Public Power in the Age of Empire
August 24, 2004
full speech by Arundhati Roy in San Francisco, California on August
I've been asked to
speak about "Public Power in the Age of Empire."
I'm not used to doing as I'm told, but by happy coincidence, it's
exactly what I'd like to speak about tonight.
When language has
been butchered and bled of meaning, how do we understand "public
power"? When freedom means occupation, when democracy means
neo-liberal capitalism, when reform means repression, when words like
"empowerment" and "peacekeeping" make your blood run
cold - why, then, "public power" could mean whatever you want
it to mean. A biceps building machine, or a Community Power Shower. So,
I'll just have to define "public power" as I go along, in my
own self-serving sort of way.
In India, the word
public is now a Hindi word. It means people. In Hindi, we have sarkar
and public, the government and the people. Inherent in this use is the
underlying assumption that the government is quite separate from
"the people." This distinction has to do with the fact that
India's freedom struggle, though magnificent, was by no means
revolutionary. The Indian elite stepped easily and elegantly into the
shoes of the British imperialists. A deeply impoverished, essentially
feudal society became a modern, independent nation state. Even today,
fifty seven years on to the day, the truly vanquished still look upon
the government as mai-baap, the parent and provider. The somewhat more
radical, those who still have fire in their bellies, see it as chor, the
thief, the snatcher-away of all things.
Either way, for most
Indians, sarkar is very separate from public. However, as you make your
way up India's social ladder, the distinction between sarkar and public
gets blurred. The Indian elite, like the elite anywhere in the world,
finds it hard to separate itself from the state. It sees like the state,
it thinks like the state, it speaks like the state.
In the United
States, on the other hand, the blurring of the distinction between
sarkar and public has penetrated far deeper into society. This could be
a sign of a robust democracy, but unfortunately, it's a little more
complicated and less pretty than that. Among other things, it has to do
with the elaborate web of paranoia generated by the U.S. sarkar and spun
out by the corporate media and Hollywood. Ordinary Americans have been
manipulated into imagining they are a people under siege whose sole
refuge and protector is their government. If it isn't the Communists,
it's al-Qaeda. If it isn't Cuba. it's Nicaragua. As a result, this, the
most powerful nation in the world - with its unmatchable arsenal of
weapons, its history of having waged and sponsored endless wars, and the
only nation in history to have actually used nuclear bombs - is peopled
by a terrified citizenry, jumping at shadows. A people bonded to the
state not by social services, or public health care, or employment
guarantees, but by fear.
manufactured fear is used to gain public sanction for further acts of
aggression. And so it goes, building into a spiral of self-fulfilling
hysteria, now formally calibrated by the U.S government's Amazing
Technicolored Terror Alerts: fuchsia, turquoise, salmon pink.
observers, this merging of sarkar and public in the United States
sometimes makes it hard to separate the actions of the U.S. government
from the American people. It is this confusion that fuels
anti-Americanism in the world. Anti-Americanism is then seized upon and
amplified by the U.S. government and its faithful media outlets. You
know the routine: "Why do they hate us? They hate our
freedoms" . . . etc. . . . etc. This enhances the sense of
isolation among American people and makes the embrace between sarkar and
public even more intimate. Like Red Riding Hood looking for a cuddle in
the wolf's bed.
Using the threat of
an external enemy to rally people behind you is a tired old horse, which
politicians have ridden into power for centuries. But could it be that
ordinary people are fed up of that poor old horse and are looking for
something different? There's an old Hindi film song that goes yeh public
hai, yeh sab jaanti hai (the public, she knows it all). Wouldn't it be
lovely if the song were right and the politicians wrong?
illegal invasion of Iraq, a Gallup International poll showed that in no
European country was the support for a unilateral war higher than 11
percent. On February 15, 2003, weeks before the invasion, more than ten
million people marched against the war on different continents,
including North America. And yet the governments of many supposedly
democratic countries still went to war.
The question is: is
"democracy" still democratic?
governments accountable to the people who elected them? And, critically,
is the public in democratic countries responsible for the actions of its
If you think about
it, the logic that underlies the war on terrorism and the logic that
underlies terrorism is exactly the same. Both make ordinary citizens pay
for the actions of their government. Al-Qaeda made the people of the
United States pay with their lives for the actions of their government
in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The U.S government
has made the people of Afghanistan pay in their thousands for the
actions of the Taliban and the people of Iraq pay in their hundreds of
thousands for the actions of Saddam Hussein.
difference is that nobody really elected al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or
Saddam Hussein. But the president of the United States was elected (well
... in a manner of speaking).
The prime ministers
of Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom were elected. Could it then be
argued that citizens of these countries are more responsible for the
actions of their government than Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam
Hussein or Afghans for the Taliban?
Whose God decides
which is a "just war" and which isn't? George Bush senior once
said: "I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care
what the facts are." When the president of the most powerful
country in the world doesn't need to care what the facts are, then we
can at least be sure we have entered the Age of Empire.
So what does public
power mean in the Age of Empire? Does it mean anything at all? Does it
In these allegedly
democratic times, conventional political thought holds that public power
is exercised through the ballot. Scores of countries in the world will
go to the polls this year. Most (not all) of them will get the
governments they vote for. But will they get the governments they want?
In India this year,
we voted the Hindu nationalists out of office. But even as we
celebrated, we knew that on nuclear bombs, neo-liberalism,
privatization, censorship, big dams - on every major issue other than
overt Hindu nationalism - the Congress and the BJP have no major
ideological differences. We know that it is the fifty-year legacy of the
Congress Party that prepared the ground culturally and politically for
the far right. It was also the Congress Party that first opened India's
markets to corporate globalization.
In its election
campaign, the Congress Party indicated that it was prepared to rethink
some of its earlier economic policies. Millions of India's poorest
people came out in strength to vote in the elections. The spectacle of
the great Indian democracy was telecast live - the poor farmers, the old
and infirm, the veiled women with their beautiful silver jewelry, making
quaint journeys to election booths on elephants and camels and bullock
carts. Contrary to the predictions of all India's experts and pollsters,
Congress won more votes than any other party. India's communist parties
won the largest share of the vote in their history. India's poor had
clearly voted against neo-liberalism's economic "reforms" and
growing fascism. As soon as the votes were counted, the corporate media
dispatched them like badly paid extras on a film set. Television
channels featured split screens. Half the screen showed the chaos
outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, as
the coalition government was cobbled together.
The other half
showed frenzied stockbrokers outside the Bombay Stock Exchange,
panicking at the thought that the Congress Party might actually honor
its promises and implement its electoral mandate. We saw the Sensex
stock index move up and down and sideways. The media, whose own publicly
listed stocks were plummeting, reported the stock market crash as though
Pakistan had launched ICBMs on New Delhi.
Even before the new
government was formally sworn in, senior Congress politicians made
public statements reassuring investors and the media that privatization
of public utilities would continue. Meanwhile the BJP, now in
opposition, has cynically, and comically, begun to oppose foreign direct
investment and the further opening of Indian markets.
This is the
spurious, evolving dialectic of electoral democracy.
As for the Indian
poor, once they've provided the votes, they are expected to bugger off
home. Policy will be decided despite them.
And what of the U.S.
elections? Do U.S. voters have a real choice?
It's true that if
John Kerry becomes president, some of the oil tycoons and Christian
fundamentalists in the White House will change. Few will be sorry to see
the back of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft and their
blatant thuggery. But the real concern is that in the new administration
their policies will continue. That we will have Bushism without Bush.
Those positions of
real power - the bankers, the CEOs - are not vulnerable to the vote (. .
. and in any case, they fund both sides).
importance of the U.S elections has deteriorated into a sort of
personality contest. A squabble over who would do a better job of
overseeing empire. John Kerry believes in the idea of empire as
fervently as George Bush does.
The U.S. political
system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no one who questions
the natural goodness of the military-industrial-corporate power
structure will be allowed through the portals of power.
Given this, it's no
surprise that in this election you have two Yale University graduates,
both members of Skull and Bones, the same secret society, both
millionaires, both playing at soldier-soldier, both talking up war, and
arguing almost childishly about who will lead the war on terror more
Like President Bill
Clinton before him, Kerry will continue the expansion of U.S. economic
and military penetration into the world. He says he would have voted to
authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq even if he had known that Iraq had
no weapons of mass destruction. He promises to commit more troops to
Iraq. He said recently that he supports Bush's policies toward Israel
and Ariel Sharon 100 percent. He says he'll retain 98% of Bush's tax
So, underneath the
shrill exchange of insults, there is almost absolute consensus. It looks
as though even if Americans vote for Kerry, they'll still get Bush.
President John Kerbush or President George Berry.
It's not a real
choice. It's an apparent choice. Like choosing a brand of detergent.
Whether you buy Ivory Snow or Tide, they're both owned by Proctor &
This doesn't mean
that one takes a position that is without nuance, that the Congress and
the BJP, New Labor and the Tories, the Democrats and Republicans are the
same. Of course, they're not. Neither are Tide and Ivory Snow. Tide has
oxy-boosting and Ivory Snow is a gentle cleanser.
In India, there is a
difference between an overtly fascist party (the BJP) and a party that
slyly pits one community against another (Congress), and sows the seeds
of communalism that are then so ably harvested by the BJP.
differences in the I.Q.s and levels of ruthlessness between this year's
U.S. presidential candidates. The anti-war movement in the United States
has done a phenomenal job of exposing the lies and venality that led to
the invasion of Iraq, despite the propaganda and intimidation it faced.
This was a service
not just to people here, but to the whole world. But now, if the
anti-war movement openly campaigns for Kerry, the rest of the world will
think that it approves of his policies of "sensitive"
imperialism. Is U.S. imperialism preferable if it is supported by the
United Nations and European countries? Is it preferable if UN asks
Indian and Pakistani soldiers to do the killing and dying in Iraq
instead of U.S. soldiers? Is the only change that Iraqis can hope for
that French, German, and Russian companies will share in the spoils of
the occupation of their country?
Is this actually
better or worse for those of us who live in subject nations? Is it
better for the world to have a smarter emperor in power or a stupider
one? Is that our only choice?
I'm sorry, I know
that these are uncomfortable, even brutal questions, but they must be
The fact is that
electoral democracy has become a process of cynical manipulation. It
offers us a very reduced political space today. To believe that this
space constitutes real choice would be naďve.
The crisis in modern
democracy is a profound one.
On the global stage,
beyond the jurisdiction of sovereign governments, international
instruments of trade and finance oversee a complex system of
multilateral laws and agreements that have entrenched a system of
appropriation that puts colonialism to shame. This system allows the
unrestricted entry and exit of massive amounts of speculative capital -
hot money - into and out of third world countries, which then
effectively dictates their economic policy. Using the threat of capital
flight as a lever, international capital insinuates itself deeper and
deeper into these economies. Giant transnational corporations are taking
control of their essential infrastructure and natural resources, their
minerals, their water, their electricity. The World Trade Organization,
the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other financial
institutions like the Asian Development Bank, virtually write economic
policy and parliamentary legislation. With a deadly combination of
arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their sledgehammers to fragile,
interdependent, historically complex societies, and devastate them.
All this goes under
the fluttering banner of "reform."
As a consequence of
this reform, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, thousands of small
enterprises and industries have closed down, millions of workers and
farmers have lost their jobs and land.
newspaper in London assures us that "[w]e live in the happiest,
healthiest and most peaceful era in human history." Billions
wonder: who's "we"? Where does he live? What's his Christian
The thing to
understand is that modern democracy is safely premised on an almost
religious acceptance of the nation state. But corporate globalization is
not. Liquid capital is not. So, even though capital needs the coercive
powers of the nation state to put down revolts in the servants'
quarters, this set up ensures that no individual nation can oppose
corporate globalization on its own.
cannot and will not be negotiated by governments; it can only be
enforced by people. By the public. A public who can link hands across
So when we speak of
"Public Power in the Age of Empire," I hope it's not
presumptuous to assume that the only thing that is worth discussing
seriously is the power of a dissenting public. A public which disagrees
with the very concept of empire. A public which has set itself against
incumbent power - international, national, regional, or provincial
governments and institutions that support and service empire.
What are the avenues
of protest available to people who wish to resist empire? By resist I
don't mean only to express dissent, but to effectively force change.
Empire has a range of calling cards. It uses different weapons to break
open different markets. You know the check book and the cruise missile.
For poor people in
many countries, Empire does not always appear in the form of cruise
missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam. It
appears in their lives in very local avatars - losing their jobs, being
sent unpayable electricity bills, having their water supply cut, being
evicted from their homes and uprooted from their land. All this overseen
by the repressive machinery of the state, the police, the army, the
judiciary. It is a process of relentless impoverishment with which the
poor are historically familiar. What Empire does is to further entrench
and exacerbate already existing inequalities.
Even until quite
recently, it was sometimes difficult for people to see themselves as
victims of the conquests of Empire. But now local struggles have begun
to see their role with increasing clarity. However grand it might sound,
the fact is, they are confronting Empire in their own, very different
ways. Differently in Iraq, in South Africa, in India, in Argentina, and
differently, for that matter, on the streets of Europe and the United
movements, individual activists, journalists, artists, and film makers
have come together to strip Empire of its sheen. They have connected the
dots, turned cash-flow charts and boardroom speeches into real stories
about real people and real despair. They have shown how the neo-liberal
project has cost people their homes, their land, their jobs, their
liberty, their dignity. They have made the intangible tangible. The once
seemingly in-CORP-o-real enemy is now CORP-o-real.
This is a huge
victory. It was forged by the coming together of disparate political
groups, with a variety of strategies. But they all recognized that the
target of their anger, their activism, and their doggedness is the same.
This was the beginning of real globalization. The globalization of
there are two kinds of mass resistance movements in third world
countries today. The landless peoples' movement in Brazil, the anti-dam
movement in India, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Anti-Privatization
Forum in South Africa, and hundreds of others, are fighting their own
sovereign governments, which have become agents of the neo-liberal
project. Most of these are radical struggles, fighting to change the
structure and chosen model of "development" of their own
Then there are those
fighting formal and brutal neocolonial occupations in contested
territories whose boundaries and fault lines were often arbitrarily
drawn last century by the imperialist powers. In Palestine, Tibet,
Chechnya, Kashmir, and several states in India's northeast provinces,
people are waging struggles for self-determination.
Several of these
struggles might have been radical, even revolutionary when they began,
but often the brutality of the repression they face pushes them into
conservative, even retrogressive spaces in which they use the same
violent strategies and the same language of religious and cultural
nationalism used by the states they seek to replace.
Many of the foot
soldiers in these struggles will find, like those who fought apartheid
in South Africa, that once they overcome overt occupation, they will be
left with another battle on their hands - a battle against covert
Meanwhile, as the
rift between rich and poor is being driven deeper and the battle to
control the world's resources intensifies. Economic colonialism through
formal military aggression is staging a comeback.
Iraq today is a
tragic illustration of this process. An illegal invasion. A brutal
occupation in the name of liberation. The rewriting of laws that allow
the shameless appropriation of the country's wealth and resources by
corporations allied to the occupation, and now the charade of a local
For these reasons,
it is absurd to condemn the resistance to the U.S. occupation in Iraq,
as being masterminded by terrorists or insurgents or supporters of
Saddam Hussein. After all if the United States were invaded and
occupied, would everybody who fought to liberate it be a terrorist or an
insurgent or a Bushite?
The Iraqi resistance
is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And
therefore that battle is our battle.
Like most resistance
movements, it combines a motley range of assorted factions. Former
Baathists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, communists,
etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry,
demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support
pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.
This is not to say
that we shouldn't ever criticize resistance movements. Many of them
suffer from a lack of democracy, from the iconization of their
"leaders," a lack of transparency, a lack of vision and
direction. But most of all they suffer from vilification, repression,
and lack of resources.
Before we prescribe
how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist,
democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our end of the
resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allies government to withdraw
The first militant
confrontation in the United States between the global justice movement
and the neo-liberal junta took place famously at the WTO conference in
Seattle in December 1999. To many mass movements in developing countries
that had long been fighting lonely, isolated battles, Seattle was the
first delightful sign that their anger and their vision of another kind
of world was shared by people in the imperialist countries.
In January 2001, in
Porto Alegre, Brazil, 20,000 activists, students, film makers - some of
the best minds in the world - came together to share their experiences
and exchange ideas about confronting Empire. That was the birth of the
now historic World Social Forum. It was the first, formal coming
together of an exciting, anarchic, unindoctrinated, energetic, new kind
of "Public Power." The rallying cry of the WSF is
"Another World is Possible." It has become a platform where
hundreds of conversations, debates, and seminars have helped to hone and
refine a vision of what kind of world it should be.
By January 2004,
when the fourth WSF was held in Mumbai, India, it attracted 200,000
delegates. I have never been part of a more electrifying gathering. It
was a sign of the social forum's success that the mainstream media in
India ignored it completely. But now, the WSF is threatened by its own
success. The safe, open, festive atmosphere of the forum has allowed
politicians and nongovernmental organizations that are imbricated in the
political and economic systems that the forum opposes to participate and
make themselves heard.
Another danger is
that the WSF, which has played such a vital role in the movement for
global justice, runs the risk of becoming an end unto itself. Just
organizing it every year consumes the energies of some of the best
activists. If conversations about resistance replace real civil
disobedience, then the WSF could become an asset to those whom it was
created to oppose. The forum must be held and must grow, but we have to
find ways to channel our conversations there back into concrete action.
movements have begun to reach out across national borders and pose a
real threat, governments have developed their own strategies of how to
deal with them. They range from cooptation to repression.
I'm going to speak
about three of the contemporary dangers that confront resistance
movements: the difficult meeting point between mass movements and the
mass media, the hazards of the NGO-ization of resistance, and the
confrontation between resistance movements and increasingly repressive
The place in which
the mass media meets mass movements is a complicated one.
learned that a crisis-driven media cannot afford to hang about in the
same place for too long. Like business houses need a cash turnover, the
media need crises turnover. Whole countries become old news. They cease
to exist, and the darkness becomes deeper than before the light was
briefly shone on them. We saw it happen in Afghanistan when the Soviets
withdrew. And now, after Operation Enduring Freedom put the CIA's Hamid
Karzai in place, Afghanistan has been thrown to its warlords once more.
operative, Iyad Allawi, has been installed in Iraq, so perhaps it's time
for the media to move on from there, too.
hone the art of waiting out crisis, resistance movements are
increasingly being ensnared in a vortex of crisis production, seeking to
find ways of manufacturing them in easily consumable, spectator-friendly
self-respecting peoples' movement, every "issue" is expected
to have its own hot air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and
self-respecting peoples' movement, every "issue" is expected
to have its own hot air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and
For this reason,
starvation deaths are more effective advertisements for impoverishment
than millions of malnourished people, who don't quite make the cut. Dams
are not newsworthy until the devastation they wreak makes good
television. (And by then, it's too late).
Standing in the
rising water of a reservoir for days on end, watching your home and
belongings float away to protest against a big dam used to be an
effective strategy, but isn't any more. The media is dead bored of that
one. So the hundreds of thousands of people being displaced by dams are
expected to either conjure new tricks or give up the struggle.
demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful
enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to
fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircrafts,
when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung
across the globe.
If we want to
reclaim the space for civil disobedience, we will have to liberate
ourselves from the tyranny of crisis reportage and its fear of the
mundane. We have to use our experience, our imagination, and our art to
interrogate the instruments of that state that ensure that
"normality" remains what it is: cruel, unjust, unacceptable.
We have to expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things -
food, water, shelter and dignity - such a distant dream for ordinary
people. Real pre-emptive strike is to understand that wars are the end
result of flawed and unjust peace.
As far as mass
resistance movements are concerned, the fact is that no amount of media
coverage can make up for mass strength on the ground. There is no
option, really, to old-fashioned, back-breaking political mobilization.
globalization has increased the distance between those who make
decisions and those who have to suffer the effects of those decisions.
Forums like the WSF enable local resistance movements to reduce that
distance and to link up with their counterparts in rich countries. That
alliance is an important and formidable one. For example, when India's
first private dam, the Maheshwar Dam, was being built, alliances between
the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA), the German organization Urgewald,
the Berne Declaration in Switzerland, and the International Rivers
Network in Berkeley worked together to push a series of international
banks and corporations out of the project. This would not have been
possible had there not been a rock solid resistance movement on the
ground. The voice of that local movement was amplified by supporters on
the global stage, embarrassing and forcing investors to withdraw.
An infinite number
of similar, alliances, targeting specific projects and specific
corporations would help to make another world possible. We should begin
with the corporations who did business with Saddam Hussein and now
profit from the devastation and occupation of Iraq.
A second hazard
facing mass movements is the NGO-ization of resistance. It will be easy
to twist what I'm about to say into an indictment of all NGOs. That
would be a falsehood. In the murky waters of fake NGOs set up or to
siphon off grant money or as tax dodges (in states like Bihar, they are
given as dowry), of course there are NGOs doing valuable work. But it's
important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context.
In India, for
instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It
coincided with the opening of India's markets to neo-liberalism. At the
time, the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural
adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture,
energy, transport, and public health. As the state abdicated its
traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas. The
difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a
minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending. Most large
funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies,
which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN,
and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the very
same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose, political
formation that oversees the neo-liberal project and demands the slash in
government spending in the first place.
Why should these
agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal?
Guilt? It's a little more than that. NGOs give the impression that they
are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but
in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that
they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what
people ought to have by right.
They alter the
public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the
edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the
sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the
arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.
In the long run,
NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work
among. They're what botanists would call an indicator species. It's
almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism,
the greater the outbreak of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this more
poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country
and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation.
In order make sure
their funding is not jeopardized and that the governments of the
countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present
their work in a shallow framework more or less shorn of a political or
historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient historical or political
therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor
countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those
(dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished
Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another
maimed Sudanese . . . in need of the white man's help. They unwittingly
reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the
comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization.
They're the secular missionaries of the modern world.
Eventually - on a
smaller scale but more insidiously - the capital available to NGOs plays
the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that
flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to
dictate the agenda. It turns confrontation into negotiation. It
depoliticizes resistance. It interferes with local peoples' movements
that have traditionally been self-reliant. 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-ization of
politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable,
salaried, 9-to-5 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.
resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from symbolic
action into anything remotely threatening, the crack down is merciless.
We've seen what happened in the demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in
Göthenberg, in Genoa.
In the United
States, you have the USA PATRIOT Act, which has become a blueprint for
antiterrorism 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.
have vast experience in the business of curbing freedoms and still
smelling sweet. The government of India, an old hand at the game, lights
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 criticizing the courts is a criminal offense.
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 globalization 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 "shoot outs." 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 northeastern provinces, the situation is
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 thing
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 (the
Prevention of Terrorism Act) is often called the Production of Terrorism
Act. It's a versatile, hold-all law that could apply to anyone from an
al-Qaeda 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.
confessions extracted in police custody to be admitted as judicial
evidence. In effect, torture tends to replace investigation. The South
Asia Human Rights Documentation Center 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
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. If its not
POTA it'll be MOTA or something.
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
In Andhra Pradesh,
in India's heartland, the militant Marxist-Leninist Peoples' War Group -
which for years 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 July
28, 2004, in the town of Warangal.
It was attended by
about 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 Guantánamo 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.
After all, when the
U.S. 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 U.S.
government's arsenal of weapons and unrivalled air and fire power 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 honor
nonviolent 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.
nonviolent resistance movements are being crushed. Any kind of mass
political mobilization or organization is being bought off, or broken,
or simply ignored.
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 nonviolence.
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 U.S.
soldiers fighting in Iraq - mostly volunteers in a poverty draft from
small towns and poor urban neighborhoods - 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
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.
vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators, as well as its
victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the
privatization 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
recognize 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 its beautiful or bloodthirsty, depends on us.