Salute to freedom's flag

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

The Lannan Foundation presents its fourth annual Prize for Cultural Freedom to Arundhati Roy, who decides to divide the handsome prize money among 51 institutions, organisations and individuals resisting entrenched power and unjust policies and dedicated to deepening real democracy in India.

in New Delhi

ARUNDHATI ROY has received the cultural equivalent of the 21-gun salute from the Lannan Foundation, for flying the flag of freedom. She was awarded the United States-based Foundation's fourth annual Prize for Cultural Freedom for her "precise and powerful writing highlighting her commitment to social, economic and environmental justice". The handsome prize money of $350,000 (Rs.1.67 crores) will be shared between 51 people's movements, publications, educational institutions, theatre groups and individuals in India, all of which are in some way "engaged in the struggle of making India a real democracy instead of just a notional one," Roy announced.

In a world where democracy is under siege from the forces of corporate globalisation and military aggression, and an embattled order threatens to spiral into fascism, it was "a sign of great hope," she observed, "that there are so many people's movements and individuals who see through the charade and are committed to resisting this process."

A private family foundation located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Lannan Foundation focusses on projects and ideas that promote and protect cultural freedom, diversity and creativity. Last year, in Santa Fe, Roy delivered a lecture titled `Come September' (Frontline, October 11, 2002) as part of the Foundation's Readings and Conversations series. It was a stylish and eloquent attack on the ugly actions of U.S.-led corporate globalisation, the `war on terror' and the history of American intervention in foreign affairs. When she was invited by the Lannan Foundation, she admitted, she had reservations about delivering her provocative talk in the U.S. However, tickets were sold out three months before the lecture, and she said she was exhilarated by the enthusiastic public reception of her ideas.

Accepting the Prize for Cultural Freedom, Arundhati Roy said that there were many people around the world who deserved it more than she did: "Unknown, invisible people who are raising their voices and fighting the fight at much greater cost to themselves than I could ever claim." Roy is in celebrated company. The last recipient of the prize was Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who sings of the struggle "to defend our history and humanity" in the face of terror and conflict. In 1999, the year the prize was established, it went to the writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay. Claudia Andujar, a photographer from Brazil, won it in 2000 for her lifelong work on behalf of the Yanomami Indians. Foundation president J. Patrick Lannan, Jr. said: "As both an artist and a global citizen, Arundhati Roy writes about civil societies that are adversely affected by the world's most powerful governments and corporations. We are honoured to celebrate her life and her ongoing work in the struggle for freedom, justice and cultural diversity."

Interestingly, for someone who is routinely accused of anti-Americanism, Roy emphasised her belief in the "globalisation of dissent," remarking that some of the most exciting, spirited, genuine dissent comes from America. In fact, she expressed her regret that Indian law did not allow her to share a part of the prize money with independent and alternative media groups in the U.S. such as Democracy Now, Indymedia, and Alternative Radio, all of which are waging "a courageous and formidable battle against their own government's propaganda".

As defined by the Lannan Foundation, cultural freedom is the right of individuals and communities to define and protect valued and diverse ways of life currently threatened by globalisation. Arundhati Roy and her work fit the agenda perfectly. After the Booker Prize winning novel, The God of Small Things, she wrote several political essays starting with "The End of Imagination" (published in Frontline, August 14, 1998), a strong and well-argued attack against official India's nuclear weaponisation programme. Along with "The Greater Common Good" (Frontline, June 4, 1999), a powerful essay against the Sardar Sarovar dam project and on exploration of the human cost of big dams, this was published as a book, The Cost of Living. In her book Power Politics (2001), she speaks out against the perils of privatisation when three-quarters of the country lives on the edge of the market economy and reflects on the politics of writing. In the essay "The Algebra of Infinite Justice," Roy challenges the character of the U.S. `war on terror' in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the instinct for vengeance.

Roy acknowledged that freedom has always been the first principle of her writing: "I've always maintained that freedom is a muscle if you don't use it, it atrophies." Outrage, admiration, controversy, awards all of it just comes with being Arundhati Roy. Her spunky politics and uncompromising activism and independence have often brought her into collision with the establishment. As the Lannan Foundation press release noted: "Roy's writing and outspoken viewpoints on India's policies have landed her in court on several occasions. After a criminal trial that lasted over a period of a year, she was sentenced to one day in jail in the spring of 2002 by the Supreme Court of India for contempt of court. She has also been forced to defend her fiction from the charge of `corrupting public morality'."

While pointing out that she is not being consciously contrarian in her worldview, she freely acknowledges that she is deeply interested in "the politics of opposition, the fight to demand social justice and accountability". Drawing a parallel between the situation today to that in pre-Nazi Germany, Roy stresses the need to "join the dots", and understand the profound links between the sense of disillusionment felt by the dispossessed and the emergent fascism that it nurtures.

She donated her Booker Prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which she described as "the biggest, finest, most magnificent resistance movement since the independence struggle". In the same way, she decided to divide the much bigger Lannan Prize money (after deduction for Indian taxes) among popular movements and individuals dedicated to the process of deepening democracy in India. The donation will range from a minimum of Rs.1 lakh to Rs. 20 lakhs. (Most of them will be between Rs.1 lakh and Rs.2 lakhs.) "Look at what they do, together, and you see a cogent politics emerging," she pointed out. In the absence of a viable opposition within the political system, she said that these civil society initiatives had to be applauded for their refusal to be co-opted, and for their sustained resistance to exploitative norms.

"It might seem like a big grand gesture to give away all the money and feel good about yourself, but it was actually a long process of thought and discussion, consulting friends and activists across the country to select these initiatives." These include grassroots movements for land and livelihood rights such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha; educational institutions such as Kanavu and Eklavya that have made an effort to forge alternative systems of pedagogy; cultural research institutions such as Sarai; and the School for Democracy in Devdungri, Rajasthan. Small publications bravely battling communalism and social inequities on a sustained basis, such as Communalism Combat and Samyantar, are also on the list. According to Roy, all of them are in some way committed to the idea of freedom and collective rights. "They all express resistance to people's rights being rolled over, as it is so easy to do in India."

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