India is preparing to host world leaders at a Group of 20 (G20) summit this weekend in what is being described as a crucial moment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cement his place as a global leader.
New Delhi has gone under a massive – and controversial – “beautification drive” for the event, with many slums bulldozed and their occupants displaced.
Newly-painted lotus flower murals – the election symbol of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have appeared and billboards with Modi’s face line the reworked roads.
“You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the BJP that was hosting this event, not the government of India,” acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy told Al Jazeera.
Roy, 61, is a vocal critic of the Indian government’s treatment of minorities – mainly its 200 million Muslims – and other rights violations since Modi came to power in 2014.
From her home in New Delhi, she spoke to Al Jazeera about the G20 event and the state of India’s minorities.
Al Jazeera: What is your opinion of India, in the context of its treatment of minorities, hosting the G20 summit?
Arundhati Roy: Look, I don’t think anybody really cares about that because… the G20 is here, everybody is looking for an opportunity, a trade deal or a military equipment deal or a geopolitical strategic understanding. So it’s not as if any single one of the people who are coming here, the heads of state or anyone else doesn’t know exactly what’s going on in India. In countries like the US and the UK and France, the mainstream media has been so critical of what’s happening in India, but the governments have a different agenda altogether. So I don’t think one needs to be naive enough to believe that that is an issue at all for the people coming here.
Al Jazeera: Do you see the G20 being held in India as an opportunity for leaders to call the Indian government out for its treatment of minorities?
Roy: It won’t. None of them will. I have no such expectation. But I think what’s interesting is that if you were in Delhi, as I am now, if you look at the publicity, if you look at the banners, if you look at all the preparations that are being made for the G20, you would be forgiven for imagining that it wasn’t the government of India that is hosting the G20, but the BJP. Every single banner has a huge lotus on it, which is the symbol of a political party. Modi’s BJP.
A police officer stands outside the main venue of the G20 summit in New Delhi [Amit Dave/Reuters]
What has happened in India and it’s so dangerous, so blatant, is that the country, the nation, the government and its institutions have all been conflated with the ruling party – a political party. And that ruling party has been conflated with Modi, the individual. In fact, there is hardly any ruling party now, there’s just a ruler. So it’s as if Modi is hosting the G20. All of us are locked in. We can’t go out. The poor have been purged from the city. The slums have been screened off. The roads are barricaded, the traffic is shut down. It’s as quiet as death. It is as if he’s so ashamed of all of us, of what the city is really like. It’s been purged and locked down for this event.
Al Jazeera: It sounds like you’re saying it’s a vanity event for Modi.
Roy: Of course it’s a vanity event. He’ll pirouette and it’s just before the elections. So it will feed into his campaign. All these Western leaders who speak about democracy – I mean, you can forgive someone like Trump because he doesn’t believe in democracy – but Biden, Macron, all these people who talk about democracy, they know exactly what’s going on here. They know that Muslims have been massacred, that Muslims who protest have their homes bulldozed, which means all the public institutions – courts, magistrates, the press – collude in that. They know that Muslims in certain towns have X marks on their doors and are being asked to leave. They know that Muslims have been ghettoised. And that now people who are accused of actually lynching, murdering Muslims are leading so-called religious processions through these ghettos. They know that vigilantes are out there with swords, calling for annihilation, calling for the mass rape of Muslim women. They know all this, but that doesn’t matter because as always with certain Western countries, it’s like “democracy for us” and, you know, “dictatorship or whatever else it is for our non-white friends”. It doesn’t matter.
Al Jazeera: On that, and this is a completely hypothetical situation, but let’s say you are invited to give a speech at the G20. You’re opening up the G20 summit. What would you say?
Roy: I would say that it would be foolhardy for you to think that a process in which a country of 1.4 billion people that used to be a flawed democracy – and is now falling into a kind of, well, I can only use the word fascism – is not going to affect the rest of the world, you’re extremely wrong. What I say wouldn’t be a cry for help. It would be to say, “Look around at what you are, what you are actually helping to create.” There was a moment in time in 2002 after the anti-Muslim Gujarat massacre – in which intelligence reports by countries like the UK actually held Modi responsible for what they called ethnic cleansing. Modi was banned from travelling to the US, but all of that is forgotten now. But he’s the same man. And every time somebody allows him this kind of oxygen and this kind of space to pirouette and claim that only he could have brought these powerful people to India, that message magnified a thousand-fold by our servile new channels, it feeds into a kind of collective national insecurity, sense of inferiority and false vanity. It’s blown up into something else that’s extremely dangerous and that people should understand is not going to just be a problem for India.
We have a situation where we are talking about one nation, one language, one election. But actually we are in a situation where you have one dictator, one corporation.
Al Jazeera: During a recent speech in the southern Kerala state, you said India is entering a new chapter. What did you mean by that?
Roy: What I meant was that, you know, in the last few years, we have actually spoken about the rise of the BJP, of Modi, of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor] – the mothership of the cult of Hindu Supremacy – of which Modi has been a lifetime member. We have, some of us, critiqued it politically, structurally. But now we are in a different situation altogether. Although we do have elections, I wouldn’t call us a democracy anymore. But because we have elections, this message of Hindu supremacy has to be beamed out to 1.4 billion people in order to create a reliable constituency. So election season becomes extremely dangerous for minorities.
What I meant by “We’ve reached a different phase now” is that it’s no longer just the leadership that we must fear, but a section of this indoctrinated population that has made the streets dangerous for minorities. The violence is no longer limited to government-orchestrated pogroms. We are witnessing incident after incident of banal evil, as Hannah Arendt might have put it. The world saw the video of an ordinary little classroom in north India where the teacher, the principal of the school, gets a seven-year-old Muslim boy to stand up and has all the other Hindu children come up and slap him.
We have a civil war unfolding in Manipur where the state government is partisan, the centre is complicit, the security forces do not have a chain of command. It’s beginning to resemble what happened in the Balkans. We saw the horrifying sight of women being paraded naked and gang-raped. We learned that it was the Manipur police who handed the women over to the mob.
We have, as I said before, people accused of murder, of lynching, of burning alive young Muslim men, now leading religious processions. We have a situation where the prime minister speaks on Independence Day about women’s rights, but at that very moment, his government signs a pardon for the 14 men who gang-raped Bilkis Bano and killed 14 members of a family. And they are now respected members of society. These are men who had been convicted to life imprisonment by the highest court in the land.
So we have a situation now where the constitution has been more or less set aside. If they win the election next year, in 2026, there’s going to be what we call “delimitation”, which is a kind of gerrymandering where the number of seats and geography of constituencies will be changed and the Hindi speaking belt where the BJP is the strongest, will get more seats, which will basically change the balance of power. The south will definitely be very, very uneasy with this and that too has the power of or the potential of Balkanisation.
We have a situation where, you know, we are talking about one nation, one language, one election. But actually, we are in a situation where you have one dictator, one corporation. We have a corporate head who has been an old friend of Modi’s from the time of the Gujarat pogrom, who now is accused by not just not just a short selling company called the Hindenburg Research, but now by a whole coalition of journalists who report organised crime, talking about him pulling off the biggest corporate sort of scandal in history. But nothing will be done. So we’re in a situation where the world also has to assess what happens when the rules don’t apply to some people and apply differently to other people. All the rules. You know, we have a rule of law. We have a very sophisticated jurisprudence. But how it’s applied depends on what your religion is, what your caste is, what your gender is, what your class is. We are in a very, very dangerous place.
Al Jazeera: If you were to summarise in just a few sentences, what is the state of India today?
Roy: The state of India is very precarious, very contested. We have a situation in which the constitution has been effectively set aside. We have a situation in which the BJP is now one of the richest political parties in the world. And all the election machinery is more or less compromised. And yet – not just because of the violence against minorities, which of course causes a kind of majoritarianism and may not cause them to lose elections – but because of unemployment and because we live in one of the most unequal societies in the world, we have an opposition that is building up. This government is seeking to crush it because it does not believe that there should be an opposition. We are in a situation of great flux and we don’t expect, I don’t think anybody expects, anybody outside of India to stand up and take notice because all their eyes have dollar signs in them, and they are looking at this huge market of a billion people. But, you know, there won’t be a market when this country slides into chaos and war, as it already has in places like Manipur. What they don’t realise is that this market won’t exist when this grand country falls into chaos as it is. The beauty and the grandeur of India are being reduced to something small and snarling and petty and violent. And when that explodes, I think there’ll be nothing like it.