Also Arundati Roy, second article, from the Boston Review, July 2019: Making people feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless is part of the propaganda. Let’s face it: the free market is not free, and it doesn’t give a shit about justice or equality.
By Chris Gelardi, July 11, 2019, The Atlantic
The second of the two US atomic bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in July 1946. (Reuters)
Ready To Fight Back?
In May, as HBO’s Chernobyl introduced American viewers to Soviet ineptitude in the face of disaster, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres brought to the world’s attention an embarrassing chapter of the United States’ own nuclear history. Speaking to a group of students during an official visit to the Pacific Islands region, Guterres recounted a meeting he had with Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands.
Heine, he said, “is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin” in her country.
As several news outlets soon explained, the “coffin” Guterres was talking about is a remnant of nuclear testing the United States conducted on the Marshall Islands after the military annexed the collection of atolls during the Second World War. From 1946 to 1958, the government detonated 67 massive nuclear weapons over the islands—among them, a hydrogen bomb that produced an explosion 1,000 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was two and a half times larger than scientists had expected. Infamously known as Castle Bravo, the test spread fluffy white radioactive fallout over 7,000 square miles of ocean and sparsely populated islands, where unsuspecting children played in it.
In the late 1970s, the United States attempted to clean up one of the Marshall Islands testing sites. On the Enewetak Atoll, workers scraped the radioactive topsoil and stored it in a pit (the “coffin”), then covered it with a concrete dome 18 inches thick. But the storage was supposed to be only temporary, and after decades of exposure, the dome began to crack. Now, with sea-level rise resulting from climate change expected to submerge the Marshall Islands in coming years, the defective dome is threatening to contaminate that entire area of the Pacific.
Speaking to Australia’s ABC News in 2017, a Marshallese activist referred to the Enewetak dome as “the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age.” This seems to be the consensus analysis of the situation, and it’s undoubtedly noteworthy—radioactive sites and sea-level rise are a perilous combination that the world is not at all prepared to handle.
Yet there’s more to that equation still. The Castle Bravo miscalculation, the sloppy and inadequate cleanup, even the nuclear tests themselves would have never been issues for climate change to exacerbate if not for the Marshall Islands’ deferential relationship with the United States. It’s a dynamic the country shares with several other current and former territories around the world—Puerto Rico, which Wall Street has kept on life support as a means of extorting profit; the US Virgin Islands, natural disasters on which the federal government has largely disregarded; Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, at the mercy of the whims of the US military.
And with a climate crisis on the horizon, the hundreds of islands that make up these territories are staring down a deadly and dual-pronged threat: climate change and their own colonial pasts.
The United States was always a cautious kind of colonizer, according to historian Daniel Immerwahr. In his new book, How to Hide an Empire, he recounts the history of what he calls “the Greater United States”—the mostly island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific that were annexed after the Spanish-American and Second World Wars. Unlike other imperial powers, the United States never aspired to reign over the millions of (brown) people who came with its conquered territories, and it was reluctant to claim them as “part” of the country. (Indeed, as Immerwahr points out, this very magazine encapsulated what was to become the standard racist attitude toward territorial peoples when it pronounced during Alaskan annexation in 1867 that “we do not want” Eskimos as “fellow citizens.”)
Rather, Washington saw the far-flung islands as “pointillist” air and sea ports, and hoped to quietly extract their rubber, fertilizer, and other resources while flaking out on its responsibility to actually govern. It was colonialism in the most mercenary sense: Your land is part of the United States when we need to use it, but don’t even think about calling yourselves Americans.
Under this shadow colonialism, the United States subjected its islander subjects to a wide array of horrors. During the Second World War, the military interned thousands of US nationals in the Philippines and Guam and killed tens of thousands more with its scorched-earth tactics. In Puerto Rico, mainland doctors throughout the 20th century conducted uninformed medical trials on the population, including several by Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, whose genocidal racism prompted him to infect and selectively treat patients as if they were lab animals. And for 60 years, the US military used Vieques, an island off of Puerto Rico, as a bombing range—to the point where the population is still experiencing elevated rates of cancer and arsenic and mercury poisoning. There were also the nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands, from which Marshallese communities are still experiencing cancer, birth defects, and agricultural devastation.
Equally demoralizing is how little the situations on some of these islands have changed over the past century. It’s true that fewer of them are territorially administered by the United States—the Marshalls and the Philippines gained independence, while Hawai’i and the Aleutians (part of Alaska) became states. But even though government-sponsored breakthroughs in synthetics replaced the need for rubber and other colonial materials, and a boom in treaties has supplanted the need for the United States to use conquered territory for military bases, the islands whose colonial status isn’t significantly different from what it was decades ago still have a relationship with the mainland that is primarily extractive, militaristic, or just neglectful.
And with a climate crisis looming, those relationships signal further disaster.
Islands are uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. And it’s hard, given the US track record (not to mention its outsize carbon footprint), to imagine a constructive and helpful federal response when the worst of its impacts begin to manifest. It would be all too easy for mainland politicians to shrug as rising tides swallow whole islands; as ocean warming and acidification disperse and kill the fish populations on which many island communities rely; as increasingly extreme hurricanes and typhoons pummel islands much harder than continental areas.
In fact, climate-change effects are already being compounded by US negligence and exploitation. Be it radioactive-waste sites from government nuclear tests poisoning rising oceans or precarious power grids designed via federal-tax incentives leaving islands like Puerto Rico susceptible to widespread blackout during storms, the past pillaging of the US’s island territories is making the coming climate crisis even more dire for them.
The federal response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in 2017 was straight out of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine—a master class in capitalizing on natural disaster for the sake of redistributing resources inland and upward. After nearly two years, Congress has still only passed minute aid packages; meanwhile, the Virgin Islands have spiraled into literal despair, while vulture capitalists have found, at the intersection of natural destruction and preexisting debt, a sweet spot to suck Puerto Ricans dry. In San Juan, crypto bros have sought to create a tone-deaf, tax-free paradise for their grifts, while authorities working on behalf of Wall Street bondholders have dealt blow after financial blow to grassroots efforts to make Puerto Rico more sustainable, equitable, and climate resilient. Recently, austerity hawks even decided to siphon cash from Puerto Rican households that have installed solar panels in an effort to escape crushing electricity prices and wean their communities off the centralized fossil-fuel grid.
And when island communities do see federal action on climate change, it’s usually tied to a colonialist project. Residents of the United States’ Northern Mariana Islands, for example, got a preview of what a semi-appropriate government response to climate disaster might look like after Super Typhoon Yutu in October 2018, when the Department of Defense moved thousands of tons of storm debris, set up temporary tents for those rendered homeless, and fixed civilian roofs.
Meanwhile, the Navy is in the midst of proposing a contentious plan to appropriate two of the Northern Marianas islands for live-fire exercises as part of a troop buildup on nearby Guam. With no voting representation in Congress, territorial peoples can count on the federal government to help preserve their homes only when it seeks to commandeer them.
Conventional narratives of global history tell us that we live in a postcolonial world. But as author Arundhati Roy recently posed to Boston Review, “Is postcolonial really post-?”Of course it isn’t; it’s just that today’s colonizers wear suits and ties instead of safari outfits (Melania notwithstanding). And as the climate crisis worsens, they will continue to conquer, exploit, profit from, and then wash their hands of the world’s most climate-vulnerable communities—while other expansionist regimes follow suit.
Colonialism was for centuries one of the world’s most powerful scourges. But in this “postcolonial” climate-change era, we are only starting to see its full effects.
Chris Gelardi is a New York City–based journalist and a former editorial intern at The Nation.
Is Colonialism Really “Post”?
How to Think About Empire: Boston Review speaks with Arundhati Roy on censorship, storytelling, and her problem with the term ‘postcolonialism.’
In her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), Arundhati Roy asks, “What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?” This relationship between the imagination and the stuff of real life—violence, injustice, power—is central to Roy’s writing, dating back to her Booker Prize–winning debut novel The God of Small Things (1997). For the twenty years between the release of her first and second novels, the Indian writer has dismayed many—those who preferred that she stick to storytelling and those who were comfortable with the turn of global politics around 9/11—by voicing her political dissent loudly and publicly.
Her critical essays, many published in major Indian newspapers, take on nuclear weapons, big dams, corporate globalization, India’s caste system, the rise of Hindu nationalism, the many faces of empire, and the U.S. war machine...In this interview, she reflects on the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in her work, how to think about power, and what it means to live and write in imperial times.
Avni Sejpal: In your book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004), you identify a few different pillars of empire: globalization and neoliberalism, militarism, and the corporate media. You write, “The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code of democracy. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder.” How would you update this today?
How long will it be before the world’s elite feel that almost all the world’s problems could be solved by getting rid of that surplus population?
Arundhati Roy: That was fourteen years ago! The updates now would include the ways in which big capital uses racism, caste-ism (the Hindu version of racism, more elaborate, and sanctioned by the holy books), and sexism and gender bigotry (sanctioned in almost every holy book) in intricate and extremely imaginative ways to reinforce itself, protect itself, to undermine democracy, and to splinter resistance. It doesn’t help that there has been a failure on the part of the left in general to properly address these issues.
In India, caste—that most brutal system of social hierarchy—and capitalism have fused into a dangerous new alloy. It is the engine that runs modern India. Understanding one element of the alloy and not the other doesn’t help. Caste is not color-coded. If it were, if it were visible to the untrained eye, India would look very much like a country that practices apartheid.
Another “update” that we ought to think about is that new technology could ensure that the world no longer needs a vast working class. What will then emerge is a restive population of people who play no part in economic activity—a surplus population if you like, one that will need to be managed and controlled. Our digital coordinates will ensure that controlling us is easy. Our movements, friendships, relationships, bank accounts, access to money, food, education, healthcare, information (fake, as well as real), even our desires and feelings—all of it is increasingly surveilled and policed by forces we are hardly aware of. How long will it be before the elite of the world feel that almost all the world’s problems could be solved if only they could get rid of that surplus population? If only they could delicately annihilate specific populations in specific ways—using humane and democratic methods, of course. Preferably in the name of justice and liberty. Nothing on an industrial scale, like gas chambers or Fat Men and Little Boys. What else are smart nukes and germ warfare for?
AS: How does the rise of ethnonationalisms and populisms change your diagnosis?
AR: Ethno-nationalism is only a particularly virulent strain of nationalism. Nationalism has long been part of the corporate global project. The freer global capital becomes, the harder national borders become. Colonialism needed to move large populations of people—slaves and indentured labor—to work in mines and on plantations. Now the new dispensation needs to keep people in place and move the money—so the new formula is free capital, caged labor. How else are you going to drive down wages and increase profit margins?
Profit is the only constant. And it has worked to a point. But now capitalism’s wars for resources and strategic power (otherwise known as “just wars”) have destroyed whole countries and created huge populations of war refugees who are breaching borders. The specter of an endless flow of unwanted immigrants with the wrong skin color or the wrong religion is now being used to rally fascists and ethno-nationalists across the world. That candle is burning at both ends and down the middle, too. It cannot all be laid at the door of resource-plundering or strategic thinking. Eventually it develops a momentum and a logic of its own.
As the storm builds, the ethno-nationalists are out harnessing the wind, giving each other courage. Israel has just passed a new bill that officially declares itself to be the national homeland of Jewish people, making its Arab citizenry second class. Unsurprising, but still, even by its own standards, pretty brazen. In the rest of the Middle East, of course, Israel and the United States are working hard at sharpening the Sunni–Shia divide, the disastrous end of which could be an attack on Iran. There are plans for Europe, too. Steve Bannon, a former aide of President Donald Trump, has started an organization, The Movement, headquartered in Brussels. The Movement aims to be “a clearing house for populist, nationalist movements in Europe.” It says it wants to bring about a “tectonic shift” in European politics. The idea seems to be to paralyze the European Union. A disintegrated EU would be a less formidable economic bloc, easier for the U.S. government to bully and bargain with. Yet, at the same time, uniting white supremacists in Europe and the United States is an attempt to help them to retain the power they feel is slipping away from them.
Enough has been said about Trump’s immigration policies—the cages, the separation of infants and young children from their families—all of it just a little worse than what Barack Obama did during his presidency, to the sound of deafening silence. In India, too, the pin on the immigration grenade has just been pulled. In the spirit of the globalization of fascism, U.S. alt-right organizations are good friends of Hindu nationalists. Look to India, if you want to understand the world in microcosm. On July 30, 2018, the state of Assam published a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The register comes in lieu of a virtually nonexistent immigration policy. The NRC’s cut-off date of eligibility for Indian citizenship is 1971—the year that saw a massive influx of refugees from Bangladesh after the war with Pakistan. Most of them settled in Assam, which put enormous pressure on the local population, particularly on the most vulnerable indigenous communities. It led to escalating tensions, which have in the past boiled over into mass murder. In 1983 at least 2,000 Muslims were killed, with unofficial estimates putting the figure at five times that number. Now, at a time when Muslims are being openly demonized, and with the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in power, the unforgiveable policy lapse of half a decade is going to be addressed. The selection process, sifting through a population of millions of people who don’t all have “legacy papers”—birth certificates, identity papers, land records, or marriage certificates—is going to create chaos on an unimaginable scale. Four million people who have lived and worked in Assam for years, have been declared stateless—like the Rohingya of Burma were in 1982. They stand to lose homes and property that they have acquired over generations. Families are likely to be split up in entirely arbitrary ways. At best, they face the prospect of becoming a floating population of people with no rights, who will serve as pools of cheap labor. At worst, they could try and deport them to Bangladesh, which is unlikely to accept them. In the growing climate of suspicion and intolerance against Muslims, they could well suffer the fate of the Rohingya.
The BJP has announced its plans to carry out this exercise in West Bengal, too. If that were ever to happen, tens of millions of people would be uprooted. That could easily turn into yet another Partition. Or even, heaven forbid, another Rwanda. It doesn’t end there. In the Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir, on the other hand, the BJP has declared that it wants to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gives the state autonomous status and was the only condition under which it would accede to India in 1947. That means beginning a process of overwhelming the local population with Israeli-type settlements in the Kashmir Valley. Over the past thirty years, almost 70,000 people have died in Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination. Any move to eliminate Article 370 would be simply cataclysmic.
Meanwhile vulnerable communities that have been oppressed, exploited, and excluded because of their identities—their caste, race, gender, religion, or ethnicity—are organizing themselves, too, along those very lines, to resist oppression and exclusion.While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.
AS: You once wrote that George W. Bush “achieved what writers, scholars, and activists have striven to achieve for decades. He has exposed the ducts. He has placed on full public view the working parts, the nuts and bolts of the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.” What did you mean by this, and ten years and two presidents later, is the American empire’s apocalyptic nature still so transparent?
I wonder about the term postcolonial. Is colonialism really post-?
AR: I was referring to Bush’s unnuanced and not very intelligent commentary after the events of 9/11 and in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It exposed the thinking of the deep state in the United States. That transparency disappeared in the Obama years, as it tends to when Democrats are in power. In the Obama years, you had to ferret out information and piece it together to figure out how many bombs were being dropped and how many people were being killed, even as the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was being eloquently delivered. However differently their domestic politics plays out on home turf, it is a truism that the Democrats’ foreign policy has tended to be as aggressive as that of the Republicans. But since 9/11, between Bush and Obama, how many countries have been virtually laid to waste? And now we have the era of Trump, in which we learn that intelligence and nuance are relative terms. And that W, when compared to Trump, was a serious intellectual. Now U.S. foreign policy is tweeted to the world on an hourly basis. You can’t get more transparent than that. The Absurd Apocalypse. Who would have imagined that could be possible? But it is possible—more than possible—and it will be quicker in the coming if Trump makes the dreadful mistake of attacking Iran.
AS: There is a marked stylistic difference between your two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published two decades apart. While both speak of politics and violence, the former is written in a style often described as lyrical realism. Beauty is one of its preoccupations, and it ends on a hopeful note. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, on the other hand, is a more urgent, fragmented, and bleak novel, where the losses are harder to sustain. Given the dominance of lyrical realism in the postcolonial and global novel, was your stylistic choice also a statement about the need to narrate global systems of domination differently? Is the novel an indirect call to rethink representation in Indian English fiction?
AR: The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are different kinds of novels. They required different ways of telling a story. In both, the language evolved organically as I wrote them. I am not really aware of making “stylistic choices” in a conscious way. In The God of Small Things, I felt my way toward a language that would contain both English and Malayalam—it was the only way to tell that story of that place and those people. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a much riskier venture. To write it, I had to nudge the language of The God of Small Things off the roof of a very tall building, then rush down and gather up the shards. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written in English but imagined in many languages—Hindi, Urdu, English… I wanted to try and write a novel that was not just a story told through a few characters whose lives play out against a particular backdrop. I tried to imagine the narrative form of the novel as if it were one of the great metropoles in my part of the world—ancient, modern, planned and unplanned. A story with highways and narrow alleys, old courtyards, new freeways. A story in which you would get lost and have to find your way back. A story that a reader would have to live inside, not consume. A story in which I tried not to walk past people without stopping for a smoke and a quick hello. One in which even the minor characters tell you their names, their stories, where they came from, and where they wish to go.
I agree, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is fragmented, urgent—I love the idea of a novel written over almost ten years being urgent—but I wouldn’t call it bleak. Most of the characters, after all, are ordinary folks who refuse to surrender to the bleakness that is all around them, who insist on all kinds of fragile love and humor and vulgarity, which all thrive stubbornly in the most unexpected places. In the lives of the characters in both books, love, sorrow, despair, and hope are so tightly intertwined, and so transient, I am not sure I know which novel of the two is bleaker and which more hopeful.
There has not been a day since the British left India that the Indian army has not been deployed against its “own people.”
I don’t think in some of the categories in which your question is posed to me. For example, I don’t understand what a “global” novel is. I think of both my novels as so very, very local. I am surprised by how easily they have traveled across cultures and languages. Both have been translated into more than forty languages—but does that make them “global” or just universal?
And then I wonder about the term postcolonial. I have often used it, too, but is colonialism really post-? Both novels, in different ways, reflect on this question. So many kinds of entrenched and unrecognized colonialisms still exist. Aren’t we letting them off the hook? Even “Indian English fiction” is, on the face of it, a pretty obvious category. But what does it really mean? The boundaries of the country we call India were arbitrarily drawn by the British. What is “Indian English”? Is it different from Pakistani English or Bangladeshi English? Kashmiri English? There are 780 languages in India, 22 of them formally “recognized.” Most of our Englishes are informed by our familiarity with one or more of those languages. Hindi, Telugu, and Malayalam speakers, for example, speak English differently. The characters in my books speak in various languages, and translate for and to each other. Translation, in my writing, is a primary act of creation. They, as well as the author, virtually live in the language of translation. Truly, I don’t think of myself as a writer of “Indian English fiction,” but as a writer whose work and whose characters live in several languages. The original is in itself part translation.
I feel that my fiction comes from a place that is more ancient, as well as more modern and certainly less shallow, than the concept of nations. Is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness an indirect call to rethink representation in the Indian English novel? Not consciously, no. But an author’s conscious intentions are only a part of what a book ends up being. When I write fiction, my only purpose is to try and build a universe through which I invite readers to walk.
AS: Toward the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a character asks: “How to tell a shattered story?” The novel is teeming with characters whose lives have, in some way, been curtailed or marginalized by the limits of national imaginaries. And yet their stories are rich with humor, rage, agency, and vitality. How do you approach storytelling at a time when people are constantly being thwarted by the narratives of neo-imperial nation-states?
South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins are in turn humiliating Africans for the very same reason.
AR: National imaginaries and nation-state narratives are only one part of what the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have to deal with. They also have to negotiate other stultified and limited kinds of imaginations—of caste, religious bigotry, gender stereotyping. Of myth masquerading as history, and of history masquerading as myth. It is a perilous business, and a perilous story to try to tell. In India today, storytelling is being policed not only by the state, but also by religious fanatics, caste groups, vigilantes, and mobs that enjoy political protection, who burn cinema halls, who force writers to withdraw their novels, who assassinate journalists. This violent form of censorship is becoming an accepted mode of political mobilization and constituency building. Literature, cinema, and art are being treated as though they are policy statements or bills waiting to be passed in Parliament that must live up to every self-appointed stakeholders’ idea of how they, their community, their history, or their country must be represented. Not surprisingly, bigotry of all kinds continues to thrive and be turned against those who do not have political backing or an organized constituency. I recently saw a Malayalam film in the progressive state of Kerala called Abrahaminde Santhathikal (The Sons of Abraham). The vicious, idiot-criminal villains were all black Africans. Given that there is no community of Africans in Kerala, they had to be imported into a piece of fiction in order for this racism to be played out! We can’t pin the blame for this kind of thing on the state. This is society. This is people. Artists, filmmakers, actors, writers—South Indians who are mocked by North Indians for their dark skins in turn humiliating Africans for the very same reason. Mind-bending.
Trying to write, make films, or practice real journalism in a climate like this is unnerving. The hum of the approaching mob is like a permanent background score. But that story must also be told.
How to tell a shattered story? is a question that one of the main characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Tilo—Tilotamma—who lives in an illegal Guest House in a Delhi graveyard, has scribbled in her notebook. She answers it herself: By slowly becoming everybody? No. By slowly becoming everything. Tilo is an architect, an archivist of peculiar things, a deathbed stenographer, a teacher, and the author of strange, unpublished tales. The scribble in her notebook is a contemplation about the people, animals, djinns, and spirits with whom she has ended up sharing her living quarters. Considering the debates swirling around us these days, Tilo would probably be severely rebuked for thinking in this way. She would be told that “slowly becoming everyone,” or, even worse, “everything,” was neither practical nor politically correct. Which is absolutely true. However, for a teller of stories, perhaps all that doesn’t matter. In times that are as crazy and as fractured as ours, trying “to slowly become everything” is probably a good place for a writer to start.
AS: In addition to writing novels, you are also a prolific essayist and political activist. Do you see activism, fiction, and nonfiction as extensions of each other? Where does one begin and the other end for you?
AR: I am not sure I have the stubborn, unwavering relentlessness it takes to make a good activist. I think that “writer” more or less covers what I do. I don’t actually see my fiction and nonfiction as extensions of each other. They are pretty separate. When I write fiction, I take my time. It is leisurely, unhurried, and it gives me immense pleasure. As I said, I try to create a universe for readers to walk through.
The essays are always urgent interventions in a situation that is closing down on people. They are arguments, pleas, to look at something differently. My first political essay, “The End of Imagination,” was written after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. The second, “The Greater Common Good,” came after the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. I didn’t know that they were just the beginning of what would turn out to be twenty years of essay writing. Those years of writing, traveling, arguing, being hauled up by courts, and even going to prison deepened my understanding of the land I lived in and the people I lived among, in ways I could not have imagined. That understanding built up inside me, layer upon layer.
Had I not lived those twenty years the way I did, I would not have been able to write The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. But when I write fiction, unlike when I write political essays, I don’t write from a place of logic, reason, argument, fact. The fiction comes from years of contemplating that lived experience, turning it over and over until it appears on my skin like sweat. I write fiction with my skin. By the time I started to write The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I felt like a sedimentary rock trying to turn itself into a novel.
AS: In Power Politics (2001), you wrote: “It’s as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears. . . . For some of us, life in India is like being suspended between two of the trucks, one in each convoy, and being neatly dismembered as they move apart, not bodily, but emotionally and intellectually.” For nations around the world that have had abrupt and accelerated introductions to globalization and neoliberalism, would you say the convoy headed for the top of the world has crashed? And what has become of those who are being slowly dismembered?
AR: It has not crashed yet. But its wheels are mired, and the engine is overheating.
As for those who are being slowly pulled apart, they have been polarized and are preparing to dismember each other. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the personification of what you could call corporate Hindu nationalism. Like most members of the BJP, he is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist cultural guild that is the most powerful organization in India today. The BJP is really just the political arm of the RSS. The aim of the RSS, which was founded in 1925, has long been to change the Indian constitution and to officially declare India a Hindu nation. Modi began his mainstream political career in October 2001, when his party installed him (unelected) as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. In February 2002 (at the height of post 9/11 international Islamophobia) came the Gujarat pogrom in which Muslims were massacred in broad daylight by mobs of Hindu vigilantes, and tens of thousands were driven from their homes. Within months of this, several heads of India’s major corporations publicly backed Modi, a man with no political track record, as their pick for prime minister. Perhaps this was because they saw in him a decisive and ruthless politician who could ram through new economic policies and snuff out the protests and the restlessness in the country that the Congress Party government seemed unable to deal with (meanwhile delaying the implementation of the hundreds of memorandums of understanding signed by the government with various corporate entities). It took twelve years; in May 2014, Modi became prime minister with a massive political majority in Parliament. He was welcomed onto the world’s stage by the international media and heads of state who believed he would make India a dream destination for international finance.
Although his few years in power have seen his favorite corporations and the families of his close allies multiply their wealth several times over, Modi has not been the ruthless, efficient free marketeer that people had hoped for. The reasons for this have more to do with incompetence than with ideology. For example, late one night in November 2016, Modi appeared on TV and announced his policy of “demonetization.” From that moment, 80 percent of Indian currency notes were no longer legal tender. It was supposed to be a lightning strike on hoarders of “black money.” A country of more than a billion people ground to a halt. Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted by any government before. It was an act of hubris that belonged in a totalitarian dictatorship. For weeks together, daily wage workers, cab drivers, small shop keepers stood in long lines, hour upon hour, hoping to get their meager savings converted into new bank notes. All the currency, almost to the last rupee, “black” as well as “white,” was returned to the banks. Officially at least, there was no “black money.” It was a big-budget, razzle-dazzle flop.
Demonetization and the chaotic new Goods and Services Tax have knocked the wind out of small businesses and ordinary people. For big investors, or for the most ordinary person, this sort of caprice on the part of a government that says it is “business-friendly” is lethal. It’s a bald declaration that its word cannot be trusted and is not legally binding.
India, where it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman, is still being celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Demonetization also emptied the coffers of almost all political parties, since their unaccounted-for wealth is usually held in cash. The BJP, on the other hand, has mysteriously emerged as one of the richest, if not the richest, political party in the world. Hindu nationalism has come to power on mass murder and the most dangerously bigoted rhetoric that could—and has—ripped through the fabric of a diverse population. A few months ago, four of the most senior judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference in which they warned that democracy in India was in grave danger. Nothing like it has ever happened before. As hatred is dripped into peoples’ souls, every day, with sickened hearts we wake up to Muslim-lynching videos put up on YouTube by gloating vigilantes, news of Dalits being publicly flogged, of women and infants being raped, of thousands marching in support of people who have been arrested for rape, of those convicted for mass murder in the Gujarat pogrom being let out of jail while human rights defenders and thousands of indigenous people are in jail on charges of sedition, of children’s history textbooks being written by complete fools, of glaciers melting and of water tables plummeting just as fast as our collective IQ.
But it is all OK, because we are buying more weapons from Europe and the United States than almost anyone else. So, India, which has the largest population of malnutritioned children in the world, where hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden farmers and farm laborers have committed suicide, where it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman, is still being celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
AS: The word “empire” has often been invoked as a uniquely European and U.S. problem. Do you see India and other postcolonial nations as adapting older forms of empire in new geopolitical clothing? In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, you show us how the Indian government has developed strategies of surveillance and counterterrorism that are, to put it mildly, totalitarian in their scope. How can we think of empire now in the Global South, especially at a time when postcolonial nations are emulating the moral calculus of their old colonial masters?
AR: It is interesting that countries that call themselves democracies— India, Israel, and the United States—are busy running military occupations. Kashmir is one of the deadliest and densest military occupations in the world. India transformed from colony to imperial power virtually overnight. There has not been a day since the British left India in August 1947 that the Indian army and paramilitary have not been deployed within the country’s borders against its “own people”: Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Kashmir, Jammu, Hyderabad, Goa, Punjab, Bengal, and now Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand. The dead number in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands. Who are these dangerous citizens who need to be held down with military might? They are indigenous people, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, communists. The pattern that emerges is telling. What it shows quite clearly is an “upper”-caste Hindu state that views everyone else as an enemy. There are many who see Hinduism itself as a form of colonialism—the rule of Aryans over Dravidians and other indigenous peoples whose histories have been erased and whose deposed rulers have been turned into the vanquished demons and asuras of Hindu mythology. The stories of these battles continue to live on in hundreds of folktales and local village festivals in which Hinduism’s “demons” are other peoples’ deities. That is why I am uncomfortable with the word postcolonialism.
AS: Talk of dissent and social justice has become mainstream in the age of Trump—but social media hashtags often stand in for direct action, and corporations frequently use the language of uplift and social responsibility while doubling down on unethical business practices. Has protest been evacuated of its potential today? And in such an environment, what kind of dissent is capable of cracking the edifice of empire?
AR: You are right. Corporations are hosting happiness fairs and dissent seminars and sponsoring literature festivals in which free speech is stoutly defended by great writers. Dissent Is the Cool (and Corporate) New Way To Be. What can we do about that? When you think about the grandeur of the civil rights movement in the United States, the anti–Vietnam War protests, it makes you wonder whether real protest is even possible any more. It is. It surely is. I was in Gothenburg, Sweden, recently, when the largest Nazi march since World War II took place. The Nazis were outnumbered by anti-Nazi demonstrators, including the ferocious Antifa, by more than ten to one. In Kashmir, unarmed villagers face down army bullets. In Bastar, in Central India, the armed struggle by the poorest people in the world has stopped some of the richest corporations in their tracks. It is important to salute people’s victories, even if they don’t always get reported on TV. At least the ones we know about. Making people feel helpless, powerless, and hopeless is part of the propaganda. Let’s face it: the free market is not free, and it doesn’t give a shit about justice or equality.
But what is going on in the world right now is coming from every direction and has already gone too far. It has to stop. But how? I don’t have any cure-all advice, really. I think we all need to become seriously mutinous. I think, at some point, the situation will become unsustainable for the powers that be. The tipping point will come. An attack on Iran, for example, might be that moment. It would lead to unthinkable chaos, and out of it something unpredictable would arise. The great danger is that, time and time again, the storm of rage that builds up gets defused and coopted into yet another election campaign. We fool ourselves into believing that the change we want will come with fresh elections and a new president or prime minister at the helm of the same old system. Of course, it is important to bounce the old bastards out of office and bounce new ones in, but that can’t be the only bucket into which we pour our passion. Frankly, as long as we continue to view the planet as an endless “resource,” as long as we uphold the rights of individuals and corporations to amass infinite wealth while others go hungry, as long as we continue to believe that governments do not have the responsibility to feed, clothe, house, and educate everyone—all our talk is mere posturing. Why do these simple things scare people so much? It is just common decency. Let’s face it: the free market is not free, and it doesn’t give a shit about justice or equality.
AS: The vexed question of violent struggle against domination has come up at different moments in history. It has been debated in the context of Frantz Fanon’s writing, Gandhi, Black Lives Matter, Palestine, and the Naxalite movement, to name a few. It is a question that also comes up in your fiction and nonfiction. What do you make of the injunction against the use of violence in resistance from below?
AR: I am against unctuous injunctions and prescriptions from above to resistance from below. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Oppressors telling the oppressed how they would like to be resisted? Fighting people will choose their own weapons. For me, the question of armed struggle versus passive resistance is a tactical one, not an ideological one. For example, how do indigenous people who live deep inside the forest passively resist armed vigilantes and thousands of paramilitary forces who surround their villages at night and burn them to the ground? Passive resistance is political theater. It requires a sympathetic audience. There isn’t one inside the forest. And how do starving people go on a hunger strike?
In certain situations, preaching nonviolence can be a kind of violence. Also, it is the kind of terminology that dovetails beautifully with the “human rights” discourse in which, from an exalted position of faux neutrality, politics, morality, and justice can be airbrushed out of the picture, all parties can be declared human rights offenders, and the status quo can be maintained.
AS: While this volume is called Evil Empire, a term borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union, there are many who think of empire as the only sustainable administrative and political mechanism to manage large populations. How might we challenge dominant voices, such as Niall Ferguson, who put so much faith in thinking with the grain of empire? On the flipside, how might we speak to liberals who put their faith in American empire’s militarism in a post–9/11 era? Do you see any way out of the current grip of imperial thinking?
AR: The “managed populations” don’t necessarily think from Ferguson’s managerial perspective. What the managers see as stability, the managed see as violence upon themselves. It is not stability that underpins empire. It is violence. And I don’t just mean wars in which humans fight humans. I also mean the psychotic violence against our dying planet.
Capitalism is the new empire. Capitalism run by white capitalists.
I don’t believe that the current supporters of empire are supporters of empire in general. They support the American empire. In truth, captalism is the new empire. Capitalism run by white capitalists. Perhaps a Chinese empire or an Iranian empire or an African empire would not inspire the same warm feelings? “Imperial thinking,” as you call it, arises in the hearts of those who are happy to benefit from it. It is resisted by those who are not. And those who do not wish to be.
Empire is not just an idea. It is a kind of momentum. An impetus to dominate that contains within its circuitry the inevitability of overreach and self-destruction. When the tide changes, and a new empire rises, the managers will change, too. As will the rhetoric of the old managers. And then we will have new managers, with new rhetoric. And there will be new populations who rise up and refuse to be managed.