Socialist Worker

Beautiful or Bloody?

The third part of Arundhati Roy's talk on 'Public power in the Age of Empire'.

Issue No. 1923c

NGOs HAVE funds that can employ local people who might otherwise be activists in resistance movements, but now can feel they are doing some immediate, creative good (and earning a living while they’re at it). Real political resistance offers no such short cuts.

The NGO-isation of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well mannered, reasonable, salaried, nine to five job. With a few perks thrown in.

Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.

This brings us to a third danger I want to speak about tonight—the deadly nature of the actual confrontation between resistance movements and increasingly repressive states. Between public power and the agents of Empire.

Whenever civil resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from symbolic action into anything remotely threatening, the crackdown is merciless. We’ve seen what happened in the demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in Gothenburg, in Genoa.

In the United States you have the USA Patriot Act, which has become a blueprint for anti-terrorism laws passed by governments across the world. Freedoms are being curbed in the name of protecting freedom. And once we surrender our freedoms, to win them back will take a revolution.

Some governments have vast experience in the business of curbing freedoms and still smelling sweet. The government of India, an old hand at the game, lights the path.

Over the years the Indian government has passed a plethora of laws that allow it to call almost anyone a terrorist, an insurgent, a militant.

We have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Public Security Act, the Special Areas Security Act, the Gangster Act, the Terrorist and Disruptive Areas Act (which has formally lapsed but under which people are still facing trial) and, most recently, POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act), the broad spectrum antibiotic for the disease of dissent.

There are other steps that are being taken, such as court judgments that in effect curtail free speech, the right of government workers to go on strike, the right to life and livelihood. Courts have begun to micro-manage our lives in India. And criticising the courts is a criminal offence.

But coming back to the counter-terrorism initiatives, over the last decade the number of people who have been killed by the police and security forces runs into the tens of thousands.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh (the pin-up girl of corporate globalisation in India) an average of about 200 “extremists” are killed in what are called “encounters” every year. The Bombay police boast of how many “gangsters” they have killed in “shootouts”.

In Kashmir, in a situation that almost amounts to war, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989. Thousands have simply “disappeared.” In the north eastern provinces the situation is similar.

In recent years the Indian police have opened fire on unarmed people, mostly Dalit and Adivasi. Their preferred method is to kill them and then call them terrorists.

India is not alone, though. We have seen similar things happen in countries such Bolivia, Chile and South Africa. In the era of neo-liberalism, poverty is a crime, and protesting against it is more and more being defined as terrorism.

In India POTA is often called the Production of Terrorism Act. It’s a versatile, hold-all law that could apply to anyone from an Al Qaida operative to a disgruntled bus conductor.

As with all anti-terrorism laws, the genius of POTA is that it can be whatever the government wants. After the 2002 state-assisted pogrom in Gujarat, in which an estimated 2,000 Muslims were savagely killed by Hindu mobs and 150,000 driven from their homes, 287 people have been accused under POTA. Of these, 286 are Muslim and one is a Sikh.

POTA allows confessions extracted in police custody to be admitted as judicial evidence. In effect, torture tends to replace investigation.

The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre reports that India has the highest number of torture and custodial deaths in the world. Government records show that there were 1,307 deaths in judicial custody in 2002 alone.

A few months ago I was a member of a peoples’ tribunal on POTA. Over a period of two days we listened to harrowing testimonies of what is happening in our wonderful democracy. It’s everything—from people being forced to drink urine, to being stripped, humiliated, given electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts, having iron rods put up their anuses, to being beaten and kicked to death.

The new government has promised to repeal POTA. I’d be surprised if that happens before similar legislation under a different name is put in place.

When every avenue of non-violent dissent is closed down, and everyone who protests against the violation of their human rights is called a terrorist, should we really be surprised if vast parts of the country are overrun by those who believe in armed struggle and are more or less beyond the control of the state—in Kashmir, the north eastern provinces, large parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh?

Ordinary people in these regions are trapped between the violence of the militants and the state.

In Kashmir the Indian army estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 militants are operating at any given time. To control them, the Indian government deploys about 500,000 soldiers.

Clearly, it isn’t just the militants the army seeks to control, but a whole population of humiliated, unhappy people who see the Indian army as an occupation force.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows not just officers, but even junior commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers of the army, to use force and even kill any person on suspicion of disturbing public order.

It was first imposed on a few districts in the state of Manipur in 1958. Today it applies to virtually all of the north east and Kashmir. The documentation of instances of torture, disappearances, custodial deaths, rape and summary execution by security forces is enough to turn your stomach.

In Andhra Pradesh, in India’s heartland, the militant Marxist-Leninist People’s War Group—which for years has been engaged in a violent armed struggle and has been the principal target of many of the Andhra police’s fake “encounters”—held its first public meeting in years on 28 July 2004, in the town of Warangal.

It was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Under POTA all of them are considered terrorists. Are they all going to be detained in some Indian equivalent of Guantanamo Bay?

The whole of the north east and the Kashmir valley is in ferment. What will the government do with these millions of people?

There is no discussion taking place in the world today that is more crucial than the debate about strategies of resistance. And the choice of strategy is not entirely in the hands of the public. It is also in the hands of sarkar (government).

After all, when the US invades and occupies Iraq in the way it has done, with such overwhelming military force, can the resistance be expected to be a conventional military one? (Of course, even if it were conventional it would still be called terrorist.)

In a strange sense, the US government’s arsenal of weapons and unrivalled air and firepower makes terrorism an all but inescapable response. What people lack in wealth and power, they will make up with stealth and strategy.

In this restive, despairing time, if governments do not do all they can to honour non-violent resistance, then by default they privilege those who turn to violence.

No government’s condemnation of terrorism is credible if it cannot show itself to be open to change by to nonviolent dissent.

But instead non-violent resistance movements are being crushed. Any kind of mass political mobilisation or organisation is being bought off, or broken, or simply ignored.

Meanwhile governments and the corporate media, and let’s not forget the film industry, lavish their time, attention, technology, research and admiration on war and terrorism. Violence has been deified.

The message this sends is disturbing and dangerous—if you seek to air a public grievance, violence is more effective than non-violence.

As the rift between the rich and poor grows, as the need to appropriate and control the world’s resources to feed the great capitalist machine becomes more urgent, the unrest will only escalate.

For those of us who are on the wrong side of Empire, the humiliation is becoming unbearable.

Each of the Iraqi children killed by the United States was our child. Each of the prisoners tortured in Abu Ghraib was our comrade. Each of their screams was ours. When they were humiliated, we were humiliated.

The US soldiers fighting in Iraq—mostly volunteers in a poverty draft from small towns and poor urban neighbourhoods—are victims just as much as the Iraqis of the same horrendous process, which asks them to die for a victory that will never be theirs.

The mandarins of the corporate world, the CEOs, the bankers, the politicians, the judges and generals look down on us from on high and shake their heads sternly. “There’s no alternative,” they say. And let slip the dogs of war.

Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Colombia and the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Assam comes the chilling reply, “There’s no alternative but terrorism.” Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you want.

Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanising for its perpetrators, as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatisation of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

Human society is journeying to a terrible place.

Of course, there is an alternative to terrorism. It’s called justice.

It’s time to recognise that no amount of nuclear weapons or full spectrum dominance or daisy-cutters or spurious governing councils and loya jirgas can buy peace at the cost of justice.

The urge for hegemony and preponderance by some will be matched with greater intensity by the longing for dignity and justice by others.

Exactly what form that battle takes, whether it’s beautiful or bloodthirsty, depends on us.

© Arundhati Roy 2004.

© Arundhati Roy 2004.

This is the third part of a series by Arundhati Roy.

The first section can be read here and the second section can be read here

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Sun 17 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1923c
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