live in a very complicated society. You have a strong left edition which doesn’t know what to do with the caste system. You have the Gandhians who are also very odd about the caste system. You have our deeply frightening communal politics, you have this whole new era of new liberalism and the penetration of international capital. This movement just did not know the beginning of its morals. It could have ended badly because nobody really, you know, you choose something like corruption, it’s a pot into which everyone can piss, anti-left, pro-left, right, I mean, I was in Hyderabad, Jagan Mohan Reddy who was at that time being raided by the CBI was one of his great supporters. Naveen Patnaik…
Sagarika Ghose: But isn’t that its strength? It’s an inclusive agenda. Anti-corruption movement brings people in.
Arundhati Roy: It’s a meaningless thing when you have highly corrupt corporations funding an anti-corruption movement, what does this mean? And trying to set up an oligarchy which actually neatens the messy business of democracy and representative democracy however bad it is. Certainly it’s a comment on the fact that our country suffering from a failure of representative democracy, people don’t believe that their politicians really represent them anymore, there isn’t a single democratic institution that is accessible to ordinary people. So what you have is a solution which isn’t going to address the problem.
Sagarika Ghose: So a corporate funded movement which seeks to lessen the power of the democratic state and seeks to reduce the power of the democratic state?
Arundhati Roy: I would say that this bill would increase the possibilities of the penetration of international capital which has led to a huge crisis in the first place in this country.
Sagarika Ghose: Just on a different note, what do you think of the fast-unto-death? Many have criticised it as a ‘Brahamastra’ which shouldn’t be easily deployed in political agitations, Gandhi used it only as a last resort. What is your view of the hunger strike or the fast-unto-death?
Arundhati Roy: Look the whole world is full of people who are killing themselves, who are threatening to kill themselves in different ways. From a suicide bomber to the people who are immolating themselves on Telangana and all that. Frankly, I’m not one of those people who’s going to stand and give a lecture about the constitutionality of resistance because I’m not that person. For me it’s about what are you doing it for. That’s my real question – what are you doing it for? Who are you doing it for? And why are you doing it? Other than that I think I personally believe that there are things going on in this world that you really need to stand up and resist in whatever way you can. But I’m not interested in a fast-unto-death for the Jan Lokpal Bill frankly.
Sagarika Ghose: So what is your solution then. How would you fight corruption?
Arundhati Roy: Sagarika, I’m telling you that corruption is not my big issue right now. I’m not a reformist person who will tell you how to cleanse the Indian state. I’m going on and on in all the 10 years that I’ve written about nuclear powers, about nuclear bombs, about big dams, about this particular model of development, about displacement, about land acquisition, about mining, about privatisation, these are the things I want to talk about. I’m not the doctor to tell the Indian state how to improve itself.
Sagarika Ghose: So corruption really does not concern you in that sense?
Arundhati Roy: No, it does, but not in this narrow way. I’m concerned about the absolutely disgusting inequality in the society that we live in.
Sagarika Ghose: And this movement has done nothing to touch that. What precedents has it set for protest movements in the future? Do you think this movement has set a precedent for protest movements in the future?
Arundhati Roy: For protest movements of the powerful, protests movements where the media is on your side, protests movements where the government is scared of you, protest movements where the police disarm themselves, how many movements are there going to be like that? I don’t know. While you’re talking about this, the army is getting ready to move into Central India to fight the poorest people in this country, and I can tell you they are not disarmed. So, I don’t know what lessons you can draw from a protest movement that has privileges that no other protest movement I’ve ever known has had.
Sagarika Ghose: Just to re-emphasise the point about Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan, these are old time associates of yours in activism. They are deeply involved in this particular movement. How do you react to them being involved in this movement of which, you’re so critical?
Arundhati Roy: With some dismay because Prashant is a very close friend of mine and I respect Medha a lot, but I think that their credibility has been cashed in on in some ways, but I feel bad that they are part of it.
Sagarika Ghose: You have voiced fears in your article as well that in some ways, this movement and this bill is an attempt to diminish the powers of the democratic government and to reduce the discretionary powers of the democratic government. So you feel that this is a corporate funded exercise to reduce the powers of the democratically elected government?
Arundhati Roy: Well not corporate funded, but there’s a sort of IMF World Bank way of looking at it, fuelling this whole path because if you remember in the early 90s when they began on this path of liberalisation and privatisation. The government itself kept saying, ‘Oh, we’re so corrupt. We need a systemic change, we can’t not be corrupt,’ and that systemic change was privatisation. When privatisation has shown itself to be more corrupt than, I mean the levels of corruption have jumped so high, the solution is not systemic. It’s either moral or it’s more privatisation, more reforms. People are calling for the second round of reforms for the removal of the discretionary powers of the government. So I think that’s a very interesting that you’re not looking at it structurally, you’re looking at it morally and you’re trying to push whatever few controls there are or took the way once again for the penetration of international capital.
Sagarika Ghose: But people like Nandan Nilekani have argued this movement and this bill could stop reforms actually. It could actually put an end to the reforms process by instituting this big bureaucratic infrastructure – this inspector raj. But you don’t go along with that. You believe that this is a way of taking the reforms agenda forward.
Arundhati Roy: I think it depends on who captures that bureaucracy. That’s why I’m worried about this combination of sort of Ford funded NGO world and the RSS and that sort of world coming together in a kind of crossroads. Those two things are very frightening because you create a bureaucracy which can then be controlled, which has Rs 2000 crore or whatever, 0.25 per cent of the revenues of the Government of India at its disposal, policing powers, all of this. So it’s a way of side-stepping the messy business of democracy.
Sagarika Ghose: That’s interesting the combination of Ford funded NGOs, rich NGOs and the Hindu mass organisations. That’s the combination that you see here and that’s what makes you uneasy.
Arundhati Roy: yes, and when you look at the World Bank agenda, it’s 600 anti-corruption plans and projects and what it says, what it believes, then it just becomes as clear as day what’s going on here.
Sagarika Ghose: And what is going on, just to push you on that one?
Arundhati Roy: What I said, that you stop concentrating on the corruption of government officers when you know of governments, politicians, and leaving out the huge corporate world, the media, the NGOs who have taken over traditional government functions of electricity, water, mining, health, all of that. Why concentrate on this and not on that? I think that’s a very, very big problem.
Sagarika Ghose: So it was a protest movement of the entitled and the protest movement of the privileged. Arundhati Roy thanks very much indeed for joining us.