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A Conversation on Kashmir with Arundhati Roy and David Barsamian

Transcript of ’Making Contact’ the radio programme

by, 2 March 2009

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Making Contact from National Radio Project

February 4, 2009

Transcript #05-09 Conversation on Kashmir with Arundhati Roy and David Barsamian

Program description, guest contact information and audio files at

Arundhati Roy is the celebrated author of “The God of Small Things” and winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. “The New York Times” calls her, "India’s most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence." She is the winner of the Lannan Award for Cultural Freedom. Her latest books are “The Checkbook & the Cruise Missile,” with David Barsamian, and “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.”

David Barsamian: You’ve been spending at lot of time in Kashmir and you were just there again. There has been a series of elections over the last couple of months, and these elections have been heralded, at least by the mainstream press here in India, as a great referendum for freedom and democracy and a rebuke for the separatists. What is your understanding of what exactly happened in terms of the elections?

Arundhati Roy: Really, the difficulty about it, the thing I worry most about, is losing the language with which to describe what’s happening there. Because it’s almost as though you need a deep knowledge of what’s going on there to be able to understand what happened. In August, even then I was there, and all over the world it has been reported, there was an incredible spontaneous uprising, and there were hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. This time I was there in the silence, and still I could hear that noise in my head, “Azadi, azadi, azadi.” The fruit sellers were weighing their fruit chanting “Azadi, azadi.” The people on the buses, the children on the streets. It was as if the sky was chanting that.

David Barsamian: Azadi means freedom.

Arundhati Roy: Azadi means freedom. Azadi means a lot of things: freedom in a very nuanced way, because that in itself is a very contested term in Kashmir. And then that nonviolent uprising—and that uprising was actually presented to the leaders, the, quote, unquote, leaders of the separatist movement by the people. It wasn’t that the leaders led the movement, but the people really came and dusted off the mothballs and pulled the leaders out onto the street and presented them with a kind of revolution.

The Indian government’s response to that was the harshest curfew that has ever been imposed in Kashmir. Days and days and days together, razor wire, steel walls that were put in, people were prevented from moving between the districts, between villages. A lot of Kashmiris were killed in the firings. I don’t know if I need to keep on saying this because everyone knows it now, but still, for the record—more than half a million soldiers in the valley of Kashmir, which somebody in America wrote saying it was the equivalent of the entire U.S. Army and the entire Marine Corps deployed in Minnesota, sort of like that; 165,000 American soldiers in Iraq. Between 500,000 and 700,000 Indian security personnel in the valley of Kashmir. So the way the army is deployed there, I think it would take them less than half an hour to just be everywhere in Kashmir, because they are spread out and they are patrolling all the time. So to put down this uprising wasn’t hard for them in a military sense. So that was August.

Then there was a big debate about whether or not to call elections, because everybody feared that there would be a complete boycott of the elections, which have been more or less boycotted in past. The separatists called for a boycott. And to everybody’s shock and surprise, there was a huge turnout in the elections. I think nobody could understand exactly what had happened. Where had that sentiment gone? Where was that outburst of a desire for freedom that was being expressed from the street? How did it suddenly disappear? And it was quite interesting that I started getting calls from people.

The other thing is that it was very interesting in the way in which the election was called. A couple of districts in Jammu are Hindu-dominated, the BJP has not ever been in power there, but still there was a sort of political divide between these districts in Jammu and the Kashmir valley. Then there is Ladakh, there is Doda and Kishtwari.

David Barsamian: The BJP being the Bharatiya Janata Party, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party.

Arundhati Roy: And there are some parts of the Kashmir valley which are under the boot of the army. If you travel in Kashmir, you see that there the army controls the inhalation and the exhalation. It controls everything. So it was pretty brilliant, if you look at it from the Indian government’s point of view, the way the elections were called. These places where traditionally the Army’s fiat rules went to the polls first and so on. Without wanting to get into too much detail to an audience that’s not familiar with this, the point is that there was a big turnout. Except in the cities. In almost all the cities and towns the turnout was low, but in the villages the turnout was very high.

So I went back to Kashmir just now just to understand for myself what it was all about. Of course, the first thing that happened was that the last stage of the polling in Srinagar was due to happen, and so the police put me under house arrest, which revealed more than it hid, because if you can imagine, they’re so frightened of anybody who has a point of view different from that of the Indian state seeing anything. Before the polls happened, they did a massive round of arrests. They arrested not just the leaders of the Hurriyat, which is the separatist groups, but all the workers, all the activists, all the young people who were seen to have led these protests. Hundreds of people were put into jail.

A lot of even liberal Indians say that the polls were free and fair. First of all, the first question you have to ask yourself is, when you have that kind of a densely deployed army, can you have free and fair elections? Is it at all possible? Election observers and liberal Indians went there and they didn’t see people being pushed to the polling booths on the end of a bayonet, so they said there was no coercion. But the thing is, now the people of Kashmir have internalized, what it means to live in an occupation and how to deal with it. And they do have a long-term view, because they do have to survive. So one of the things that happened was that the main party, the National Conference, that is now coming into power campaigned very openly saying that these elections have nothing to do with azadi; they’re just about bread and butter issues. That was one thing that happened.

David Barsamian: Sarak, pani and—what was the slogan?

Arundhati Roy: Sarak, pani, bijli. It means roads, water, and electricity. So I think that quite explains the fact that in urban areas, where people are more secure, they didn’t feel the need to come out and vote, whereas in rural areas people—it’s not actually sarak, pani, and bijli so much as a thin layer of protection from this occupation. For example, when the SOG, which is the dreaded Special Operations Group, goes and picks up somebody, you have to have somebody to appeal to. And that somebody is the politician. So, for example, to give you an example, some people were telling me of how there is one particular member of the legislative assembly who keeps getting voted back to power. His modus operandi is, just before the elections he organizes for the army to pick up five or six people, young men, from that area. Then the people go and petition him. Then he goes and gets them released and earns their eternal gratitude. These are all sort of invisible things that happen.

There are many other reasons. For example, just now the stories are emerging that in this election, more than in any other election, there were hundreds, hundreds of candidates who were fielded. Each of them, in a slightly feudal area, has a certain number of relatives and friends who come and vote for them. Because the main thing in these elections was the government was very keen to have a turnout, regardless of what happened, to show that this is a democracy. In fact, the day I left Kashmir all these defeated independent candidates were having a press conference in this restaurant called Ahdoo’s talking about how they had all been paid by the Intelligence Bureau sums of money to stand for election, and then some of them weren’t given that money, so now they are disgruntled.

Then there are other issues. For example, there is this group of renegades known as Ikhwanis, former militants who turned into very dreaded killers working for the government. Some Ikhwanis and sometimes Ikhwanis’ sons were standing for election. And people went out to vote against them so that they would not be represented by them.

So there are a number of factors. But it’s true that even without these factors, people did come out and vote. For me, the way I see it is that people realize that they’re lying on a bed of nails, and these elections are like a little, thin layer of sponge over the bed of nails, a way of getting by, a way of continuing to live. They are not in any way going to permanently solve the problem of Kashmir. What the Indian government has done over and over again over the decades is to do this kind of crisis management, sweep things under the carpet, and then hope that it will go away. Then it resurfaces in a different way, in a different form. So I was there when the sort of free and fair press of the mighty government of India arrived there to gloat over these elections, people who knew nothing about Kashmir, who were coming there to give the commentary, saying the most absurd things about how this was the end of the freedom movement.

To me, the saddest thing was that I felt all the Kashmiris, I spoke to, without exception said, “We’ve done this to ourselves.” And I felt that this sort of psychological war on them, this lowering of their self-esteem, this forcing them to participate in tactics of survival which eventually make them despise themselves was really the deepest form of colonialism. Someone said, “We feel like Shi’as at Muharram (a religious holiday marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein). We whip ourselves and then we draw our own blood and then the Indian propaganda machine comes and puts salt in our wounds.” That’s how a lot of people said they felt.

It’s very difficult to understand the full extent of this, except that what people really want is being thwarted again and again and again. Everybody is speaking on behalf of people. As a citizen of India, I feel uncomfortable with that. I feel that we can’t gloat about doing this to somebody. Of course you can manage it. Of course India will always be able to manage it, because it’s a small valley. But, then again, I don’t think that it will always be possible to manage it, because eventually I do think that the price of holding down the Kashmir valley, which was being paid mostly by Indian soldiers, who are mostly poor people from India who don’t count, was suddenly being paid by the Indian elite in five-star hotels in Bombay. That puts a totally different spin on things.

David Barsamian: You write that the Indian military occupation of Kashmir “makes monsters of us all.” What do you mean by that?

Arundhati Roy: It makes us complicit in the holding down by military force of a people, it makes us complicit in the propaganda, it makes us complicit in the lies. And eventually it makes us people who are unable to look things in the eye.

David Barsamian: You say that it allows Hindu chauvinists to target and victimize Muslims in other parts of the country.

Arundhati Roy: One of the things that happened in the early 1990s in Kashmir was that when the elections were rigged in 1987, which led to the movement in Kashmir which existed beforehand, suddenly it had become a militant movement, and there were young men rising up with arms, young men crossing the border to Pakistan to train and come back. One of the fallouts of that was the exodus of the small community of Kashmiri Pandits, or Kashmiri Hindus, from the valley. Because the king who signed the accession document was a Hindu ruler over Muslim subjects, and therefore this small minority of Hindu Kashmiris was a powerful minority. But because they feared for their safety, rightly so, and because the governor, Jagmohan, quite unforgivably said that the government couldn’t protect them, they sort of facilitated the exit of these Hindu Pandits from the valley. The poor among them ended up living in refugee camps in Jammu. They still live in refugee campus in Jammu.

You must remember that it was exactly at the time that a lot of things were happening geographically in this area. It was the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, the BJP with L. K. Advani leading this rath yatra towards the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the rise of Hindu chauvinism. So these Kashmiri Pandits were wielded like a club by Hindu chauvinists in India and used to whip up this anti-Muslim sentiment. Of course, that orgy of hatred, that whole manifesto of hatred of the BJP, eventually led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the coming to power of the BJP, the genocide against Muslims in Gujarat, the bombings in Bombay in retaliation for the Babri Masjid, and the genocide in Bombay against Muslims by the Shiv Sena
(a Maharashtra-based Marathi nationalist group), and the whole rise of this kind of ugly, divisive politics.

So if you were to question the average Indian, the only thing they know is that there are terrorists in Kashmir. They wouldn’t be able to tell you that 60,000 or 70,000 people have died in this war. They wouldn’t be able to tell you about the dubious morality of India holding on to this place. They say Kashmir is an atut ang, which means an inseparable limb of India.

David Barsamian: And there are also close to 10,000 people are missing.

Arundhati Roy: That have disappeared. The point is that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that Kashmir was never a part of India. It was an independent kingdom. So even today, when they gloat about elections, if you say, "Why don’t you have a referendum?" as was promised by the U.N., they say, "Oh, that’s an old cliché. How can you ask that? Things have moved on from then."

David Barsamian: Tell me, the people that you spoke to there, what do they think of Pakistan?

Arundhati Roy: When I was there in August—I’ve written about it in this piece that you referred to—along with “Hum Kya Chatey? Azadi,” which means, “What do we want? We want freedom,” there was an equal amount of “Jeeve, Jeeve, Pakistan!” meaning “Long live Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan.”

Yet I think that if you question people, there were many reasons for that. One was that what they think of Pakistan is, to put it in some crude way, if there was some referendum where people were given the option of India, Pakistan, or azadi, I imagine that an overwhelming majority would say azadi. If they were given only an option between India and Pakistan, I think—I’m no one to say this, but I’m just saying my gut feeling is that Pakistan would win hands down. But what India says is Pakistan is fueling terrorism in Kashmir. I think people see Pakistan as somewhat self-serving yet very important support for the freedom movement in Kashmir. People understand that it’s self-serving, but people still see it as support for what they see as a freedom movement.

David Barsamian: And there is awareness also that the state there is not only exploding but imploding.

Arundhati Roy: I think that there is awareness of that. Yet, the real question is that what people have experienced is the brutality of the Indian state, so at this point that is foregrounded for people in Kashmir. It’s a bit theoretical to say, but maybe it will be worse for them. They say, “Then that’s our problem. Why are you worried about our problems?” The Kashmiris, even when they are not being political, if you go around Kashmir, they ask you, “Have you come from India?” They don’t consider themselves Indians.

It’s been a very difficult time for Muslims in India. So to imagine that Muslims would be longing to be a part of India when they don’t have to be is a hallucination. Indian Muslims have a completely different problem from Kashmiris. Indian Muslims have a different issue here, because they have to live here and they have to find peace in this almost fascist atmosphere. But Kashmiris see themselves as people who have a choice. They don’t have to put their heads down and kiss ass. You have to find a different way of saying that.

David Barsamian: You conclude that article that “India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much if not more than Kashmir needs azadi from India”.

Arundhati Roy: I think there was something almost prescient there. I wrote this—I don’t remember when it was published—in late August or September. And I did sense that there wasn’t any possibility of the Indian state—and it’s wrong for me to just say the Indian state, because Indian society in places like Gujarat and Maharashtra or even in Bombay—to continue to marginalize such a vast majority—only in India can 150 million people be a minority, 150 million Muslims in India—and to continue to bulldoze this population in Kashmir. Eventually all that can come out of it is destruction. All that come out of it is people wanting to take you down with them. If you push them to a stage where there is no possibility of any access to justice, even if 99% of them decide to put their heads down and suffer, 1% is enough to destroy life as you knew it.