"NON VIOLENCE should be seen as resistance. You need to work against those who say that violent alternative is the only alternative," said Arundhati Roy, this year's winner of the Sydney Peace Prize. "Non violence depends on political mobilization and must not be confused with pacifism. It's not about weekend demonstrations and waving banners. It is hard work. It will only work if you can overwhelm the other side with non-violence."
It is inevitable for people to be curious about Arundhati's background. Her first and only novel, The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. Asked how she became a political analyst after being a novelist, she replied this was a false distinction. "Whether it is gardening, mending the back fence, Arundhati's curry, or the biography of this microphone, it has got to be worth the book one writes."
It's the substance of the work that matters to Arundhati. She is a thinker. She is not content with accepting the rules set out by society, such as the idea that profit is everything. She wants to know "how the machine works". She wants to search the engine that gives it life. She wants space for imagination. She says she needs to explore another way of thinking and of being. Perhaps her own "engine" is her writing. "It is the writer in you who seeks the story, to understand what it is like on the other side, always trying to anticipate the world. You struggle for some kind of understanding very quickly and then it becomes a political understanding."
She studied architecture because she felt it was the easiest way of earning a living very quickly. Later she started asking questions such as how did the city come to be, then she searched for the engine, and the search evolved into language. "This is the reason why I wrote rather than join the hoards of Indians who left, and live in Washington," she explained. An original thinker often breaks with tradition or with convention to explore new ideas. In Arundhati's case, her mother"s own break with cultural expectations may have given Arundhati the opportunity to take a different road.
Arundhati's mother, a Syrian Christian, married a Bengali, an outsider from the community's point of view. And then her mother divorced him, and that too was unacceptable to the community from Ayemenem, a small village in Kerala, southern India where she grew up. She and her mother were bound to be seen as "outsiders". Leaving the village would not have been too hard for Arundhati. But having moved out of a "suffocating tradition" and then finding herself up against "hideous modernity", she came to the conclusion that everything is political. And so her thinking evolved. "Like anything, we need to evolve," she said, "we need to modernize our idea of non-violence."
"Do we need Ghandi back?" fellow writer and peace advocate, Stuart Rees asked.
"Let him be. He did his stuff. I think he was a cunning old man, a cunning politician. He expanded the political imagination. Ghandi was the finest example of political theatre ever. But the real act is civil disobedience - where hundreds of thousands of people rose and made salt. The people made salt. It is their salt. And no one is going to tax them. You have to ask yourself, what is the actual act and how is it to be executed. Ghandi expanded the political imagination."
"But he left a difficult legacy by the kind of leader that he was. He harnessed the adulation towards him and used it against the administration. It is hard to go beyond that individual leadership. It is as if unless you are a saint and wear a loin cloth, you can't be a resistance leader. I am not a saint. There are a lot of young people who should be told, they don't have to be a saint. You can sleep around and still be radical. Ghandi's legacy put too high a standard for many people."
For us here in Australia, the question is what can people who care about peace do? What does it mean to "overwhelm the other side with non-violence?" How do we talk "non-violence" to multinational corporations who have enormous influence. How do we begin to hold them accountable?
"The first thing is to make them visible. Expose the whole process of corporatising, fuelled by military aggression. Imperialism went back into the factory and had their edges rounded off. Expose the roots. Name the enemy. We have to understand who are our enemies, what is their vulnerability, and understand their working past," she said.
"Things have evolved in terms of the age of empire (the British and the American empires). They have removed the ground from under our feet. All we can do is talk about the number of people who have died." She said the kind of military power unleashed by Empire cannot be met with the same military might, so resistance is made up by stealth, and so we have "terrorism".
Economic output is now flung across the world to take over electricity or water - "that we can refuse," she said. Capital is allowed to flow across borders. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the Asian Development Bank all collaborate among themselves. The Empire, corporations, the military response - they are actually creating terrorism. We should look at corporations linked to military power. And if we have colluded, we must also take responsibility. In the State of Gujarat in India, there was a massacre of Muslims in the street and 2,000 people were killed; 150,000 driven from their homes. Women also supported men who go to war.
The other major challenge is the media. The corporatised media are not always on the side of the people. The media sometimes use language in contrast to its meaning, or language that creates mirages. They would use phrases such as "deepening democracy and human rights" as the motivation of corporations whose real agenda may be privatizing water. "We need to unmask that because behind the curtain of blood are people killed in economic sanctions. Behind that is the corporate story," she said.
There is a company involved in the privatization of water in Bolivia. The result is "hundreds of thousands of people couldn"t afford it. When things go wrong and the government reneges from the agreement, corporations ask for reparations for unrealized notional profits. In other words, corporations sue for exiting the project". The government has to pay them to "drive them away from their shores." In India, one corporation involved is suing the government for $5.6 billion for profits they might have made. One corporate profit, she pointed out, is equivalent to subsistence wages for twenty five million people.
Indeed working for non-violence is hard work. Arundhati has no illusion about that. Indeed, how many people living on subsistence wages can afford the time to do research on the real story behind their suffering? The responsibility, in my mind, falls on those who have some option.
Arundhati said, "Even if we are materially comfortable and we may not see the situation directly as our problem, we need to speak out, even if policies seem to work against our own interest. We need to choose social justice and announce it to the world."
At a time when the arts and cultural resistance are effectively neutered, those who can should "walk that extra mile" and create their own system of networking and communication. The new digital technology is a completely free agent. We too can use it, if our goal, along with Arundhati Roy, is to present an alternative - the alternative to violence and injustice, the road to PEACE.